I said in my first blog that I knew little about South Korea before coming here. So I had no clear expectation of what Seoul would be like other than imagining it would be a very busy city, like many in Asia.
Driving in on the coach from the airport the first impression was the extensiveness of the road network. Everywhere there seemed to be bridges and flyovers with roads going off in all directions. They were also not that busy, it was only as we got near to the city centre that we encountered any traffic queues and even these were not massive. Which is surprising as the population of the metropolis of Seoul and the surrounding cities is now over 25 million. Of these over 70% live in the hundreds of tower blocks that litter the landscape as we drive in from the airport.
By the end of the Korean war in 1952 Seoul had been almost entirely destroyed so the city of today largely dates from the 1970s when a spectacular building boom got underway. The centre is now dominated by gleaming skyscrapers many bearing the familiar names of global, corporate capitalism. But there are others that are unknown to me such as SK Hynix, Shinhan, Posco. Several are completely unintelligible as they are written in Korean script, similar to Chinese and Japanese, so adding an element of distinct alienation to the landscape.
But apart from the written language Seoul looks like any modern city. Everyone seems well fed and healthy. They all dress in western styles. There are some of the best known worldwide brands – Nike, Adidas, Zara, in the shops (the Koreans seem to have a liking for British shoes as I passed a Dr Martens and a Clarks shop). There is a very efficient subway system (the second busiest in the world after Beijing) and an extensive bus network. The roads, whilst busy, are not choked with traffic and there is little obvious sign of pollution. There are large scale public artworks scattered all over the city centre
and tourists throng the former Imperial plalaces, putting on traditional dress and getting free admission in return.
Everything is very orderly. The city is very clean with absolutely no litter and few litter bins either. Apparently people take their rubbish home and dispose of it there. People obey the no jaywalking signs and keep to the left on the passages down to the subway. In one historical district tourists walk around in hushed silence paying heed to the local people carrying signs saying ‘Talk in whispers. This is a residential area’.
Everywhere there are places to eat and drink and coffee culture has evidently caught on here in a big way with coffee shops every few yards. South Korea apparently boasts the highest number of trained baristas of any country in the world. And they generally make very good coffee.
So, on the face of it, a civilised city where people enjoy a good quality of life. But walking around the central business district on a Saturday, when it is not so busy, a slightly different picture emerges. One where there appear to be cracks in the façade.
We come across no less than five separate demonstrations in the course of the day. One appears to be environmental, one of the banners bears the word ‘oil’ and this is the most left-wing demonstration to judge by the clenched fists raised every so often in response to a particularly rousing piece of rhetoric from the speaker. A group of elaborately dressed young women rather bizarely rail against the use of the RFD microchip, which can be implanted into people, as heralding the de-dollarisation of the world leading to complete financial collapse, citing this as the work of the AntiChrist.
For a couple it is impossible to discern from the banners and placards what they might be protesting about and no one around speaks English. The demonstrations are very orderly. People sit cross-legged in neat rows or march in regimented lines of four. There is a substantial police presence but they seem to take a hands-off approach and carry nothing more offensive than a fluorescent wand used to direct traffic. There is little sense of anger or frustration amongst the demonstrators.
One demonstration though is rather different. These demonstrators are older and there are several in military uniform. They are sitting down but stand immediately when the national anthem is played – singing lustily with their right hand over their heart or held in a military salute. Many of the demonstrators carry a Korean flag but also a Stars and Stripes. There are pictures of Donald Trump alongside a middle-aged woman. There are lots of religious slogans proclaiming that communism is the enemy of God who will eradicate them just before the coming of the Millenium Kingdom.
This is a heady mix of fundamentalist Christianity and virulent anti-communism. For these people Kim Jong-un is the spawn of the Devil and anyone who negotiates with him will themselves be the object of judgement.
Into this mix has been injected a major political scandal. The woman on the posters is Park Geun-hye, South Korea’s first woman president, indeed the first female head of state of any East Asian country.
But in 2017 she was impeached and then charged with abuse of power, bribery, coercion and leaking government secrets. She was found guilty and sentenced to 25 years imprisonment which she is currently serving. She was not he first Korean president to be imprisoned. Chun Doo-hwan, the president from 1980-88, and Roh Tae-woo, the president from 1988-1993, were convicted of bribery and sedition in 1996 whilst Lee Myung-bak, president from 2008-2013 was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2018 on charges of corruption.
The demonstrators rail against the person who took over from Park, the current president Moon Jae-in, but most of their ire is reserved for the person they accuse of conspiring to overthrown Park – Barrack Obama. This why they display pictures of Donald Trump who they seem to think will restore Park to her rightful place.
Quite how they reconcile this belief with Trump’s professed admiration for Kim Jung-un is unclear. But then logical consistency is never the strong point of conspiracy theorists.