DO YOU KNOW THE KOREAN WAVE? ARE YOU AMONG THE MORE THAN ONE BILLION PEOPLE WHO TUNE INTO WATCH THE KOREAN DRAMA DESCENDANTS OF THE SUN?
Do you swoon whenever Lee Byung-hun appears on the big screen? Do you follow, with perhaps a slightly unhealthy interest, the tangled love lives of K-pop’s megastars? Are you aware that LeBron James really does drive a Kia? Have you ever found yourself, late at night, on YouTube, watching PSY’s 2012 totally bonkers live performance of “Gangnam Style”—the one in Seoul, outdoors, with 80,000 delirious fans singing and dancing in unison? Did you experience the shivers?
If you answered no to these questions, well, Fm afraid you are behind the times, my friend. Your attachment to Cadillac, The Walking Dead, and Taylor Swift is, sad to say, a little parochial. The world has moved on. But it’s not hopeless. You too can ride the Zeitgeist. You just need to turn your gaze to Seoul.
Today, South Korea is cool. How cool? Well, the day I arrived at Incheon International Airport—a sleek new Asian hub where you can find a golf course, a skating rink, a casino, a spa and sauna, a museum, a movie theater, an arts and crafts studio, and the kind of dining options that will make you weep in despair the next time you encounter an airport Cinnabon—North Korea was busy playing with its nukes. My phone was aflame with news of hydrogen bombs, ICBMs, and American F-22 Raptors patrolling the DMZ while North Korea stood ready to launch 500,000 artillery shells into the heart of Seoul, just 35 miles from the border.
This, I thought, is not good. I had flown in from my home in Washington, D.C. I tried to imagine what it might be like if some heavily armed, psychotic dictator with provocative hair threatened our nation’s capital with Armageddon from his sanctum in Baltimore. I think I can state with some certainty that there would be pandemonium. We do not do sangfroid in Washington. We are, as many have long suspected, mostly weenies. Not so the people of Seoul.
“I don’t think about North Korea when I’m stirring my pasta,” said my friend, who wanted to remain anonymous because she works in PR for a large Korean firm. She said this a little wistfully, not because she was especially moved by the current troubles but because she had recently given up carbs. “It’s just another foreign country. And so we ignore it and get on with our lives.” I had met her in a coffee shop in Gangnam, the flashy section of Seoul south of the Han River, which acts as a kind of border of its own, neatly bisecting the city, dividing the old Seoul of palaces, markets, and government ministries from the new Seoul of cloud-scraping high-rises, cutting-edge restaurants, and tottering fashionistas. Gangnam is where many of Seoul’s movers and shakers live, work, and play. They are fueled by caffeine, as evidenced by the approximately 30 coffee shops that seem to inhabit each and every block of downtown Seoul. Not a single one offers decaf. I checked. “The energy is addictive here,” she noted, as we mainlined a couple of espressos. “Koreans have a continuous need for change. We have a saying here: Change everything except your wife and kids.”
“THE ENERGY IS ADDICTIVE HERE. CHANGE. WE HAVE A SAY: CHANGE EVERY KOREANS HAVE A CONTINUOUS NEED FOR THING EXCEPT YOUR WIFE AND KIDS.”
This was the exhortation Lee Kun-hee, the son of the founder of Samsung, gave to his employees back in 1993 (before his own recent sex scandal), urging his company to forgo conformity and embrace risk and innovation. It worked, of course. Today, despite some embarrassing setbacks, Samsung is a tech behemoth and a major reason that South Korea leapfrogged dozens of nations to become the world’s sixth largest exporter. China may be the world’s factory, but increasingly it is South Korea that determines what people consume, from pop music to television dramas to smartphones to biopharmaceuticals.
And yet, it sometimes seems as if South Koreans haven’t quite internalized just how revolutionary their recent history has been. One great curiosity of Seoul is the locals’ insistence that they are the Italians of Asia. It’s something I would hear often, and, frankly, I found it inexplicable. Yes, Koreans are expressive, emotional, impulsive—all attributes typically associated with Italians, as well as Brazilians, Lebanese, Nigerians, Tahitians, and my kids. But are the office lights still on at 11 p.m. in downtown Naples? Do little boys and girls in Milan spend their weekends at cram schools? Does anyone tune in to Italian television shows? No. I think what Koreans mean—and they are quite proud of it—is that they no longer feel tethered to the old Confucian ideals of duty, fealty, and hierarchy. And this has led to the thrum of energy one can feel crackling through modern Seoul.