I have a history of incredibly bad timing in my travels. In 2010, I arrived in Quito, Ecuador mere hours before the police kidnapped the president and held him hostage in a coup attempt that ended in a dramatic standoff. We could hear the gunfire and see the tear gas from the apartment where we were huddled, waiting for the danger to pass. That same year, I pulled into Jakarta just as authorities were storming a local terrorist cell, and this was only after leaving the sleepy Javanese beach town of Pangandaran because an offshore earthquake had precipitated tsunami warnings for the whole coast. So, it was typical that I'd have a visit to Seoul scheduled just as the country teetered on the brink of war with the North.
I'd spent the last several weeks going back and forth on whether or not to make the trip. The belligerent threats from Kim Jong Un were all over the news in the west but Aja, my friend living in Seoul, swore that it was business as usual there, that locals seemed so unworried that they weren't even discussing it. I motivated myself to make the trip with all sorts of internal "Carpe diem!" and "You can't let fear govern your life!" talk. I realize that sayings typically used to convince someone to, say, take a ride on a rollercoaster seemed a bit flimsy when the thing to fear was nuclear war, but I clung to the mantras anyway. Plus, I was already all the way over here in Hong Kong! I spent $500 on a ticket! I just... thought Seoul sounded really cool! On Friday, April 19, I packed my bags and headed to the Hong Kong airport for my afternoon flight.
I arrived in Seoul to an airport so serene and uncrowded it was practically spa-like. Perhaps it was the Western media that had me envisioning expats clamoring to exit the country and armed guards overseeing the melee, but this place was practically jarring in its lack of chaos, so much more pleasant it was than a typical arrival into JFK. I boarded a bus to Gangnam Station to meet Aja and once there, I ditched my bag and we went out into the famously stylish streets of her neighborhood to find dinner. The bright alleys and avenues of Gangnam were packed with people: impeccably dressed women waltzing arm-in-arm; packs of teenagers laughing and shoving; couples flirting in doorways; buttoned up businessmen staggering from too much soju. There wasn't a hint of fear, not a whisper of it. It was Friday night and the only anxiety seemed to be in choosing the restaurant in which to dine or bar in which to drink.
The next day I was intent on finding the action, as surely there had to be some. Was there some plaza where there would be police presence? Were there protests going on? In a small demonstration a few days before, a couple hundred Seoul citizens (in a city of 11 million, mind you) had burned pictures of Kim Jong Un and his predecessors, the images defaced with clown noses, black Xs and angry -- I'm guessing, here -- slogans. The North had responded by saying it wouldn't hold talks with its neighbor until the South apologized for anti-North actions, and that it could take retaliatory measures at any time. By the weekend, there were no protests to be found but it seemed less because Seoul citizens had taken the North's admonishment to heart and more because Southerners were just getting on with their lives and didn't want to expend any more energy on the issue. When I asked Aja and her boyfriend Paul what their South Korean coworkers were saying about the situation, the answer was 'they're not having the conversation.' It seemed that talking about it would be tantamount to dignifying a child's tantrum with a thoughtful response.
Protest plans dashed (much to my mother's relief), we spent the following days wandering Seoul's lovely neighborhoods, touring modern art museums and historic streets, drinking beer and eating various forms of barbecue. And though I appeared to be among the only Western tourists in Seoul, Aja informed me that many of the people taking in the cherry blossoms and boutiques alongside us were visitors too, from the southern part of the country. People weren't just continuing their lives unfazed -- they were traveling, coming up to a city that sat a mere 35 miles from the DMZ, while the North Koreans rattled their sabers.
What was remarkable about the visit was how unremarkable it was. The lack of outward concern, the minimal departure from the routine of daily life, the refusal to stop traveling, reveling, shopping and dining -- this was as revealing as any protest could have been about what it's like living in South Korea when, mere miles away, there's a regime of madmen that make a habit of threatening your safety. You get used to it. You stop giving the threats credence, taking the wind out of the madman's sails. I can only imagine how disappointed Kim Jong Un would have been to see the people of Seoul carrying on with their lives. Seoul won me over by keeping its cool.
After four days, I left for Beijing where, of course, they were experiencing an outbreak of the bird flu.