War Angst and Karaoke: Daily Life as Bizarre As it Gets in South Korea

PHOTO: Singer PSY attends a press conference before his concert to introduce his new single Gentleman at Olympic Stadium on April 13, 2013 in Seoul, South Korea.
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North Korea threatens to start a nuclear war, while South Korea dances Gangnam style. Those are the clich├ęs. War has never been this close, but Koreans in Seoul confront their fears by going about a bizarre version of everyday life, complete with truffle pasta and super-smart phones.

A few hours before another ultimatum is set to expire, Seoul is transformed into a sea of fire. Fountains of flames encompass a glass stage in the broadcast studio at the South Korean state television network KBS, where the girls of Girl's Day are performing their new hit. It's the Friday before last, "Music Bank" day. The program is broadcast live every week to 72 countries, and the studio in the southern part of Seoul is filled with excited fan clubs and steams with puberty. Girl's Day sings a song called "Expectation," which isn't a bad way to describe a time when the whole world is wondering whether nuclear war could erupt in Asia tomorrow -- or whether it's all nothing but a show.

The girls are swaying to the music in the KBS studio, an amphitheater with steep rows of seats. Many have come straight from school and are still wearing their uniform, a white blouse with a tartan skirt. The girls stood in line outside for hours, shivering on a cool, rainy day. K. Will sings his chart-topping song "Love Blossom," followed by performances by the pop duo Davichi, an R&B boy group called SHINee and 4Minutes, another girl band. They are the sweet idols of a pan-Asian youth, made-in-Korea stars with a following as far away as Singapore, Tokyo and Jakarta. Whenever there is a break in the music, the audience shouts their names -- it's a party in the midst of the recent crisis and saber rattling.

One of the shouting audience members is Jang Seul Gi, an 18-year-old girl from the Seoul suburb Namyangju. She won her coveted ticket in a lottery and is wearing a compress over her right eye, which is infected. She and her girlfriends endured a two-hour bus ride, changing buses several times, so that they could experience this teen pop extravaganza in person. The girls already begin to shriek when the slim members of the boy band start making noise in the shadows offstage, just before their appearance. An ultimatum? Suel Gi doesn't know anything about that, or about the "serious consequences" with which the South Korean government has threatened the North Koreans once again. Seul Gi has other concerns.

The 'Beauty Belt'

The girl from the suburbs would like to have a smaller face and bigger breasts, a better nose and a prettier chin. It's a dream she shares with many of her female friends, and it's on full display on the walls of passageways in Seoul Metro stations, which would all serve as bomb shelters in the event of a war. There are before-and-after ads for beauty clinics, depicting girls who have been transformed into almost monstrous creatures, with the saucer-like eyes of a Disney cartoon character. Kim Soo Shin gives people those kinds of eyes.

He's one of the established cosmetic surgeons on the "Beauty Belt" in Seoul's Gangnam district, south of the sluggish, wide Han River. Contrary to its name, Real, his clinic deals in unreal beauty. He can handle 50 to 60 customers during the winter season. He has even surgically removed the bags under the eyes of his 74-year-old mother.

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