Monday, December 20, 2010

Life During (Almost?) Wartime

Somewhere roughly 125 miles to the west of me, South Korean shells are presumably (hopefully) plunking harmlessly into the water. And, as always, the sensation of being caught between what I read on CNN and what I see around me is difficult to reconcile. Two large cranes operate just outside my window, constructing a new building as Seoul continues to march further down the path of development. Across the street, students bundled in parkas against the cold rush into a Gimbap Chungook (think traditional Korean McDonald's) for an early dinner before their hogwan starts. Buses filled with people lumber through the all-too-narrow streets and everything crackles with activity.

It is amazing to think of the difference between South and North Korea. Conceptually we all understand the great disparity in standard of living but it's different to really feel it. Put yourself in the shoes of a North Korean for a moment and look again at the scene. The new construction, free of any government planning or party oversight, cropping up organically. The students, unique yet uniform in their stylized self-expression, entering a restaurant overflowing with food and patrons, with ten similar establishments within a two minute walk in any direction. This very building, 8 stories tall with no less than four individual hogwans in it, all doing brisk business. And the streets, a constant stream of traffic, rushing hither and fro, each with unknowable purpose.

It is an overwhelming sensation, an impossibly complex tableau of activity. How can there be so many cars? How can there be so many stores and restaurants? How can organic creation produce such order? The inability of our minds to fully grasp the details of a thriving capitalist system is reason number one why centrally planned economies cannot work. And the very idea that this scene might be threatened by a few errant shells 125 miles to the west is equally confounding. One cannot imagine such a scene from scratch but, now it is laid out before us, one cannot imagine it stopping. Perhaps all it will take to free North Koreans from their indoctrination is an afternoon stroll through Seoul.

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