DIVIDED KOREA: The Old and the Young.
BUSAN, Korea, November 1, 2019 - During the daytime this city in the far south of
South Korea resembles an Old Age colony located in a country partitioned by the East-West
conflict, a country with a history of people flagellated for generations by Japanese invasions,
wars and the brutality of their own homegrown dictators.
Once a rice growing Asian region wars have played havoc with the rice paddies
and the young from the south had to go north to Seoul to find jobs, leaving behind the
Thin, often bent by arthritis, faces lined by hardships and waddling like ships
in a gale these ‘seniors’ are gathered everywhere. Most are survivors of three wars,
the Japanese War against China, World War II and the Korean War. After the wars which
destroyed Korea came the hardships and the brutality of the now legendary Korean industrial
Silent and spent the old people spent the day on park benches, at temples or seated on
the rim of splashing fountains deep down in subway stations. Theirs is a generation of workers
from the 1960s, 70s and 80s who built the 400 km expressway between Seoul and Busan in just
under two and a half years. These worn-out men
and women built spectacular bridges spanning the ocean to connect islands, all in record time;
they remodelled war-ruined cities with skyscrapers and built motor cars, high tech products and
electronics that saturated world markets. In those
reconstruction days the Korean worker slaved twelve hours a day. Those old people once
turned corporations like Hyundai and Samsung into economic powerhouses,
the so-called Chaebols.
Historians say South Koreans worked the longest hours in the industrial world
and were paid lowest wages under corrupt dictatorships whose elites siphoned off
the bulk of profits and savagely suppressed periodic workers’ protests with massive
arrests, torture and the killing of labor leaders.
In this way the boom kept booming until 1991 when South Korea became a democracy
for the first time (after the last military dictator was shot dead by his chief of security at the
dinner table). But communist North Korea retained the old ruling dogma under the Kim dynasty,
the one-man rule with bat and bullet.
Korea remains divided along the 38th parallel, the de facto border after the Korean
War ended in the early 1950s. After periodic invasions of Korea by the Japanese beginning in
the 16th century (usually rebuffed with Chinese help) the Japanese finally turned all Korea into
a colony in 1910 with gradual expropriation of land, goods, and later in the Second World War
the confiscation of anything metallic that could be converted into bullets and cannons. Koreans
became slave labour; unmarried Korean girls served as ‘comfort women’ forced to have sex
with as many as thirty Japanese soldiers a day. Young Korean men were force-marched into
the Japanese army for the conquest of China.
Liberated from the Japanese yoke by the U.S. Koreans saw the
Americans return home only to return in a hurry for the fight against a communist takeover
during the bloody Korean War.
At Gamcheon Cultural Village, people like the inevitably named ‘Mister Kim’
have only one hero, U.S. General Douglas McArthur, the man they say
who with a gambit of military genius saved South Korea from being overrun
by the communist North. But McArthur was fired by President Truman for advocating
to continue the campaign and wage war against China.
Gamcheon was a hillside slum on the fringe of Busan before northerners
fleeing the communists escaped all the way to the south, arrived in Busan and turned the slum
barracks into homes. Since the year 2000 the former slum has been
converted into a tourist attraction after local artists painted the homes and alleys in brilliant
With their history of wars, invasions and brutality it is not surprising
academics argue the concept of happiness is alien to most Koreans, at least
the older generation. What drives Koreans instead is the concept of
competition and the Confusion doctrine of loyalty to one’s family, deference
to those in authority, respect for elders and a desire for education.
Though poor on pensions the elderly, those over 65, are given priority
lanes, special elevators and discounts at public venues. But there exists a visible
gap between the old men and women in their drab old-fashioned clothing and the
new smartly dressed generation of young Koreans, educated after years of
memorizing texts and lectures. This new modern and fashionable breed pours from schools,
colleges and universities in the early evening. If they graduate, these robot learners become
‘salary men’ in dark suits and white shirts. (the only people who seem to speak some English)
Those who failed probably end up, also in dark suits and white shirts, as bellhops and hotel
Young Korean women can be as assertive as their western sisters today, elbowing
their way to the front of the metro line, unlike their intimidated mothers.
When a foreigner held open the door for an old granny, she stared at him in astonishment and
bowed so low in gratitude her ancient knees buckled and he had to help her stand up. The old
still stare at a westerner (who remain rare in this part of
the South). The young generation ignores them.
But young Koreans, already a novelty in pop music and modern films, are catching up
as quickly as their fathers and grandfathers did when they engineered
the astonishing ‘Made in Korea’ miracle.
With women vying for jobs today few of them want children, one reason
perhaps for the surplus of old people and the almost adoring
admiration for young couples walking into a venue or a restaurant with their baby or
their toddler. “Make room, make room!” yells the restauranteur.
Hopefully one Korean tradition will not change - to keep the streets and gutters in
this country pristine clean. Not a single piece of paper was found in a week, only one cigarette
butt discarded by a sullen foreigner. He ignored the fierce looks of accusation. No one
complained. That would have been impolite, just as it would be impolite to refuse if someone
offers you a seat in the Metro.
Baffling for a westerner there are no public garbage bins in Korea. People take their
refuse home and leave it neatly packed for the Garbage collector. He
collects quietly, catlike, at night, not waking anyone.
In this country public toilets are kept so immaculate they shine. And there
is one at every second corner. After all Korea is a country of old people and old
people have frequent needs of a bathroom.