Monthly Archives: March 2012

North Korean Refugee Protests in Seoul

A protestor outside the Chinese embassy in Seoul

An elderly man protests the Chinese repatriation of North Korean refugees on a chilly day in Seoul.

The international media loves North Korea. It seems like a perfect example of a place of repression where life is tough and the hardships are never ending. So it is not surprising to read accounts of people so desperate to get out that they will risk not only their own life, but the lives of anyone they have any sort of close relationship with. Since three armies (South Korean, North Korean and American) fortify the Southern border, the only way out of the world’s last truly closed country is North, into China. Would be escapees must swim across the Yalu/Amnok river and hope to be accepted as refugees on the other side. The punishment for getting caught, to the best of my knowledge, is summary execution.

If they are successful in getting into China, the refugees then begin the laborious process of trying to start a new life. Many head to South Korea where they are given instant asylum and citizenship. Some resettle in South East Asia, and some relocate to whichever Western countries are willing to take them. But what if these people go through the harrowing ordeal of sneaking past security forces and swimming to their perceived freedom only to be seized by Chinese authorities and unceremoniously shipping back to North Korea to face their almost certain death?

This is the most recent challenge facing North Korean defectors, 31 of whom were apparently “repatriated” in secret this month. And since the 100-days of mourning for the death of Kim Jong-Il is still in effect, Kim Jong-Eun, his son, has mandated that anyone guilty of attempting escape during this period will be punished by having three generations of their family exterminated.

This has caused an outcry among human rights groups and North Korean refugees around the world, those in Seoul being no exception, against the Chinese policy. These images are from a protest outside the Chinese embassy where several activists are camped out on a hunger strike. One man I met had gone 22 days without eating and was barely able to stand up.

They were very welcoming and pleased that I was interested in their cause, and it looks hopeful that I’ll be able to do a more in depth project about the lives of North Korean refugees. More to come.

Ju Wual Choi, a North Korean refugee, camps outside the Chinese embassy, six days into a hunger strike. He gives me a surreal business card that states his title as the president of "The Association of the North Korean Defectors"


Posted in Blog, Protest Tagged , , , , |

Seoul Shanty Towns…

Gwangfan Piao takes a break from his work in a recycling yard in the Guryong shanty town

 My connections in the Seoul shanty towns are getting stronger with each visit. I’ve made a pretty solid connection with this man, who I thought until recently was named Park Kwang Beom, but in fact this is just a Korean name he has chosen for himself. He is actually Gwangfan Piao, a Chinese immigrant who works in Korea to earn money which he sends back to his family in China. I said in my last post that I would be releasing an account of my overly eventful visit to his home, but it is turning out to be longer than I expected and too long for a normal blog entry, so this image serves as a holder until I can finish writing it up. The full story will be available in the next few days as a free download.

Posted in Blog, Poverty Tagged , , , , , , |

Some colour for a change…

A traditional performance near Namsan

As I continue working on my project about life in Seoul’s shantytowns, I thought I’d change it up a little and post something a little more lighthearted. During the cold winter months I’d forgotten that Korea can actually be a vibrant and colourful place if you’re in the right place at the right time. I stumbled on this traditional drum and dance performance while hiking on Namsan mountain with a few friends recently. Definitely a nice break from the bleak greyness of the city.

I’m finishing up a post giving an account of my most recent trip to the Guryong shantytown, which should be ready in the next few days. It was definitely the most eventful visit to date. Without telling the full story I will say that it involved alcohol,  some culturally sensitive confrontations, and some lessons learned. More on that later…

Posted in Blog, South Korea Tagged , , , , , , |

Why We Should Care About Kony

By now this video has gone ultra-viral and I’m sure a lot of you have seen it already (if not, watch it, share it and spread it). Joseph Kony, and what he has done to Ugandans over the last 20 years beyond despicable. He abducts children, murders families and incapacitates entire populations through fear tactics. This is known. If you agree with Invisible Children’s methods, Donate, take action, and inform others of this cause. Regardless of your stance on this particular situation, the Kony 2012 campaign has broader implications, ones that will directly affect our future and the future of humanity.

If the people at Invisible Children Inc. are able to successfully engineer the arrest of an African warlord by using Facebook and Twitter, they will have quite literally changed the world. If governments can be compelled into action by a handful of people with passion, a video camera and an internet connection, it will mark the beginning of the inversion of power structures. Any issue from climate change to homelessness to education to war could be within the power of any individual in the world to change.

Whether or not you agree with Invisible Children’s controversial mandate (i.e. the sanction and sponsorship of military force) is not why I am interested in this issue. There are supporters for and against the organizations methods, and both sides have valid arguments. What everyone should be able to agree on is that their awareness campaign has been a resounding success. They have shown the power of the Web 2.0, and how it can make voices heard around the world like never before.

This is exciting. This is something that I want to be a part of.

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Habitation for the Planet

Cats sit on the cloth and sheet metal roof tops of Seoul's Guryong shanty town.

I was recently contacted by Ruban Selvanayagam, a journalist and social enterprise activist based in Brazil, about using some of my images for an article on Habitation for The Planet’s web site. While I am happy to share my photos around the web, I was a little bit hesitant about emailing full resolution files to people who email me out of the blue. But after reading the article he has written on the lack of adequate housing for the poor in Korea, I am proud to be involved. Well written and thoroughly researched, this article is a worthwhile read for anyone interested in the reasons why places like the Guryong Panjachon exist.

