Seoul, from the ground up
There are two different Seouls.
One of them exists in American headlines and imaginations. In that Seoul, half of South Korea’s 50 million people are living in constant terror. This Seoul is blanketed by Pyongyang’s nuclear shadow and Washington’s gaseous emissions, caught between a geopolitical rock and a hard place: the bratty obstinacy of a vain, power hungry madman, and Kim Jong-un. In this Seoul, South Koreans are paralyzed, able to do little more than cross their fingers and frightfully cling to the sanity of hope in an increasingly crazy world.
Then there’s the Seoul that actually exists in reality—the Seoul where the fire and fury on everyone’s minds is an oppressive, record-setting heat wave. Alongside unusually high levels of monsoons, the humidity has been brutal, leading to enough air conditioner usage to cause brief power outages. As a result, the big consumer trend of the summer has been handheld battery-powered fans.
In this Seoul, the Korean Baseball Organization is halfway into its regular season. Fans flock to the stadiums, clutching their handheld fans, spilling in and out of subways wearing their team’s jerseys. Smells of soju and beer and fried chicken waft through the subway stations.
The Seoul of actual reality obsesses over a slew of K-pop groups releasing new albums—called “comebacks”—and the most commonly discussed battle is whether Red Velvet’s “Red Flavor,” Exo’s “Koko Bop” or, more recently, Wanna One’s “Energetic” is the top summer single.
Life in Seoul isn’t just normal considering its proximity to North Korea; life in Seoul is normal, period. South Koreans work longer days and more hours than nearly anywhere else in the world, and with the fastest average Internet connection on the planet, it’s only natural that their off-hours are dedicated to the same technological distractions as Americans.
That isn’t to say South Koreans aren’t aware of the international cross hairs in which they exist. Nor is it accurate to say they don’t care. It’s just that the hysteria that is generated by and for Americans is not as contagious on this side of the hemisphere. There is a business-as-usual numbness to the threats of North Korea. While America’s identity as a legitimate North Korean target is still in its infancy, Seoul has been at risk of nuclear attacks for a decade—and at risk of city-leveling, traditional artillery attacks for far longer than that. If North Korea really wanted to attack Seoul, it probably already would have. There’s comfort in that fatalism.
There are generational differences insofar as how people feel. Hyun-seo, a 15-year-old middle school student in Gangnam, had not even heard about Kim Jong-un’s threats to Guam. “I was just enjoying summer vacation,” she says. For Korean students, summer vacation is no vacation, but rather a few weeks spent studying in private learning academies instead of their regular schools. Hyun-seo was more attuned to the latest Exo gossip. Still, she explained her mixed feelings about North Korea: “Their government is hostile to South Korea, but we share the same language, the same history, the same culture. Kim Jong-un is just mean and annoying. I hope the two Koreas will be united someday.”
Young Koreans have more to be distracted by, and simultaneously less time for distraction. Modern Korea is frequently and derogatorily referred to as “Hell Joseon,” a reference to the Joseon Dynasty, the 500 years of Korean history when Confucian hierarchy dug its roots into the culture. Koreans now see the manifestation of that rigid hierarchy through a hyper-competitive education system, poor working conditions, an increasing wealth gap, and a system where wealthy Koreans get a shortcut to everything from easier military service to more favorable admission into the best universities. The younger generation has grown up in a more-or-less prosperous nation and has never known North Korean threats to be more than idle bombast.
For Victoria, a 28-year-old Korean-American from California who moved to Seoul in 2014, the idea of North Korea is a complex one. “My dad started a nonprofit organization when I was 8 years old that provides food for North Korean children. So when I think about North Korea, it’s not Kim Jong-un or the nuclear threats. It’s usually the children that come to mind.”
Victoria manages a fashion ecommerce store. She has gone to North Korea twice, in 2011 and 2015, through her father’s nonprofit, Penny Mission USA. Since moving to Seoul, her time in North Korea has naturally been on her mind more: “With it being so close location-wise, I can’t help but be reminded of our neighbors up north. I worry when a missile test or a threat to the U.S. comes at a time of worsening conditions in North Korea, like a flood or famine.” When it comes to responses to those threats, she’s often caught in between Korea’s shrugging shoulders and America’s shaking fists.
“I think it’s important to at least acknowledge any threat from a country, especially one that doesn’t play by our rules,” she says. “When I ask my Korean friends how they feel, they tell me not to worry about it. I asked a close friend who is Korean if she really thought they were going to attack, and she answered very nonchalantly, ‘Even if it happened, what can we do about it?’ Needless to say, I’ve taken their threats much more seriously ever since Trump became president.” Like Hyun-seo, Victoria hopes to see Korean reunification in the future.
Jong-il, a 37-year-old IT consultant from western Seoul, sees things a little differently. In his mind, reunification is not a realistic solution. The economic, political and cultural ramifications of becoming a single country again are fraught with complications and potential conflict. Still, he explains, “I hope South Korea overturns the North Korean government someday and gives the North Korean citizens liberty.”
He does, however, agree that Americans tend to overreact to North Korea’s provocations: “I only think about North Korea if I see it on the news by chance. Most Korean people are numb to the threats. Nobody in Korea loses sleep when they hear about the North’s threats.”
