War Angst and Karaoke: Daily Life as Bizarre As it Gets in South Korea

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Asked by the journalist why his business is doing so well in South Korea, he responds that he has both a humorous and a serious answer. The humorous one is: "When you have an empty brain, you need an attractive face." The serious answer has to do with the fact that South Korean women have become more self-confident, especially since the Seoul Olympics in 1988. Besides, says Kim, women have more and more money and less and less to do these days, "so they have an incredible amount of time to admire themselves in the mirror."

As a young man, Dr. Kim once spent six months in a South Korean prison, because he had a friend who had met North Korea's "Great Leader," Kim Il Sung. The judges accused him of involvement in communist activities and found it questionable that he had specialized in reattaching the severed fingers of workers, charging a very low fee for the procedure. When he opened his own cosmetic surgery clinic in 1991, he had only two competitors. "Today," he says, "there are 300 clinics in business in this area." This is in keeping with the overall impression the West has formed of Korea.

Heavy Historical Baggage

Over the decades, the world has become accustomed to painting North Korea in the blackest and South Korea in the most pristine terms, with the north being run by a sinister dictatorship and the south a cheerful democracy. The rest of the world sees the north as a place where people are starving and oppressed, while South Koreans are free and happy consumers. While the clich├ęs about the north may not be entirely wrong, South Korea is a grayer and more troubled country than its image would suggest.

The heavy historical baggage of a country that was a Japanese colony, a battlefield and a military dictatorship in the 20th century is on full display in Seoul's brand-new National Museum of Korean Contemporary History, on the city's opulent grand boulevard, Sejong-daero. The exhibits there highlight the deep, old wounds of a divided nation, wounds that no economic miracle can heal.

The last few exhibit rooms are a lie by omission, a collection of the most beautiful Samsung smartphones and Hyundai limousines, with PSY performing his hit song "Gangnam Style" on a giant wall of monitors. But what the exhibits ignore is the unhealthy power of the South Korean industrial conglomerates, and the sleaze and political corruption plaguing the country. They fail to mention the omnipresent press censorship or the authoritarian impulses of the current administration, evidenced most recently by the fact that the new president, Park Geun-hye, daughter of former dictator Park Chung-hee, has just signed a law that regulates the wearing of miniskirts.

No one talks about the fact that South Korea has the highest suicide rate of all industrialized countries, with 40 people committing suicide every day -- a rate three times as high as in Germany. And hardly anyone mentions what the nightmare of potential nuclear obliteration really does to a country.

A Dramatic Intensification of the Conflict

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