This is just an excerpt from his article. Read the full version here.

Now well reputed as an Asian economic success story, South Korea has made huge strides in terms of growth since the end of the war with the North – transforming from an aid recipient nation with an income per head on a par with the poorest parts of Africa to a member of the OECD development assistance committee (the so called “rich man’s club”).  When looking at the housing sector in its current form, however, progress has not been so exemplary with the familiar global story of poor living conditions mirroring rising disparate wealth distribution.  As outlined below, despite modern history demonstrating some impetus from the government to incentivise and regulate the social housing sector, much of what has been achieved has fallen short of what is necessary – evidently placing more priority on middle-upper class biased models.

Since the late 1980s, the government´s role in housing policy increased somewhat and, as Kim Dae Jung was ruled into power, it was acknowledged that past policies did not pay enough attention to the needs of the poor.  The notion that it was the South Koreans themselves that needed to develop their own communities broadly based on bringing a more balanced relationship between individuals, communities and the government was deemed as the most appropriate direction.  From the 1960s up until this point, the country – as with much of East Asia – adopted a guiding principle of social policy being immediately linked to economic growth and that rising incomes would assumedly lead to better standards of housing, fuelled largely by the private sector but supported by preferential interest rates / mortgage finance and delivery system improvements.  However, particularly due to rapid urban population growth, demand outpaced supply which not only led to rapidly inflated prices but also the growth of slum settlements, particularly in urban areas such as Seoul.   The growing conflict of interest was well demonstrated in the eviction of an estimated 700,000 people between 1985 and 1988 in the build up to the Seoul Olympic Games.

Under the pressure and watchful eye of increasingly present NGO and other housing campaigning activity, the government was seen stepping up its efforts towards the end of the 1980s.  Yet whilst the 1989 launch of the “Two Million Housing Construction Plan” was deemed successful from a broader market perspective, it left the low income market relatively untouched.  Indeed, by 1995 the Korea National Housing Corporation (KNHC) demonstrated that 13 percent of urban households were using one room for the whole family; 34 percent of national stock did not meet national minimum standards and 49,370 households were living in squatter settlements (a figure that had doubled by the year 2000 as a result of the Asian financial crisis).  The early 1990s saw private rented housing being given more permanent status – however due to the very small size of the units; the distant locations from where residents worked and complicated financial management which limited access to those in the low income groups, real demand remained low.  The government subsequently continued to remain largely criticised for not addressing the issue of poor housing standards in contrast to the bullish growth of urbanisation and real estate development for the privileged economic groups……read the rest of the article here.

Posted in Blog, Guest Posts, NGO Work Tagged , , , , , |

The Benefits of Giving Back

As the work continues on my project about life in Seoul’s Guryong shanty town, I wanted to share some thoughts about getting access and giving back to the people I photograph. At its core, the concept of taking someone’s photo implies a one way relationship, something that David DuChemin has inspired me to move away from. For a long time I viewed photography as a way of getting something for myself, and I approached people as tools to use in order to add great images to my portfolio. But this is fundamentally flawed as it created a distance between me and the subjects, something which was somehow apparent in the photos.

While David and other photographers often carry portable devices to make on the spot prints, my finances are in no position to support such a purchase. On my last visit I snapped a quick portrait of two recycling yard workers – so when I headed back to the Panjachon (shanty town) this weekend, I made a quick stop off at a department store photo desk and had an 8 x 10 print made for 1 500 Korean Won (about $1.25). You get what you pay for and this was certainly no professional grade printing, but I figured it was better than nothing.

While not a gallery piece by any means, this cheap print opened more doors than any amount of time or money could have.

This was my third visit to the Guryong community, and truth be told I was nervous going in. Not because of any fear about my safety (Koreans are some of the most trustworthy and unthreatening people in the world), but because I felt truly out of place. The Panjachon has been the subject of a fair bit of media publicity recently as multiple news outlets have begun to run features about the frequency of fires and flooding, and as a foreigner carrying $3000 worth of camera gear in one of Seoul’s poorest neighbourhoods, I knew how I must have looked to the residents. Yet another person coming to take stereotypical photos of decrepit houses, perpetuating the “otherness” of the people who live there, the “thank God that’s not me” style of images that are so prevalent.

So when I approached the recycling yard looking for Park Kwang Beom (the man on the left), I was not surprised by the suspicious looks from the other workers. It wasn’t anger, just a kind of frustration from people who think they are about to be exploited. But when I pulled those two crappy 8 x 10’s out of my backpack, the change in mood was incredible. Scowls transformed into huge grins, cheerful laughter, and shouts of Chingu! Chingu! (friend! friend!). The manager of the yard came hurrying out of his office to bring me a paper cup of instant coffee. The workers all reached into their pockets offering me Chinese cigarettes.

My arrival was poorly timed, and all the guys had to get back to work, but instead of just awkwardly nodding thanks and shuffling away like I had done so many times in the past when taking pictures of people, I was being invited back. With the aid of a tattered calendar, they indicated that I should return next Sunday when they weren’t working. The body language and the repetition of the word Soju (rice wine) told me that I should expect something special.

Lesson learned. Instead of taking photographs, with a little giving on my part I can make photographs with people. The results are infinitely better, both more meaningful and far more intimate.

An image like this would not be possible without being accepted by the person I am photographing.

Posted in Blog, Poverty, South Korea Tagged , , , , , , , , |