- by Michael Kennedy
Today, it’s All Quiet on The Han River Front as I enjoy some industrial-strength coffee from the comfort of my apartment in the trendy Mapo-gu neighborhood of Seoul. There are no worries here about regular school shootings, persistent crack addiction, drive-by shootings and … a serial liar, serial philanderer, serial sexual predator, serial tax cheat, and serial failed businessman who occupies the White House – which he’s turned into a shithole in record time
Of course Seoul – with its cultural boom time of K-Pop, New Wave Cinema and TV soap operas that have everyone’s attention in the far East and beyond … is only 40-miles from the DMZ and that deranged fat fuck Kim Jong-Un – with his firmly entrenched artillery guns that no missile shield can possibly thwart. It’s estimated that at least a half million people in Seoul would die within the first few hours of constant shelling. The city would be largely destroyed by the end of a week. The resulting humanitarian disaster would overwhelm both China and Russia.
In early school days, we are taught that two negatives make a positive, yet that law does not apply to examples like Trump and Kim.
With all this in mind, why does a dazzling urbanite (think Blazing Saddles) like me live in Seoul – of all places?
I know the answer, but Guildenstern … would you pluck out the heart of my mystery?
Many of my days are spent impersonating a carefree boulevardier with a Ricoh GR II camera to document the human pageant, and what I see on the Streets of Seoul reflects the delicate political climate at play in this part of the Far East.
To be sure, the streets are full of South Koreans – an extremely well educated and diligent people who continue to make their country an amazing success story after the ravages of the still unsettled Korean War.
Yet the streets are also filled with Chinese tourists, from a country that is on dramatic rise as a burgeoning world power after centuries of being politically dormant – a country that still bankrolls North Korea in a proxy war with the United States for influence on this peninsula, a geographical extension of China.
There are also Japanese tourists in Seoul on any given day, a 2.5 hour flight from Tokyo, and the bad blood between the Koreans and the Japanese is always just below a thin surface and the issue of the Comfort Women, young females rounded up arbitrarily by the Japanese during the Occupation Days of World War II to serve as unpaid prostitutes in special brothels for the Japanese Army. Many of these women are still alive, in their late 80s and early 90s – disgraced and haunted forever by horrors beyond imagination, an unofficial caste of untouchables.
And then North Korean spies and agent provocateurs who have slipped into the country on fake Chinese passports sometimes occupy the streets of Seoul. Some are in the city only briefly; others are part of sleeper cells to do long term damage to South Korea in ways where cyber espionage is no substitute for human subterfuge.
This is not the seething cauldron of Cold War espionage in the Vienna of Carol Reed’s The Third Man, but is a definite cut above the ordinary 15-million-plus city of the Far East … of which there are plenty, especially in China.
I know why I’m drawn to street photography. And yet I don’t know.
This is how I’m wired, and introspection is only helpful as a cure for insomnia.
Fate v free will … nurture v nature … The Beatles v The Rolling Stones.
Buy the ticket, take the ride.
Meanwhile, life goes on in Seoul. Every week for several years now, China has been quietly sending an army into this city. It’s a very clever tactic: housewives from the growing middle class.
This army arrives every Tuesday on flights from Beijing and Shanghai, armed with money and credit cards – and leaves by Friday … after cleaning out the entire inventory of the Duty Free section that comprises the entire ninth floor of the upscale Lotte Department Store.
I’m old now – yet still intrigued by department stores that offer women’s panties half-off.
The Korean woman are easily outhustled by the bargain-crazed Chinese, who – ironically, are buying merchandize made in China, but is for sale cheaper in Seoul. And this huge influx of money into the Seoul economy – with spin-offs to the hotels and restaurants and local tours, has corrupted the scene here.
I spend a lot of time with my camera in Myeongdong – an upscale retail neighborhood right across from the Lotte Department Store. I’ve lived in Seoul for seven years, and I still cannot always tell the difference between the Chinese and the Koreans. Does this make me racist – or just genuinely confused?
My numero uno cultural guide in Seoul was born in Insadong, a traditional neighborhood in this city that survived the ravages of the Korean War, and she can’t always distinguish the difference between the Chinese and the Koreans. Does this make her racist?
But, hell, I can’t always tell the difference between the Irish and the Scots – and I have a lot of Irish antecedents.
I’ve had the great good fortune to use my camera as a passport into the world’s of other people, from Quebec City-to-Mexico City, from Dublin-to-Athens, from Tokyo-to-Singapore, from Bangkok-to-New Delhi – and all my experiences reaffirm the trite but true cliché: We are the family of man.
This truism will soon be put to the test at next month’s Winter Olympics, hosted by South Korea at Pyongchang – with the opening ceremony set for February 9. Both North and South Korea will field joint teams for limited competition.
Maybe John Lennon is right.