When you find Korea on the map, it looks relatively isolated. A peninsula country, it sticks out of the north eastern tip of Asia just north of Japan. But when you get here, you realize that Korea is really wedged between predators on all sides as well as wedged between cultures and time.
As you walk the streets, there is a mild tension here. Koreans are tired. You can see it on their faces on the sardine packed subways. They are overworked. They have next to no free time. They are under intense pressure to perform at the highest of levels to maintain their honor.
Yet you get the most friendly interactions once you break the glass and begin to talk to them. But breaking the glass is hard. It is a thick glass layered with stresses from family, job, and country.
We’ve been pretty much on the go since landing here on Saturday afternoon. But during a brief break on Monday, I decided to turn on the television and start scanning channels. At first, I thought that there was something wrong with my television as every station was showing a man in front of flashing lightbulbs and a navy blue curtain. The look on his face was stern and commanding.
There is a press conference here in Seoul that’s on all the channels. That’s usually a good thing, right? pic.twitter.com/Zp7k9k8hxq
— THE Fake Ned (@TheFakeNed) March 6, 2017
This man is Park Young-soo and he is a special prosecutor investigating charges of bribery, political interference, and political impeachment of South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye. The scandal is wide ranging and at the highest levels. It includes leaders of top corporations gaining access and favor to the President. It includes a mentally unhinged President who has elicited strange behavior. It includes disenfranchising the working class through ignoring popular opinion.
South Koreans are immensely proud and humble. Just four days here and you can see it everywhere. Bowing in deference when entering a house or the smile you get when walking into a store or buying some fried shrimp from a street vendor. (Fried shrimp from a street vendor should, alone, be a reason to visit here.)
But the weariness of the working man here is palpable.
The press conference on Monday was only one of the major events here. The second was that North Korea had launched four test missiles into the Sea of Japan (off of Korea’s east coast) early in the morning. North Korea didn’t even register a blip on the front page of the newspaper, however. South Koreans look at North Korea more as a crazy uncle rather than the dangerous dictator that we see him as in the United States.
— Joseph Dempsey (@JosephHDempsey) March 7, 2017
And worrying about things that they cannot control seems to be a completely foreign idea here. The Presidential scandal has been top of mind for everyone because, in many ways, they have controlled it. Through protesting. Millions upon millions of South Koreans have been Seoul Plaza through the winter to protest the President. It has already led to the impeachment of Park, but Park will not formally step down. She is currently out of power, but still keeps the title of President (and the protection from prosecution that goes with it.)
There is even another deeper layer to this. In April, 2014, there was a terrible tragedy. A ferry boat carrying 300 souls – mostly school children – the MV Sewol capsized. The boat sunk and several of the bodies have yet to be recovered. The President went missing for eight hours following the tragedy and many rumor that she went to go have plastic surgery. Additionally, the boat has yet to be raised and the public is pissed that the government would leave the dead bodies in the sea without an honorable burial. The ferry carried the working class and their children that would be a key point of their weekly protests. No monument has been planned and you get a sense that this was a horrific, but unifying event for Koreans. They’d simply had enough.
Desperately sad shrine to the victims of South Korea’s Sewol ferry disaster. Still major public anger over govt’s handling of the tragedy pic.twitter.com/8wGmZovP3g
— Jerome Taylor (@JeromeTaylor) February 16, 2017
You can see why. Korea is changing. When the United States was having its rebirth of culture in the 1950’s as the boys came home from war, Korea was just beginning their war with North Korea. The 50’s never came and the cultural revolution was delayed. The battlefield was left barren. Supplies and food were scarce and, even today, you get the stink eye if you leave food on your plate due to the culture of scarce resources. Waste not, want not.
During the 80’s and 90’s in America, you saw parental discipline loosen as everyone wanted to give their children better than they had themselves. You’re seeing that here in 2017 with whatever the Millennial generation is up to. The strait laced “old guard” and the Millennials are in direct contrast. In many of the markets we shopped this week, Western influences were everywhere. Random English words thrown on clothing that buyers would eat up. They didn’t even need to make sense. Just be English and provocative.
Similar to a sorority girl getting some random Chinese symbol tattooed on her calf, Koreans love random American words on clothes: pic.twitter.com/6B2yOt56nu
— THE Fake Ned (@TheFakeNed) March 5, 2017
With the advent of technology, the Internet, and social media as well as all of those Samsung phones, the old guard is a dying breed. And that famed Korean discipline may soon fall as well.
Speak nothing of the Chinese that stream into the country like ants at a picnic looking for cheap goods and plastic surgery. Speak nothing of the quiet contempt Koreans hold for the Japanese to their east still seething about their role in starting Koreas Civil War following World War II. Speak nothing of the 14 hour work days that are so prevalent that the government forces workers to take PTO. (And they still don’t.) Speak nothing that when we were leaving the baseball game last night at 11:00 PM, we saw packed trains flowing out of town. “Hell train” it’s called and 11 PM is the evening RUSH hour.
Koreans are stressed out. They’re tired. The walls seem like they’re closing in with changes in culture, geopolitics, Presidential politics, and the stress of knowing all about it seconds after it happens through social media.
But it doesn’t faze them. Their backs are straight. Their eyes are weary yet their smiles are big. They will continue to turn out in the millions every weekend until they get the country that this proud people deserve.
Walking around Seoul on Tuesday in the bitter cold, we walked past a subway station. A block away were about a dozen protestors in front of a building. I couldn’t make out what the building was or what they were protesting, but there were folks standing there with signs silently. About a block from that, we came upon about six police with riot gear.
I texted Sungwoo a picture and asked, “trouble?” And that’s when my Samsung phone died. So I didn’t get his response. But I didn’t need to. The world kept spinning. There was really no trouble. It is simply just a way of life in 2017 – a complicated and layered peace.
Being wedged in the middle conflicts left, right, and overhead – you just let it fold into the fabric of the city. You can only control the things you can control.