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Posts Tagged ‘Seoul

Sizing up city life

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Close ranks of tall residential towers signal a new township on the outskirts of Beijing, P R China.

Close ranks of tall residential towers signal a new township on the outskirts of Beijing, P R China.

Some two years ago, it was calculated, the world firmly entered the urban age, for the available evidence pointed to a startling truth: more people now live in cities than outside them. The balance between urban and rural populations differs between countries, at times considerably. Chad and Congo have about the same number of people living in cities, 2.95 million and 2.96, but these urban populations are 22% of the total population for Chad and 65% of the total population for Congo.

Overall, the balance between urban and rural populations is thought, conventionally, to directly describe whether a country is likely to be in the high income or low income groups of countries. The Department of Economic and Social Affairs – a specialist agency of the United Nations – entrusts such calculations to its Population Division whose ‘World Urbanization Prospects’ found, in its 2014 revision, that the proportion of urban populations for high income countries was 80% while that for low income countries was 30%. This seems to lend weight to the conventional wisdom that it is cities that galvanise the creation of the sort of wealth which gross domestic product (GDP) growth depends on.

Cities are seen to harbour dynamism and vitality. For those who live in such cities, this is largely true. Residents of cities like Seoul (Korea), Lima (Peru), Bangalore, Chennai and Hyderabad (all India), Bogotá (Colombia), Nagoya (Japan), Johannesburg (South Africa), Bangkok (Thailand) and Chicago (USA) are very likely to agree that living and working in their respective cities has brought tham prosperity, and are less likely to ponder about this group of cities being the top ten in the world with populations under 10 million in 2014 (there are 28 cities worldwide with populations of at least 10 million).

RG_CN_Beijing_201405_01_bwThere is however another aspect to the formation of cities. In 1927, the film Metropolis, conceived by Fritz Lang and delivered as an artfully stylised cinematic message, described the strains and dangers of the power that cities had already come to have over their residents. For Metropolis was a futuristic city where a cultured utopia existed above a bleak underworld populated by mistreated workers. Just over 50 years later, another film, Blade Runner (1982), blended science fiction with a disturbing portrait of a dystopian and dangerous cityscape that was both gigantic and technology-centric, through which the human element struggled to find meaning.

If Metropolis represented the post-industrial revolution European cityscape, then Blade Runner depicted the flagship of what has been called the Asian century, for its mesmerising and frightening urban backdrop was Tokyo then, and could well be China now. The Japanese capital remains in 2014 the world’s largest city with an agglomeration of 38 million inhabitants, followed by New Delhi with 25 million, Shanghai with 23 million, and Mexico City, Mumbai and São Paulo, each with around 21 million inhabitants. By 2030, so the projections say, the world will have 41 mega-cities of more than 10 million inhabitants.

For all their celebrated roles as centres of wealth, innovation and culture, these mega-cities and their smaller counterparts exert dreadful pressures on natural resources and the environment. These are already either unmanageable or uneconomical to deal with, more so in the rapidly growing urban centres of Asia and Africa. Despite the lengthening list of urban problems – most caused by rural folk flocking to cities faster than urban governance structures can cope with existing needs – demographers foresee that today’s trend will add 2.5 billion people to the world’s urban population by 2050. India, China and Nigeria are together expected to account for 37% of the projected growth of the world’s urban population between this year and 2050. It is there that the idea of the city, which so fascinated Fritz Lang, will be sorely tested.

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After Jong-il, what now for DPR Korea?

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In this 9 September 2011 picture, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il attended the Kim Il Sung Stadium in Pyongyang to celebrate the 63rd anniversary of the founding of the Workers' and Peasants Red Guards parade. Photo: Xinhua News Agency / Central News Agency

The DPRK’s official KCNA news agency reported on Monday that Kim Jong-il, top leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), passed away on Saturday at the age of 69. Kim, who was general secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), chairman of the DPRK National Defence Commission and supreme commander of the Korean People’s Army (KPA), died “from a great mental and physical strain at 08:30 (2330 GMT Friday) on December 17, 2011, on a train during a field guidance tour,” said the report, quoted by China Daily.

Citing a notice released by the WPK Central Committee and Central Military Commission, DPRK National Defence Commission, Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly and Cabinet, the KCNA said that the “Korean revolution” is led by Kim Jong-un now and that the party members, servicepersons and all other people should be faithful to his leadership. “All the party members, servicepersons and people should remain loyal to the guidance of respected Kim Jong-un and firmly protect and further cement the single-minded unity of the party, the army and the people,” said the notice.

