By Fregmonto Stokes
My first view of South Korea was of the coastline as we flew into Incheon Airport. The sky was overcast, merging into an ocean that had the silver slickness of mercury, occasionally crinkled by ship’s ripples or pierced by dark rocky outcrops. The islands and boats looked isolated in the flat featureless expanse, floating specks in an Yves Tanguy dreamscape. That initial image of objects without context, unanchored, returned to me throughout my three day visit, enough time no doubt to form a warped and inaccurate impression of a country.
I was picked up at the airport by the brother of a friend I studied with, and we drove inland to Seoul, one of the world’s great megacities. In contrast to Melbourne’s undulating flatness, Seoul’s topography is almost vertical: rocky mountain cliff faces loom up above the city, while residential skyscrapers allow the Seoul metropolitan area alone to house 10 million inhabitants. As the day faded the city lights flickered on, neon crucifixes glowing in the darkness above every second block. While the majority of South Koreans identify as non religious, almost a third of the population is Christian, with just under a quarter identifying as Buddhists.
The role and perception of Christianity in Korean society is complicated: missionaries first arrived en masse in the late 19th century and were associated with modernisation and social reform. There is a strong social justice tradition amongst both protestant and Catholic groups, with links to human rights campaigns and the labour movement. At the same time, Christian morality has also combined in unexpected ways with older Confucian traditions of parental respect, creating a strong expectation in some families that parental desires will be heeded on issues such as relationships and marriage.
South Korea has the world’s highest rate of cosmetic plastic surgery
My host came from a Methodist family and was keen to study theology in the US once he’d finished his current degree. He pointed out to me bus signs that advertised plastic surgery: we drove through Gangnam, the suburb mocked and made famous by the rapper Psy, where the streets are lined with eerily wide eyed women grinning down from billboards. South Korea has the world’s highest rate of cosmetic plastic surgery, and the most popular procedures have undeniably racial elements. According to my friends, eye widening, single to double eyelid operations, nose lengthening and cheek bone shaving are all carried out to achieve a more Western appearance. When British and American missionaries first came to Korea, they were derided as ‘Big Noses’ or ‘Ku Chang Ee’ (my phonetic transcription from a conversation, probably inaccurate). Now, a big nose has transformed from insult into aspiration. Cosmetic surgery is often advocated by peers and parents alike for young women to advance in their careers and attract suitable husbands.
Korea, both North and South, seems to specialise in taking on outside ideologies with the fanaticism of a new convert, whether that ideology be Christian, communist or capitalist. In Gangnam, in between the flashing crucifixes and bulbous headed Hello Kitty statues, you can see animated billboards of Psy selling beer, Psy selling fridges, Psy selling his next tour. Every second Korean couple was wearing sky blue pollution masks, photographing themselves on state of the art iphones, giving the impression of an open air operating theatre where the surgeons are taking happy snaps.
On my last day I was taken to the Unification Observatory on the North Korean border. The Observatory combines fairly unsubtle jibes about the failures of North Korean communism with sincere expressions of hope for unification and reconciliation. Through the observatory’s telescopes, half-finished North Korean farm houses could be spotted on the far side of the river: apparently when the North Korean government heard about the observatory being opened, they built the houses for propaganda purposes, but ran out of funds before they could put the roofs on.
The most successful reconciliation project, according to the Unification museum, was the Gaeseong Industrial Complex, which ‘combines the strengths of South Korean capital and technology with competitive North Korean labour and ample land resources’. This was considered necessary due to South Korea’s ‘rising labour costs’. So the communist north was offering up its captive population for exploitation, helping the capitalists in the south undercut the wages of their own greedy workers. A win for ruling oligarchies everywhere.
On a less reconciliatory note, another exhibit described how Kim Sung-Il had over 100,000 South Koreans abducted during the war, including many leading musicians, artists and intellectuals. The sudden spate of abductions was sparked in part by excessive purging of ‘reactionary’ intellectuals in North Korea before the war. By way of comparison, imagine if the Tasmanian Greens suddenly morphed into eco-authoritarians, staged a coup, seceded from the mainland, then purged David Walsh (hyperlink), MONA, and every other artist and cultural philanthropist on the island for being bourgeois reactionaries. Once you have successfully visualised this scenario, imagine that the Green espionage machine systematically searched out and kidnapped Cate Blanchett, Baz Luhrmann, Paul Kelly, Barry Humphries, Jessica Mauboy, the Wiggles, Germaine Greer, Les Murray and a few thousand other lesser lights, then imprisoned them in Hobart and forced them into making Environmental propaganda for the rest of their lives. Actually that doesn’t sound like such a bad idea. I might have a chat to Nick McKim about it.
South Korea abounds with practical little inventions. Many vehicles have little blue foam blocks jutting out from their doors, which are aesthetically unpleasant, but far less unpleasant than a giant dent in the side of your car caused by someone else’s carelessly opened door. In a restaurant I embarrassed my host by playing around with a little plastic block on the table which turned out to be an assistance buzzer. When the irate waiter turned up for the third time, my host had to explain that as a backwards Australian I was not familiar with many basic electrical tools. The electric lock system at my apartment even seemed to have developed a xenophobic form of artificial intelligence: when my host was present, it would function perfectly, then when I was by myself, it would lock me in the room and turn off the lights.
The greatest Korean invention of all is the alphabet, ‘Hanggu’, an example of Hyper-modernist functionalism invented six centuries before modernism even got started. Up until the 1300s, scholars had a monopoly on higher learning in Korea, as the complex Chinese character system was used for all written communication. It was at this point King Senjong, the Joseon monarch of the time, decided that he wanted an alphabet that a commoner could learn in a day, a script that was simple, phonetic and intuitive. Not content with European style spelling reform, he discarded the entire Chinese system and started from scratch. The scholars fought back, and Hanggu didn’t really catch on until the 20th century, but now it is everywhere. It’s a quirky, cartoonish script that somehow makes even plastic surgery advertisements look fun.
Reading Hanggu is a cross-sensory, almost synaesthetic experience.
Reading Hanggu is a cross-sensory, almost synaesthetic experience. Each consonant is the visual representation of the shape the mouth forms when expressing that sound. ‘S’, for example, is drawn as an open bottomed triangle, which is a cross-section depiction of the tongue pressing against the top of the teeth. The vowels are divided into two categories, representing Daoist duality: light and dark, yin and yang, and so on. In short, it’s a cornucopia of philosophy and visual onomatopoeia that makes the Latin alphabet look woefully pedestrian.
One final unexpected invention: on the way to the airport, I was slightly perplexed by the sight of a rather formal looking roadside worker, waving his arm robotically- until I realised it was in fact a robot in worker’s clothes, with a grinning fluorescent orange head. Australia gives its most tedious jobs to immigrants. South Korea gives them to grinning mechanised mannequins. That probably sums up the differences between the two countries.