Home Page
Fiction and Poetry
Essays and Reviews
Art and Style
World and Politics




By David Levy


The Montréal Review, March 2013


The entrance of Seoul's National Museum of Korea


SEOUL, Republic of Korea (ROK), June 2001. For reasons of security photography in Kimpo Airport is forbidden. The drive into the city crosses the massive rust-colored Songson Bridge. It was a wet Wednesday evening. Heavy traffic, non-descript post WW2 high rises. Red, green, and blue the preferred colours, a second look revealed some browns and pinks.

Seoul, population then roughly 15 million, now closer to 25 million, is a big modern Asian megatown. The city's roadways feature eight lane traffic arteries, in many places no traffic lights. You take your chances with the traffic or cross by way of the network of underground tunnels linked to the metro system, one of the world's largest in terms of passenger numbers.

Young Americans, members of the armed forces, are all over the city. Despite their presence, one finds relatively little English in Seoul beyond the "pizza and steak" signs. The taxi driver at the hotel had trouble understanding my request for a receipt. In the large Lotte department store around the corner, the clerk at the information desk was unable to answer simple questions. Tourists complain. There is some English in the signs in the train station. Aware they'd been left behind, Koreans have invited many thousands of English teachers from the USA, Canada and Australia into the country.

Almost all the vehicles on Korean roads are made in Korea. Duty on imported cars is stiff and discourages ownership of imports. A Benz might cost $200,000 US. One sees few Benzes and BMWs, virtually no American cars, maybe one or two Japanese models sitting in traffic with all the Hyundis, Daewoos, and Kias.

Youth dress is jeans, NY Yankees caps, jackets. Seoul salarymen wear grey, not the dark blue of their Tokyo counterparts. All senior heads are ebony. Korean conglomerates are called chaebol. Groomed by American PR gurus the CEOs appear on national TV as engaging smilers rather than the haughty underling-dissing bosses they may still be. Women dress conservatively, no piercing or tattoos, rarely failing to greet men with a smile. Korean career girls go for rimless eyeglasses, the less upwardly mobile for black goth lipstick. The "center for devotees of punk rock" was called DRUG, where "the bands play mostly punk rock, some hard-core, hip hop, and modern music..alcohol is not sold or permitted in the club." No drugs at DRUG.

Among the major chaebol was the Hyosung Corporation. Products include textiles and fibers, heavy industry equipment, electronics, petrochemicals. Hyosung operates a facility in Seongnam, about an hour's drive south of Seoul, where trainees in pale blue uniforms take classes in English and management. The facility manager seeing me try to clean my eyeglasses with a paper tissue, hurried off and soon returned with a Hyosung eyeglass cleaning cloth. Him without English me without Korean a nodding, grinning colloquy followed.

I noticed a pair of fine rust-colored dogs on the facility grounds. Korean Jindo gaes, jindo dogs. Wonderful creatures. Hyungwon Kang, perhaps the world's leading authority on the jindo has this to say about them: "This is a serious dog... It has the stealth of an Asian wolf...(and) the body of a wolf with a dog's temperament. It is a tenacious hunter.This dog does not take anything lightly. When it growls, it means business. It barks only with a reason."

In Korea social relations are strictly formal. The streets are spotless, the penalty for littering probably death. Men rule absolutely. The handful of Korean movies I'd seen, mainstream and experimental, deal with one topic - the power of men over women's bodies. But that could get complicated. The local English language newspaper carried a story about Ha Ri-su and his gender change. There remains in Korea a gay taboo, members of the gay community are called "different people". Ha is a popular entertainment figure who began life as a man. She had intended to launch her career in Japan where there was more tolerance of "different" people. But then she got roles as a woman in Korean TV commercials and movies; she will star in a network TV series about a man who leaves his family and returns as a woman. The TV actress Suh Kap-sook faced prosecution for publishing a chronicle of her sexual experiences, including rape, group sex, and lesbian encounters.

