Another Korea

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Cagoules, tritium, mugwort-flavored candy floss, curlews, spiritual spell-check, Toulouse-Lautrec, razor wire, nodding daffodils, Pantagruelian boozers, stitched-on hair, Dinky toys, insinuated Trump,
the DMZ & the DPRK.

In Seoul Express Bus Terminal, a woman came up to me. I’d been looking at a flap display of departures, which alternated between Korean and English. She spoke before I became aware of her. She had frozen chalky features and her teeth looked as if they’d just been screwed into her gums. She was wrapped up in a fur-lined cagoule. She had a notebook in her hand, and for a moment I thought she wanted help with her English.

“Are you a Christian?” she said. “Why do you ask?” I said, taken aback. “First there was the Word, and then the Word was made Flesh,” she stated firmly, making the common nouns sound like proper ones, “and the Flesh was Jesus Christ our Savior.” “Ah, yes,” I said. “I’ve heard that one before.” But she wouldn’t be put off. She was looking at her book, this time with a sharpened pencil in hand. She wrote down what she’d just said, in very neat, joined-up English, perhaps thinking I hadn’t understood. Then she wrote out something more, reading out each word as she formed it, never once looking at me. “Not ‘sprite,’” I told her, looking down. “That’s an imp, a little devil. You mean ‘Spirit.’ You wouldn’t want me to worship a devil, would you?” Her face cracked and she chuckled softly.

“What church are you?” I asked. “Baptist,” she said, and continued, “Jesus Christ will return…”

“But I thought most Koreans were Buddhists?”

It seemed that areas with the greatest potential for war were also the most peaceful and pleasant to look at.

She looked up. “I used to be a Buddhist.”

“Really? Why—?”

“Jesus Christ will return in Person and in Glory to the Earth, the Dead—”

“Well, what about Sun Myung Moon and the Unification Church, then?”

I was trying to interrupt her flow, trying to communicate with her rather than establish some more local and authentic-seeming source for her beliefs. “Do you work for—?”

“—will be raised and Jesus Christ will judge Everyone in Righteousness.”

She was looking at me sternly, and I wondered if she was about to add, “Even You.”

As she continued with her pitch, I thought of an incident when I was a student. A Marxist friend and I had gone to scoff at a revivalist meeting. A visiting evangelist who could speak in tongues and cure the sick (with a laying on of hands) had been advertised as preaching that day. We went up into the chapel gallery to get a good view. Young and old alike were stumbling down the aisle. The choir was belting out a Hank Williams hit: “Then He just came like a stranger in the night. Praise the Lord! I saw the light!” There were people in wheelchairs and even someone on a gurney. When a local character, a boozer of Pantagruelian morals and appetites, collapsed under the preacher’s touch, I turned to joke with my friend, but he was no longer there. I looked down and suddenly saw him, conspicuous in his long greasy hair, straggly beard and camouflage jacket. He didn’t look up. He had his hands above his head and was swaying with the music. Suppose I got swept up in this woman’s enthusiasm and went with her to some place of worship, and…?

My bus was about to depart. I made my apologies. The woman thrust a pamphlet into my hands. On the bus, I looked at it. Next to a blurry picture of a globe on a stand and a glass mug stuffed with sharpened pencils, the pamphlet urged, “ABC—IT’S SIMPLE TO BE SAVED.” The address on the back said Lebanon, Ohio. How had she come by such a thing, and what (or who) had caused her to shuffle through bus stations timidly accosting foreigners?

Later, I discovered that Protestant Christianity had become a powerful cultural force in South Korea after World War II, partly in support of the country’s pursuit of modernity and partly in emulation of the United States, but also in opposition to Japanese colonialism and the communism of the North. It was said to be the belief system of choice of the urbanites and intellectuals. Seoul claims to have eleven of the world’s twelve largest Christian congregations. Curiously, before the Korean War, two-thirds of Korean Christians lived in the North.

Compass RoseBetween Seoul and Cheongju, a distance of a little over 100 kilometers, there were mile after mile of numbered white apartment blocks set amidst craggy wooded hills; there were no cottages, villas, semis or even shacks. The numbers seemed consecutive, mounting toward infinity. A census taker couldn’t miss them. They were printed on the sides of each block in gigantic black letters. Was this some kind surveillance project? And were the tall buildings evidence of a hive mentality? Or was they just a result of the pressure of space in the valleys, the necessity of expanding upward?

