Sunday, June 5, 2011

S. Koreans take troublesome North in stride
A visitor envisions air raids, fleeing; instead, citizens calmly go on, hope for reunification.
By Matthew Crompton

SEOUL, South Korea — The morning after the South Korean navy ship Cheonan was sunk in March 2010, I awoke to a column of army soldiers in camouflage battle dress climbing my hill in north-central Seoul, with heavy machine guns and entrenching tools in tow. The sinking of the Cheonan, widely attributed to a North Korean torpedo (a finding North Korea denies), killed 46 sailors and put the country into a state of high alert, and the pre-election rhetoric of South Korean president Lee Myungbak’s conservative-party government toward the North was grim and unforgiving. “We had been forgetting the reality that this country faces the most belligerent regime in the world,” he said. That morning, the streets of

Seoul — just 30 miles south of Panmunjom and the Demilitarized Zone — were unusually full of jeeps and transports bearing soldiers. And on the subway, the same topic was on everyone’s lips: “What to do about North Korea?” Still, the striking thing about that day and about the weeks that followed, which were my first experience with the periodic breakdowns in relations between the Koreas, was how completely ordinary life in the capital remained. Living in America and hearing of tensions on the Korean Peninsula, I had imagined air-raid sirens and a population fleeing to bunkers. Instead, I saw people calmly going about their daily lives: a nation heading to work and going shopping, children attending school, and businessmen sharing drinks in a karaoke bar at day’s end. My South Korean friends — all of


At the DMZ, a South Korean guard looks across to the North. The border
runs through the middle of the blue United Nations huts. the younger generation that had grown up in an age of prosperity — explained that North Korea is a problem, not an enemy, that talk of war benefits no one, and that it is misguided to blame the North Korean people for the actions of their government. Someday, the situation will improve and perhaps the two Koreas

will be unified, they hope, but in the meantime they are resigned to living next door to the world’s biggest problem child — a starving nation run by a bellicose monomaniac — and bearing patiently and without undue alarm that nation’s desperate cries for attention. In the streets of Itaewon, Seoul’s tourist quarter, travelers browsed for knickknacks, and tailors offered fittings for handmade suits. Throughout the city, I did not see a single gas mask. The division at the heart of the Korean Peninsula was still a raw one, and among the older residents, who remembered the Korean War and the devastation and misery that followed, there were angry words for a North Korea that simply could not keep the peace. Still, what I saw of Seoul that day was the heart of what it means to live here. It is a city with its own unique set of problems, even anxieties, but it’s hardly a city under siege.


A shopkeeper looks through pottery displayed in his store window in Insadong-gil, Seoul.

City of Seoul sizzles
driven work ethic is matched only by its ferocious entertainment culture, there’s still more than ample opportunity to experience a softer side of things. Take the jjimjilbang. Korea inherited the tradition of these public baths from the Japanese during their occupation in the first half of the 20th century. The country gained its independence in 1945, with the end of World War II, but the bathhouse tradition stuck. Today, there are hundreds of these inexpensive, sex-segregated spas scattered throughout the city, where friends, couples, and even families take a well-deserved break from the city’s relentless pali-pali (hurry-hurry) culture. “Yay! Jjimjilbang!” chirps HyeJin Lee, 26, in the lobby of Siloam Spa. Studying for her real estate license, she keeps an unforgiving schedule but finds time to visit the baths regularly. “I love it here. … the hot water, I feel like I’m tea! No matter what, I soak in the baths, and my stress just goes away.” At just 9,000 won (about $8) for an all-day pass, the spa is arguably one of the world’s most affordable luxuries, an example of the kind of unique and unexpected find that makes the city so beguiling. It’s a place to bathe, relax, read, or just take a nap on the deliciously heated ondol floors of the common lounges. Some Westerners may be hesitant to go the full monty with a room full of strangers, but they needn’t be. Downstairs in the bluetiled men’s bath, I’m effectively invisible as I ease myself into the 109-degree hot pool, fragrant with the herby scent of mugwort, a sign incongruously touting its healing properties for “a variety of gynecological diseases.” After a few minutes, I’m completely steamed, and I pad over to the cold pool to plunge headlong into the icy water, instantly releasing a euphoric rush of endorphins that expands through my body as I sit immersed to my neck. I skip the vigorous ministrations of the massage staff in the “Korean Buff” corner, scouring spa-goers raw with nubbly green mittens. Instead, I choose the salt sauna, scrubbing myself shiny and smooth in the heat with stinging handfuls of coarse salt. ¢ Ninety minutes later, I emerge into the twilight of the city, as clean, and relaxed, as I’ve ever been. The fabulous Changdeokgung Palace, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, waits just a short taxi ride away, but as visitors quickly discover, there’s much more to the city

