During my visit, Seoul residents waited in long lines at the Leeum museum to see one of their own, Do Ho Suh, a Korean-born artist who splits his time between Seoul and New York and whose work explores migration, permanence and what it means to be Korean. Inside the vast exhibition space I see three-dimensional exteriors and interiors of traditional Korean homes, constructed in elaborate, intricate detail, but built entirely out of colored silks that hang from the ceiling. The fact that Suh’s work, while cerebral and abstract, had struck a chord with so many Seoul residents confirmed what I’d thought about the power and potential of the many Koreans now returning home. It was appropriate that this point was being communicated in Itaewon, a place with a strange and sordid past that was now home to many Korean artists, designers and architects who had made the same journey Suh had to America and back.
At the suggestion of Grace Meng, a Korean food blogger, I venture into a famous Seoul noodle shop called Pyongyang Myeong Ok. The specialty of the house, as the name of the restaurant suggests, is a North Korean dish that is one of the most popular foods in the South: Naeng-myun, buckwheat noodles served in a chilled broth. The noodles are freshly made, spun by hand and perfectly chewy. The broth is bracing and vinegary. It’s a perfect, simple summer food. But as I slurp down the last noodles, I think how strange it is for there even to be such a thing as a North Korean specialty food, given the past couple of decades of squalor and starvation that have characterized life in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The noodles offer a glimpse of what things must have been like before the war, when its capital, Pyongyang, was famous not just for its spicy noodles and hearty meat dumplings but also for its bawdy nightlife. Today Tokyo, Shanghai and Hong Kong are the obvious nearby cities to compare Seoul with: They are wealthy, high-tech and connected to the world and its business. A much less obvious comparison is with Pyongyang. The city is poor and primitive and, in that sense, a kind of frightening inverse image reflecting back at Seoul. The cities are just 120 miles apart, but between them lies the demilitarized zone, the most heavily guarded frontier in the world: The south side of the border houses not just the South Korean Army, but also tens of thousands of U.S. troops. The north side is home to what is probably the largest artillery assortment in the world, about 11,000 pieces in all, most aimed at the population of Seoul, which sits only 30 miles from the DMZ.
In 2010, on a visit to Pyongyang and the North Korean side of the DMZ (Americans are actually now allowed to visit North Korea without a problem), I was immediately struck by how people who speak the same language and once lived as one are about as different as any two groups can be. Yet still, because of ties of blood, culture and history, they exist in a strange, sometimes even symbiotic relationship. The obvious threats of the North are violent provocation, war and nuclear attack. Less obvious is what would happen if the North fell apart and the South were faced not with a military foe, but the prospect of caring for 25 million people, many of them malnourished from years of famine, unschooled in the ways of the modern world and deeply traumatized after living under one of the most brutal dictatorships in history.
North Korea is not only a land of farce, drama and tragedy—as its recent boasts, blastoffs and misfires have demonstrated—but also probably the last truly unknowable place on earth. For residents of Seoul, who may even have relatives in the North that they haven’t seen for 60 years, worries and tension persist. And so, just as there was once a whole industry of Kremlin and China watchers—who sought to research, understand and sometimes even imagine what life was like on the other side of mostly uncrossable borders—so too is there in South Korea a phalanx of North Korea watchers, whose job is to try to decipher what life is like in that most inscrutable place.
On my trip to North Korea, I got a glimpse of just how difficult it was to understand the country, even from the inside. My visit, during which I saw only and exactly what my tour guide allowed, actually made me even more curious. It was the only country I’d ever visited where reading books about the place seemed to tell me more than actually setting foot there. And so, in Seoul, I went in search of experts to try to understand how they had been able to decipher life across the border. I met a professor at an educational institution called the University of North Korean Studies, incongruously situated in one of Seoul’s most beautiful and well-preserved precincts, an area of historic houses, lush gardens and gentle hills. Woo Young Lee welcomes me into his office before a class and I ask about the state of North Korean studies. “Things have changed a lot in the last decade,” Lee tells me. “After the famine [in the North in the mid-1990s], the border with China became a lot more porous. South Korean TV dramas and K-pop music are now available all over the North—illicitly, of course. And we are getting a lot more information about what life is like over there.”
What really fascinates me in talking to Lee is the pathos of his job: Lee spends his life trying to understand the workings of a place he can only rarely visit. And even on those trips, his access to information is severely limited: “I try to talk to all the people in the hotel: the barber, the bartender, the waiter, and see what they have to say about what’s happening now in Pyongyang,” he says. “I know that they aren’t representative of the average person in the country, but I still learn something. You do what you can to try to know the place. But ultimately it’s only a partial vision of the whole.” Which would be, perhaps, more acceptable if the place you were trying to understand stood at the other end of the earth. But when it is staring at you across the border, armed to the teeth, these epistemological problems become much more than that—they mean that you can’t really know what’s happening in the one place that has the power to upend your city’s future forever.
City of the Future
What if the people who erected the thousands of ugly but functional apartment buildings that dot Seoul, who laid down city streets sometimes eight lanes wide, who built this place, as Myounggu Kang told me, out of necessity and not for beauty, could start again and build an entire Korean city from scratch? What would it look like? Just seven miles from Seoul’s international airport, and adjacent to the city of Incheon, is Songdo, an entirely new city built on top of land reclaimed from tidal flats. It may provide an answer. No one lived in Songdo before—the land was covered by the sea. It wasn’t thrown together to accommodate a housing crisis. Located between China and Japan and a three-hour flight from eight of the world’s top urban centers, it was designed as a major business hub.