The Iri Yeok Explosion, and the Iksan Landfill Crisis

This entry is part 2 of 4 in the series Who's Complaining in Korea

As you can see from the links above, this is the second in a pair of posts responding to the question posed by Roboseyo and The Korean. If you haven’t read part 1, go check it out before reading this.

If you’re not inclined to check it out, here’s the nutshell:

  • To complain is human. I Whinge, Thefore I Am.
  • To complain online is even more common. We’d be reading whining blogs from 1380 is blogs had then existed.
  • Expats probably complain a lot because of a few specific reasons:
    • Many expats are English teachers, a relatively stressful (and in Korea, Sisyphean) job. (SF author Richard Morgan credits violence in his fiction partly to stress from years of EFL teaching.)
    • The inherent psychological stress of living in a foreign country (see below)
    • Poor adjustment to life in Korea.
  • Expats who don’t complain so much tend to have hobbies and interests that engage them.
  • Many expats who adjust well speak well (or are studying) Korean, but it’s probably not an absolute necessity depending on the individual.
  • Many expats who have a Korean mate are provided with a reality check on their distorted sense of Korean society on a daily basis, and feel they have a stake in Korea’s future in that mate, and thus try harder to understand the society as well as their partner.
  • With or without a mate, expats here who adjust well tend to truly connect with some individual (or groups of) Koreans outside of work.

There’s one more thing I mentioned in the comments thread that I should have highlighted further, which I’ll bring up before I go on: depression among new expatriates anywhere is higher than the local population. Immigration of any kind is a major stressor for many people, and even with the system as streamlined as it is in Korea, this doesn’t eliminate the really big elements of stress, such as disconnection from family and friends, the stress of living in a society with relatively different rules, the absence of many familiar comforts of home (not to dismiss the new comforts of the new place, but sometimes you want what you know) and so on.

This is not just true among the expats in Korea: tons of studies about immigrants and psychological depression exist, and link the two. Doesn’t matter if you’re a Chinese person moving to New England, a Mexican going to California, a Californian going to Korea, a Korean emigrating to Turkey, or whatever… immigration is stressful, and short-term and long-term depression — and all the cognitive distortion that is part of it — is, for many, a part of the adjustment process. And even the frat boy who has a beautiful new girlfriend a week after he arrives here faces it, basically, alone… because nobody can talk about it, of course; whinging and mocking is the easiest response.

But this is moving focus from what I want to talk about. So I’m going to link over to The Korean’s post again, and ask you to read it, or if you read it last time, skim it so that you remember what he’s talking about.

Back? Okay, he touched on a few great points there. He admits there’s a lot that’s annoying — a lot to complain about — in Korea, a point I’m going to return to later on, but I want to highlight this:

A cursory look at Seoul shows a fantastically futuristic city. People carry around crazy technological gizmos. Internet works at blinding speed. Everywhere you go there are flat screen panels showing some type of moving images, just like the visions of future that we used to have through sci-fi movies of yesteryear.

One cannot help but feel a little bit like Homer Simpson as he was marveling at the dancing fountain/toilet in his hotel room in Japan: “They are YEARS ahead of us!” Upon seeing this spectacle, it is only reasonable to expect Korea to be a fully modern country, and its citizens to behave in a fully modern way.

But this outlook cannot be more misleading. And this is really the point that anyone who wishes to understand modern Korea must know – Korea has only become this way in the last 15 years. All the people who were born and raised in the pre-modern era are not only alive, but they are the people who are in their 50s and 60s, leading the whole country and educating the next generation.

Few people (including younger Koreans themselves) understand this point, no matter how many times the Korean screams about it: only 50 years ago, Korea was DIRT FUCKING POOR. It was one of the poorest countries in the world. Here is an example: when the Korean War happened, Ethiopia was one of the countries that sent a contingent to aid South Korea. Ethiopia! The same one with $823 per capita GDP! (Current South Korean GDP per capita = $24,783 in 2007) Can you imagine Ethiopia helping South Korean with economics, military, or anything at all in 2008? (Perhaps a few skilled marathon runners?) But in 1950, Korea was the lesser nation between the two. In short, Korea occupied the place in the world in which the poorest African countries occupy now – completely helpless, unable to survive on its own without aid from other countries.

“Sci-fi movies of yesteryear” indeed. When I arrived in Korea, and my airport bus to Iksan passed through Seoul, I couldn’t help but mutter about Blade Runner under my breath. And then, only a couple of days later, I met my first squat toilet in a filthy room that smelled so bad I could hardly breathe… something straight out of the nineteenth century, that was, for me.

A confession: it’s those very contradictions that attracted me to Korea. Not the stinky squat toilets, mind you — that experience I could have done without, but I mean the disjointed, future-shocked development that Korea had undergone in the 20th century. (There’s a reason Alvin and Heidi Toffler were taken seriously enough to be advisors to Kim Dae Jung!) A friend of mine had been in Iksan before the construction of the Honam Expressway and noted how, though everyone had cars, it took hours to get to Seoul, and that even in the city, the streets in a lot of areas weren’t designed for driving. When I arrived, there was a Honam Expressway, but in Iksan, little had changed.

Even when you sort of know what you’re getting into, it’s a shock. It’s a shock because, really, what you find is that there is still a lot of this:

Jungdong in 1976

… floating amidst all of this:

Jungdong now

That’s not Iksan, of course. It’s where I live now, in Bucheon. If you’re interested in more photos of these places — which are pretty close to where I’m living now — visit Joe’s posts on Bucheon today (here’s one, and another), and Matt’s on outstanding cyber-excavation of Bucheon in the past. I’m not going to meditate on the particulars of my own hood too much, as it’s been done already, and better.

Iksan looked like this:


and this:


but also like this:

unnammed rainy street

and this:

iksan pics, first card 003

and this:


… all at once. And bear in mind everything in those pictures was within a five minute walk of everything else. That’s including a two-minute wait at the traffic lights, too.

Actually, Iksan is a great microcosm of development in Korea. Downtown (not pictured above) was all new and modern, with big multi-lane roads, a shopping district laid out relatively logically (that is, on a grid) and it was easy to navigate, get around in, and so on. The reason for this, however, was awful: one night in November 11th, 1977 — when the town (or at least the train station) was still normally called by its old name, “Iri” — there was an accident at the train station. The way I heard it, someone was moving crates in a military shipment — unmarked, of course, for security reasons, right? — and he discovered what was in the crates when his cigarette lit them, and the crates exploded.

I don’t know whether that’s true, of course — how would anyone know that it was this or that guy, whether he was smoking or just, you know, dropped a crate? And would the ask of a cigarette actually set off dynamite? Isn’t it just as likely that a box got dropped and blew up? I don’t know, but this is exactly the kind of tangled urban legend that grows up around these kinds of events. But the effect is incontestable. The account on Wikipedia (in Korean only) suggests, if I’m getting it right, that someone lit a candle or lantern while moving the crates at night, which contained about forty tons of high explosives. They weren’t supposed to have been there, but they were.

In any case, an older gentleman I knew in Iksan told me he was drinking soju with his buddies in Jeonju when it happened, and they heard the sound of the blast. From a distance of about 20 kilometers away, they heard the sound so clearly that it overpowered all the conversation in the establishment where they were drinking, as well as the TV. Boom. They didn’t know it then, but downtown Iksan had just been smashed apart, or, at least, the area immediately in front of the train station had been destroyed.

You can see a very interesting video about it — with dramatic film-soundtrack-ey music added — here. The video includes some very interesting footage of two things: the first is Park Chung Hee, who flew down to Iksan in a helicopter bout a month later to see how the reconstruction was coming along.

Park in Iksan

When he’s being debriefed, he’s sitting alone, almost in a throne, while a single officer shows him what happened on a map. The rest of the audience is waaaaaaaay back behind him, politely listening, or, maybe, straining to hear anything at all . The other interesting thing is seeing how people were mobilized. Locals nurses treating old men is interesting, but moreso is the way soldiers, students, reservists, and other people were doing just about everything else, from cleaning up the ruined downtown area to constructing temporary housing, pictured here.

Park inspecting Temp Shelters in December

An the text beside the video claims that about 1000 people were casualties, though I don’t know if they all died, or whether that counts injuries and people who were just plain dispossessed by the damage. Property loss was severe, and thirteen billion won was set aside for recovery, including construction of five-storey apartment houses in the area. That was a lot of money in 1977. But, then, it was a big mess:

Downtown Iri in Ruins

There’s also a post about a memorial ceremony held in Iksan, with some shots of news articles and photos and the ceremony itself, here.

(Far from the only train disaster to strike Korea. The 2003 subway fire in Daegu wasn’t the first in the city, either: another explosion occured eight years before, with much higher property losses and casualties detailed here, with a couple of good photos thrown in.)

Anyway, what you get in downtown Iksan is a city district that was, essentially, built up after 1977. Though further reconstruction of specific buildings is an absolute certainty, the layout probably follows the same plans as were set out at that time, and that’s one reason this part of the city is so modern and navigable, despite being among the oldest parts of the city. Though like less old, the University district was still laid out in the haphazard way that unplanned cities develop, and for that reason, had its own special… charms.

Now, that was the neighborhood I lived in, over near the university, that is, Wonkwang University. Iksan’s 대학로 (“University Street,” a standard name for a commercial and nightlife district in front of a university in Korea) was a region of about three or four blocks by about four or five blocks, crammed with more neon than the whole city of Los Angeles of Blade Runner, the streets look like they formed basically ad hoc, as footpaths between buildings. They’re paved, of course, and wide enough for a single car to drive through, mostly, but cars cannot pass one another on those streets. So every time we went out, we could see cars that had ended up in staredowns, neither driver willing to reverse out and let the other out of a road too narrow to share. There were no sidewalks, so sometimes people would get their feet run over by a passing car, or a car that was in a staredown and decided to back up — because, sometimes, to push past the car, you’d have to turn sideways, and your feet were unsettling close to the wheels. (I myself saw a couple of people get a broken foot this way.) Parts of Iksan were, well, as modern as anything in Korea, and parts seemed to be barely still-erect remnants from some ancient era long forgotten.

The people there were much like that, too. You would meet old guys, some clean shaven and some (very, very occasionally) with white beards, dressed as if they’d stepped out of either a Korean history book or (more often) a noir film; walking past them, teenagers with MP3 players plugged into their ears, cell phones hanging around their necks, and the latest, greatest fashions gracing their slender forms. More than anywhere else I’ve lived in this country, people in Iksan were obviously, conscientiously concerned with fashion and appearance. People laugh about how you see couples stop at mirrors in the Seoul subway system and preen, but in Iksan, a shocking number of young people were so absolutely on top of their looks that they didn’t have to stop and preen… they’d gotten everything in place long before leaving home that morning. To me, coming from Montréal, this was both familiar — my students dressed as if they were on the way to the disco — and bizarre, as most of the people I’d hung out with cared much about fashion, at least not on a daily-basis, while-going-to-class kind of way. Not everyone was beautiful, classy, and stylish, of course. But many, many people — male and female alike — made themselves as close to beautiful as they could physically manage without surgery, and as classy and stylish as anyone on a student’s budget could hope to be. I was, bar none, the most underdressed person in the room at all times. (Except, of course, when I met other foreigners. Then I was only sometimes the most underdressed person around.)

And, indeed, Iksan was a high-infection zone of what Koreans referred to, with a grin, as 공주병 (“Kongju Pyeong” — that is, literally, “Princess Disease.” Some translate it as Princess Syndrome, but I like the connotation of Disease and leave it as I first heard it explained). Princess Disease is what a young lady has when she calls you, in a plaintive voice and drawing the word out with a kind of lilt, “오빠~!” at the beginning of every sentence. (It’s literally “Elder brother,” but is also used flirtatiously.) The infected individual tends to exhibit a degree of concern regarding her appearance and accoutrements that is so far beyond the ordinary that it provokes comment from others. Some infected individuals constantly request confirmation of their beauty, or presents from any and all males in the vicinity.

(And, my male Korean friends complained to me, they never, ever were willing to sleep with you, no matter how often you granted their wish to go on an expensive date. In fact, now that I think of it, 된장녀 (“Soybean paste girl”) seems to be the new Princess Disease. Which I’ll be writing about more somewhere else, later, so I’ll set this aside for now and just note that I met more self-declared “Princesses” in Iksan than in any other place. More than in Jeonju, where people actually seemed to have more money, and more entertainment available; certainly more than in Bucheon, but then, I’m a little more cloistered here than I was in those other cities.)

Another Princess Accessory

I’ll never forget the days of the Iksan Landfill Crisis. I can’t remember quite whether it was late spring or summer, but it was still hot outside — I remember because I was wearing shorts late into the crisis and… no, wait for that anecdote. Anyway suddenly,  garbage bags that had been left out in the street for pickup just… well, they were still there a day or two later. And then a few days more later, with more garbage on top of them. And so it went. Now, we were about a block off the main strip, across an elementary school playground, actually, and our apartment was on the third or fourth floor, but even so, when the wind went the wrong way, man, it stunk.