SEOUL from N1 more than its fair share of surprises. If New York is the Big Apple, and Jakarta the Big Durian, then Seoul may appropriately be called the Big Kimchi Pot. Like the earthenware jars that families bury in the earth to ferment Korea’s ubiquitous pickled cabbage mixture, the city is, figuratively speaking, still mostly underground. Don’t let the low profile fool you, however: Like those clay urns, Seoul has some serious magic percolating just beneath the surface. ¢ It’s late Friday night a week later in Hongdae, the bohemian neighborhood surrounding central Seoul’s Hongik University, and the streets are awash with neon and pounding music. Twentysomething students and expats drift in and out of a dense network of bars and clubs, and in the concrete playground at Hongik Park, a group of street performers launch into a long-jam version of Bob Marley’s “No Woman No Cry.” From the rooftop of dark, funky Bar Da, a famous artists’ hangout a short distance away, I sit and watch the crowds pouring through the nighttime streets. “You know, when I first heard the new tourism slogan, I laughed,” says my guide, Myeong-Hee Jeong, a sixth-generation Seoulite. “I thought, ‘Dynamic Korea,’ what is that? But now, more and more, I think that it makes sense — you come to Hongdae at midnight, and you can see it everywhere, this kind of energy.” Indeed, from this vantage, few words would seem more apt. I follow Jeong back down to the street, past crowds in vinyl tent bars quaffing shots of soju, the local rice liquor. All around us, masses are flowing into clubs such as Noise Basement, M2, and FF, or eating barbecue from streetside braziers set in low metal tables. The night wears on in an alcohol haze into the small hours — people stumbling out of karaoke parlors (called norebang) and snacking from countless open-air food stalls lining the avenue. Even at 4 a.m., the streets never seem to empty. It may be that Seoul really is the city that never sleeps. But even in a metropolis whose famously over-

High-rise apartment towers in the Yongsan district of central Seoul.
than big-ticket attractions. Instead, I hop a train on the fantastically cheap and efficient subway system to the affluent Gangnam district south of the Han River, to grab an espresso in the city’s newest “it” neighborhood. Coffee Smith cafe on the treelined street of Garosu-gil is the picture of chic — an open, industrial floor plan with curves of gray concrete and distressed wood. It’s the kind of place beautiful people in Seoul go to see and be seen: women with perfect cheekbones and kneehigh leather boots over tights and short skirts; men in $500 suede jackets. Still, the fascinating thing is how different it feels from an upscale neighborhood such as New York’s Chelsea. “If you want to see the here-andnow changing of modern Seoul, this is definitely the epicenter of it,” writer and teacher Glenn Pihlak says as he sips a cup of dark roast. “It’s got this refined European aesthetic that’s not just the conspicuous consumption you see elsewhere in the city, and all the boutique shopping and dining you’d expect. But the cool thing about it is that it’s still Seoul. It’s so new it doesn’t belong to anyone yet; it stays hip without being exclusive.” We walk into the pre-spring air of late February, where, in the warm light of boutiques and wine bars splashing onto the sidewalk, the trees — like the city as a whole — seem on the verge of blooming. “What people don’t understand is that Seoul is just a huge mosaic,” Pihlak says as we walk. “It’s not like Paris or New York, where there’s a list of sights you have to see or you haven’t really seen the city. “Here, you can go out dancing until 6 a.m. every night and then hit the little neighborhood next to your


Demilitarized Zone

Yellow Sea

Pacific Ocean

MILES 0 100



Associated Press

Seoul Searching
American, Asiana, Continental, Delta, United, and US Airways fly to Seoul from Philadelphia with one stop. The lowest recent round-trip fare was about $1,643.

More information
For information about Seoul and the Republic of Korea (South Korea), go to VisitKorea, the official website of the Korea Tourism Organization (http://english.visitkorea.or.kr).

The Noryangjin fish market, where one can really sink his teeth into Seoul. The facility houses more than 700 stalls, along with seafood restaurants.

hotel for amazing noodles right after the subway opens,” he adds. “Or you can spend every day in the markets, or shopping in the luxury stores of Gangnam, or a million other things, and you haven’t seen the city any less than someone who just sticks to the itinerary in their guidebook. “It’s a city that can be done in so many ways, a place that really hasn’t been mapped out.”

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful