Economic success has made the threat from North Korea incomprehensibleby David Bartram / April 18, 2013 / Leave a comment
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…