Saturday, 9 July 2011

Beyond the 38th parallel

That should hold them back

Your author's recent trip to South Korea

"Here you go!"

The woman fumbled in her purse to extract a 10,000 won note, holding it out toward me with a big smile. She was roughly my age, Korean or possibly Korean-American and spoke good English.

"We can't take it: it's fine we'll get money out upstairs"

"Come on - it's really cheap - take it! Please!"

I sheepishly took the note, trying to convey gratitude while looking pathetic. Walking backwards towards the ticket machine so as to continually thank my benefactor I turned round and purchased our tickets from central Seoul to Incheon Airport. The woman looked pleased to have helped and walked towards the platforms.

This was not an uncommon experience in South Korea. I've travelled in Thailand, Japan and China - all largely racially homogeneous countries - and have been used to my wife's and my pasty skin being about the only thing worthy of residents' remarks. I expected the same in Korea, and for perhaps some students to try out their English on me. I'd learnt a few words of Korean - nothing much - but was expecting communication to be limited.

Yet this assumption proved incorrect and unkind. The Koreans I spoke to were friendly, helpful and curious. It always feels ludicrous to attempt to generalise a country's people, even more so to do this having been in the land for two weeks and encountered perhaps a thousandth of a percent of the population. Perhaps all that is possible it to get a sense of some of the ways interactions take place, and to report my experiences without attempting to allude to a grander theme.

As one wanders around Seoul it's hard to believe that until 1987 the country was under an authoritarian regime. The city has its share of gleaming tall buildings, but that is no guarantee of political freedom as any resident of Shanghai will remind you. One incident highlighted the glaring difference between China and South Korea

On May 1st the police obviously expected trouble. They were out in ridiculous numbers throughout downtown Seoul. There were so many that I stopped and asked a red-vested Hi! Seoul (the Seoul tourist campaign) worker. Expecting an inquiry about the location of some tourist hot-spot, they were a little embarrassed to hear my question. However this was not the embarrassment of someone desperate to change the subject; it was more akin to the long-suffering daughter asked to explain her eccentric father's behaviour. The police were ready to manage a demonstration in Seoul Square, a location we had walked through not three minutes earlier which plenty of people going about their humdrum business. Seoul residents seemed to regard the police with bemusement, and certainly not fear.

Waiting for a May Day riot...
Police. Camera. Inaction
Most of the time it's hard to remember that Seoul is less than 40km from the North Korean border. Travel is free, hotel check-in easy, passport-security no more oppressive than in the UK and business is flourishing. However, there are signs hidden beneath this happy exterior. The remaining sections of the fortress wall that once surrounded the city are a beautiful walk surrounded by nature and tremendous views of the city. Yet visitors to the north section must bring their passports and report to a security office manned by the army. Throughout this section of the wall soldiers of the Republic of Korea Army stand guard with ostentatious automatic weaponry. Photography is forbidden, except in infrequent designated locations where guards watch to ensure nothing untoward occurs. Anyone wishing to veer from the ten or so metre wide path will find themselves identified by myriad intrusion detectors.

In many countries this would sound like paranoia. We rightly laugh and scold the Minuteman Project on the United States' southern border or the delusional near-xenophobia that saw Switzerland mine its borders. However it's hard not to understand South Korea's position. They live so close to a country run by highly unpredictable deity that not only threatens violence but delivers. The shelling of Yeonpyeong in November 2010 is enough to remind any South Korean resident that kind words alone will not guarantee their safety.

Travelling by train from Gangneung to Gyeongju offers another reminder. As the slow, seven-hour train journey meanders by the coast there is something that visitors to Blackpool or Southend will not encounter: barbed-wire. Many of the visible beaches had tall chain-link fences, topped with this skin-tearing defence.

And yet for a country so evidently under threat, a country that has no land-access to the rest of the world because of a neighbour that wishes destruction, this is a place where we were greeted with nothing other than welcome and kindness. A restaurant chef acted out the words on the menu to help us decipher. A member of Seoul subway staff paid us out of his own pocket when a ticket machine failed. Tourist information staff took pity on us and desperately called around to find a room when, rain soaked, we arrived late on a Saturday on an impromptu return to Seoul. Waiters across the country smiled and clapped as I destroyed the pronounciation of ma-shiss-ŏss-ŏ-yo to demonstrate my appreciation of their food. And, yes, some students did stop to take a picture of this English couple.

As we hiked up around the wondrously beautiful mountains of Seoraksan National Park we were repeatedly asked choob-ji ahn-uh-saeyo? This meant nothing to us, but was frequently accompanied by tapping of the questioner's arm, or sometimes Jo's bare arm. 'This again', we thought; it must be the familiar observation that our skin is lighter. On the second day a man who spoke both English and Korean happened to overhear this and translated: "aren't you cold?" Amazed that in weather of only 20°C anyone could want to expose their skin, their question was kind. As soon as we understood the meaning (and begun to recognise it in future) and lacking the vocabulary to say 'no, actually it's far from chilly compared to good old Blighty' we were able to mime how hot we felt and receive broad grins and theatrical surprise.

It is an anomaly that a country that is so interesting, beautiful and hospitable is not on more western tourist itineraries. Maybe it is fear of the North that holds them back, or perhaps simply that South Korea is less publicised than its neighbours. Whatever the threats from above the 38th parallel it seems life goes on in the massively more prosperous South. When reunification one day comes the southern half seems in as good a place as possible to repair the disaster to its north.


SP said...

Interesting post Tom. South Korea is a fascinating country. Not only have the people had to live with the latent (and sometimes patent) existential threat of the North for so many years but the peninsular remains the central focus for power politics in the region. In terms of the inter-play between US, China and Japan it often seems that all roads lead to Korea. For me South Korea is a great example of how the use of US power abroad can have positive results. Not only have the South Koreans built a successful economy but they have also managed the transition to democracy – a considerable achievement. Being the kind of obsessive I am I was most interested in the section on mountain climbing. It’s primarily a tragedy for the South Korean people that the North remains under the grip of murderous, criminal, lunatic regime. However it’s also a shame for mountaineers. The North has the most impressive peaks that remain almost completely unexplored. Mountaineering junkies are used to travelling to difficult and often dangerous countries to scale big mountains, like Pakistan and China. But I think North Korea reamins an impossible dream, for now

SP said...

Err..Obviously I meant a tragedy for the North Korean people! I need more coffee...