Travel Writing Awards Entry

By Chole Simons

A walk through Hyewah, Seoul. As always the sidewalks are packed with snack stands and market stalls. The smell of piping hot dokbokki (spicy rice cake stew) and fresh gogi mandoo (hot meat dumplings) rises from vendors’ ovens. A living river of hot, sticky Seoulites flows though the city. Yet if possible the teeming streets and even more crowded than usual: in amongst the phone dangles and sunglasses glinting in the May sunshine, placard-bearing protesters head towards the sound of a megaphone.

Around the corner restless traffic is diverted away from the most well-organized rally I have ever seen.  Fold-up tables line the sidewalks, covered with petitions and leaflets. On the hot tarmac hundreds of protesters wearing identical red visors sit facing a portable stage where a giant banner reveals the reason for the rally today: Korea’s new President, Lee Myeong-Bak. In a few short months Mr Lee’s policies have managed to aggravate an impressive range of individuals: the crowd today includes students and teachers, farmers and environmentalists, socialists and activists.

Three months on, the warm glowing sun of the May Day rally has intensified to a glaring ball of fire. I’m onto my fifth protest now, and seriously wondering if attending a politically motivated rally is a visa violation.  At the beginning the festival-like atmosphere attracted many of the tourists, English teachers and  exchange students which make up the bulk of Seoul’s international population (there are of course the America military too, but rallies and protests don’t seem to be their style…). Now, looking around, I realise that I cannot see a single other  wehgook salam (foreigner), besides myself, in the few thousand people gathered around me. It’s true that the intensity of the rallies and their participants has stepped up a notch. The banner logo for the vigils shows a cutesy cartoon girl in high school uniform holding a candle in a cup. With the increase in violence and the introduction of powerful water canons by the police, I hope there aren’t too many high school students here tonight.

Evening turns to night and the atmosphere is still as electric as ever, the night sky filled with song (Koreans love to sing, as demonstrated by the ever-popular and numerous norebang, or song rooms, throughout the country). By this time, however, the snack vendors have packed up and gone home; the tourists have put away their cameras; and the orange-grey sky stretched out above us threatens to break. In the gathering darkness, thousands of black-clad riot police begin their own army-style chants. Of course, the police have a duty to protect the public, from each other and even from themselves. Nevertheless, the water canons and army drills can’t cut through the chaos. Tonight many innocent bystanders, including myself, find themselves trapped by police blockades cutting us off from subway stations. On the other side of the blockades protesters rattle the bars of  a makeshift cage as the water canon bears down upon them. The police are doing their best to contain the rally, a reasonable goal, but how often does a crowd grow calmer once it realizes it is trapped inside a small place?

In any case, this is Korea, world-renowned for its technological advancement, and as such, the scenes on the street only ever tell part of the story. 2003 saw the election of the world’s first Internet president in South Korea, so-called because of the Internet polls which swung the election in Roh’s favor. Five years on, tech-savvy students have pushed the ‘webocracy’ phenomenon beyond Korean portal sites into the Internet’s global community. A quick click reveals a multitude of forums and video clips dedicated to bringing-down President Lee Myung-Bak, or ‘2MB’ (‘Lee’ is pronounced ‘Ee’ which sounds like ‘two’ in Korean), including the satirical ‘ impeachment song’ and links to the renowned Daum Agora Cafe.

By the following morning, with typically Seoulite speed, everything has returned to normal. The reappearance of   the snack stands, fortune tellers, and market stalls spilling over with DVDs, ‘Nike’ caps and phone accessories, reminds me that this really is ‘dynamic Korea’. Seoul and it’s inhabitants demonstrate amazing resilience, born of the various changes and challenges of resent decades. In the light of day, it’s hard to believe that the events of last night really took place. The traffic streams past and the mossies whistle on with casual indifference; yet behind computer screens all over the city the rally continues, a virtual rally which will go on as long as there is something to protest about. The Internet means that a netizen can be anywhere in the world and still be involved: these protests are no longer confined to one place and time.

Nevertheless, with its electric atmosphere, and even with the water canons, it’s an exciting time to be in the Land of the Morning Calm.