Letter from Seoul

“Go to Hongdae,” I was advised, by a young Korean man, via the Internet; “there you will experience the real Korea, the young Korea.”

I didn’t follow the part of the recommendation to get drunk and party until dawn, but I did go to Hongdae.

Hongdae: throngs of teenagers, clothing stores filled with authentic vintage and vintage-inspired Americana, and street performers in guyliner and bondage chains practicing energetic K-Pop-inspired routines. From the perspective of a British person, such public demonstrations of artistry, flamboyance even, caused some unease, I must admit. Whether it was the self-assured manner in which they danced or my ingrained inclination towards social reserve, I do not know. But it was a marked change from the guitar-laden buskers with their dreary Britpop ballads that I had grown up seeing on high streets and in Tube stations, or the contemporary dance flash mobs that seemed to happen on a surprisingly frequent basis during my time in France. Perhaps this lack of self-consciousness reflected a people who still regularly partook in communal bathing and a city in which its inhabitants are encouraged to congregate, to eat together in well-kept public spaces, a city in which the concept of hostile architecture doesn’t seem to exist. If Hongdae were the real Korea, the Korea of the future, then it is a country that exudes a collective embracing of freedom, a freedom that is fun and fashionable.

And yet, in the crowds and walking the streets, young men—or boys might be a more apt description, as they look so young—wear military uniforms as part of a Korean rite of passage: a 21-month stint of national service. They walk hand in hand with their girlfriends or grab an iced coffee with their mates in civvies. Their American counterparts, identified only by their crew-cuts, are less conspicuous, usually confining themselves to the international enclave of Itaewon.

West of Itaewon, opposite the old US army garrison of Yongsan, stands the imposing War Memorial of Korea. “If you want peace, prepare for war” (si vis pacem, para bellum), is quoted on the wall of the large exhibition hall. The entrance is surrounded by flags of the recording-breaking number of allies, as certified by Guinness World Records in 2010, that rallied to support South Korea during the war. Monuments in the grounds depict men of action-figure proportions ready to attack. In another sculpture, two brothers, one from the north, one from the south, are locked in a fraternal embrace. The South Korean soldier towers head and shoulders above his northern sibling: a masculinity cast from a military mold; a city’s geography drawn on its army bases; a country’s (re)birth premised on its war.

And what about the women? CHIC OR SWEET? asks a poster advertising colored contact lenses. The members of the K-Pop group Twice divide themselves between these two seemingly opposing characteristics. The “chic” girls wear dark colors and sultry looks. Seductive would be a stretch. The “sweet” girls dress in pastel shades and offer either a big smile or a cheeky wink. You can choose who you want to be, the poster suggests, but only within these set parameters. Alternately, you may like to coordinate your clothing with your boyfriend, an innocent sign of commitment as much as an aesthetic choice.

One Friday night, at the riverside night market, I struggled to hunker down on some steps with a can of beer in one hand and a paper tray of sticky fried chicken in the other. The young Korean couples on the paving below were more prepared for the chimaek feast. They had set up small tables lit by portable lamps and sat on blankets from which they watched the Banpo bridge rainbow fountain show in comfort. It looked so wholesome, so good-natured. Perhaps it is then you understand why the itinerary of a honeymooner’s trip to Jeju-do, just a 45-minute flight from Seoul, might include a visit to one or all three of the island’s sex museums. Through sexy-comic sculptures, historic erotica, and factual information, newlyweds learn about physical intimacy, including same-sex relationships, a subject remains taboo for many in Korea. Only in Itaewon, against the backdrop of Turkish bakeries and American burger joints, have I ever seen gay couples walking hand in hand.

Globalization, it may seem, makes everything the same. Cities razed by war and redevelopment transform into a sea of anonymous skyscrapers with a Starbucks on every corner. To become modern is to become westernized: the Miracle on the Han River followed the Miracle on the Rhine. As Seoul turns westward to equality, away from a Confucianism of strict social hierarchies, we must not forget that development is a relative concept and never a straightforward process. The city lies but fifty kilometers from the DMZ, the Demilitarized Zone, the border that is not a border. A zone is not a border. It is not a linear demarcation between past and present, east and west, north and south. Rather, a zone signifies a greater sense of liminality, of exchange, of to-ing and fro-ing, of being both one and another. As the tour guide at the Changdeokgung Palace explained, maps of Korea in school textbooks, like the shape of the nineteenth-century pond in front of which we stood, still depict the peninsula as whole.

Stacie Allan