In Seoul, Armed and Generous

Schmoozed by South Korea's friendly troops.

By Steve Burgess 4 Mar 2008 |

Steve Burgess is back from his latest travels in Asia, but the e-postcards are still trickling in.

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Small talk, big guns.

It's pretty cold here in Seoul. Drafty, too. If you're a young Korean man, you are probably more chilled thinking about the latter. Every young Korean male must spend up to two years in the military, including the two dudes who recently helped me find my way on a recent sub-zero Seoul night.

When you look at a map, or read the news, it seems the proximity of South Korea's major metropolis to the forbidding North must feel like a daily threat. Once in Seoul, North Korea seems as distant as Baghdad. Here you feel closer to Tokyo than to the land of Kim Jong-il.

Except for the young military men. Crowds are speckled with their camouflage outfits as they wander about with shopping bags, looking just like regular folks who dress badly. It's one of the sole Seoul reminders of the frozen state of war that persists between South and North Korea. Another is the Armed Forces TV channel aiming programming at U.S. servicemen, complete with public service ads offering helpful tips on avoiding security breaches (the one about "piggybacking" was particularly entertaining).

Career opportunities

The draft has to be a tough sell in a country as prosperous and modern as this one. Seoul is every inch the lively Asian metropolis, full of neon neighbourhoods offering fashion, food and nightlife. It's a big, sprawling inducement to draft dodging. Plenty of other career opportunities present themselves to young South Koreans, including one that may be considered the ultimate: professional video game player. Korean television now features video games as a spectator sport, complete with league standings and star player interviews. Meanwhile up north, the army is probably one of the only solid strategies for acquiring three square meals a day.

North Korea is by no means the only rival in the region. South Korea and Japan have been engaged in a heated squabble over a group of rocks called (by the Koreans) the Dokto Islands. And there's always the looming loony threat. The 600-year-old edifice called Sungnyemun, a.k.a. Namdaemun, a.k.a. the Great South Gate, was considered Seoul's number one historic attraction until it was burned down Feb. 10, apparently by a local crank upset over a civil case. I didn't get a chance to see it. I do hope someday to see the pyramids before they are blown up by a disgruntled postal employee.

Every nation has its crazies, but Koreans do have one particular disease -- people are almost pathologically helpful here. You need to be careful about asking for help because it's like ending up with a new set of in-laws. One day I was on a Seoul subway platform, unsure of which train to board, and asked a middle-aged couple for assistance. They shepherded me onto the right train, indicated that I must now sit beside them, and hauled me up the steps at the next stop like a poky little puppy. Eventually I had to detach myself, explaining through gestures and sad looks that it was time for me to make my own way. Letting go is hard. They still send money sometimes.

A happy little march

On another cold night -- Seoul gets a lot of those -- I find myself standing on a street corner, lost again. Two young off-duty soldiers come to my aid and, in typical Korean fashion, persist. Soon we are marching several blocks down the street in search of my tiny budget hotel. Considering the language and cultural barriers -- military vs. civilian to mention just one -- conversation seems a daunting prospect. But I am ready with the day's headlines. I raise my arm, pat my shoulder, and say, "How about those soccer players?"

This, you may take my word, was a clever conversational gambit.

That day's papers had been filled with stories about Korean soccer stars -- 92 of them, past and present -- who had intentionally damaged or dislocated their shoulders through excess weight training, thus paving the way for convenient medical draft exemptions. Top Korean athletes are often exempted from military service so that they can play for their country. But like George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, other members of the elite must help matters along a little. Unlike Bush/Cheney, the Korean soccer players were eventually punished, rather than being appointed team captains.

The lead soldier nodded. "Many athletes avoid service," he said simply. Soon it will be pro video gamers with repetitive-motion thumb issues.

Not these guys. After a couple of blocks I was reoriented and knew my way. But there was no stopping them. Like Napoleon's troops on a lightning march they charged toward the objective -- the Yim's House Hotel. I hurried along behind, trying to think of how to say "Stop," in Korean. Napoleon would have known.

I was saved by a red light. Catching up, I thanked the lads profusely and assured them I would be OK from this point on. Such devotion to duty makes me confident that malingering footballers will not endanger the Republic of Korea. Even better: how about a couple of million day passes for North Korean troops. Let them visit Seoul and begin dreaming of new lives as professional video game players. Peace through virtual violence -- a made-in-Korea solution.

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