It is 3am in Seoul and, for now, sleep eludes me. I look out of the window across the Gangnam district of the Korean capital. Gangnam is now famous for the internet music video sensation – Gangnam Style – which has put this upmarket but otherwise unremarkable area of downtown Seoul on the map.
The Gangnam Style dance looks rather like trying to energetically ride a horse with your underpants on fire so I contemplate leaping around my hotel room in similar vein in an attempt to tire myself out and thus fall asleep before the early morning client meeting I have just flown nearly 9,000 kilometres to attend. But the chances of me being able do so without breaking at least one limb are remote. When dancing skills – in fact, any type of hand-eye or rhythmic coordination – were being handed out, I was right at the back of the queue. Watching somebody wade through custard is the kindest way anybody has ever come up with to describe my dance floor manoeuvres.
In the interests of avoiding serious injury I decide to seek other ways of getting to understand a little about South Korea. This is my first visit and I am only here for 36 hours giving me little time to penetrate the essence of the Korean soul. I have to pack in three client meetings, a formal Korean dinner and a trip to the demilitarised zone on the border between North and South Korea a few miles north of Seoul.
It is tempting to see Korea as a blend of two countries I know much better, China and Japan. So much of recent Korean history has been shaped – often unhappily – by these two countries that you can easily fall into the trap of seeing Korea as being the outcome of the constant buffeting of these two more assertive cultures. It is as if this craggy peninsula of a country is the unwilling bridge that blends and almost connects China with Japan.
But that is wrong. It is clear that despite the similarities with its neighbours, Korea is a particularly singular kind of place. Despite the interwoven history it is misleading to see Korea as the product of cultural triangulation between China and Japan. And nowhere is that more apparent than in the way Korea is carving a very specific path economically around the world. Much to the chagrin of the other two, it is Korean companies that have emerged as the Asian alternative to Apple and operate as serious rivals in so many other sectors. The result is a palpable sense of confidence among Korean companies that they will plough their own distinct furrow focussed not on the past but on crafting a different future.
But there is one place where Korea cannot escape its history. 50 kilometres north from Seoul and you reach the border between the two Koreas. As you drive north, you can tell when you are approaching the demilitarised zone because the sat-nav map in your car goes blank, an apt reminder that despite this being a well-trodden tourist path, it is still one of the most heavily defended borders in the world.
It was a misty and autumnal day when we visited and you could just make out the North Korean side of the DMZ. The haziness adds to the surreal sense of one people, divided into two nations separated by four kilometres of pristine nature, untouched since the early 1950s. Apart from when a wild pig occasionally stands on a land mine, this snaking ribbon of man-free ecosystem that stretches across the country exists as a bizarre counterpoint of peace and tranquillity to the hostility and violence still latent on both sides.
Watching a flight of geese pass overhead on their way south across the border and a line of lorries heading in the opposite direction to a South Korean financed industrial project in the north, you get a sense of the impermanence of the status-quo. For all the entrenched rhetoric there is clear anticipation that at some stage, maybe sooner than we think, the north will seek change.
It is not clear to me that the people in the south wake up every morning yearning for unification. They have become conditioned to the threat, confident in their future both in terms of their commercial prowess and the craziness of their dance routines. But change I am sure is on its way.