Sunday, August 03, 2008

seoul was a huge, bustling city, but it would pour down rain every once in a while, and when it did, these people would come out from the shadows and sell disposable umbrellas made of bamboo and plastic sheeting. i was fascinated by these things as they were very durable, the bamboo being bendable but strong, yet they were disposable anyway and very cheap. when i asked someone about them he said that these umbrella people were people who were caught by the political system: unable to get normal jobs because they had been marked by the government, or the system, as troublemakers. a kind of tear gas burn hung in the air in shin chon when i'd go to have my korean lesson and pick up my paycheck at the university; shin chon is a university district and had frequent demonstrations in the late 80's. kids demonstrate to see who can make the biggest ones, someone told me, but after college, they go immediately to the army, where they are instantly on the other side of the line. thus the college years seemed to be full of this tension: you demonstrated; you got away with it; you entered the army and faced those demonstrators. my memories of the spicy, delicious bibimbap, egg mixing in and rice sizzling on the hot bowl, now famous in the west, but better by far in shin chon than any place i've been, is mixed slightly with that singe of tear gas that i'd occasionally get in the air.

and, with seoul less than 100 miles from the dmz, the whole place had that feeling of snuggled up against conflict. you'd see american tanks and soldiers all over the place; it was part of the scenery. when people looked at my beard, it seemed as if they were saying, how could you be in the army and get away with that, perhaps you're french. the radical wing of korean politics maintained that the large powers- usa being only one of them- conspired and were conspiring to keep the korean people separate, and only constant pressure and demonstrations from the people themselves would undo the damage. nowadays, south korea is so wired to the new technology, and north korea so chained to its quest for meager rations, that it's hard to imagine the countries uniting under any circumstance, but that's another problem; at the time, people who promoted unification too strongly were in danger of becoming umbrella people, and being consigned to the shadows during the sudden rainstorms, gluing plastic to bamboo when the sun was out.

i sought out the quakers while i was there; found them on a hill in shin chon, facing a huge mountain that had a tunnel and a major highway right through it, so one could hear the roar of cars coming out of the tunnel, just below, yet the neighborhood had a well-kept, tidy feeling to it. the quakers, they told me at work, were dangerous, too well associated with unification forces- watch out. ham sokh hohn, a famous korean quaker, very old guy who i'd met in iowa, may have actually died at that point, i'm not sure; it was about 1987. not too many of them spoke english, and they seemed busy, but were friendly enough, and welcoming. another time i fell in with some american soldiers, who were friendly enough in their social time, and easily shared the provisions that only they as soldiers could buy, such as maxwell house coffee and blue ribbon beer. one once told me, seoul here is a big social scene, golf course, easy life, but up there at the dmz, they have a mission. care to tell me what that is? i asked. to have a presence, he said. the irony of the statement stuck me like a hammer, even at the time. your mission is to be there? i knew it was more than that, yes, i knew the history, and i kept silent.

years later, i've come to realize that the dmz itself, which i had never actually visited, had become a huge wildlife preserve, a strip across the peninsula virtually untouched by humans for over fifty years. the military standoff that has occurred steadily over that strip- they never declared the war over, after all- has meant that no person dared step in that area at all, and no one has. from the point of view of the various species on the peninsula, i'm sure it's been a godsend, for each, both north and south, of the koreas has devastated its resources and ravaged the peninsula in their own ways. and maybe that was the whole point- why would it be in anyone's interest to divide the koreas for any other reason? it's beyond being about ideology- though i'm sure that, if the ideology has anything to do with national autonomy, as it does for the north, that would be enough to sustain a conflict for at least twenty years beyond the point where "communism" would be no longer worth fighting to preserve. to the south, northerners appear, when they sneak through to the south, as if they were underground for years, hidden away from the world, totally unable to understand things such as a subway, a skyscraper, a personal internet connection. i don't know if it's still like that; i imagine that, as in taiwan and china, there is more and more actual contact between the two peoples. and that is surely good, even if it's tinged with conflict or misunderstanding; what else can one do? live forever in denial?

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