The Reality Of Being A Young Woman In South Korea Right Now

BBC 5 live presenter Anna Foster has been in South Korea, meeting younger generations and finding out what it is like to live with an imminent nuclear threat from just over the border in North Korea.

The Reality Of Being A Young Woman In South Korea Right Now

by Anna Foster |

Hyeonseo Lee is one of the most impressive women I’ve ever met. Fragile-limbed with dark bobbed hair, her haunted eyes cast around us as we speak quietly on a neon-lit Seoul backstreet. ‘Every time I see a police car’, she confides, ‘I think they’re coming to catch me and take me back’.

She is part of a small, elite band - one of those who’s managed to escape the most violent and repressive regime on earth. Hyonseo grew up in North Korea. She witnessed her first public execution at the age of 7. By 18, thanks to the Chinese TV stations she’d discovered and watched secretly under her bedclothes at night, she knew it was time to leave.


The journey to freedom was a long and painful one. She dodged human trafficking and managed to talk her way out of being deported back home when caught thanks to her perfect Chinese. Hyonseo is the seventh name she’s gone by. She’s had to adapt to survive.

‘Knowing what you know now, would you do it again?’ I ask her. ‘No’, she replies, ‘I’d never do it again alone without my family, I could never have imagined the pain that would cause to all of us’.

The tensions between North Korea and the rest of the world are nothing new. But now its hot-headed leader Kim Jong Un has been matched by an equally brash counterpart in Donald Trump, the war of words has spiraled.

In recent weeks each has promised the other ‘fire and fury’, and ‘the greatest pain and suffering ever seen’. Just days after a successful-seeming North Korean nuclear test, fears are increasing that the regime possesses more than just words to wound.

You might expect - against such a backdrop - the people of South Korea to be cowering in fear. Not so. As I wander down the K-Star road in Gangnam, groups of excited teens and tourists pose for photos next to the huge, bright dolls dotted along the street that celebrates some of the biggest acts in South Korea’s booming, multi-billion dollar K-pop music industry.

On a busy corner, I meet two stars of an up-and-coming girl group, Viva, who are training twelve hours a day in a bid to hit the big time. They left friends and family behind to join the hothouse, immersing themselves in acting lessons, dance classes, and intensive coaching in how to sing pitch-perfect pop. ‘Are you scared of North Korea?’, I wonder. ‘Not really’, they insist, ‘we’re too busy working hard and trying to achieve our dreams, we live good lives’.

To an extent, those are words guided by a firm management hand, it’s not the job of pop stars to get involved in politics here. But their sentiments are matched by those of other young Koreans I see in bars or coffee shops, meeting friends, eating barbecue or drinking tiny glasses of soju, the potent national spirit. They have no intention of putting their lives on hold.

Before arriving in Seoul, I downloaded a special government-made emergency app. Click it open and within seconds it shows you the location of every safe shelter in the city, be it a subway station or apartment block basement. To my surprise, not a single person I meet has done the same thing. If the alarms begin to sound across the city they’d do the same as they always do, keep calm and carry on. A nationwide civil contingency drill just a few weeks ago proved the point. ‘I asked my boss what I should do during it’ student Jinsoo told me, ‘and she said we weren’t even taking part’.

The Korean Peninsula is a place of contrasts, and none more so than when I make the trip up to the 4 kilometer-wide border - bristling with barbed wire and army checkpoints - that splits Korea in two. Standing on the Freedom Bridge, where the last prisoners of war returned home in 1953, I can hear the regular deep thud of heavy artillery shells as the South Korean army practice their drills. From the North, the sound of rifles clatters back in response.

In the closest village to the border, I climb down an echoing staircase into their purpose-built shelter, dug deep into the earth. It’s a bare-walled room, stacked at one end with plastic boxes holding everything from escape hoods to sticking plasters. As I peel off the lids to see what’s inside, I ask the village custodian of the shelter, Mr Lee, if he’s ever done the same, even just to practice for the big moment. ‘We haven’t had an emergency yet’, he replies coolly, ‘if we ever need them, we’ll just follow the directions printed on the wall’.

Both sides have a significant military arsenal already in place. From bombs to bullets to tanks dug into bunkers either side of the line, for decades each has had the destructive capability to wipe out huge swathes of the other in a matter of days.

But when the threat turns outwards towards the rest of the world, and talk of firing a nuclear-tipped warhead towards Los Angeles or London hits the 24-hour news channels, the international community sits up and takes notice.

For now, we wait. With every new provocation, the UN Security Council tightens its sanctions against North Korea. Talk of a diplomatic solution washes around the corridors of power. Kim Jong Un must decide whether he could ever realistically win a war against a superpower like the United States. Donald Trump has to consider the devastating impact acting in haste could have on millions of lives.

But even as they wrestle with those concerns, Seoul drinks and dances, celebrates and relaxes. This city may be right at the heart of one of the most potentially destructive crises of our time, but its people are determined not to let it stop beating.

Images courtesy of Anna Foster/Nick Garnet/BBC

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Follow Anna on Twitter @annaefoster

You can read more about Hyeonseo Lee’s story on BBC Radio 5 live's Instagram

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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