I'd heard about a Korean living in Canada whose teenage son was giving him serioius attitude. Initially at a loss, he saw the answer at last. One evening over dinner he proposed to the boy that they visit Korea together, father and son in the land of their birth. Far out, said the kid. As soon as the plane landed and they'd entered the airport lobby, the father pounced on the son and began knocking the shit out of him. The father explained to passersby in anguished words that he was doing this to punish the son for his disrespectful conduct. A circle of approving spectators began to form. At the edge of the crowd stood a uniformed airport security officer, arms folded, impassively observing the scene.

In 1999 as increased exchanges between North and South were taking place the South's National Security Law considered relaxing the punishment for those praising or sympathizing with "anti-state groups" meaning North Korea. South Koreans were permitted for the first time to watch North Korean TV via satellite, but only if this was not being done to assist "the enemy". In May 1980, the president, General Chun Doo Huan, sent an elite commando to put down a demonstration in Kwangju, South Cholla resulting in many deaths. Chun claimed the demonstrators were armed communists seeking to destabilize the country in preparation for a North Korean invasion.

The North's totalitarian regime may in part be an exaggerated reflection of Korean notions of authority.

A Korean woman in her late teens was the world air-guitar champion, a title won in a competition in Finland.


Koreans don't like to hear the word "Sayonara" spoken for goodbye. An-yeong, they insist, hello and good-bye. Long time sore points in relations between Korea and Japan are Japan's history textbooks. Korean authorities claim the Japanese whitewash sixteenth-century atrocities, the 1910-1945 Japanese occupation of Korea and the exploitation of Korean "comfort women" for Japanese troops during WW2. Ongoing was the dispute with Japan over the Dodko islands, two rocky islets in the Sea of Japan a.k.a. the East Sea. In the water around the islets are fish and natural gas.

Koreans are frequent visitors to Tokyo. The hostility to the Japanese perhaps part envy, even admiration. Koreans feel themselves caught in a squeeze play between China, Japan and the USA.

AFKR - American Forces Korea Radio, Eagle Radio - music, news and commentary: "OJ killed the dinosaurs!" There are Koreans who don't like to hear it, and will turn it off. Others tolerate it, though resentful they listen because it helps them learn English. Driving me to a meeting, Yu, one of my guides, switched it off, then back on for the English. Yu was an aspiring chaebol man. He tells me about his girlfriend who complains that he is too busy, that she hardly sees him. Yu had brought her to the airport to meet me. A very attractive girl, a flight attendant for Korean Air. Tell her, I say, that even if your duties prevent you from seeing her as often as you would like to, you are always thinking about her. Yu thanks me, says it is the sort of advice one might get from a father. Yu's father is a big time TV producer, the kid didn't see him much.

In Negotiating Your Way Through Korea Americans are warned not to mistake Korean hospitality for friendship, that its purpose is to facilitate business transactions. And this: ".Korean culture is not just different from American culture, in many ways, it is opposite.. As Korea modernized the people developed a profound interest for foreign ideas, products, culture..At the same time, they possess strong pride and are deeply nationalistic, resenting foreigners and things foreign."

There was a five-piece bar band on the bandstand at J.J. Mahoney's in the Grand Hyatt. Ultra - three Americans, a white guy, two black women, two Koreans, one on synthesizer, the other on guitar: Celebrate, Sweet Dreams - "Everybody's lookin for something." J.J., I am informed is an imaginary character: socialite, traveler, businessman, a hip ageless anglo daddy. A slick watering hole, J.J.'s draws a mixed crowd: Americans, Taiwanese, Filipinos, Koreans, men, women. A group of Canadian university recruiters I met at the bar complained about the band and the general scene: "There's nothing Korean about this!" and oddly, about the kimchi, the high-powered sauce Koreans consume with virtually every meal. They were particularly unhappy about the beggars in India and Vietnam who "rent" infants as props for a mouching dodge. Would it be better, I asked, if the leased infants were in actual danger of starving to death? Were the toddlers subject to enforced hunger to make them more persuasive accessories? Is it better or worse to harden one's heart?

Koreans are by turns pugnacious and sentimental, women and men both, the tears can flow easily.


When I expressed a casual interest in Seoul's National Museum of Korea to a businessman I met at the hotel he said his daughter would be happy to give me a guided tour. She'd been in Paris studying art and the French language. She had a car. Did I speak French? A little. That was good because her French was much better than her English. Her name was Jenny.