In the cities, roads were immense highways on which vehicles looked like Dinky toys. Municipal buildings had a Soviet-style rectilinear squatness at the end of sun-swept squares. In upscale commercial districts, everyone seemed young. Men were tall and thin; they wore the same narrow dark suits and black shoes; they had the same short haircuts, sunglasses and rapid unerring walks. They could have doubled for Agent Smith in The Matrix. The women hastening in and out of banks looked like flight attendants. I’d read somewhere that modern-day South Koreans wanted to show that they were urban sophisticates rather than straw-chewing rustics. But this didn’t look like that. This looked stranger, almost uncanny, more an echo of the North’s uniformity (after a branding upgrade) than status-seeking.

Seoul looked as if it had been opened up and spread between the eight hills, then over and around the Han River like a board game—Risk, say, or Go. Streets passed in clean lines and perfect parabolas through the tower blocks and over the flat still water. Its inhabitants all had the same Galaxy 8 cell phones; Wi-Fi was universal. Hotels and commercial buildings were made of steel and curved sun-reflecting glass. Everything felt packaged and bar-coded. The ancient palaces were all tastefully restored. There were food stalls in Myeong-dong area, where you could buy roast lobster tails and mugwort-flavored candy floss. In Insa-dong there were coffee shops, in which the customers drank green-pepper lattes and persimmon frappuccinos. Craft beers were available in fat brown bottles with labels that might have been painted by Toulouse-Lautrec.

On road 131, pedestrians waited for the walk sign, then crossed in orderly ranks, following arrowed markings, keeping to the left. Uniformed men stood at the intersections, briskly waving batons. A cold wind blew down from the mountains in the north. Everyone except me was wrapped up as if for winter.

Previously the South had confined itself to Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” and Queen’s “We Are the Champions,” but since the North’s recent nuclear tests, attitudes had hardened.

Cheongju—and, for all I knew, every other city in the country—repeated the clean shapes, geometric patterns and businesslike behavior of the capital, leaving only dingy pockets of difference and estrangement, or prolonged gory brawling in the shadowed areas. So much uniformity, set amidst picturesque rocks and greenery, began to suggest (to my enchanted uncertain mind) that for South Korea the North was a kind of phantom limb that had to be imitated expensively, in tritium and portland cement, and then dressed in a Kenzo power suit and English footwear before it could be restored to life and reattached.

The feature that became omnipresent as we got closer to Cheongju were churches, towering Gothic structures, the product, it seemed, of a single overheated brain, each with an identical white cross on top of the steeple. As dusk fell, the crosses lit up, creating a fairy-like effect. I expected whooshing sparkles and a hologram of Tinker Bell to hover in front of me with a twee smile rather than, say, a tanned, slab-faced Ohioan with stitched-on hair and too many teeth promising the love of Jesus and a renewed life full of hope and blessings.

In Cheongju, we talked about Shakespeare, another import. We sat in a freezing auditorium, laid out in staggered red seating, while a well-known scholar gestured from the lectern at an image of a production of Julius Caesar. It had been performed at New York City’s public theater, Shakespeare in the Park. The theater had just had its funding pulled by Bank of America and Delta Airlines. The reason for this was that the play had “crossed the line on standards of good taste.” The line that had been crossed was portraying the soon-to-be-assassinated Caesar as an orange-skinned man with a blond bouffant in a dark suit and a dangling tie.

The scholar spoke with passion about Shakespeare’s political relevance and the need to speak truth to power. I was not sure if her audience appreciated the American context or the anti-Trump fervor (“We watched in excitement as Cassius wrapped himself in a ‘Resist’ flag”), or if they even cared. They seemed to want to address their own concerns. One local director and playwright I spoke with was interested in using Shakespeare to critique and moralize governance in South Korea, the kickbacks of Mrs. Park and the hesitations and dilemmas of Moon Jae-in. Richard II, he thought, and Hamlet might do it. I asked another man about the North: Was he afraid that Kim Jong-un’s threats might be realized? “His father said he would turn this country into a sea of fire thirty years ago,” the man said drily. “Why would I be any more concerned now? Western media makes a mountain out of a, a, uh…”


“Molehill. They bulk up a feeble story with a steroid injection.”

We laughed. “But they got the wrong story anyway,” he added, and smiled. “Like they do.”

Compass RoseI had to go. I had an appointment back in Seoul. The following day, a Saturday, was my only chance to visit the Demilitarized Zone (the DMZ) and Panmunjom, or the Joint Security Area (JSA), the very spot where North and South Korea had signed the armistice agreement back in 1953. Today, the countries still meet in the same place, but only in a long-distance fidgety stare, under the excitable scrutiny of heavily organized tour groups and their cameras.

