Korea South, not North

When I checked in for my flight to Seoul at the Belgrade aerodrome,

the desk clerk was bewildered. She had heard of Korea, she had even

heard of Seoul. But: oh my god, she exclaimed, I do mix them up so,

the north and south.

When I finally landed in Korea — no visa required — they had

never heard of Serbia. I had to trigger that magic word “Yugoslavia,”

so that the Korean computer blinked in nostalgic approval and allowed

me into the country.

The wild demilitarized zone between the two Koreas is a major

tourist attraction: so I was told. Not for me it isn’t, I said: I’ve

seen too many of those borders, from Berlin, to Serbia, to the rest

of the world.

The American Cold War propaganda is surely bad enough there,

but in North Korea they are segregated so drastically from the rest

of the planet that everything they say sounds shallow. South Korea

wants to reach out to the North, to build cultural bridges,


diplomacy, finance, the usual, yet the North seems entirely

uninterested. What must the people think? All this fanaticism without

even the luxury of an ethnic


Until 15 years ago, in South Korea, women would

get a driver’s licences whenever their husbands got one.

Women never had to take any driver’s education courses, as it was

presumed that women would never drive. Then women took the wheel and

finally the law changed.

A huge, rapid transition for women, says a guest at the LIFT

event in Seoul: I am an optimist. He is a foreign expert living as

an optimist in Korea, he hopes his daughter will marry a Korean and

that two Koreas will re-unite.

People are lively, hard working, and, I notice, strangely

silent: this huge Asian metropolis of over 20 million is quieter than

a small town in Italy. The airport is as clean and solemn as a

hospital ward. The service in malls, restaurants, hotels is like

something from a science fiction movie: everything is possible, just

let me know from which planet you come.

The shopping malls are crammed with the usual Western luxury

brands, and hordes of Korean women shopping: when the women meet for

lunch, for once, they let themselves talk loudly.

The city never sleeps, but the workers are allowed to sleep at

work if they have no urgent duties or customers to pester. Empty

shops are manned by slumbering clerks. Unemployment is next to

zero: everybody is doing his/her small task in the mighty chain of

the big civil utilities, the Korean “chaebol” cartels.

Love hotels are rented by the hour, ten dollars for a bed in a

tall shiny building without architectural glamour. The skyscrapers

are as anonymous as the city’s black and white cabs. Nameless

buildings bear numbers in nameless streets which are also numbered…

Beauty shops, beauty clinics, medical anti-aging clinics, in a

city where obesity seems almost unknown if not expressly forbidden.

What do they eat? The famous Korean dog-meat, live octopus

hastily chopped into violently wriggling shreds, a putrid pink fish

which reeks of ammonia. This pink fermented skate fish, stinking and

crunchy with cartilage — the natives of the Korean deep south long

for this fish when they are in Europe, surrounded by stinking

European cheeses. And hot Asian peppers, even big Korean garlic

cloves that are searingly hot, as hot as hot can get; they might not

cure cancer, but one bite of those obliterates culture-shock.

The farewell event was a champagne party, sponsored by the

French, aimed at Koreans. Hundreds of beautiful Korean girls dancing

to Brooklyn rap music, dressed in their silky local fashions and

stiletto high heels, men in dark or silver business suits with long,

pointed, narrow black shoes… One woman at the party told me how

hard life is for a feminist in this very chauvinist male society. She

wants her career: society wants her to have a baby. Perhaps that was

why, after swilling much free champagne, she suddenly jumped into the

discotheque’s swimming pool, fully dressed. Her boyfriend jumped in

after her and they lived there happily ever after.

Seoul’s statue of the Maitreya, the huge Buddha of the Future,

was built only 11 years ago. In downtown Seoul this Buddha Who Is to

Come oversees the bland skyscrapers with his tolerant, easy worldly

wisdom. In his towering concrete meditations, perhaps he will open

the door to futurity for the one Korean people, so sadly divided by

that military business they call the Past.


About jasminatesanovic

Jasmina Tešanović (Serbian: Јасмина Тешановић) (born March 7, 1954) is a feminist, political activist (Women in Black, Code Pink), translator, publisher and filmmaker. She was one of the organizers of the first Feminist conference in Eastern Europe "Drug-ca Zena" in 1978, in Belgrade. With Slavica Stojanovic, she ran the first feminist publishing house in the Balkans "Feminist 94" for 10 years. She is the author of Diary of a Political Idiot, a war diary written during the 1999 Kosovo War and widely distributed on the Internet. Ever since then she has been publishing all her work, diaries, stories and films on blogs and other Internet media.
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