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


When the new fashions from Paris and Milan arrive on Apgujeong Street in the south of Seoul, a chain of giant flagship stores unlike anything else in the world, a pilgrimage begins throughout much of Asia, as wealthy women from Japan, China, Russia and Indonesia fly in for an intense shopping spree. The Galleria shopping mall is filled with an unprecedented collection of luxury boutiques, and the floor maps read like catalogs of the world's most expensive name brands. Shoppers can dine on foie gras, truffle pasta and sashimi from the Red Tuna in the food court on the lower level.

The number of visitors to South Korea has crumbled since the north began fanning the flames of possible war. The Japanese, in particular, have made themselves scarce. The country's tourism association is reporting dramatic declines, with only 88,000 tourists coming from Japan in the first two weeks of April, a 33-percent decrease over the same period last year. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is striking at his South Korean enemy without the use of bombs and missiles. While his threats may not be reaching Seoul, they are heard in Tokyo and Beijing. Kim is resorting to the tactics of the former Cold War.

Parallels to Divided Germany

As foreign as South Korea may seem to a German visitor, there are many things that seem familiar. In its nouveau riche neighborhoods, Seoul feels almost like an Asian version of the former West Berlin, where the glow emanating from the KaDeWe department store and, along the Berlin Wall, newspaper publishing house Axel Springer's gold-colored skyscraper could be seen in East Berlin as symbols of capitalist superiority.

The German experience is also reflected at the border between the two Koreas. The Imjingak Peace Park, for example, only 30 minutes north of Seoul, evokes old images of towns on the former border between East and West Germany. Streets come to a dead end, rivers are borders, and in the middle of the landscape stands the Bridge of Freedom, a now-defunct bridge once used to exchange prisoners of war. There is no wall, but watchtowers are spaced at 200-meter (656 feet) intervals, interspersed with endless spirals of barbed wire.

On the day of the ultimatum, a busload of tourists travels to Panmunjom and enters the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), a four-kilometer strip of wasteland marked in the middle by the 38th parallel, stretching for 248 kilometers (155 miles) from the Yellow Sea to the Sea of Japan. The inner-Korean border has passed through the DMZ for the last 60 years. There are Danish, British and Spanish tourists on the bus, and a Norwegian couple is dressed as if the group were going to war, carrying large backpacks filled with food supplies. The tour guide, a Korean woman who calls herself Sally, stands at the front of the bus, telling stories to the group. "The soldiers out here don't need any skills. The most important thing is that they're good-looking," she says.

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