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 clichés. 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.

Asked by the journalist why his business is doing so well in South Korea, he responds that he has both a humorous and a serious answer. The humorous one is: "When you have an empty brain, you need an attractive face." The serious answer has to do with the fact that South Korean women have become more self-confident, especially since the Seoul Olympics in 1988. Besides, says Kim, women have more and more money and less and less to do these days, "so they have an incredible amount of time to admire themselves in the mirror."

As a young man, Dr. Kim once spent six months in a South Korean prison, because he had a friend who had met North Korea's "Great Leader," Kim Il Sung. The judges accused him of involvement in communist activities and found it questionable that he had specialized in reattaching the severed fingers of workers, charging a very low fee for the procedure. When he opened his own cosmetic surgery clinic in 1991, he had only two competitors. "Today," he says, "there are 300 clinics in business in this area." This is in keeping with the overall impression the West has formed of Korea.

Heavy Historical Baggage

Over the decades, the world has become accustomed to painting North Korea in the blackest and South Korea in the most pristine terms, with the north being run by a sinister dictatorship and the south a cheerful democracy. The rest of the world sees the north as a place where people are starving and oppressed, while South Koreans are free and happy consumers. While the clichés about the north may not be entirely wrong, South Korea is a grayer and more troubled country than its image would suggest.

The heavy historical baggage of a country that was a Japanese colony, a battlefield and a military dictatorship in the 20th century is on full display in Seoul's brand-new National Museum of Korean Contemporary History, on the city's opulent grand boulevard, Sejong-daero. The exhibits there highlight the deep, old wounds of a divided nation, wounds that no economic miracle can heal.

The last few exhibit rooms are a lie by omission, a collection of the most beautiful Samsung smartphones and Hyundai limousines, with PSY performing his hit song "Gangnam Style" on a giant wall of monitors. But what the exhibits ignore is the unhealthy power of the South Korean industrial conglomerates, and the sleaze and political corruption plaguing the country. They fail to mention the omnipresent press censorship or the authoritarian impulses of the current administration, evidenced most recently by the fact that the new president, Park Geun-hye, daughter of former dictator Park Chung-hee, has just signed a law that regulates the wearing of miniskirts.

No one talks about the fact that South Korea has the highest suicide rate of all industrialized countries, with 40 people committing suicide every day -- a rate three times as high as in Germany. And hardly anyone mentions what the nightmare of potential nuclear obliteration really does to a country.

A Dramatic Intensification of the Conflict

In fact, the rest of the world pays more attention to the constantly simmering Korean conflict than the country itself, whose very existence would be threatened in the event of a war. While each new shady maneuver by the north creates headlines in the West, in the south reporting on Pyongyang's actions tends to be detached and routine by nature. Over the decades, the country has learned to treat the constant rhetoric coming from Pyongyang as empty threats. But perhaps it has also forgotten how to recognize real danger.

Depending on how you look at it, the current crisis began two, 19 or 60 years ago, while its low points are being reached today, in February, March and April of this year. The Korean War ended without a peace treaty 60 years ago, the "Great Leader Kim Il Sung" died 19 years ago and was succeeded by the "Dear Leader Kim Jong Il" and, when he died two years ago, the "Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un" came into power. Despite what we are told by the chattering experts in the broadcast media, almost nothing is known about Kim Jong Un. It is clear, however, that the Supreme Leader is in the process of shaping a new policy.

The world was shocked on Feb. 12, when North Korea conducted a third nuclear test. The incident triggered meetings and new sanctions by the United Nations Security Council, NATO sessions and a flurry of diplomatic activity. There were maneuvers over South Korea involving B-2 stealth bombers, US missiles were moved and the armies of the south and the north were placed on high alert, all within a few weeks.

North Korea abrogated various treaties and severed its hotline with the south, generals appeared in public, and Pyongyang promised a total nuclear war, one that would transform Seoul into a sea of flames. Missiles were tested, and North Korea aired propaganda videos that depicted Washington being bombed and Seoul being captured.

In March, the regime in Pyongyang threatened, for the first time in history, to launch a nuclear attack against the United States and South Korea, while the government in Seoul announced its intention to level Pyongyang. In early April, the north announced that it was restarting the Yongbyon nuclear reactor, which was shut down six years ago. Foreigners in South Korea were advised to leave the country. Pyongyang barred South Korean access to the Kaesong industrial zone, and the South Korean government delivered its ultimatum.

The ultimatum expired without response on the Friday before last, while the streets and alleys of Gangnam and Seoul's Itaewon shopping district were filled with carefree consumers. The bars were full and the windows of restaurants were fogged up. No one seemed interested in the ultimatum or the closing of Kaesong. South Koreans were left cold by the fact that the north had initially withdrawn its 53,000 workers in the special economic zone on the North Korean side, while the south has now shuttered its 123 factories there. In fact, the closing of Kaesong marked a dramatic intensification of the conflict, a terrible setback, and yet no one is paying attention anymore. South Korea has other worries.

