South Korea’s neon bubble

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South Korea’s neon bubble

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A cat café in Seoul. The city has the highest concentration of coffee shops in the world © Ceruleansky

Seoul’s tour operators still like to reel out Bill Clinton’s famous description of the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) that divides North from South as “the scariest place on earth.” It’s almost a badge of honour, a way of persuading intrepid visitors to part with 120,000 won (£70) and spend a day touring the 38th parallel.

It’s a clever marketing technique but one that usually feels inauthentic, a little piece of fabricated drama that tourists can joke about. But as North Korea continues to ratchet up tensions, there’s a sense this strange hybrid between tourist attraction and war zone might once again live up to its reputation.

Less than 40 miles away in Seoul, South Koreans continue with their daily lives, seemingly unconcerned about the threats from their noisy neighbours. Of course Seoulites don’t really have any options other than business as usual. But there is a sense the city is now a neon bubble, so removed from the grim reality of the North that Kim Jong-un’s threats, however genuine, have become incomprehensible.

South Korea’s economic miracle has been overshadowed by Japan’s, but in many respects it’s even more remarkable, not least because unlike Japan, South Korea’s economy is still growing rapidly. As the South has developed and the North stagnated, the issue of reunification, top of the South Korean agenda for decades, is fast becoming an afterthought. Unlike their parents and grandparents who were separated from friends and family by the division, South Korea’s younger residents have no link to the North. In a 2011 poll, only 41 per cent of those in their twenties answered yes to the question of whether unification was necessary. Among teenagers, that figure drops to around 20 per cent.

Perhaps the most visible sign of the South’s economic success are the coffee shops that line Seoul’s streets. The city has the highest concentration of them in the world, more than 10,000, with local chains sitting side by side with overseas imports like Starbucks. Even when a lunatic is threatening to send a missile your way, these coffee shops—where everyone is on a Samsung phone and K-Pop plays on the radio—feel safe. Sitting in these santisied environments, it becomes almost inconceivable that a communist throwback could threaten such staggering economic progress. As Kim Jong-un threatens to launch a missile, Psy prepares to launch his “Gangnam Style” follow-up—and somehow the latter seems more relevant to those sipping the macchiatos.

Back in the DMZ, most of the visitors are Chinese. In Asia, Chinese tour groups have a reputation equivalent to British tourists’ in Spain, and their Korean guides look on in horror as they run and shout their way around the DMZ, taking photos where they aren’t supposed to. The Korea peninsula holds special meaning for the Chinese, and not just because more than 100,000 of them died here during the Korean War. On either side of this arbitrary line lies China’s past and its future: the brutalist Panmungak building looming from the North; a Popeye’s Louisiana fried chicken joint next to the gift shop on the South.

Margaret Thatcher’s death last week briefly pushed the crisis off the front page as South Korea’s newspapers ran glowing obituaries. It’s part of the Thatcher mythology that she and Ronald Reagan defeated communism with little more than free market economics. But the South might do well to remember that more than 20 years have passed since the fall of the USSR, and still North Korea endures.

There is a danger that a new generation is growing up in the South with a complete inability to relate to their northern neighbours. This doesn’t bode well for the future of the peninsula. The attitude is reflected politically, with the abandonment in 2008 of the “sunshine policy,” which brought a period of greater political engagement between Seoul and Pyongyang. The threats coming from Kim Jong-un might well prove to be bluster, but the South must remember that economic growth, coffee shops and pop songs won’t solve the problem of North Korea alone.

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David Bartram
David Bartram is a journalist who covers China and the Korean peninsula from London, Beijing, Brussels and Seoul. Follow him on twitter @davidjbartram 

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