We gathered at the President Hotel in Jung-gu area, stamping our feet in the early morning chill. A coach and guided tour would take us to the DMZ, for there was no other way of getting there; timing had to be exact, as tours were permitted on certain days only, and there were as many as ten coachloads a day. There was a “dress code” to make sure we didn’t turn up looking too shabby or decadent—no ripped jeans, shorts, T-shirts with “profane” images, biker chaps, baggy pants, low-cut tops or, weirdly, shower shoes—as such clothing could be used for propaganda purposes by the North. Once at the border, we must refrain from shouting abuse and not make obscene or offensive gestures.

Our guide was Soo-jin. She spoke eloquently throughout the trip, making only two “Gangnam Style” references (over which we tittered obediently), constantly reminding us to follow instructions, to have our passports ready at all times and to avoid any behavior that might see us detained or sent back. Her warnings were taken to heart. Apart from a dreadlocked Westerner wielding a Zeiss camera fitted with a giant telephoto lens (he kept leaning out of windows as we neared the DMZ, trying to get shots of nuclear tests, executions by rocket-propelled grenade or emaciated chain gangs breaking rocks), we proved a meek and tractable tour group. If she’d asked us to sing along to “Summer Holiday,” we would have done so, shamelessly and at the top of our lungs.

Seoul looked as if it had been opened up and spread between the eight hills, then over and around the Han River like a board game—Risk, say, or Go.

The coach followed a broad highway through farmland and recently harvested paddy fields alongside the Han and Rimjin Rivers. On the right, there were neat rows of rice-straw bales, each protected from the elements by a white plastic Ag wrap. The farmers, Soo-jin told us through her pin mike, were let off national service in return for living and working in a danger zone. Woodland—dark-green pine and maple trees in red and orange leaf—was now prevalent. The numbered blocks had given way to single-story dwellings. On the left, the river, which was tidal, was wide and glassy; when we returned in the afternoon, its exposed mud flats were blanketed with sandpipers, curlews and geese, so massed they looked like snowfall or nodding daffodils. We could hear their football-crowd chanting as we passed. It seemed that areas with the greatest potential for war were also the most peaceful and pleasant to look at.

Arno, who sat next to me, was a Finnish oral and maxillofacial surgery consultant. This was his last day. He was on the DMZ trip because he’d been everywhere else in and around Seoul and was at a loss to find anything else to do. His hosts had suggested this outing. His hosts had also burdened him with souvenirs, including a bulky traditional hanbok dress, even though he had no one to give it to. He’d received so many gifts, in fact, for family members who didn’t exist that they’d bought him an extra suitcase.

When I asked him about his work, Arno went on automatic pilot, explaining that there were three kinds of facial trauma: one caused by congenital or pre-birth factors (deformity), a second by accidents or military combat, such as mauling or a bullet wound, and a third by disease. He’d started out as a surgeon, but his job now was to outline and demonstrate methods of treatment, much of it involving robots and lasers. “Everything is high-tech these days,” he sighed. “Technology,” I sighed back, remembering a colleague’s irritation with Moodle. We stared out of the windows, wondering at what a long way we’d come and what a short way we had left to go before exterminating ourselves.

Arno lamented that the young people of today didn’t seem to know how to relate to one another. He said he blamed Nokia for being the originator of today’s alienated and disaffected computer nerds. I told him about E. M. Forster’s story “The Machine Stops,” in which the machine the people built to sustain them, and that they’ve come to worship, breaks down fatally. We carried on joking back and forth like that—in the way you do when thrown together by circumstance, and sharing the same prospects. “Where are we going?” Arno eventually said, looking at me with what I took to be Nordic gloom. I was thinking of shoving the “ABC—IT’S SIMPLE TO BE SAVED” pamphlet into his hands when we arrived at the first stop on our itinerary.

Compass RoseDorasan was the last station on the Gyeongui Line from Seoul, just outside the DMZ. Freight trains used to carry material from South Korea to the Kaesong Industrial Zone just over the border, where it could be cheaply and swiftly processed, and then return with the finished goods. Not anymore. Now the station houses a museum, with souvenir stalls, a map of the proposed intercontinental railway route from Seoul via Pyongyang to Paris, London and Lisbon, a sewing machine stitching out names of those who’d died in the war, an open grand piano with razor wire for strings (“The Piano of Unification”) and a photograph of George W. Bush grinning apishly on his 2002 visit. I bought a fridge magnet and stepped outside into warm sunlight.

