Nothing gets your friends more interested in your next trip like visiting a place where the spectre of war looms. A few of my friends learned of my planned visit to South Korea and when the sabre rattled loudest between Washington DC and Pyongyang, the Facebook tags grew frequent. The text messages also became more frequent. There were the jokes of not being sure whether last weekend would be our last as a planet that went viral…I got tagged in those too. Where my friends saw fear, I saw the chance to experience something new.
A War on Pause
Once exploring Seoul, I noticed of how pleasant and seemingly stress-free Koreans were—despite being enveloped by constant possibility of the world’s coldest war becoming scorching hot at any moment. Evidence of widespread self-obsession immediately revealed itself every time someone stopped to adjust their hairstyles before positioning themselves for a selfie. Selfies—the only thing more frequent in Seoul? Karaoke clubs. Couples, there were so many of them…at least it seemed that way. If their hands weren’t locked together, then it was their lips. Senior citizens, they blended in with everyone else. Usually in other big cities I’ve visited in western countries, senior citizens are few and far in between. It seemed to be a trend in Asia, the generational gap was closer. In Western countries, we cart off our elderly to nursing homes where they spend their remaining days eating glorified cat food. Unlike anything I’ve seen in most cities I’ve visited was the presence of soldiers commuting in and around the city, before and after duty hours. Elements of war had been properly woven into the daily fabric of Korean society—in Seoul at least.
Aside from tensions between North Korea and the United States being at its highest point in years, there are other major internal issues. Weekly demonstrations are still held to protest the ouster of President Park Geun-Hye who was removed from office due to a weird scandal. There has also been a rash of protests against the U.S. military moving missile defence systems in the country. While younger Koreans have made it clear through their activism that the U.S. may have worn out its welcome, older Koreans seemed generally ok with the idea of a continued American presence. It was they, after all, who bore the brunt of the pain of the Japanese occupation, war on the peninsula and the families they never saw again as a result of that war.