Photo by Frédéric Reglain
I wonder whether Seoul’s proximity to North Korea partly explains what could be reasonably described as this city’s neurosis?
After all, just a few kilometres from the wooded mountains that look down on Seoul, Kim Jong-un rules with a nuclear-armed fist and North Korean children die because they don’t have enough rice to fill their bellies. Indeed, if you ever needed to be convinced of the case for capitalism, visit the Korean Peninsula – not that you would find it easy to obtain a visa to visit its northern part.
So, is all this hard work a sort of defense, a barrier against a warmongering dictator who constantly threatens to destroy this nation?
Bae, a young student I meet in a restaurant, isn’t sure. “I am not convinced young Seoulites think about North Korea very much at all. Yes, we are scared that they have nothing to lose and this makes us fear them, but it is quite a vague fear. We don’t think about them on a daily basis.”
When I put the same question to Sooyong, a 52-year-old city guide, she says I might be onto something: “Our neighbors have always invaded us and we have been through many conflicts, and we are still at war with North Korea. With that, we are living on a tiny peninsula with almost no resources. So the only way for us to get rich, and we have always been eager to be rich, is to study and work very hard.
“During the 1960s and 70s we sacrificed a lot to give our children better lives than ours. We managed and now there is a fever among our young people to achieve more and more. Many of them succeed and live very luxurious lives.”