WEEKEND nights at Hongdae, a university district in central Seoul – are made up of a heady combo of dance, music and alcohol.
The centre of action is a street where groups of K-Pop cover bands perform dance moves or sing to the latest hits, complete with their own mini legion of fans. In the restaurants parallel to it, young South Koreans dressed in their trendiest streetwear line their stomach before their big night out
It’s a sight to behold. Sure, much has been written on K-pop and its world dominance but reading it on a screen isn’t the same as having it popping and grinding in sync in front of you.
You would think that with your daily news feed bombarded with news of impending nuclear doom inching closer with every barb traded between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un that this would be a country preparing for war and building underground bunkers for shelter.
But if Hongdae’s streets are anything to go by, South Korean youth look more concerned about winning the next dance-off than a war with its rogue neighbour to its north.
Life goes on as usual here, with K-pop as king of South Korea, not war.
In a concert at Nuri Peace Park, only 8km from the demilitarised zone that separates the two Koreas, the New York Times reported the shrieks for Girls’ Generation, BTOB, Cosmic Girls, Mamamoo and GFriend far trumped the volume of cheers for nuclear disarmament, peace and the reunification of the two Koreas preceding it.
That’s not to say the North is completely wiped out from the South’s psyche. (And judging something by the decibel of cheers by fans is hardly the best form of measure.)
The country is technically at war, there are no two ways about that. Having one of the longest mandatory military service in the world – only behind Singapore and Israel – is pretty good evidence of that. So is the frequent presence of soldiers around Seoul and at seemingly harmless events around the country.
And the bulk of South Koreans still deem reunification as necessary according to a 2017 survey by the Korean Institute for National Unification.
But the same survey also found more South Koreans feeling indifferent towards unification. As many as 58.6 percent say it won’t make a big difference to their lives whether unification happened or not.
What seems to matter more are rice bowl issues, like rising inflation and youth unemployment, not the prospect of a hydrogen bomb estimated to be 17 times more powerful than the atomic bomb that hit Hiroshima in 1945.
And K-pop concerts in Seoul – only 48km from the demilitarised zone and less than 200km from Pyongyang – show no signs of not selling out as soon as they go on sale either.
Oazzang, a guesthouse owner in Seoul, is unfazed by the escalating tension between US President Donald Trump and “rocket man” Kim. He believes the North will only go so far with its threats and no further. Far too much is at stake for its elite than to risk losing it all in an unnecessary war, he says.
“We don’t worry about war,” Oazzang told Asian Correspondent.
Or, even if they do, these fears have been normalised, as Haeryun Kang, Korea Expose’s managing editor, wrote in The Guardian. The feeling is described as a complex sort of indifference today, shaped by everything that has happened since the two countries first separated almost 70 years ago.
To the older generation raised in cold war ideology, it’s a love-hate relationship towards the North, a sort of rebel brother threatening destruction on them, but still family nonetheless. For the young, their only ties to the North is through their grandparents’ memories and from what they had learned in schools to support unification, part of the South’s Sunshine foreign policy from the 80s to encourage interaction and economic assistance between the two states under President Kim Dae-jung.
But I would argue there’s something bigger than indifference going on with this whole K-pop obsession: Freedom.
Against the backdrop of your neighbours to the North facing severe restrictions down to their last movement, being able to dance, sing and revel in public is nothing if not the exercise of life’s greatest liberties.
And in the face of impending apocalypse, can anyone argue a better way to prepare than this?