The more time I spend in Korea the more I realize: it is a country defined by its dichotomy. A mere sixty some-odd years ago, it was a developing nation without much in the way of modern conveniences.
In my view, The Korean War (as we call it stateside) or Six-Two-Five (as they call it in Korea- after the day it started) was a pivotal moment in forming the country which I now reside.
During Six-Two-Five, the Republic of Korea (ROK aka modern South Korea) was pushing against the advances of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK aka North Korea). The ROK sought help from the UN, and the United States joined forces as its number 1 ally.
The DPRK retreated its forces north. Between the now divided country lies the 38th parallel. Because the war is not technically over, North and South Korea have remained in a ceasefire. With guns drawn and pointed at the ready, there is only a small meeting house between their barracks. As a result of the war technically still at large, The United States maintains its military presence to act as a literal middle man.
We all know the story of the Korean war…but what happened afterwards?
As the tanks rolled out, the presence of Western influence only grew and persevered over time. Rehabilitation was brought to Korea in the way of reconstructing a war torn country. US troops at the 38th parallel now give tours of the Joint Security Area (JSA) to all non ROK citizens.
The generation who lived through Six-Two-Five experiences a great dislike for the current president Park Geun-hye. She is the daughter of the dictator Park Chung-Hee; whose tenure was riddled with controversy and still remembered to this day.
On the one hand he is attributed with having influenced the sweeping economic growth of the nation and normalizing relationships with Japan. On the other, his entire tenure is spotted with huge black marks of human rights violations and blackmail.
This thing is: Korea has experienced numerous atrocities against human rights. From foreign neighbors like Japan in addition to its own regime. The elder population still vividly remembers Korea the way it was- the way they were- before the nation debuted Seoul as what it is today: a city emblazoned with expat night clubs that arms citizens with a shiny, black hand-held device.
It is my belief that the catalyst for the cultural boom in Korea, was due to the fact that the US has maintained an active-duty, military presence ever since the war. If things were different, if military troops were sent home, Korea would still get where it is now. Though, I wonder: would western influence be as pervasive without the political situation being what it is? Would the change have happened so swift and steadfast?
It seems to me that within Korea, there is a great deal of polarization just below the surface. The juxtaposition of old and new is striking.
When I lived on the outskirts of Seoul there were still some streets and major intersections without traffic lights. I often miss that area, because I appreciated Seoul for the metropolitan city it is. Not many locals spoke English, so I had to learn their language in order to survive. There were maybe 5 foreigners in the area. Every time the locals saw me I would either get a friendly wave from the merchants who owned the shops I frequented; and quizzical stares from everyone else.
Now, I live in the heart of Seoul. A 24-hour McDonalds is my next door neighbor. I can use my credit card at any time I desire! There are 3 Starbucks- each about 2 city blocks away from my apartment. The apparent differences between these two areas should warrant a train ride longer than 30 minutes.
Korea is a fascinating place in this respect. From Seoul, you can take a short train ride and arrive at a mountain within an hour or so. You can continue onward and explore the vast green tea fields of Boseong or rice paddies in the farmland; marvel at the beauty of the landscape!
Recalling their beloved country with nostalgia, elderly Koreans can now be spotted on the sidewalk; squatting outside of prestigious shopping malls to sell you vegetables. It seems that many of the senior locals resisted western influence and have clung onto traditional Korea; as it changed to meet the standards of a first world country.
After the war English was added to school curriculum nation-wide. Traffic lights were installed. High rises and skyscrapers seemed to shoot straight out of the ground. In the blink of an eye Seoul had evolved from a rather small, quiet city into one of the most well known, international ports in the entire world.
Children spend their entire days in school- from 8am to 10pm or later. They are exhausted and bored and sad and hungry. They barely see their parents and are looking for constant approval from their teachers. They don’t get time to play or hangout at the mall with friends. Unless they go off and study in a foreign country, children live with their parents until they marry.
Divorce is nonexistent- which might give you a clue as to how the LGBTQIA community is received. You buy fruit from off the back of a truck that drives around neighborhoods bellowing out the days’ sale…no sleeping in Korea!
It is for these reasons, I have often had the recurring thought that Korea is the United States in the 1950’s. Economically speaking, Seoul is very much a modern flourishing city. On the outside, you see a first-world country obsessed with technological advances. When you take a closer look, you see much of what has remained from traditional Korea.
Religion is of the utmost importance. The patriarchy is flourishing- alive and well. Families still maintain a closed door policy on what happens within. Divorce is unheard of. The trash is collected on wheel barrows.
Korea’s economy has grown so fast in such a short amount of time that it seems the society hasn’t had time to catch up.
All of the opinions herein are expressed in a diplomatic way. I love Korea and I think it’s an amazing place with amazing people. This post is to serve as a musing of sorts: to share the things I have observed in my time here.
Please leave a comment and share your thoughts! As always, “let’s be nice, children!”