People gathered in downtown Pyongyang, DPRK, in Mansudae at the statue of former President Kim Il Sung, to mourn the death of Kim Jong Il, according to the Korean Central News Agency. Photo: Xinhua News Agency

The National Funeral Committee, led by Kim Jong-un, has been set up, and the body of Kim Jong-il will be placed at the Kumsusan Memorial Palace. The DPRK will be in a period of mourning till December 29 and condolence will be accepted from Tuesday to December 27, said the report, adding that the farewell ceremony will be held on December 28 and the National Meeting of Memorial will be held on December 29.

Xinhua has reported that immediately after the DPRK’s KCNA news agency reported that Kim died Saturday on a train, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak convened the National Security Council (NSC) to discuss follow-up measures with Cabinet ministers including the foreign minister and the defence chief. Lee also ordered all government employees be on emergency alert, a measure that would restrict their unauthorized leaves and put them on standby.
“The government will keep a close eye on situations in North Korea (DPRK),” Ahn Kwang-chan, a senior presidential secretary for national crisis management, said after the NSC meeting, adding ” president Lee asked South Koreans to remain calm and focus on daily economic activity.”

The North Korean flag at half mast atop the Embassy of the DPRK in Beijing on 19 December. Photo: Xinhua News Agency

A video capture of a Korean Central Television broadcast on the death of Kim Jong Il. Photo: Xinhua News Agency

South Korea’s military was also quick to respond to the news. The Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) put military on emergency alert shortly after the news hit the press and called an emergency meeting. The JCS has stepped up border surveillance, but no unusual activity has been detected, according to Seoul-based Yonhap News Agency. South Korea’s JCS chief Jung Seung-jo and James D. Thurman, commander of the U.S. Forces Korea, agreed not to raise the level of the Watchcon surveillance status, according to Yonhap. “Since North Korea is in a lot of shock after passed away of its leader. The generals decided South Korea and the United States shouldn’t create an unnecessary sense of crisis,” Yonhap quoted a military official as saying.

Earlier this year, the Chosunilbo (of South Korea) reported on ‘How N.Korea’s Fate Hangs on Kim Jong-il’s Health’. The fate of North Korea seems to depend to a great extent on the health of its ailing leader Kim Jong-il, who turned 70 this week. “The situation in North Korea could shift drastically depending whether Kim dies suddenly, falls into a coma or sees his health get steadily worse,” a South Korean intelligence official said.

In this 18 November 2010 picture, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il visited the North Road, Chang Ping City County plant. Photo: Xinhua News Agency / Central News Agency

Sudden drastic change could happen at any moment, and experts are urging the South Korean government, military and public to be prepared. If Kim Jong-il dies suddenly, North Korea is widely expected to be ruled by the military together with Kim’s inner circle consisting of his third son Jong-un, brother-in-law Jang Song-taek and sister Kim Kyong-hui, who stepped in when Kim Jong-il collapsed in August 2008. The situation at the time “was stable,” said Ryu Dong-ryeol of the Police Science Institute, and the same crisis management team will go to work.

Lee Jo-won of Chungang University warned the new regime “could adopt an even more hardline and reckless foreign policy than Kim Jong-il to prevent internal chaos.” There is also the possibility of Jang seizing power or the military ousting the Kim family and taking control of the regime. In that case, North Korea could face a civil war.

Opinions differed over whether the hereditary transfer of power to his third son Jong-un would face any obstacles in the communist state, which Kim had ruled with an iron fist since his father and national founder Kim Il-sung died in 1994. According to this Korea Herald opinion article, some argued that the process will proceed as planned given years of “systematic” preparations, while others floated possibilities of power struggles among the elite given his lack of experience and a relatively short grooming period.

The Kim family (DPR Korea) tree. Graphic: Korea Times

In this 4 November 2010 picture, Kim Jong Il inspected the construction of hydropower stations in northern Chi Chuan Jiang Daoxi. Photo: Xinhua News Agency / Central News Agency

The North claims that Swiss-educated Jong-un, who was internally tapped as heir apparent in 2009, was born in 1982. Kim Jong-il had 20 years of preparation before taking power, while it has been only several years since Jong-un started being groomed. On the surface, the succession plan appears to be well under way. Following the announcement of Kim’s death, state media reported that the North’s military and people pledged to follow the leadership of the heir. Jong-un’s name also appeared on top of the funeral committee member list, which reflects his position in the power echelon.

Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies, raised the possibility that for the time being, a group of elites from the ruling party may collectively lead the country. “As he is young, a group of elites from the party leadership may lead the country for the time being. However, there would not be power struggles that threaten the legitimacy of Jong-un as North Koreans believe he is in their community sharing a common destiny,” he said. Yang also pointed out that the North would have a lengthy mourning period to stall for time for a stable power transition.