Seoul is a huge city but quite intimate. Each district feels like a neighborhood, a small ward in a city of nearly 10 million. There’s always a new sight to see or a new place to eat. But what a month in Seoul gives you is more than that. It’s not just experiential. There’s a veneer to the city – one marked by the Korean War. There are things we don’t know about the Korean War in America. Despite our involvement – or in some instances, because of it. With that in mind, I’m going to break a month in Seoul into two sections: What I Learned, and What I Experienced.
What I Learned
Korea has a long history, although almost never as a united country. Like the city of Seoul, its lands have always been mapped out in a way that feels intimate, but also at odds with each other. It’s had empires rise and fall that are barely understandable to any Westerner. Unlike China (and Japan after a certain period), Korea never had a unified identity. They had the Joseon Dynasty, but they were only effective in how behind they were, in how corrupt they were.
A month in Seoul taught me that that culture attitudes haven’t changed – but circumstances have. The Korean War ravaged both South Korean and North Korea. And much like West Berlin and East Berlin, the nation was carved up by the US and USSR, like a modern day Berlin Conference.
Both South Korea and North Korea are planned nations, and the Korean War did nothing to change that. In the war, there was plenty of back and forth. North Korea invaded with the backing of Russia and China. South Korea barely held out. The UN (aka US forces backed by allies), intervened, and pushed back North Korean forces. They then marshaled forward into North Korea and took Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, pushing for unification. And then, unexpectedly, China intervened. Yes, America fought China directly. And they didn’t exactly win either.
I’m not expert on the Korean War, of course, but a month in Seoul showed just how present the conflict still is. The circumstances are obviously still ongoing, but it’s also affected Korean society in their constant strive for greatness. It’s also affected American’s ego – we don’t teach the Korean War in schools. It shows why America has viewed China as a looming threat to this day, as the US and Russia never fought a formal conflict.
But for South Korea, the effects of the Korean War were more than psychological. They were physical, with rebuilding efforts being the backbone of modern day South Korea. That ethos, of never being destroyed or defeated again, made South Korea the nation it is today. Today, South Korea is a technological powerhouse. But a lot happened to get them there – most of it not positive. They had human rights abuses and culture clashes. But now they’re a G20 nation. They’re hosting the Winter Olympics. They’re a placed to be envied, which brings me to the experiential side of a month in Seoul.
What I Experienced
The truth is, there’s too much to do to spend just a month in Seoul. Every district has its own flavor, every dish has its own flavor as well. But knowing the history of South Korea is essential to enjoying it. Every museum, foodstuff, and activity is lacquered with the effects of the Korean War, so you need to know about it to understand what you are seeing, eating, and doing.
There are certain activities – like visiting the DMZ between South Korea and North Korea, that almost defy this logic while still being contained by it. Despite what you may think in the news with Kim Jong Un and Trump,the DMZ is treated almost irreverently by South Korea. The whole thing is treated a sideshow, and not in the way that Auschwitz is set up. It’s not a performative sadness as much as a whimsical look at the superiority of South Korea – all from the perspective of South Koreans. We must Never Forget – no, not the Holocaust, but that South Korea contained North Korea.
The truth is far more complicated than that. But the attractions at ‘DMZ Land’ want you to believe that reunification is just a half-step away. This is made most evident when you take a monorail down into a tunnel built by North Korea in order to burrow into Seoul in the 70’s. While touring the underground tunnel, you’re shown where the North Koreans attempted to blow holes with dynamite. And failed. This point is made clear, over and over in humorous tones. The North Koreans failed here, and they’ll fail again and again until we unify.
Here’s an example: just over the way there is North Korea. The North Korean village plays propaganda on their speakers, presumably to embolden their citizens and encourage defection. But to drown them out, the South Koreans play American pop music from the 80’s and 90’s. But that music is its own form of propaganda, if you think about it.There’s no better representation of the relationship between capitalism and South Korea as fueled by the divide in the Korean War. I wonder who chooses the playlist.
There’s a lot more to do in a month in Seoul than the DMZ. There’s Itaewon, the foreign district where you can get everything from South African food to Mexican/Korean fusion. It feels as distinctly multicultural as New York City, with a Korean flair. There’s the Bukhansan National Park, which seamlessly blends ecology, culture, and history, particularly with its tall mountain peaks. You can hike up these if you’re brave (or stupid, like me). It’s also lined with close to 100 active Buddhist temples, with the chanting making accidentally hiking in the dark even more eerie. And there are many palaces and more museums than you could possibly see in a month in Seoul.
But most importantly, Seoul represents how humans are obsessed with their past, yet constantly strive to subvert it. That crisis in identity is key to understanding countries with a much more varied history than America – one marked by isolationism rather than multiculturalism. For me, a month in Seoul represented all of these things. About how we rewrite our narratives to fit our current situation, and how we allow ourselves to believe these narratives. If South Korea can do it, and American exceptionalism can do it too, then so can we on an individual basis.
But not man is a nation onto himself, so the best we can do is be honest about our experiences and failures while travelling. We can process what we experience, and let it change our mode of thinking, but it will never be us. Events like the Korean War can be given meaning – they can even be used to build a society around. But that’s only after the fact. In the here and now, we only have ourselves and our own experiences to live.