The next stop was Imjingak and the Freedom Bridge. The place, which comprised a park, restaurants, shops and viewing platforms, was packed out with coachloads of tourists and day-trippers. Kids flew eagle-shaped kites on a rise while their parents picnicked nearby. I joined the crowd at the bridge, site of prisoner exchanges after the war of 1950–1953. Trains used to cross the Imjin River at this point. A blackened steam engine and rows of colorful ribbons commemorating ancestors and lost relatives marked the spot. The atmosphere was festive. Families went back and forth, eating ice cream. I bumped into Arno. “Too many people,” he said, eyes blurring. I went up to the viewing platform. North Korea was on the other side of the river. There wasn’t much to see—just rolling wooded hills in the haze and a gap between them where the railroad used to run. Arno was standing beside the coach when I got back. “Popular place,” he said, nodding decisively.

We visited the Third Tunnel next. Discovered in 1973, it was over a mile long, about eighty yards deep and capable of moving one full division (about fifteen thousand men), plus weapons, once an hour. It’d been built for a surprise attack on Seoul, Soo-jin said. She told us to look out for the holes used to plant dynamite sticks. We would see that they were all pointing south, proof of North Korean handiwork despite loud and vehement denials. We surrendered our smartphones, put on hard hats and descended in a Disneyland cart-train, squeezed up against one another, bumping our heads. At the bottom, we walked bent double along a narrow dripping tunnel. The roof was held up with steel supports and planks. Strip lighting lit the way. The old buffer in front of me said he’d rather be doing anything else. The dynamite holes had been marked out with yellow paint for us to narrow our eyes over shrewdly. (The oldster groused that the whole thing was a stunt designed to extract money and outrage from us.) We came to the end of the tunnel, which was marked by an illuminated plaque, and a row of bright lamps linking our tunnel to another blocked-off section leading to the North, presumably. That was it. We walked back, grunting, water dripping down our necks, feeling cheated.

So much uniformity, set amidst picturesque rocks and greenery, began to suggest (to my enchanted uncertain mind) that for South Korea the North was a kind of phantom limb that had to be imitated expensively, in tritium and portland cement, and then dressed in a Kenzo power suit and English footwear before it could be restored to life and reattached.

After lunch, we visited Dora Observatory, where we could stare at North Korea through mounted binoculars and listen to the South Korean boy band Big Bang blast out their signature hit, “Bang! Bang! Bang!”, from massive speakers. The speakers resembled a battery of surface-to-air missiles. They could send music twenty miles into North Korea, not as far as Pyongyang but certainly as far as Kaesong, glinting distantly in the sunshine. “B-I-G!” the band sang out, “Yeah, we bang like this!”, before chorusing, K-poppingly, “BANG! BANG! BANG!” Previously the South had confined itself to Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” and Queen’s “We Are the Champions,” but since the North’s recent nuclear tests, attitudes had hardened.

We could see the propaganda village of Kijong-dong, known as Peace Village in the North, with its giant flagpole topped by a red flag. “When we built ours,” Soo-jin said, “they had to build a taller one; that’s the kind of regime they have.” She spoke with feeling, indifferent to any irony.

From our position, high up in the hills, the northern half of the peninsula looked pretty, even idyllic, black-eared kites turning on fluttering pinions in the pale light above a patchwork of yellow and brown fields and blue remembered hills. A river wound through autumnal woodland. The scene could have been a National Geographic center spread or the model for a jigsaw puzzle. The observatory was jam-packed with sightseers, chirruping in several tongues—Korean, Malay, English, French, Spanish and German. Although there were no Chinese tourists, China having boycotted South Korea after the deployment of the USA’s air-defense missile system (THAAD), we more than made up for them, swarming the place, jostling at the parapet, getting in the way of one another with our selfies, George W. Bushing against that forbidding landscape.

Back on the bus, we passed the fence marking the South Korean border at the edge of the DMZ, then wound along a country lane lined with barbed wire and anti-tank concrete blocks; they could be blasted over the road in case of an invasion. Then we went up a densely wooded hill (“Not hard to trek in,” Arno said mysteriously) until we drew into a parking space below Camp Bonifas.

