Maybe it's my misplaced Western idealism, maybe something is getting lost in translation, but the more time I spend here in Seoul, the more disturbed I get by the people around me.
I'm not talking about the easy cultural cheap shots like the absolutely insane stress over college admissions. I'm talking big questions here. The biggest, in fact: the problem of evil. In South Korea, this is no abstract condition - it is concrete, and it is mere miles away.
The North Korean regime is pure evil. No discussion. Its gulags and concentration camps, its torture, its forced famines, its absolute totalitarianism - this is as evil as it gets, as it has ever gotten.
And South Koreans don't really give a damn.
That's how it seems to me, anyway. Remember that short story about the town where utopia is achieved at the price of one child, locked in a basement, enduring constant abuse? That's what Seoul reminds me of (well, except for the utopia part). People just going about their lives, buying their high-fashion clothes, practicing their SATs, unconcerned that the most evil horrors in the history of the world are taking place a stone's throw away.
And this isn't like Americans being too busy to worry about Darfur. This would be like Americans turning a blind eye to a violent dictatorship in Iowa. Do you think that could ever happen? Even if the Iowa Supreme Ruler had his finger on the button?
I mean, North Koreans are their countrymen, their cousins. And yet, nothing. The only thing here people seem to organize against is the American military presence - the one force keeping them from sharing the North's fate.
Another story: earlier this year, a very small group of Koreans traveled to Afghanistan to help the sick and the poor (they were, oddly enough, Christian missionaries - who would have guessed?), only to be kidnapped by the Taliban. Folks here mostly just shrugged it off, or even made fun of them - the feeling was, they pretty much got what they deserved. Why stick your neck out for someone else? Wisdom, in its twisted, well-educated, immoral modern manifestation, is a virtue here. Sacrifice is not.
I mean, honestly, what is wrong with these people? The more I interact with them, the more time I spend talking to parents and children who think by far the most important thing in life is getting into a famous school, the more I wonder. Churches are everywhere, their neon crosses glaring through the night. Do they know that the only electricity in the North goes into its fences? There might not be any prison camps here, but there is evil nonetheless.