The teachers in town started asking around, and assorted students, wives, girlfriends, and Korean buddies told us bits and pieces of the story. Essentially, they told us, the landfill that had been used by Iksan kind of, er, got full. Except nobody had set aside a new site for a new landfill. That just hadn’t really been planned for, and so, when the landfill got full, the city government did the usual last minute scramble to find a new site. Except, of course, that by the time they started looking, there were already bags in the streets. They failed to find a place soon, and a few weeks into this thing, the garbage bags were piled so high on the sidewalks along University Street that they were almost like barricades.

At some point, the city realized that, if this didn’t get deal with, it would be a public health crisis. After all, there’d been an outbreak of something — I think it was typhus, but I don’t remember — in Jeonju, and this trash was just sitting out in the heat, and stinking like hell. So at some point, trucks started doing the rounds, going from one pile of trash bags to the next, and spraying this whitish fluid onto it. They were clearly in a hurry, and, well, not much more safety-first oriented than the crate-movers in the Iksan train station thirty-odd years before: I remember a truck zooming up towards a pile of trash I happened to be passing — in shorts, see, that’s how I remember — and whatever it was they sprayed onto the trash rebounded and splashed onto my leg. I hollered, but the guys had already pulled the hose back and were taking off for the next pile of trash.

I’m not telling this story to bitch, or mock, or to point out the probably-Catch-22-esque status of the Iksan City government half a decade ago, though. The image I want to put into your mind — with words, because I didn’t have a working camera then, and have no photos of it, more’s the pity — is of these hip, beautiful university students, dressed to the nines, walking down the street as if there was absolutely nothing weird about helping your girlfriend around a barricade of trash, or as if it was not at all odd to hold your breath as long as possible to hold out the stink. It looked, to us, like business as usual. Pastel pink and yellow summer dresses and black suits with those funky long-toed shoes were the order of the day. Oh, and the frills and trim, don’t forget that!

Frills and Trim

What the hell was going on? The answer to that question is coming in my next post on this subject, which addresses something I think The Korean left out of his post, but which relates importantly (and complicatingly) to the second part of the discussion, coming up — is it next week? sometime in the next couple of weeks — which is, “Why do so many Koreans handle foreigners’ criticism of Korea so badly?”

In the meantime, consider this: why was it that in Iksan, the most (pleasantly, at the time!) backwater place I have lived in Korea, young people were so incredibly concerned with fashion, and dressing up? Why did young men almost invariably wear suits to class, or else very fashionable designer clothing? Why was the rate of infection of “Princess Disease” — the condition which people used to describe young women who were obsessed with their looks, trying to be pretty, and coaxing boyfriends to buy them something — so very high in Iksan? And what was going through those people’s minds as they gingerly treaded the well-worn paths past those garbage barricades, dodging Bongo trucks and nihilistic, suicidal Chinese food delivery scooter-boys as they went? What were they thinking?

The best answer I can find, and how it relates to The Korean’s post, next time. Stay tuned.

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4 thoughts on “The Iri Yeok Explosion, and the Iksan Landfill Crisis

  1. Gord,

    You describe Iksan so lovingly it nearly broke my heart. My maternal grandparents are buried there, so I visited there often.

    As to the next post, Rob and I decided to have it ready on the weekend after this one.

  2. The Korean,

    You know Iksan! Woah! I haven’t been back in a few years, but I’ve been thinking about the city lately, and miss it sometimes. Iksan people is good people. So by definition, you is, matrilineally, good people. (Actually, I find Jeolla people in general to my liking. Very reminiscent of Saskatchewan people, which is where I’m from. Can’t really live in either place anymore, but in general I like the people a lot.)

    Well, I was trying to give the town a treatment à la the kind of thing Matt at Gusts of Popular Feeling does for Bucheon in the post I linked above. I don’t have the historical chops, but I tried. :)

    Looking forward to the second half… as well as a break from posting about this! (One more to go!)

  3. I just arrived in Korea two days ago and had the same feeling in taking a bus through Seoul. Over and over I saw images of “Bladerunner” fly through my head. Strangely enough my point of destination was also Iksan.

    Many of the things that you mentioned are still similar here. It has grown a bit and developed more, yet at the same time I see some people that look right out of the past.

    I just wanted to thank for a little history on the town.

  4. Little Otik,

    Wow, funny, that Blade Runner thing. I think it’s worth thinking about… is it partly because it’s Asia we’re in? I saw bigscreen billboard things in NYC but I never thought of Blade Runner somehow.

    You’re quite welcome for the history, and of course, dig in — there’s more. (And make sure you go out to Mireuksan… there’s the remnants of a pagoda there, and also great restaurants with the best fresh kimchi ever.)

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