When the new fashions from Paris and Milan arrive on Apgujeong Street in the south of Seoul, a chain of giant flagship stores unlike anything else in the world, a pilgrimage begins throughout much of Asia, as wealthy women from Japan, China, Russia and Indonesia fly in for an intense shopping spree. The Galleria shopping mall is filled with an unprecedented collection of luxury boutiques, and the floor maps read like catalogs of the world's most expensive name brands. Shoppers can dine on foie gras, truffle pasta and sashimi from the Red Tuna in the food court on the lower level.

The number of visitors to South Korea has crumbled since the north began fanning the flames of possible war. The Japanese, in particular, have made themselves scarce. The country's tourism association is reporting dramatic declines, with only 88,000 tourists coming from Japan in the first two weeks of April, a 33-percent decrease over the same period last year. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is striking at his South Korean enemy without the use of bombs and missiles. While his threats may not be reaching Seoul, they are heard in Tokyo and Beijing. Kim is resorting to the tactics of the former Cold War.

Parallels to Divided Germany

As foreign as South Korea may seem to a German visitor, there are many things that seem familiar. In its nouveau riche neighborhoods, Seoul feels almost like an Asian version of the former West Berlin, where the glow emanating from the KaDeWe department store and, along the Berlin Wall, newspaper publishing house Axel Springer's gold-colored skyscraper could be seen in East Berlin as symbols of capitalist superiority.

The German experience is also reflected at the border between the two Koreas. The Imjingak Peace Park, for example, only 30 minutes north of Seoul, evokes old images of towns on the former border between East and West Germany. Streets come to a dead end, rivers are borders, and in the middle of the landscape stands the Bridge of Freedom, a now-defunct bridge once used to exchange prisoners of war. There is no wall, but watchtowers are spaced at 200-meter (656 feet) intervals, interspersed with endless spirals of barbed wire.

On the day of the ultimatum, a busload of tourists travels to Panmunjom and enters the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), a four-kilometer strip of wasteland marked in the middle by the 38th parallel, stretching for 248 kilometers (155 miles) from the Yellow Sea to the Sea of Japan. The inner-Korean border has passed through the DMZ for the last 60 years. There are Danish, British and Spanish tourists on the bus, and a Norwegian couple is dressed as if the group were going to war, carrying large backpacks filled with food supplies. The tour guide, a Korean woman who calls herself Sally, stands at the front of the bus, telling stories to the group. "The soldiers out here don't need any skills. The most important thing is that they're good-looking," she says.

Two worlds meet in the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom, where there is a row of barracks, painted UN blue, built straddling the 38th parallel, half in the south and half in the north. The visitors are permitted to go inside and walk across the border without leaving the building. They make a lot of noise as they take pictures of themselves in front of the back door, which leads to North Korea -- in theory, at least. Practically speaking, the door is locked, and two South Korean soldiers are stationed on the southern side, standing at attention with clenched fists, observing the enemy with a faux-serious expression on their faces. A solitary North Korean guard stands on the steps of the border station on the opposite side, occasionally raising a pair of binoculars to his face. "Enjoy it!" Sally says. "You can take pictures here. But don't wave or point at the other side."

It's one of the mysteries of life in Korea that the people of the south, who are supposedly free, are barred by their own government from traveling to the north. They are also not permitted to enter the DMZ or visit the 38th parallel, as if there were something to hide there. And aside from government censors, no one in South Korea is familiar with the shrill propaganda videos the north produces. Those who attempt to access these videos online in Seoul receive a message on their screens, warning them that viewing the videos is a criminal offense, and are instructed to contact the nearest police station.

A Difficult Freedom

Jang Jin Sung is one of the few Koreans to have lived in both countries. He is standing in the lobby of the aging Koreana Hotel, looking like a spy, in his sunglasses and black coat. In fact, he is a writer who once served as national poet at the court of Kim Jong Il, where he wrote epic poems paying homage to the Dear Leader, before he had to leave the country at a moment's notice and escape on foot across the Chinese border.

Jang was permitted to meet the Dear Leader in person twice. He will never forget the first encounter, in May 1999. He was 28 at the time and had graduated with distinction from Kim Il Sung University. "I was young," he says, "and I thought I would be meeting a god."

The god turned out to be a very short man who wore shoes with such high heels that he had to remove them to sit down, which he did on the day Jang met the North Korean leader. There were seven people in the room, and Kim, in his socks, said a lot of nonsensical things in ordinary, bad Korean. When a Russian folk song was played, Kim began to weep, and the entire entourage wept along with him.

Nevertheless, poet Jang wrote eulogies to Kim, and he was rewarded for his work with regular food rations and, at the second encounter, a Rolex watch. He embarked on a career as a sort of poetry-writing agent, assigned to the country's office of psychological warfare. His role was that of a South Korean poet who wrote hymns dedicated to the North Korean dictator, leading the kind of schizophrenic life that can only exist in divided countries.

