Blossoms and Munitions
Spring has arrived here in Seoul. The cherry blossoms are out, which has completely transformed the city. They really do look and smell beautiful! As I walk the streets and feel the petals falling into my hair, I can’t help thinking of my Montrealers back home and smiling a little devious smile at the snow I know is falling there. I have just been enjoying the blossoms in passing as I go about my business around the city, but hope to get to a cherry blossom festival in the next week.
It’s important national news actually. This year the cherry blossoms are out drastically earlier that usual, in fact the earliest in history I believe. While it is of huge concern because cherry blossom festivals across the country have to scramble to change their dates (the blossoms last a period of only about 2 weeks), I have also heard rising concern that the changing of the blossoming of the cherry trees is linked to ever increasing global temperatures. In an interview with a climate scientist the other day, I learned that Korea has experienced 10 times the increase in temperature as the global average. If any knows why this would be, I would like to hear it!
Right beside the cherry blossom news on the front pages is a piece of news that has made my brain roll around in my head for the past couple of days. That is the firing of munitions by North Korea into South Korean territory in the Yellow Sea, close to the border islands there. In fact on Monday they evacuated two of the islands to mainland shelters, including Baengnyeong Island. Now this is significant because… well, because I had a trip planned there for Wednesday and an interview and tour lined up at a particle monitoring station there.
Oh, and a little drone believed to have come from North Korea crashed on Baengnyeong on Monday as well:
Baengnyeong is significant in terms of hwangsa because it is the place most heavily affected by the yellow dust in South Korea and the point of first contact the dust has with South Korea (being both the western-most and northern-most part of the country). Monitoring the density and weather patterns there allows South Korea to forecast and prepare for the dust that will impact the rest of the country.
Politically, the significance of the island is that there are territorial disputes ongoing between the North and South, with North Korea never having formally recognized these border islands as part of the South. You can find articles online with threatening looking photos of Kim Jung-un pointing a telescope and saying things like “I will burn Baengnyeong Island to the ground with all of its residents.” And in 2010 there was a military strike by the North on the island which resulted in the death of 4 locals. So it’s a pretty tense place, tense situation.
The most interesting part of this debacle for me has been the passive attitude by many of the local people I’ve spoken to. The general attitude I’ve come across is “this is nothing new, don’t give it credibility by paying attention to this ridiculous posturing.” When I asked if it was going to be problematic to go there for the interview, I was met with the response that there was no doubt it would be perfectly safe. “It will be an adventure for you,” was a pretty common response.
After much much thought about the whole thing, I have decided that there is no rush to go. I am not concerned about safety, but I realized two things: 1) that it is certainly a calculated risk to go at all, and a higher risk to go right now, so that has to be a consideration and 2) that going right at this moment is not only unnecessary, but would pull from the focus of the shoot and distract from the subject at hand. I would be surprised if anyone wanted to talk about dust at all. So the verdict is to postpone the trip for a week or so, and see how things go.
Militarization in general is a pretty foreign concept to me. And one which sits in a funny place for me in my experience here in South Korea. Military service for young men is mandatory after high school. This means that every single Korean man you meet has done time in the military. But none of the women. Korean men that I have been introduced to will flick through photos on their phones from their time in service, and you will see young men in combat garb throughout the city. It’s something I am certainly not used to.
The first week that I was in Seoul, I had a strange experience. I was wandering the streets looking for a place to eat, when all of a sudden a deafening air raid siren went off. Not wanting to look like a lame tourist, I just calmly looked up to see what everyone else was doing. And nobody even flinched. Everyone just carried on their business as if the siren wasn’t even there. And fighter jets weren’t passing overhead.
I walked to a main street where people with yellow arm bands were stopping pedestrians. All traffic was stopped. I really had no idea what was going on, so I went to a coffee vendor and asked if she spoke English, “A little…” and what was going on. “Training exercise,” she said. I asked what for. “War. I guess.”
After 5 minutes or so, people were allowed to go on with their business and that was that. After asking some people and looking it up online I learned that it’s just a routine combat exercise they do in the city every 3 months or so.
So last time I wrote I promised an exciting account of the farm I was about to visit. Well, here goes. Eunah and I got on a bus super early in the morning to start our trip south to Hwaseong, the location of Sandle Farm. We arrived before 9am with the intention of getting straight to work on the farm, getting to know the farmer, and then maybe doing some filming in the afternoon or even the next day.
