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Destruction and Development: Seeing into Seoul

The media is rife with stories of sadness and violence; conflict, contagions, and crimes; disputes and political strife. For many, the last year was noted as being particularly brutal. Though we find ourselves increasingly immersed in depressing clouds of media, statistics paint a positive trajectory for humankind. Acts of violence inflicted by nature are more combatable than ever, and violent crimes are supposedly lower than ever. A recent encounter I had in Seoul sparked a series of thoughts around violence, particularly innovation borne from violent conflict, that drove me to write this piece.

The impetus in question occurred during a business trip to Seoul, South Korea, in early December last year. It was not only my first trip to Korea, but also my first venture into Far East Asia. The closest I’ve ever been geographically is Singapore, which I soon learned, was no approximation of what Seoul is like.

Seoul is a Megatropolis, the world’s 16th largest city, and host to over half the country’s population, surpassing other big cities such as London and Singapore in density. But what was most impactful to me was the relative serenity of the city that stood in abrasive contrast against its towering size and compactness. The streets were relatively empty – even on the weekend – and its densest parts did not feel comparable to the overcrowded aggression of, say, London.

The restrained bustle and relative quietness reflected the composure of the Korean people, who were surprisingly reserved in their conduct. The reality on the ground contrasted sharply - alarmingly so - against the billboards depicting their celebrity idols. This dichotomy was more intense than I have personally witnessed in other cities, where the zeitgeist tends to manifest amongst the people in more obvious aesthetic ways. The people projected both a quiet conservatism and deep pride. In many ways most importantly, personal interactions were exceedingly pleasant. Everyone I met was helpful and kind (in their reserved way) even in instances of major language barriers.

The city, though rather drab in colour and general appearance, was deceptive in what it contained. Far from looking like a techno-industrial future behemoth (think Tokyo), the city is in fact one of the most wired on earth, featuring the widest prevalence of fibre-optic cables in the world. Furthermore, interspersed segments of cultural landmarks like dynastic palaces, 18th century cathedrals, and weathered Buddhist temples, brought to London to mind in the charming patchwork of old and new.

In the midst of all of these new sights and experiences, our hosts took my colleagues and I out to lunch one afternoon. We settled on an Italian restaurant (which was delicious). The waiter who showed us to our table was Japanese, a fact our hosts were able to pick up on immediately despite his excellent command of Korean. We wondered how his path had led him to working in Seoul. So we asked.

In a twist none of us expected, it turned out that our Japanese waiter was, in fact, the owner of the restaurant.

There were a couple interesting things at play here. That the owner himself was waiting on customers, and that he was a young Japanese entrepreneur in Korea running an Italian restaurant. Individually the pieces made sense. Italian food has few detractors, so you couldn’t fault him for the choice of cuisine, and it’s not difficult to see the many advantages of the owner waiting tables himself. Nor is it beyond comprehension that a Japanese entrepreneur would seek out opportunity in neighboring Korea, which shares a close history with Japan. The two countries are bound together by wars and tides of migrants in the ocean of history, breaking sometimes on Japanese coasts, and sometimes on Korean.

In fact, this wasn’t the first strange by-product of Japan and Korea’s complicated marriage I had observed that trip. Throughout the four or five days I was there I quickly noted the ubiquity of peculiar cartoon animal characters. They were on billboards, on street-corner shop posters, on phone-covers, and even had their own range of toys. Quick digging revealed that they were ‘LINE Friends.’

It took me a little longer to figure out what that actually meant.

As it turns out, LINE Friends are the mascots of the communication app LINE. Beneath all the merchandise around them, they’re just virtual stickers that can be collected and traded within the LINE app. Where things became especially interesting for me was when I learned how LINE came to be in the first place.

LINE was created as a response to the havoc unleashed on Japan by the Tohoku earthquake in 2011. The damage caused by the natural disaster severely impaired Japan’s communication infrastructure, and so the Japanese branch of the Korean Naver Corporation developed LINE as a free internet-based communications app to circumvent the blackout. The popularity of the app exploded from that point on, going global, and at one point dominating as Japan’s biggest social media platform.

Massive destruction in Japan, caused by natural violence in this case, was partially remedied by a Korean corporation and spearheaded by a Japanese team. The result was a pop-culture phenomenon that created a way for people to communicate more freely. I realized that even I have used LINE in the past when FaceTime was banned in Saudi Arabia. This peculiar relationship between Japan and Korea could be observed everywhere I went, in the shadows of destruction, bridging gaps and elevating people.

It occurred to me that both countries shared something else in common in their recent history. Both were significantly impacted by the US military: the nuclear bombings of World War II, and the division of Korea at the 38th parallel and ensuing Korean War. Both occurred during a period of time when the US’ policy towards military intervention was… different to say the least. The legacy of the US can be felt strongly in both countries, very often in positive ways. They unleashed violence, and built back up in ways they would not go on to repeat in Iraq decades later. This is by no means an effort on my part to excuse the conduct of the US military. Nor do I intend to oversimplify the circumstances. But what is undeniable is that both destruction and development took place, and this American imprint common to both Korea and Japan is another addition to the already complicated intertwinement of the two countries.

As I flew back home, I pondered all the things I’d seen and learned in Seoul. I thought of the tumultuous conditions in my own region of the world. I thought over the parallels and differences between what’s happening in the Middle-East and what’s happened in Far East Asia. I think of my home country’s current military engagements in Yemen. I wonder if we can apply the same constructive principles there that the US did in the aftermath of what took place in Japan and Korea. I wonder if we’ll make apps for each other that improve quality of life or save lives. Or perhaps the dichotomy of destruction and development will be weighted towards only one side. It’s largely in our hands.

With luck I’ll have the opportunity to return to Korea in the near future. K-Pop is a phenomenon I don’t understand and would like to immerse myself in for curiosity’s sake if ever given the opportunity. And with luck I’ll have the opportunity to visit Japan. To see how they tell the story, to experience how they developed from destruction. If I ever do, stay tuned for a sequel to this post.

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