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


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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