“I just have to say this: Korean society is just a bunch of fucking nationalists. We are all brought up to hate. Eighty percent of Korean men are stupid fascists.” Yeong-jun is not a happy man. “This is our release!” he proclaims, nodding through the door of the Spot club, a backstreet hardcore hideout in the heart of Seoul. In a moment he'll take the stage with his band, Things We Say. Downstairs, a fat guy in a cap is screaming, “WE ARE NOT FUCKING WASTE!” and everyone’s wailing it back at him and Crying Nut, one of Korea's loudest bands.
Not all is well on the streets of Hongdae, the student district of downtown Seoul. Although the world sees South Korea enjoying national prosperity (particularly when compared to their brothers in the North), beneath the surface, young South Koreans' frustrations are simmering. Forced to deal with the pressures of conforming to the country’s repressive conservative ideals, compulsory military service for all men, and an increasingly right wing, power-hungry government, they’re fed up. And so, naturally, punk is growing.
The Geeks are the helmsmen of Korean hardcore, play shows in the capital almost every weekend. Frontman Ki is an intelligent and articulate man and thinks things the problems for Korean youths start the moment they enter education. “School culture here is terrible," he says. "It’s not about learning, it’s about slotting you into a narrow box. Students study from 6 AM to 11 PM and all they’re taught is to hate – hate Japan, hate anyone who is different.”
[caption id="attachment_8206" align="aligncenter" width="600" caption="Ki from The Geeks"]
Despite diplomatic efforts by governments of both countries over the last few years (like the joint hosting of the 2002 World Cup), relations between Korea and Japan are frayed. Having never officially apologised for their colonisation of the Korean peninsula between 1909 and 1945, (when the Japanese committed atrocities and completely suppressed native Korean culture) anti-Japanese feelings are still strong in Korea. “At school, half the history book is dedicated to what Japan did to us,” says Ki. “It’s done with a negativity that breeds passive hatred in everyone. Of course people know better, but there is a fundamentally bad atmosphere. We’re trying to readdress the balance in the hardcore scene by constantly having Japanese bands play too.”
Many people I talk to insist that the Korean hardcore scene is yet to develop a coherent political voice, and that it is still in its developing stages. Twenty-five-year-old Rosa can be spotted down the front of every show, every night. She wants to see the scene grow and hopes it can become a forum for people to exchange new ideas.
Rosa is responsible for Seoul’s first grassroots fanzine to merge politics and punk rock. “I became interested in politics at school,” she says. “I find it frustrating how so few young Koreans are engaged with anything. Punk is my escape from that – it is a retaliation against the slave-like work ethic, the lack of individuality, the lack of any real culture. All people do is drink and fight.” This resentment of Korea's heavy-drinking culture is clear as The Geeks take the stage and Ki draws a straight-edge cross over the back of his hand with a marker.
“Military service was fucking awful,” growls Ki. “They teach you how to kill a man. You can’t get out of it – if you try to avoid it you lose your Korean citizenship altogether. We’re a nation of potential murderers. When I was in the service there was a big riot at the US Embassy, protestors were burning American flags. I was sent in there to repress them. I may not have wanted to, but if I didn’t do my mandatory duty to my nation I’d be thrown into jail, so what was I supposed to do?”