{ Heat and Contradiction in Twenty-First-Century Korea }
story and photography by Sherwin Jones

korea - sherwin jonesWhen my best friend first rang with an opening for a teaching position here in Korea, I was in the throes of the snowy winter in Berlin, quite jobless and on the wrong side of broke. I'd already spent several years working and adventuring about Europe, so the notion of living in a completely alien culture halfway around the world looked quite exhilarating. Aside from purely mercenary reasons of making money, I came to Korea looking for an experience that would blow my westernized mind. I've been far from disappointed.
   First off is the very unique version of Korean cuisine. When I first confronted the frightening array of soggy salads and seafood stews smothered in red pepper sauce, hot enough to eat through most metals, I knew I was as far from home culturally as I was geographically. But after a month of perseverance, I became quite addicted to Korean food in all its strangeness and glory.
   Then there are the very complex and intricate manners and terms of respect embedded in every interaction in Korean culture. Age, gender, and wealth all factor into one's station and all determine how much respect is to be granted. To break from these manners in any way is very shameful, but being a foreigner with a big smile I get away with a lot. So when I confuse "Hello, little girl," with "Goodbye, old man," they let it slide with a hearty laugh.
   South Korea is one of the most racially and culturally homogenous nations on earth, though this is slowly changing. In our small town on the southern coast, foreigners are in short supply; we're viewed either as semi-celebrities or clowns. On the street, we're typically greeted by curious smiles and yammering children practicing their "hello"s. In shops we're often presented with gifts of a free soda or snacks (though some of the local boys have taken to chasing me down with shouts of "Buck you! Buck you!", obviously mistaking it for some friendly greeting).
   To counter any false impressions left over from "M.A.S.H." reruns, the South Korea of today is a thoroughly industrialized and modern nation. Much to the credit of the Korean people, this transition from a war-ravaged, agrarian country to one of factories, cars, condos, and computers was accomplished in only the past forty years. Yet this rapid rise to national affluence has created many contradictions in S. Korea, leading to a decidedly heated atmosphere manifested on several fronts. Domestically, the eldest generation still live in a largely traditional world, residing in small houses in farming villages, working the gardens and rice paddies into their eighties. Meanwhile, their grandchildren live in high-rises, using the little free time left over from their study schedule to indulge in violent computer games, a wild menagerie of cartoon characters, and garish Korean pop stars that make Britney Spears seem like a respectable musical artist.
   But perhaps the most volatile contradictions these days lie in South Korea's relations with the United States and with its northern brother, that third spoke on the Axis of Evil: the Democratic People's Republic of North Korea. The only simple way to describe this set of complex relationships is as a bizarre love-hate triangle. Run by an extremely paranoid and corrupt Stalinist dictatorship, N. Korea has a million-man army perched right north of the Demilitarized Zone, fully equipped and trained to launch southward at a moment's notice. Making matters worse, N. Korea has become increasingly isolated in the last decade since the fall of the Soviet Union, and since 1997, the country has been plunged in a major famine during which up to a million have starved to death, though concrete numbers are difficult to get. Hostile, paranoid, and starving—like some cornered wolf—this is not a regime you want to go poking sticks at.
   But at the same time, the S. Koreans on a whole aren't terribly ruffled by the current crisis. It wasn't until I came home for the holidays that I discovered that the American media was hyping possible nuclear war with N. Korea. The S. Koreans have been through this and much worse in their previous dealings with the North. It's not that the D.P.R.K. is treated lightly down here—memories of the Korean War are still very much alive—but in the hearts of almost all S. Koreans burn the desire to see their beloved land united again. In the interests of this, S. Korea has made great leaps in normalizing relations with the North. The last S. Korean president, Kim Dae Jung, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for establishing diplomatic relations with the D.P.R.K., something unthinkable even a decade ago. A resort has opened in the N. Korean mountains for S. Koreans; and just the other week a land route was opened into the North, the first in almost fifty years. Not bad for two nations technically still at war.
   Then along comes G.W. Bush with this Axis of Evil crap and starts screwing it all up. The high strung and erratic government of the D.P.R.K. took this statement as a major slap in the face and a line in the sand from their most hated of enemies. Not to mention that the Bush administration, in 2001, was the first to pull out of our anti-nuke treaties, resuming the construction of mini nukes, specifically designed for small-scale conflict such as would be possible with N. Korea. Subsequently, the North has been put on a hair trigger, and has since increased its nuclear production.
   Being the ones who'd directly bear the terrible brunt of any hostility from the North, the S. Koreans are not at all pleased with Bush's tough-talking threats. Not only were they left out of the loop on these policies of the Bush administration, but they've also been forced into the position of mediators between the D.P.R.K. and the U.S. S. Korea is the one holding face-to-face talks with the North—something Bush refuses to do—in an attempt to defuse a potentially ugly situation.
