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Front row seat with Obama? Wake me when it’s over

Seoul, November 12


At the end of this fractious G20 summit, this is the image that stands out for me. I took the picture during one of the press briefings held after the release of the final communiqué. This Korean man had a front row seat in the auditorium where President Obama was speaking. But having such a prime spot (reporters and participants scrambled to get the chance to hear Obama) obviously wasn’t any big deal for this man. A chance to be awed and get up close to the leader of one of the world’s most powerful countries? No, more of a chance to catch up on some lost sleep! But who can blame him after such a hard summit?


President Obama tried to put a positive spin on the meeting, but faced difficult questions. He was also asked tricky questions about his troubles back at home, which he may have been glad to get away from for a few days. He tried to take his last question from a local Korean journalist, after so many questions from American reporters, but failed miserably. The man he chose for the last question was in fact Chinese, who argued with Obama about why he should be allowed to ask his question anyway. When the president said that actually he would prefer to take the question from a Korean, the Chinese reporter said he could ask his question on behalf of the Koreans, and in fact on behalf of all Asians. The president ended up giving in.


The French President Nicolas Sarkozy might be pleased to hear that the journalists who covered his briefing - which was not in an auditorium like Obama but in a small side room - broke into a sprint when being escorted there by officials. I prefer to imagine that they were eager to get the perfect seats and positions for their cameras, as opposed to being so impatient to hear the president’s thoughts on how the G20 went.

Sarkozy can be very difficult in these kinds of press conferences, and he is often filmed berating or ridiculing a journalist whose questions he doesn’t like. That didn’t put me off asking my question, though, about how he intends to deal with all the tension between the different countries when France soon takes on the presidency of the G20. Sarkozy said my question was “discouraging”, as he’d already laid out what he thought were the perfect solutions. I did worry that he might pick up on my accent in French and make something of it. But no, there was no berating or ridiculing. Another newspaper journalist got a slight dressing down, though, someone I’m sure has experienced a similar situation with the president before.


At the end of this summit, all the talking and intense negotiations were boiled down to a 22-page final communiqué. This was said to be the longest ever for a G20 summit, and South Korea got the credit for managing to make sure that all of its key topics, including development, were covered. There was a funny moment when dozens of reporters staged a mini stampede in the massive media centre after hearing rumours that the communiqué had been printed and was about to be made available. It ended up being a false alarm, though, and there were two more after that. Later, in a sign of the times, the G20 organisers eventually announced over a loud speaker that the communiqué was in fact going to be uploaded onto the G20 website.

Squaring up to protesters, Korean style

Seoul, November 11


The first protest on day one of the G20 summit was a chance to get a glimpse of the various techniques employed by the South Korean police. Some of the officers walking around looking like robo-cops give the impression of being people who do not muck about, who will move in fast when they believe public order is compromised. The glimpses of police training exercises we’ve seen also give that impression. (It has to be said, though, that many other officers look completely harmless, barely out of school. I saw four of them swooning and fussing over a baby in a pram on the metro train the other day, which at least shows they are human and have a good rapport with the public.) But this first protest on the opening day of the summit evolved in a rather meditative kind of way.

Mother Nature works her magic for G20

Seoul, November 10


The organisers of the G20 couldn’t have hoped for better weather in the South Korean capital. It’s been a little cold at times over the past few weeks, but very mild compared to what some people had feared for this time of year. Today, on the eve of the summit, the sky was a perfect blue and there was a pleasant temperature. Fingers crossed for the rest of the week!

Where are all the American soldiers?

Seoul, November 8

Given the United States military has as many as 30,000 personnel based in South Korea, I figured it wouldn’t be long before I bumped into some American soldiers or their families. In fact, they are not as visible as I expected. The US military, which has ground, air and naval forces here, seems to keep a low profile on the streets of Seoul. But if you go to some of the soldiers’ favourite hangouts, it’s a different story altogether.

Seoul Seoul

Billy and Beckett wow the crowds in Seoul!

Seoul, November 5

Traditional dance

The competition among Asian cities wanting to join the list of the world’s best “24-hour cities” seems to be heating up. They have grown to realise how important it is to make themselves more attractive to tourists with money to burn, while at the same time make things more dynamic for local residents. Seoul is one of those capitals trying to adopt the “city that never sleeps” tag. It’s true that there seems to be something here for everyone, especially when it comes to eating, drinking and going out on the town. But it would be a shame to overlook the fact that there’s also a lot going on here in terms of culture and the arts.

The Republic of Coffee?

Seoul, November 3


There will be no excuse for anyone caught snoozing on the job at the G20 summit; this city could fill an ocean with the amount of coffee that is being poured here. Seoul seems to be turning itself into Asia’s café culture capital, with what locals tell me has been an explosion of new cafés over the past five years. They are absolutely everywhere, in the city centre and in the suburbs, and are mostly owned by foreign and local chains. They are also packed out most of the time. The majority have English names, and at least two of them are in French (the Eiffel Tower features in the logo of one of them, a café that is very, very popular!). Someone told me today that it’s no longer the Republic of Korea; it’s the Republic of Coffee! I’ve also seen that phrase in a local magazine left in my hotel room.

G20 gives Korean workers chance for a sleep-in

Seoul, November 2


Extraordinary situations often call for extraordinary measures, and officials in Seoul have come up with novel ways of making sure the city doesn’t choke in traffic congestion during the G20 summit. It’s reported here that public offices will be opening later than usual on both mornings of the event (10am) in an attempt to reduce traffic. Private firms are being urged to do the same. “Hooray for the G20!” I hear those lucky workers shouting. I’m told that people are normally in the office at eight over here (sometimes earlier), and then put in 10-12 hour days - and that doesn’t include the long journeys many have to make to get into the city from the suburbs. I imagine an extra sleep-in on the days of the summit will be welcome news. However, I don’t suppose my bosses will want me having a sleep-in on November 11 and 12 (the jetlag refuses to pass), even if I did argue that it would be helping to reduce traffic congestion in Seoul. No, I’m afraid it’ll be an early start for me on those days, with so much on the agenda at this event.

The gentle face behind the tough image

Seoul, October 31


South Korean police are taking a no-nonsense, tough approach to security ahead of the G20 summit; a recent public display by their special swat teams is proof of that. Mean-looking officers in heavy armour and brandishing large guns gave examples of how they are ready for any security situation, including assassination attempts, terrorist attacks, kidnappings and violence by protesters. “Do not mess with the South Korean police,” is the message being sent out, “as we will not tolerate any disobedience.” So when I was granted an interview with a senior police officer to discuss the security arrangements, I expected a difficult meeting with one of those hard-looking, no-nonsense men. I was actually in for a pleasant surprise.

Seoul pulls out all the stops!

Seoul, October 29


Before coming here to Seoul, a friend told me that Koreans never do anything in half measures; and now I understand what he was talking about. I think it would be very hard to find someone here who has not heard about the upcoming G20 Seoul Summit. The streets are full of advertising and, as you can see in these photos, we’re not just talking your average public poster or banner. Whole skyscrapers have been turned into billboards!

*All pictures by Seamus Kearney