A cloudy morning in Seoul in mid-August. From my hotel room on the 9th floor, I face a giant LED billboard advertising a family amusement park. Below on Sejong-Daero, a wide avenue in the Jongno District, the traffic police are dragging up crowd barriers for a big public event, while the first crowd is seeking a spot. As early as 7 a.m., loud music blares from the speakers of a government building, announcing the National Liberation Day.
In the elevator, covered with golden mirrors, a girl dressed in a K-pop fan outfit inspects her graceful reflection on the mirror, swinging her raven-black hair back, while we pass the “unlucky” 4th floor. The association is given by the word for number “4” in the Chinese numeric system, which is also being used in Korean, and the Chinese word for “death” are homonyms. Although the K-pop girl shows no signs of this widespread tetrafobia, I hope that nothing will happen to her when she enters the real world outside her fandom-bubble.
In the entrance hall, the receptionists call a heartfelt “annyeong haseyo!”- “I hope you live a peaceful life” in chorus. Oddly enough, the most common of greetings makes me feel welcome indeed, and although I keep on wondering what exactly is meant by “peaceful living”, I nod politely and make my exit.
Outside, liberation from the 35 years of Japanese occupation (1915-1945) is massively celebrated. Cheers, rhetorics and music mingle into a cacophony. On the stage, a politician, accompanied by a crowd cheering in a frenzy, is working his way to a roaring climax, resembling a pastor in an American gospel high mass. Three cheerful friends in their 60s hand me a homemade ball of kimchi rice wrapped in aluminium foil. Onlookers nod approvingly at the Korean and American paper flags protruding from my bag. The identical colours – white, blue and red – make the flags a sound pair.
“If you know when to leave, please go,” reads a black plastic sign that an elderly man is holding over his head. The full packed Independency Day rally in the central Jogno District is equally a chance for opponents of various pluimage. Next to Covid conspiracy theorists, critics of fraudulent politicians show up. From the April revolution in the 1960s to the mass protests in 1987 that eventually led to democracy, demonstrations have been crucial to political change in South Korea. A protest panel from a young man behind me translates to: “Korea must be destroyed. This country that eats away parliamentarians through fraudulent elections must go down.” Plain language.
In recent years, no less than four former presidents have ended up in jail for corruption. In March 2022, at the boiling point of the presidential elections, Lee Jae-myung, candidate of the ruling liberals, and Yoon Suk-yeol of the conservative opposition assailed each other with “Mussolini,” beast” and “parasite”, followed by dozens of lawsuits for fake news and libel. Yoon’s wife was mockingly portrayed as an “empty tin can” due to her supposed plastic surgery.
In the end, Yoon won the elections with a narrow difference to Lee. His conservative party stands for a stronger military alliance with the U.S., a crackdown on North Korea and is grateful to the former authoritarian leaders for the rapid development of the economy after the Korean War. Lee’s supporters want individual freedom, rapprochement with North Korea and are critical of the former authoritarian rulers. Yoon is popular with the older electorate and Lee with the young; the political fault line reflects the Korean generational conflict.
Later in the afternoon, exiting the subway in the Eunpyeong district, I stumble upon a meter-high announcement of a new construction project. Soon, a part of this district will be “redeveloped” with the construction of luxurious high-rise apartments. According to Korea Herald, one of the leading English-language newspapers, the average apartment price in Seoul is skyrocketing to 1 billion won (850,000 euros).
The demographic and social landslide resulting from such construction projects is squeezing original residents out of centrally located neighbourhoods to satellite towns around the capital or further in provincial areas. That will probably be the destination of also these vendors selling octopus, seaweed and kimchi, once the market and the cosy streets around it have disappeared. This social downgrading is called “going down” in the Korean vernacular: A euphemism for failure.
Back in Jongno District, I close my eyes against the narrow ray of bright afternoon light slipping in between the office towers. At the next intersection, the traffic police is busy clearing crowd barriers into a truck, making way for the cleaning crew to spray the street impeccably clean. Just a little further, a machine is blowing artificial mist over the peacefully rippling waters of the neon-lit Cheonggyecheon City Park, the restored stream that winds through the neighbourhood like a canyon. Sooner than not, this urbane idyll is overflowing with affectionate strollers and young families.
Come on, let’s go downtown!