If you visit a South Korean school, chances are you’ll be greeted by a vast picture of Mount Baekdu’s photogenic crater-lake prominently displayed. It isn’t just that many Koreans love mountains – which cover much of the land – and hike on weekends in national parks. Bridging the Sino-North Korean border, Mount Baekdu is associated with Dangun, the mythical founder of Korea, and symbolizes people’s yearning for reunification. Wander further along the school corridors and you may spot reunification-themed artwork on the wall, or a special classroom for education related to tong-il (reunification).
When South Korean TV series are broadcast in mainland China, the Chinese glimpse the sort of affluent society to which their country aspires. Yet material poverty and hardship are well within living memory in South Korea, thanks to the Korean War of the early 1950s and its aftermath. Today, elderly vendors continue to sell silkworm larvae (bondaegi) on city streets, a reminder of times of scarcity.
South Korea suffered much trauma in the course of the 20th century. Koreans were ordered not to speak their own language under Japanese rule (1910-45), the peninsula was split in two in 1948, and the 1950-53 war claimed four million lives only to confirm the existence of the two Koreas. South Korea may have sped to prosperity as an ‘Asian Tiger’, lauded by economists, but it also suffered under brutal military regimes. It was only after 1980’s Gwangju Massacre (known in the city as the ‘Democratic Uprising’) that widespread popular resistance led to elections in 1987 and a transition to democracy under Nobel Peace laureate Kim Dae-Jung from 1992 onwards.
Today, those hard-won democratic rights are under threat from President Lee Myung- Bak. Many now wonder whether they were ‘complacent’ about the strength of South Korea’s democratic foundations when they went to the polls in December 2007.
President Lee, a former CEO with Hyundai, has ingratiated himself with big business while steadily eroding democratic rights. The most recent wave of resistance to Lee’s authoritarianism was spurred by the Yongsan tragedy of 20 January, in which iron-fisted action by a newly appointed police chief led to six deaths in a fire. From Seoul to Busan, there have been peaceful anti-government demonstrations through a cold and discontented winter – and legions of police with helmets and shields conspicuously stationed on streets. Due to a legal ban on after-dusk demonstrations, protesters may hold candles so that their demonstration can qualify as a ‘sing-along’.
Some 26 million South Koreans inhabit high-rise apartment blocks branded with company logos such as Samsung and Hyundai. You’ll find all the trappings of physical comfort in South Korea, including homes rendered cosy by underfloor heating (ondol), and communal bathing in public mogyoktang. But there are plenty of have-nots: beggars wheel themselves, belly-down, through downtown Gwangju, or sit in underpasses. And despite Confucian respect for age, you’ll notice elderly people who beg or have tough jobs.
The worst, patriarchal interpretations of Confucius remain intact in South Korea as in Japan, relegating women to a subordinate role in public life, though this is gradually changing. Sexual diversity remains unacceptable to the point of virtual invisibility, as in the West of the 1950s, unless you care for the seedy Seoul district of Itaewon.
South Korea’s religious landscape differs sharply from that of China, Japan and North Korea. At night, cityscapes are illuminated by neon red crosses – roughly a quarter of South Korea’s people are Christian, though some branches of Christianity frown on others. The Zen of Japan may be better known overseas, but similar approaches to Enlightenment exist in South Korea as Seon, and roughly a quarter of South Koreans are Buddhist. Fine Buddhist temples, exquisitely decorated with the greens, pinks and blues of ‘cosmic design’, nestle amidst mountains. Both Christianity and Buddhism have dedicated TV channels.