The end came about by accident. Jang had the rare privilege of being allowed to read South Korean newspapers and magazines, which he had to sign out from the library at the intelligence agency headquarters. Sometimes he gave them to a friend to read. One day in January 2004 the friend, whose father was a high-ranking police chief, accidentally left his bag containing the magazines, which had been lent to him illegally, on Pyongyang's short subway. On the same day, the friends decided to flee the country, convinced that they would be put on trial for treason.

The gripping story of their escape will be published next year in English by Random House, in a book called "Crossing the Border." During the meeting at the Koreana Hotal, Jang talks for three hours without even coming to the point of his arrival in South Korea. He drinks one cup of coffee after the next and cracks his knuckles in the pauses, while the interpreter speaks. "On Dec. 17, 2004," he says, "I was finally a free man."

In the preceding months, he was put through the wringer by the South Korean intelligence. First he was interrogated at length for two weeks, to rule out the possibility that he was a North Korean mole, and then he was subjected to further questioning for six months while under house arrest in a fenced-off villa. The south did not welcome him with open arms, like a lost son or brother. Living in freedom was difficult at first, he says. He was disgusted by the materialism and superficiality of the south.

Jang worked as an academic in the ensuing years, and he eventually concluded that the South Koreans simply ignore the north instead of doing it the favor of being afraid of it. He still hasn't figured out whether this is the result of some clever insight or pure ignorance. His students sometimes seem programmed to him, says Jang, lacking the culture to lead an autonomous life.

"When I say to them: 'I risked my life for freedom, while you get it for free,' they pretend to be moved, but in reality they are not moved at all." Jang has turned his attention to his former country, once again. His online newspaper New Focus listens in on the north and is praised for the quality of the information it provides. The New York Times printed an op-ed piece by Jang a few days ago, and he sells articles to the British newspaper The Guardian. Jang seems to be the kind of person who would know whether a new Korean war is brewing. "Kim Jong Un is the one who should be the most concerned about war, because it would mean the collapse of his country." But what if he isn't concerned? Jang cracks his knuckles. "Then it's a problem."

Martin E. Dempsey, the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, described the problem in Beijing on the Wednesday before last. His speech was briefly mentioned in South Korean newspapers and covered extensively in the American media. General Dempsey, who traveled to Asia specifically to address the Korean crisis, is the highest-ranking US general ever to have visited China. "The risk of miscalculation is higher and I think the risk of escalation is higher," Dempsey said. North Korea is "in a period of prolonged provocation rather than cyclical provocation," he added. "They are on a path that will certainly increase risk in the region."

Dangerously Quick to Take Offense

South Korea has other concerns. The day after Dempsey's speech, Samsung unveiled the new telephone in its Galaxy series, the S4, which the company has dubbed the "Life Companion," in the three opaque glass towers of its headquarters in Seoul's Gangnam district. There were so many journalists at the event, all wearing suits and ties, that one had to wonder whether there could even be that many newspapers and broadcast stations in South Korea.

Some 40 camera teams, 200 photographers and 500 journalists attended the presentation, which Samsung staged to resemble the pseudo-religious appearances of former Apple CEO Steve Jobs, and yet it amounted to little more than a pirated Asian knockoff. A man who was not wearing a tie described the new phone's unique features. It can take pictures from both sides, even simultaneously, and the touch screen will in fact be "touch-less," just like the rest of the "glove-friendly" device, which "makes every moment of our life meaningful," hence the name "life companion."

But then the press conference following the deliberately low-key presentation and colorful slide show was, once again, a carefully staged performance by the South Korean patriarchy. Six gray-haired men in gray suits sat on the stage, and instead of taking questions they merely accepted praise from the audience. The journalists expressed their gratitude for the show and thanked Samsung for developing the new telephone. One journalist, while bowing profusely, said: "This presentation and the new Galaxy S4 make me proud to be a South Korean."

South Korea. It's a country that cultivates its national pride while constantly differentiating itself from the north, which indeed has little to offer besides weapons of mass destruction. But this pride has also made the small country vulnerable. In comparison with the black north, South Korea is no pristine society, but in fact dangerously quick to take offence. Artists who have the temerity to caricature the important public figures in industry and politics are hauled into court. Reporters who seriously confront the country's many corporate giants risk losing their jobs. Criticism of the government is treated as an insult, while anyone who studies North Korea is suspected of being a traitor with communist intentions. Perhaps that explains why there is so much singing going on in the country, with its many other worries.

When the surge of popularity known as the Korean Wave, or Hallyu, is in full swing, and when South Koreans gather for collective karaoke sessions, the doubts fall silent and the dirty world, with its bombs and missiles, is left out in the cold. When K. Will sings "Love Blossom" in the KBS broadcast studio, when the boys of Busker Busker dance on stage, when PSY performs his viral song "Gangnam Style," everything seems to calm down, and Korea seems very cool, as long as the music plays. And when the stage is on fire during the Girl's Day performance, and Seoul on TV looks like it's being consumed by a sea of flames, the fire department is waiting in the wings, and it's all just a show. Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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