It’s hard to think of Korea without thinking about the war or about North Korea or Kim Jong Un’s latest hairdo. We don’t think about Korean food or music, about famous Korean animals, or about their capital city, Seoul. Seoul’s population is around 20 million people, so it’s as if the entirety of Australia lived together in one city.
It’s a shock arriving, especially for someone who has never travelled to an Asian country before. The money has too many zeroes, the chopsticks aren’t the ones we use at home, and the air is thick and moist. Toilets are bides, shoes are taken off in some stores, and you’re probably going to feel as if you’re the racial minority.
Once you embrace the changes of course, you realise Seoul is a beautiful city, one that’s bursting at the seams with people, nightlife and street food. Koreans also seem to have made a private deal about how the city was built—whilst it’s full of high rise apartments, there are around 50 parks in the city limits. They’re shared backyards, a quiet relief from office work, a place to sit and picnic and play. The city comes alive at night, sprouting bars and nightclubs that stay open well into the next morning. Food is cooked fresh on your table in Korean style barbecue, and their local drink ‘Soju’ is like a small bottle of vodka with all the nastiness removed—for only four dollars a bottle.
‘Koreans are excellent at ignoring a truly terrifying threat…’
But there’s a kind of undercurrent here—one that makes this city unique to any other in the world. It’s insidious, and while no one ever talks about it, it’s always there. Subways in Korea have friendly, colourful signs saying “shelter” on their entrances. Torches and masks can be seen as you descend the stairs into the station.
Once in a while, you might look up at the advertising screens, which seem omnipresent in Seoul, and instead of seeing flash games and soft drink, there will be footage of a man frothing at the mouth and falling unconscious. These films warn Koreans about what to do if they’re attacked by North Korea. A deadly threat hangs over their heads at all times, and their city is perpetually in a state of attack preparation. Radiation suits line the train stations, gas masks can be found in the carriages, and oxygen tanks in cabinets are scattered throughout Seoul’s underground. Films show gas leaking in through the doors of the train, show fellow passengers coughing, vomiting and even asphyxiating. The terror is real, and signs of it are everywhere.
And yet, on the day of the Bombardment of Yeonpyeong, where North and South Korea exchanged fire on a small island, the top Google search of the day was “Innisfree Sale”. Innisfree is a beauty company, and it so happened that on that day they were offering 50% off on online sales and to most Koreans on the internet that day, this was more interesting than the possibility of war in their country. “North Korea” and “war” were only secondary considerations to Koreans that day, trusting their government and the rest of the world to keep them safe, they were unconcerned.
‘Only 13.3 per cent of Koreans view North Korea as a hostile country…’
If you ask a Korean on the street what the shelters in stations are for, most of them won’t recognize them for what they are. Many will say things like ‘it’s a place to sleep maybe’ or ‘I don’t know, they’re a place to go in the rain’. Koreans are excellent at ignoring a truly terrifying threat, one that could mean the destruction of their homes and their lives.
And who can blame them? Throughout the cold war, the threat of mutually assured destruction drove people all over the world insane with panic, building bomb shelters, stockpiling goods and putting their families through surprise “bomb drills” in the middle of the night. Koreans live with this threat every day, with rumours flying around that Seoul could be invaded in 45 minutes, or that subways are the worst places to be in an attack because of poison gas. Buildings have escape drills once a month, some of which involve fire trucks actually hosing down the front doors. Parts of the city are stopped for an hour once a month for practice, and police regularly turn up at busy or important buildings to protect them.
Almost all of the Koreans I’ve spoken to don’t believe a war will happen. It’s generally understood that the risks for North Korea are too high, that any aggression would result in the total destruction of their country. In other words, South Korea has much bigger friends who would care for their interests. America still keeps many active military bases in the area, and their other international ties are very strong.
Only 13.3 percent of Koreans viewed North Korea as a hostile country, according to a survey commissioned by South Korea’s Unification Ministry. Another survey taken earlier this year by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies found that Koreans actually viewed Kim Jong Un more favourably than Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. It’s a shocking find, despite the fact there are many factors that might have affected the results—for example, the survey was taken at a time when Mr Abe was speaking out openly against Japan’s apology to Korea’s “Comfort Women”. The Korean government has scaled back military drills and safety measures from the extremes of a decade ago.
Contrast this to views around the rest of the world, where North Korea is viewed as one of the least favourable countries in the world. Indeed, 83 percent of Americans in a recent poll reported that the possibility of nuclear war with North Korea is a “critical threat”.
It’s hard to say how any nation would react to a reality as sharply dissonant as South Korea’s. How should a population react to a constant terror creeping over the border? Fear and paranoia are only useful emotions to the extent that they remind citizens and governments to protect themselves—outside of those boundaries, they are destructive, inhibiting the lives of those they affect. The situation is in constant flux, one minute North Korea is cutting their phone lines with the South and the next, South Korea’s President Park is comparing their nations to east and west Berlin and offering diplomatic reunion. Who knows if in a decade, South Korea will still possess its mad, vibrant energy and stay resilient against a crushing fear.
By Isobelle Waller
During mid-year break, communication student Isobelle Waller spent a month in South Korea interning with a television station.