The farmer was a sweet pumpkin farmer who had a small patch of land where he grew these, and a patch about a 15 minute drive away where he grew onions. The family was hard working, and Mrs. Keum was in charge of promoting the farm and organizing the WWOOFers who came to help them with the labour. They have two sons who are both living and studying out of town, though the intention was for them to come home to work on the farm with their parents.
The farm was very integrated with the school and the church that made up the little community. The school was called and “alternative nature school,” though I’m not entirely sure what that meant in terms of the curriculum.
After getting a tour of the two growing plots, we visited the tanks of anchovy fertilizer that Mr. Keum had been brewing for 2 years. He hadn’t touched them since setting them there to begin their fermentation process, but for us he peeled back the plastic top from one of the 10 or so barrels and took out a scoop. Whhhheeeeewwwww!
We ate lunch in the cafeteria of the school, students all around.
Hwaseong is about an hour and a half from Seoul. And it’s not what you would consider typical farming country. It is an industrialized place, which I can best describe as factories and industrial buildings with farm plots squeezed in between. It was a bit of an eye opening experience to be honest. The people working the land were poor farmers working on rented land in less than ideal conditions.
The air in the area was thick. I wasn’t sure if it was the industry or maybe a bad fine dust day, but I could feel a marked change from Seoul. As we drove past the plots along the main highway, I could see little glimmers of flame and plumes of smoke rising from the fields on either side. Mr. Keum told me that this is the problematic practice of burning trash that is common among farmers. In the photo above look at the bottom to see a number of black burn patches on the cropland. What is worse is that the common agricultural practice is to use large plastic strips laid on top of the ground to suppress the grass that grows there and keep the ground up to 5 degrees warmer to extend the growing season. At the end of each season, this plastic becomes the trash that is then burned – and subsequently tilled, at least in part, back into the soil.
Thus the air quality issue expands. In terms of the film, I will have a lot of thinking to do when I get home.
Unfortunately, our accommodation fell through and so in the afternoon we decided to head back to the city.
One of the major challenges in terms of the type of film that I am here to make is finding the people to follow. I hope to do very observational, very intimate shooting with people, following them in their daily lives, in their homes and in their interactions with family and friends.
While I’m still working the approach of how to find these people and begin to develop a trusting relationship with them, we’ve started doing candid interviews with the general public to gauge their knowledge about hwangsa, their interest in the issue and potential interest in participating in a documentary about it. Much work to be done here, but to me this is the rewarding stuff.
Today I found myself at a shopping mall, theme-park, man-made lake, walking track called Lotte World. Lotte is a major company here that runs grocery stores to hotels.
While I am here I have been hitting up lots of markets… so much so that I’ve had to buy a second suitcase. No, I’m not just buying crazy pants, I’m stocking up on reading material, Korean treats and hwangsa related material in order to launch a Kickstarter or Indiegog campaign at some point when I get back. Below are photos from a part of town called Myeongdong where you can stroll through the street vendors to find anything your heart desires (if you want food, clothes, sunglasses, trinkets, socks…)
I went back to Dongdaemun Market in search of the craft supplies warehouse I’d heard about. There are numerous massive buildings filled with themed things for sale. I ended up only finding the clothing building, the bottom floor filled with little shops with women sewing away and the next 3 floors filled with all sorts of clothing from mass produced to local designs. I didn’t find the craft building, as exploring just the one was exhausting as it was, but I’ll head back for another look another day.
On Monday, I headed to Daejeon with my trusty assistants Eunah and Jinju, a city two hours south of Seoul which is home to a whole lot of government department buildings. We visited the Korean Forestry Service where we conducted a fascinating interview about the history of forestry in Korea – did you know that during the Korean war all of the trees were destroyed and for years after they were cut down to prevent easy spying? And that after that period they were forced to start building up their forests from scratch? This is actually something that has been suggested as a reason for the higher rate of temperature rise as compared to the global average.
We talked about planting trees in China as an anti-deforestation measure – which is something which has come under quite a lot of scrutiny by environmental NGOs, many who feel it is a tragic waste of money and time since a lot of the trees have been planted in areas where the annual rainfall cannot support them. Though through trial and error, methods have changed and there seems to be a fair bit of international and inter-organizations cooperation. I learned the difference between reforestation, restoration and rehabilitation. Though I learned it in Korean so actually I have no idea of the distinction at the moment. Will have to wait until the translation of the interview is in to let you know…
The end of the week promises to be interesting – superhwangsa has been forecast and it’s all over the news that Friday and into Saturday the yellow dust levels will be very high. How high we will have to see. But I have my mask at the ready and my camera batteries charged.