   To put this into some perspective, I should say that Koreans are a very proud and patriotic people. They've had the geographical misfortune to be wedged between three great world empires: China, Russia, and Japan. They've spent most of the last several thousand years either rebelling against foreign occupation or fighting off outside invasions. That they haven't been swallowed whole by any of their neighbors is a testament to their determination as a people and pride as a nation. So there's a tendency here to view the United States as necessary but unwelcome interlopers in a Korean family feud.
   The S. Koreans are very grateful for the help the United States and other allies have lent them over the years. General McArthur is widely regarded as a national hero for beating back the red hordes during the Korean War. But the problem here is that this alliance with the States has lately been far from an equal partnership. More often than not S. Koreans feel used as pawns in the U.S.'s Asian agenda. When pressed on the issue, most S. Koreans will begrudgingly concede that they still need U.S. troops here as a deterrent to possible Northern aggression. However, they simply want to be dealt with as full partners in the alliance, particularly concerning the dealings with the North.
   Then there's the issue that we haven't been the greatest of guests. While maybe some servicemembers are pleased with their station, most didn't ask to be shipped over to a far away nation with strange food, unfamiliar faces, and bizarre customs. Nor is it their job to like being here or promote cross-cultural harmony. Their responsibility—a serious one at that—is simply to follow orders, stick by their posts, and be ready the possible day when bombs begin to fall. Generally, the 30,000 G.I.s stationed here have earned the reputation of being disrespectful and drunken, particularly around Seoul. Unfortunately this isn't entirely undeserved. The area around the U.S. army base in Iteawon, Seoul, is known as "Hooker Hill" for reasons one can easily guess. Particularly here, and in a few other nightlife districts, it's not unusual to witness drunken servicemen hassling barkeepers and Korean women, and, on occasion, starting fights. They're admittedly in the minority of our G.I.s station here, but even so, when in Seoul, I make it readily known that I'm over here as a teacher—a rather well respected position—and not a G.I., simply so I can catch a cab or get into a nightclub. (Either that, or I say I'm Canadian.)
   But the latest rash of anti-Americanism was sparked last summer by an incident that received little coverage in the American press. A column of American tanks, out on exercises, accidentally ran over two schoolgirls walking home from school. As the road had steep banks on both sides and as the tanks were coming over the crest of a hill at high speeds, the poor girls had no chance of escape. But the real insult came this past December when the tank commanders and drivers responsible for the incident, tried under a U.S. military court, were let off without even a slap on the wrist. A direct affront to Korean national pride, the population responded with massive demonstrations in every major city against the American presence. A few of the more radical students even took to the sport of tossing Molotov cocktails at the American Embassy.
   Unfortunately there is a history here. Several years ago, American servicemen raped a girl in Seoul. After the incident went public, President Clinton made a brief stopover while on a visit to Japan in order to personally apologize. To the Korean senses of pride and face-saving, this gesture was significant in helping to preserve good relations between the two nations. But this time around, with the tank incident, no such effort was made on the part of the Bush administration, further separating the rift between us and them and adding to S. Koreans' generally strong feeling that they've been completely sidelined in our alliance. These days, the fact that "George" when translated into Korean means "small penis" and "White House" translates to "insane asylum" makes for some rather nasty jokes.
   As to how this has played out on the street; I personally have faced few problems. But then again, I'm living in a small town on the south coast, about as far from Seoul as I could be. In Seoul, I've been denied taxi rides a few times, treated rudely in a restaurant, and accosted by drunken bums in train and bus stations. The anti-Americanism there has in fact generated a backlash among foreigners. Many Canadians, Australians, and Europeans are often victims of discrimination simply because they're fair-skinned. My friend Diane, a South African of Indian decent, once remarked after being rudely barred from a club, "Well, that's the first time I've ever been turned away for being with white people."
   This current mood of anti-Americanism will eventually simmer back down to begrudging tolerance, unless Bush seriously screws up in dealing with the North, or another nasty incident occurs with our troops. The consensus here, though slim, remains that the American armed presence in S. Korea is still needed, even if we've not made ourselves welcome. Like much of the world these days, life on the Korean peninsula is changing fast. But the contradictions present here, particularly concerning the North/South conflict, don't look like they'll be resolved anytime soon. If the Bush administration is to remain in power, it must begin to deal with both Koreas with more tact, diplomacy, and fairness. Otherwise the complex and delicate balance of relations between all three parties could be toppled, with disastrous consequences for everyone.

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