The camp was named after one of two US officers axed to death by North Korean soldiers in 1976. They’d been trying to chop down a poplar tree that obstructed the view from a United Nations observation post, and the People’s Army had objected, claiming the Great Leader had planted it. The spot used to be on the tour itinerary, but not now, not after the latest Trump/Kim spat. A man in civilian clothes got on board to count us. We waited for several more minutes, Soo-jin becoming audibly nervous, until our escort, three US military personnel, finally sauntered down the hill to join us. Two got on board.

We stared out of the windows, wondering at what a long way we’d come and what a short way we had left to go before exterminating ourselves.

They were both young, in their late twenties, gym built and confident looking. One of them passed up and down checking our passports. Then he returned for a head count. The one who spoke had a strong, carrying voice. He reminded us of our need to comport ourselves well and to stay in sight at all times. We would now go on up to the JSA, first for a briefing in the Freedom House and then down to the Military Armistice Commission (MAC) building, in which the armistice had been signed seventy-four years ago. We were reminded that the Republic of Korea (ROK) and North Korea were still at war. We were not to take any photographs until permission was given. Always follow instructions. Don’t deviate from the route. De-load only when requested. (De-load? That was a new one.) Properly wound up and pleasurably alarmed, we arrived in Panmunjom, pulling up in front of a souvenir shop, where we de-loaded.

We weren’t allowed to buy our fridge magnets or key rings yet, however. We filed up some steps into the Freedom House, then turned right at the top, then went up some more steps, then filed into an auditorium, where we were required to sign document UNC REG 551-5. This was the Visitor Declaration form that exempted the United Nations Command (UNC), the United States of America and the Republic of Korea from any blame in the event of our injury or death. We listened gravely to Private First Class Rockford as he outlined what might happen if we didn’t sign, or didn’t wear our guest badges on the upper left of outer garments, or attempted to break ranks, or showed signs of drunkenness.

We learned how the Joint Security Area came to be, and how it functioned as a neutral zone, with UNC military personnel on one side (the South) of the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) and Korean People’s Army personnel on the other (the North). We must not attempt to communicate with the latter or flee to the other side. “Anyone planning to defect?” he said. (I felt Arno stiffen beside me.) “No? Good.” He then identified all the buildings on a map of the JSA (it had been projected onto a screen behind him), offering the odd anecdote for us to marvel or guffaw over. “Well, that was pretty boring,” he concluded. “That’s the thousandth time I’ve done this. Now come this way, please, keeping in the line, sir.” That last remark was addressed to the dreadlocked cameraman.

Back at the bottom, we lined up on the edge of the road separating the South Korean side from the North and stared at the insignificant powder-blue hut we’d come all this way to see. It stood next to another identical powder-blue hut. Beyond them, on the other side of the MDL, which bisected the JSA, was the large columned white building, Panmon Hall, belonging to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. On the other side of the road from us, there were four UNC soldiers standing, facing the North. Two stood at ease in the middle of the gap between the two huts. One turned around to look at us. I’m pretty certain that he winked. The other two soldiers stood on either side of the gap, one half of their bodies behind the huts, so that only the other half was exposed to the North—to minimize the chances of being shot at, according to Private First Class Rockford. Why this didn’t apply to the two soldiers in the middle was not revealed. The winker was now scratching his backside.

He’d received so many gifts, in fact, for family members who didn’t exist that they’d bought him an extra suitcase.

“If you look at the DPRK building, at the second pillar on the left, you can just make out Bob’s profile,” said our guide. “We call him Bob because that’s what he does: bob into view.” We laughed loudly. Sure enough, the shadowy outline of a North Korean head and shoulders soon bobbed into view before moving back behind the pillar. We were not allowed to take photographs at this point—Dreadlocks having to be told twice, Soo-jin tut-tutting in the background, while the other UNC guide, Private First Class Hardy, loomed over him. We waited, admiring the symmetry of the scene or keeping a look out for Bob, while another tour group completed its turn in the hut.

It filed out. We filed in. The hut consisted of a single room with a long conference table in the middle. Two South Korean soldiers stood immobile, but with arms behind their backs and legs apart. “They’re not waxworks,” said Private First Class Hardy, who’d taken over tour-guide duties from his companion. “I get that all the time.”

