Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Seoul of Kafka

I'm back in Seoul for the next few weeks to complete some organization transformation work with Korea Telecom. I first arrived here in early April, just a few weeks after the South Korean naval ship, the Cheonan, was sunk. All 46 sailors were lost.

Although the sinking was big news on South Korean channels it only got minor play on the English channels that I receive in my hotel room - even though two are brought in from the region, one from China and the other from Australia.

Out of curiosity, on my first weekend here I took a tour to the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) that maintains the cease fire (there never has been a peace treaty to conclude the Korean war) between the northern and southern parts of the Korean peninsula. In fact, it wasn't a tour. It was me, my work colleague from the Netherlands, and a guide - she said that business had fallen off dramatically following Cheonan.

The DMZ was what you'd expect. Barbed wire fences, guard houses, and soldiers. The interesting part were the few viewing points where you could look across the river. A stark reality is that the hills on the other side are barren. No trees. They have been forested long ago for fuel. Your looking at a country that is low on energy, and even food - to feed its 22,000,000 citizens. And yet it boasts of a 1,200,000 soldier army, the fourth largest in the world. Behind China, the US, and India.

Gazing to the south there is a different reality. South Korea is somewhat of an economic miracle. It has put big brand names on the global stage, like Samsung and LG. It has almost 50,000,000 citizens - and more than 20% of these live in the capital, Seoul.

Over the past few weeks the world has become acutely aware of Cheonan. An international panel of investigators concluded that it was sunk by a North Korean torpedo. Political tensions have gone on the alert. This little peninsula between Japan and China has become a center for concern. South Korea says it is not ready to retaliate with force. It is looking to the world community to bring clarity and some form of resolution.

However, it's not the South and its President Lee that is the concern; rather, eyes are on the totalitarian regime in the north led by Kim Jung Il. North Korea has about 10,000 artillery pieces aimed south. A hellish devastation could rain down from the sky in minutes. It would not succeed as an act to occupy the South. The South would retaliate in force backed up by the US. However, the loss of life in and around Seoul would be enormous.

So how do people in South Korea live with this? The answer seems to be, "they just do." Yes, the media is filled with Cheonan; however, the people go on with their lives.

I have developed many good friendships while I have been here. I sense that the people of South Korea (they just say "Korea") just want to be left alone. But this is not their history. They are a proud people who, maybe because of their kind nature, have been invaded and occupied for centuries.

A striking fact about Seoul is that it has no soul. It's not like an Istanbul where you can go to the Grande Bizzare, the Spice Bizzare, the Blue Mosque, and the Topkapi Palace to feel the history passing from east to west. Seoul has been occupied and burned so often that now it builds big buildings to the future and rarely looks to the past. This is attested by the beautiful Gyeongbok Palace that was originally built in the 14th century at the beginning of the Chosun Dynasty. The buildings of the palace have been destroyed several times. The last raising was during the Japanese occupation of 1910 to 1946. What you visit today has been constructed since 1995.

Koreans have been living in an uneasy calm for almost 60 years. This is testimony to both human will and human insanity. I'm starting to understand how invading armies often seem to arrive "by surprise." People were just going about their lives.