The real Gangnam style
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The US vice-president, Mike Pence, was staying at my hotel, I discovered, as I arrived in Seoul the week the world feared the Korean Peninsula would turn into a ball of fire. Secret service officials in black talked into concealed microphones on their lapels and nodded to advice from the visible earphones. The plush hotel was a picture of calm, as if it was business as usual, but there were metal detectors everywhere and humourless American officials who avoided eye contact in elevators. The staff smiled politely to make up for the coldness that had descended on the hotel.
I had been warned about the rising tensions in Korea, and expected to see panic among the Koreans. The hotel staff is meant to present contrived cheerfulness—but what about the vast, bustling city? My college friend Sudha and her husband Vasudev, a senior executive with a large corporation, live in Seoul. They disabused me of all such notions and anxieties as they took me to the Cheonggyecheon urban renewal project, which revived an old canal, turning it into a place where people come to cycle and walk. At the long walkway along the canal, cherry blossoms were in full bloom, families were enjoying a lovely Sunday strolling along the promenade, and lovers were exchanging sweet nothings. I saw two men in uniform, most likely students on national military service, walking with a shopping bag, looking anything but prepared for imminent nuclear war. The city seemed blissfully unaware of the conflict that television networks and international strategists were anticipating like restless fans around a boxing ring.
We went to a restaurant called Hanil in Jongno, where we had doenjang-jjigae, or bean paste soup, with kimchi of cucumber and cabbage, boiled green vegetables, and four types of barbecued fish—hwangtae (pollock), jogi (croaker), samchi (Japanese-Spanish mackerel), godeuengo (mackerel)—and soju, the high-potency alcoholic drink. Later we drove to the riverfront, where tulips were planted like soldiers on a parade ground and families had laid out tents. Children ran around chasing frisbees, young women jogged, others rode bicycles along a dedicated track as the sun mellowed, the river glowed, and the tall yellow grass swayed gently in the breeze. And at that twilight hour I wondered at all the fuss about war.
The day after Pence left, I decided to go boldly where he had gone before—the demilitarized zone, or Dee-Em-Zee (not Zed; there are American troops here, not British), which is how the locals refer to the 38th Parallel, which divided the Korean Peninsula in two when the war ended in 1953. Politics has stayed frozen along that barbed-wire fence, the last remnant of the Cold War. Pence spent a few minutes squinting and glaring angrily at North Korea, probably imagining himself as Ronald Reagan at the Berlin Wall. But he didn’t say anything as memorable as Reagan did, for he lacks Reagan’s charisma and speech-writers (Reagan had intoned, “Mr Gorbachev, tear down that wall,” and a few years later, East Germans did. North Koreans arrested an American academic who was in the country after Pence went back to Washington).
It isn’t possible to go to the border on one’s own, so I joined an organized tour. We had to carry our passports and were told the military could cancel the tour at short notice. Whether that was meant seriously or was part of the security theatre choreographed to make tourists feel the tension, I don’t know. What was apparent, though, was how the city made way for the countryside, which turned desolate as we saw road signs saying “Pyongyang”—a fantasy, dreaming of the day when the road will indeed lead all the way to that mysterious capital.
We reached a spot where an old, rusty railway engine stood, with gaping holes caused by incessant shelling. A barbed fence stood alongside; visitors had tied hundreds of ribbons—yellow and white and pink and red and blue—with messages of peace written on them. Wild grass had grown on the land around, and plaintive Korean songs of peace played through loudspeakers. As if to remind us of the incipient danger, military jets flew nearby, and we heard loud bangs as they broke the sound barrier, making a few of us shudder, as if bombing had begun.
Further north were the tunnels. In the 1970s, South Korea discovered four tunnels that North Koreans had built to reach Seoul, capable of carrying thousands of troops and tanks. The discovery heightened South Korea’s perpetual sense of vulnerability; the North simply denied it.
Later, at the observation point, we could see North Korea through the binoculars. From that great distance—about 3km, through haze—it was difficult to see much. The hills were barren, we were told, because people cut trees for firewood since the villages have no electricity. The foliage on the ground was thick, however, and our South Korean tour guide said that was to hide weapons. The few homes in the North that we could see looked neat and tidy—Potemkin villages.
We then left for Dorasan, a Disneyland-like railway station less than a kilometre from the border, looking like a teenager all dressed up with nowhere to go. It was built during the “sunshine policy” that former South Korean president, the Nobel laureate Kim Dae Jung, had pursued, to connect Seoul and Pyongyang by rail. The station is ready, but the train from Seoul stops here. The path northward must wait.
Back in Seoul, I went with my friends to Gangnam, or “south of the river,” the trendy, newer part of the city. The residual tension I felt from the border visit evaporated. At Gangnam Square, we mimicked—badly—Psy’s moves from the video that was briefly famous around the world as amused Koreans indulged us and took our photographs. We were less than 64 kilometres from the border, but the imminent war seemed light years away.
Salil Tripathi writes the column Here, There, Everywhere for Mint.He tweets at @saliltripathi