He went on, “These guys are highly trained in martial arts, ready to take out the enemy at a moment’s notice.” He told us to arrange ourselves around the conference table. “Secretary of State James Mattis was here yesterday,” he said, eyeballing Dreadlocks. “That was pretty cool.” I got the impression that we weren’t quite so cool. “The Commies have that side,” he said, pointing at me—I was standing on the far side of the table—“which is in the DPRK.” We looked about, goggling. “So on that side you’re technically in North Korea.” “Wow,” we said. He said we had five minutes to take photographs. “Five minutes,” Soo-jin echoed emphatically. We whipped out our smartphones and took turns being photographed with the soldier guarding the door to North Korea. Private First Class Rockford leaned over to his companion. “Commies?” he murmured, smirking. (I imagined him joshing later over a beer, “You really said that?”) Dreadlocks, seizing his chance, threw caution to the wind, sliding open one of the windows and hanging out of it with his camera, Soo-jin hauling at his pants.

I felt for Dreadlocks. In the past, North Korean soldiers used to come up to the windows and goggle back at the tourists, and he’d have had the chance of a close-up or even a selfie with a smiling officer. Not now. All contact had been reduced to a faint grey jigsaw shape behind a distant pillar.

As for the North, all we ever get nowadays are bizarre long-distance reports from freelance journalists and celebrated basketball players, or else tales of unspeakable suffering from those who managed to escape the regime after crossing freezing rivers and the wind-eroded terrain north of Harbin City. Some of those tales, we’re told, came from “career deserters”—escapees who offered increasingly horrible accounts for a fee.

I expected whooshing sparkles and a hologram of Tinker Bell to hover in front of me with a twee smile rather than, say, a tanned, slab-faced Ohioan with stitched-on hair and too many teeth promising the love of Jesus and a renewed life full of hope and blessings.

The distance between the Freedom House and Panmon Hall was about fifty yards. The soldiers didn’t seem trigger-happy. You could probably dart across the road before anyone would react, and then you’d have only forty-odd yards to run before you got to Bob. There was also the possibility of sneaking away in the Freedom House, there being only two guards at the top of the stairs, and none at the bottom, or none that seemed interested in anything other than their mugs of coffee. You could probably get out the back way easily enough and then make a dash across the Bridge of No Return. They wouldn’t notice you were missing till the head count back on the bus. That would give you a good twenty minutes.

What would happen if I were to do it, haring into the sunny wooded landscape I’d seen earlier?

Back in the bus, I looked for Arno. He wasn’t there. I remembered his gloom on the road to Dorasan station, his wild eyes at Imjingak and his enigmatic words before Camp Bonifas. He’d been edgy all day, now that I thought about it. I considered. I’d seen him come out of the hut, but had I seen him after that, in the Freedom House? I couldn’t recall his thin, quivering features on the stairs. I pictured him sliding out of a back door, skulking through the shrubbery, then legging it over the Bridge of No Return, desperately scrambling over barbed wire, arms reaching out for the distant woods and the sanctuary of its foliage. Had he secretly been nursing the hope that he could use his surgical skills on a larger face than a merely human one?

“Interesting, no?” Arno said, appearing suddenly at my side. “Yeah,” I said. I tried not to sound too disappointed.

“Do you think they get paid?”


“The UNC soldiers.”

“They must; they do a job for us and the tour companies.”

But did they get paid? It seemed only logical that they or the UN and even the US government and the ROK (maybe even the DPRK) got a percentage. If so, the implications were vertiginous.

“What about the CPV?” Arno said.


“Chinese People’s Volunteers.”

“No idea.”

I shook my head to clear it. All these acronyms were more confusing than any percentages.

Compass RoseOnce back in Seoul, the bus had to divert because a demonstration had taken over the main arteries. Soo-jin didn’t explain its purpose. We passed one area where the police had closed off the streets. The marchers waited behind barriers. Their red-and-yellow banners were in Korean, but one in English said, “People Power Mass Mobilization.” The march seemed to have something to do with rice prices, but Soo-jin was tight-lipped. I thought again of the parallels with the North, the words of the banner reminiscent of neo-Marxist slogans, and then that eerie sense of the known and familiar becoming strange returned.

The uncanny may be a sign of repressed impulses, but it’s also a sign of a shift in perspective. Stare into the mirror long enough and your reflection begins to stare back. The uncanny, they say, puts us where we don’t know how to tell good from bad, pleasure from displeasure, love from hate. It makes us wonder what is real or not, and even whether there is any “what” to wonder at, at all. I had a double running through the North Korean countryside, another kneeling in a church in Seoul and a third sitting beside me on the bus.

A fourth left that night for the West.

Piers Michael Smith has published travel pieces in Eclectica and Cold Noon, and his poetry has appeared in Critical Quarterly and Red Rock Review. He currently works at Gulf University for Science and Technology, Kuwait, but can be reached by email at

Lead image: Grant McCurdy

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