Seoul Searching Day Two

Outside the American Embassy, I went to see the group who keep a vigil to protest the killing of two schoolgirls. The girls were accidentally run down by a U.S. army vehicle near a base called Camp Red Cloud, outside Seoul, on June 13, 2002. The army has since paid the parents of each girl $160,000. But the soldiers were only tried in a military court and not convicted. The incident has soured relations between the U.S. army and the local community. The vigils have continued but today it just so happens that the group was prevented from using their site because the park has been turned over to a book fair. Nothing even dramatically sinister – just tough pragmatic commerce with the big elbow.

A KFC in Seoul. Colonel Sanders as civic monument?

It seems the largest bookstore here decides that, as soon as the weather gets balmy, to do an extended spring cleaning. This book sale will go on for weeks in this small park I’m told is called Burger King Park. Well, Burger King was indeed a good landmark but for a photo op, although I preferred the KFC I found later with a statue of the colonel every inch the civic monument.

A lone anti-war protester flanked by Korean police.

Disappointed at finding no signs of protest, I circled the American embassy and marveled at the lines of police buses with riot gear piled up outside each. Layers of shields and three-foot-long batons propped up against the buses. Here’s a lone anti-war protester with a phalanx beside her. Are they there to put other people off joining her? They seem mutually respectful and dutiful.

Tonight at the opening concert of the women composers’ festival, there is an image that is somehow similar. Sitting on the floor on the front of the stage is Jin Hi Kim, a Korean American composer/performer playing a Komungo, a zither from the fourth century. She is like the girl protesting serenely with the dove placard. The musician wears a white silk costume and she also looks solemn and fragile, while behind her is a huge noisy orchestra.

She plucks hard at the strings pulling one at a time but the ancient Korean instrument seems plucky (sorry, couldn’t resist) but helpless against the force of the Western music which seems to conflict with her, drown her, ignore her. I have no idea whether my perception was what the composer intended. I intend to find out. There’ s a traditional Korean orchestra on a tiled mural in a subway station. The CLEAN COLORFUL, and HUGE subways have video ads on the platforms and on the trains. I was the only apparent Westerner in all my subway riding today. I have never been to a country this homogenous.

The pristine Korean subway system.

My last stop was the Seoul Arts Center. Spread out over a terraced steep slope, it has many concert halls, an opera house, film archives, and Bellagio-style fountains. But I’m not suggesting Vegas – this is really somber, and super respectful of the arts as high culture. The concert of contemporary music in a hall which seats nearly 3,000 was over half full. That’s very good.

But now in my room I will listen to Boa, a Korean teenage sensation who is making it big in Japan. I’m also listening to GOD (pronounced g – o – d, an an acronym for Groove OverDose), a band with a Korean American singer. All of the international musicians in this festival I’ve spoken with are smitten with Seoul. Surprised by all the surprises and intrigued by the complexity which is of course much more complex than we can possibly know.

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