Jasmina Tešanović: Korea - South, not North

essay by Jasmina Tešanović
photos by Bruce Sterling
Korea: South, not North

When I checked in for my flight to Seoul at the Belgrade aerodrome, the desk clerk was bewildered. She had heard of Korea, she had even heard of Seoul. But: oh my god, she exclaimed, I do mix them up so, the north and south.

When I finally landed in Korea -- no visa required -- they had never heard of Serbia. I had to trigger that magic word "Yugoslavia," so that the Korean computer blinked in nostalgic approval and allowed me into the country.

The wild demilitarized zone between the two Koreas is a major tourist attraction: so I was told. Not for me it isn't, I said: I've seen too many of those borders, from Berlin, to Serbia, to the rest of the world.

The American Cold War propaganda is surely bad enough there, but in North Korea they are segregated so drastically from the rest of the planet that everything they say sounds shallow. South Korea wants to reach out to the North, to build cultural bridges, communications, diplomacy, finance, the usual, yet the North seems entirely uninterested. What must the people think? All this fanaticism without even the luxury of an ethnic division.

Until 15 years ago, in South Korea, women would get a driver's licences whenever their husbands got one. Women never had to take any driver's education courses, as it was presumed that women would never drive. Then women took the wheel and finally the law changed.

A huge, rapid transition for women, says a guest at the LIFT event in Seoul: I am an optimist. He is a foreign expert living as an optimist in Korea, he hopes his daughter will marry a Korean and that two Koreas will re-unite.

People are lively, hard working, and, I notice, strangely silent: this huge Asian metropolis of over 20 million is quieter than a small town in Italy. The airport is as clean and solemn as a hospital ward. The service in malls, restaurants, hotels is like something from a science fiction movie: everything is possible, just let me know from which planet you come.

The shopping malls are crammed with the usual Western luxury brands, and hordes of Korean women shopping: when the women meet for lunch, for once, they let themselves talk loudly.

The city never sleeps, but the workers are allowed to sleep at work if they have no urgent duties or customers to pester. Empty shops are manned by slumbering clerks. Unemployment is next to zero: everybody is doing his/her small task in the mighty chain of the big civil utilities, the Korean "chaebol" cartels.

Love hotels are rented by the hour, ten dollars for a bed in a tall shiny building without architectural glamour. The skyscrapers are as anonymous as the city's black and white cabs. Nameless buildings bear numbers in nameless streets which are also numbered...

Beauty shops, beauty clinics, medical anti-aging clinics, in a city where obesity seems almost unknown if not expressly forbidden.

What do they eat? The famous Korean dog-meat, live octopus hastily chopped into violently wriggling shreds, a putrid pink fish which reeks of ammonia. This pink fermented skate fish, stinking and crunchy with cartilage -- the natives of the Korean deep south long for this fish when they are in Europe, surrounded by stinking European cheeses. And hot Asian peppers, even big Korean garlic cloves that are searingly hot, as hot as hot can get; they might not cure cancer, but one bite of those obliterates culture-shock.

The farewell event was a champagne party, sponsored by the French, aimed at Koreans. Hundreds of beautiful Korean girls dancing to Brooklyn rap music, dressed in their silky local fashions and stiletto high heels, men in dark or silver business suits with long, pointed, narrow black shoes... One woman at the party told me how hard life is for a feminist in this very chauvinist male society. She wants her career: society wants her to have a baby. Perhaps that was why, after swilling much free champagne, she suddenly jumped into the discotheque's swimming pool, fully dressed. Her boyfriend jumped in after her and they lived there happily ever after.

Seoul's statue of the Maitreya, the huge Buddha of the Future, was built only 11 years ago. In downtown Seoul this Buddha Who Is to Come oversees the bland skyscrapers with his tolerant, easy worldly wisdom. In his towering concrete meditations, perhaps he will open the door to futurity for the one Korean people, so sadly divided by that military business they call the Past.

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Previous essays by Jasmina Tešanović on BoingBoing:

- "I heard they are making a movie on her life."
- Serbia and the Flames
- Return to Srebenica
- Sagmeister in Belgrade
- Jasmina Tešanović: What About the Russians?
- Milan Martic sentenced in Hague
- Mothers of Mass Graves
- Hope for Serbia
- Stelarc in Ritopek
- Sarajevo Mon Amour
- MBOs
- Killing Journalists
- Jasmina Tešanović: Where Did Our History Go?
- Serbia Not Guilty of Genocide
- Carnival of Ruritania
- "Good Morning, Fascist Serbia!"
- Faking Bombings
- Dispatch from Amsterdam
- Where are your Americans now?
- Anna Politkovskaya Silenced
- Slaughter in the Monastery
- Mermaid's Trail
- A Burial in Srebenica
- Report from a concert by a Serbian war criminal
- To Hague, to Hague
- Preachers and Fascists, Out of My Panties
- Floods and Bombs
- Scorpions Trial, April 13
- The Muslim Women 
Belgrade: New Normality
- Serbia: An Underworld Journey
- Scorpions Trial, Day Three: March 15, 2006
- Scorpions Trial, Day Two: March 14, 2006
- Scorpions Trial, Day One: March 13, 2006
- The Long Goodbye
- Milosevic Arrives in Belgrade
- Slobodan Milosevic Died
- Milosevic Funeral


  1. Hi I was in Lift event at Seoul. It was great energetic event. Thanks for coming. BTW some details are far from truth. Actually 1920 Ms. Jungok lee got third driving license in Korea as woman. She had some success in taxi business after. But it is not often case until 50ies. Probably you or your feminist friend confused with 50 with 15.

    Generally speaking, chauvinism in Korean society is now end. Statistics of birth rate shows truth about it. 1m babies born at 1970 but only less than 500,000 for 2004. Yes, we need more Korean baby but it is irrelevant issue with feminist perspective.

    Please visit again. There is a lot of fascionating cultural experience you can enjoy beside bizarre food.

    From Alf Bae.


  2. Quiet? Did this person actually visit Korea?

    Korea is one of the noisiest nations I’ve ever experienced. Damn right they never sleep! From the chaos of 24-hour traffic to the dancers who writhe on sidewalks as PA systems blare thudding K-pop, and their cohorts who hawk cell phones and banking services, Korea’s cities are not for lovers of silence.

    But Korea IS a great place if you’re willing to hop on and ride with its energy.

    As for the food – in a nation that was starving 50 years ago, a nation with a greeting that means “have you eaten today,” what do you expect? For guests who are open to it, it’s sensory overload. Yes, the pepper brings tears to your eyes, but the flavors are complex and potent, and the sheer quantities are staggering. They say a feast “breaks the table legs.” It’s not uncommon to cover the table with 30, 40, even 50 side dishes, each a new and wonderful discovery.

    Sex? Yes, Korea is still in many ways a sexist society, but in a decade or so they’ve leapt from 1950s prudishness to a full-fledged sexual revolution – sometimes with wrenching side effects. That subject is a whole article unto itself.

    None of this has reached North Korea, of course. Kim Jong Il reserves such “decadence” for himself and his closest colleagues. But if it ever does reach the North Korean streets, Kim will lose them. THAT’s what will unify Korea – the sheer joy of grabbing modernity and hanging on.

  3. I am an American who has lived in Korea for two years. I have to say chauvinism actually is still alive and well in Korea and that it’s very much a patriarchal society. I have seen very little evidence of gender equality, a problem perpetuated willingly by both sexes. I think it will be a long time before this culture is ready to allow women the same freedoms of expression as men.

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