Mid-morning the next day, Jenny turned up in the lobby right on time. She was very pretty, and her English was a lot better than her father had led me to expect. I liked her right away.

Before heading for the museum, we went for a walk through Itaewon, a market district by day, a youth club zone by night. It was where expats meet Korean girls, the Seoul version of Tokyo's Roppongi, Hong Kong's Lan Kwai Fung. If you are looking for a cheap Rolex knock off, this is where to go. I'd heard the difference between Itaewon's fake Louis Vuitons and the real thing was that Itaewon's were better made. A Burger King in Myung Dong had photos of American jazz musicians on the wall, including one of Clifford Brown, though it is unlikely Clifford would have been a recognizable personality in Seoul.

At the museum, Jenny pointed out the figure of Haitae, the water monster. An ancient king who worried about fires in the palace adopted the monster and its water power for protection. We discussed the difference between Asian and Western visual aesthetics. In the former the eye rolls horizontally across the work which lacks vanishing point perspective and thus the dimension of immediacy, tending to the timeless and the eternal. In Western paintings even in work done 200 years before photography, one observes signifiers of the moment, of the scene viewed from a definite point in space and time. The Western inclination for the spontaneous action shot, the Asian insistence on the posed keepsake.

Jenny struggled in vain to teach me some Korean phrases: joayo - good, cool. gumsa hunida - thank you. Jenny's boyfriend was off doing his military service; she gave me a small photo booth photo of the two posing head to head.

Jenny was terribly unhappy over the Yongsan Army Garrison, the US military base in the heart of the city that had housed the headquarters of the Japanese Imperial Army, 1910-1945: "Everyday I have to pass it, to see it, you can't avoid it. You can't go anywhere without passing the base." The base detracted from the city's authenticity, she said: "Seoul was not the real Korea anymore. There are, Jenny said, incidents involving US troops that are not publicized. I was a little taken aback by her intensity, that someone like Jenny could feel such revulsion. When she could she said she would drive out of her way not to have to be anywhere near the base. Did Jenny believe the North-South division was an American creation? Well, she said, the food is the same. Koreans left to their own devices could resolve whatever differences separated them from each other. If the base hadn't created the Korean divide, it stands in the way, an insult to all Koreans.

I discover that the base occupies 630 acres. Many thousands of US soldiers, airmen, and marines are stationed there, as well as US and Korean civilian employees, and their family members. It has the infrastructure of a small town or suburb: hospital, fire station, police, schools, theatres, clubs, restaurants, a hotel, recreation facilities. The Cold War done thousands of US troops based at Yongsan are scheduled to be shipped to Iraq. The South Korean government sent troops to join the coalition. In June 2004, a South Korean civilian working in Iraq was kidnapped and beheaded. The US military command says it will relocate to an area south of Seoul, freeing up a huge piece of desirable real estate to brokers and their clients.

The day concluded with dinner at one of Seoul's classier restaurants. On the way there I read to Jenny from the museum brochure: "For the 21st century of culture and in preparation for a unified Korea, a new museum, to serve as a cultural complex and to provide visitors with opportunities to appreciate Korean art and culture in a comprehensive manner, is under construction." Was a unified Korea in the works? Jenny told me not expect to hear much from her family about the two Koreas. Visitors who bring the subject up will find their Korean hosts indifferent and untalkative.

In the restaurant I made a paper boat for a little girl sitting a few tables away. Jenny's father brought her to our table and I got a big wet thank-you kiss. I tell Jenny the boat trick is a good way to meet women. Jenny laughs. I was introduced to an uncle, a mountaineer who had once climbed Everest, almost to the top. Up on Everest, he said to approving laughter, he didn't need any English.


Addressing garrison personnel in August 2008, American president George W. Bush, speaking for his successors, promised that the USA would maintain its military presence on the Korean peninsula. The ROK and the American military have agreed to move the base 55 miles south of its Seoul location in 2019.


David Levy is editor at The Montreal Review and author of "Stalin's Man in Canada: Fred Rose and Soviet Espionage" (Enigma Books, 2011)


Copyright © The Montreal Review. All rights reserved. ISSN 1920-2911
about us | contact us