Guam is a popular vacation destination for South Koreans. Jong-il has gone before, and he isn’t concerned about going back: “I wasn’t worried that Kim Jong-un threatened it. He’s all talk. He’s a chicken, and chickens are always noisy.”
Jiang Tao, a 35-year-old Chinese expat who has been living in Seoul for 10 years, has a different perspective. Growing up in China, “I wasn’t interested in North Korea at all, and my mind hasn’t changed.” She explains that “China and Russia and North Korea are allies, so China has no choice but to help North Korea.” That doesn’t mean she’s a fan of North Korea, though: “I don’t like the North Korean government. The way they get what they want is too violent. China has to maintain neutrality with both Koreas and get them to have a conversation.”
She doesn’t see a whole lot of difference between Trump and Kim Jong-un, either: “They have different ideas, but the same style. They don’t think of the big picture. They both have to open their minds.” Even though she doesn’t exactly trust Kim or Trump, she has yet to take their military threats seriously.
Koreans old enough to remember the war are understandably less nonchalant. They’ve lived through an attempted North Korean invasion, and they’ve witnessed every step of North Korea’s military development. To them, it is not just an abstract statistic that Kim Jong-un has tested more missiles in six years than his father and grandfather did in over six decades.
According to Chang-jin, a 48-year-old insurance manager, “There is a wide gap in views” when it comes to how younger Koreans perceive North Korea. Older Koreans are more conservative, and they think negatively about North Korea. Young Koreans think about progress. They think incremental change is necessary to improve relations.”
Jong-il echoed a similar sentiment: “Old Koreans regard North Korea as an enemy, but young Koreans see it as an object that should be reunified.”
Chang-jin has lived during all three North Korean regimes, from Kim Il-sung to Kim Jong-il to Kim Jong-un. He has seen how most Koreans now have grown to ignore their threats: “I almost never think about North Korea. People all over the world think their threats are very reckless, but right now, most Koreans are used to it.”
Chun-hee, a 63-year-old Seoulite, is not quite old enough to talk firsthand about the War, but she grew up in a developing country that still felt its aftereffects. One thing leaps to her mind when she thinks about North Korea: “Nuclear weapons.” She was quick to add, however, that “Kim Jong-un is a dick.” She used to find North Korea scary, “But now, not often. Only when I watch the news.”
Yet there’s more to the North and South Korean dynamic than just generational perspectives. Americans tend to view North Korea as one of a few things: an enigmatic tragedy, a looming threat, or a cult worthy of ridicule. Despite the post-Korean War influence of America and the subsequent period of westernization, the view from the South is textured by a longer history of a single Korea. The North isn’t just a socio-ideological foil, or a wartime foe: it’s a lost family member. Not simply in a symbolic way, either. Among the many human tolls of Korean division has been the separation of family members, unsure of where their loved ones are. Unsure of whether or not their loved ones are even alive.
Hope persists. The past year has been politically tumultuous for South Korea. Former president Park Geun-hye was caught in a corruption scandal in October of 2016, resulting in mass protests. Between October and March 2017, Koreans flooded the streets of downtown Seoul every weekend holding candles, demanding her ouster. The largest protest was estimated to have included 2 million people. Old, young, male, female—all united as a single voice. And it worked. Park was removed from office in March and a new president, Moon Jae-in, was elected shortly after.
President Moon, whose parents were refugees from North Korea during the War, has extended a diplomatic hand to Kim Jong-un on numerous occasions—to a fault, according to his critics. Still, he represents change from the hardline approach of the previous two administrations. He was also critical of Trump’s “fire and fury” comments, another departure from previous presidents who quietly followed America’s lead when it came to North Korea. Notably, he asserted that “Only the Republic of Korea can make the decision for military action on the Korean peninsula.”
That speech, however, barely registered in Seoul. The city continued to buzz along, just like it does every day.
August 15th was Liberation Day, a national holiday in both Koreas celebrating the end of Japanese occupation in 1945. Most people had Monday and Tuesday off, but it poured rain both days. The rain clouds provided a much-needed reprieve from the heat. The entire peninsula cooled down. Kim Jong-un backed off of his threats to attack Guam, while Trump was busy with the fire and fury in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Malls and coffee shops were crowded throughout Seoul. Wanna One’s “Energetic” took the top spot on the Korean billboard charts, but fans already started talking about another K-pop group: BTS. Fresh off of a Billboard Music Award win over the likes of Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez, BTS makes their comeback in September. Meanwhile, the defending KBO champs Doosan Bears beat the NC Dinos 3–0. “Somek”—soju poured into mekchu, or beer—was gulped in celebration or commiseration, depending on which jersey was being worn. Employees readied themselves for work, students prepared for regular school to start again.
At some point during Liberation Day weekend, perhaps North Korea entered into people’s minds. Perhaps they looked up from their phones and thought about how Korea didn’t have a geographic distinction until after Japanese occupation. Perhaps they thought about what it would be like if there were no nuclear tests or missile launches, how it would feel to celebrate Korean liberation with their estranged relatives up north.
Perhaps. But then, inevitably, their phones lit up, and they had somewhere to go. And so they keep going.