Korea: A House Divided- page 5 | Travel | Smithsonian
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Korea: A House Divided

Fifty years after the armistice, the two Koreas' legacy of conflict underlies a deepening crisis.

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Today, dressed in white-and-gold gladiator tunics, Kang and his challenger emerge through a dry-ice fog to wild cheers from several hundred spectators crammed into a crescent-shaped arena. The contestants sit at facing computers. An oversize screen displays the progress of the game, which is a variation on cyber warfare. Two analysts on TV explain the players’ strategies and highlight spectacular moves. In less than 30 minutes, Kang routs his opponent, who surrenders by flashing “GG”—for “Good Game”—on his computer screen.

 

At PC bangs, men outnumber women by at least four to one. Oh suggests that the medieval warrior themes are less appealing to women than to men. “Or maybe women are too smart to spend all that time in front of a computer playing a game,” he says.

 

But many young women inhabit their own cyber fantasy world. In a computer room at KyungwonUniversity, on a break from her interior design class, Lee Sun-young goes online to show me her personal “avatar,” a cartoon character that serves as her on-line alter ego. Hers is a skateboarder named Sonya, with long dark hair and flamboyant sunglasses. “She’s the type of person I’d like to be—very extravagant and wild,” says Lee, who seems reserved herself, with short hair and wire-rimmed glasses. Lee uses her avatar when communicating on-line with friends, each of whom has her own avatar.

 

Although men and women often meet in on-line chat rooms, South Korea remains a deeply conservative society in which about half of all marriages are arranged with the help of professional matchmakers.

 

Through friends, I am introduced to Mrs. Yang, a matchmaker, and one of her current clients, Ms. Kim, a 30-year-old sculptor. (Citing the need for discretion, both women insist they be identified only by their family names.) We meet in the coffee shop of a luxury hotel. Yang, who appears to be about 80, wears a sensible blue wool suit and turquoise silk scarf, and carries a large, leather 1950s-style handbag. Many years ago, she was a kindergarten teacher and sang in a church choir. “I met lots of young people in the choir who were looking for marriage partners, and for ten years, I helped such people out for free,” she says. What makes for a good matchmaker? “Taking notes,” she says. “Whenever I hear about somebody eligible, I begin keeping a record on the person and add to it constantly.” When I ask Kim about her experiences with the matchmaker, she says Yang has introduced her to an engineer, an accountant and a lawyer. The first two candidates didn’t last beyond the arranged coffee shop rendezvous. The lawyer became Kim’s boyfriend for several months and wanted to marry her. “But I decided he wasn’t for me,” she says. Yang is sure that in time she will come up with a bridegroom for Kim. “It’s just a matter of destiny,” says the matchmaker. “I have somebody in mind for her at this very moment—a dentist, 34 years old.” Kim winces, evidently thinking her destiny lies elsewhere.

 

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