SOUTH KOREA - PUNK HERE IS LIKE IT IS EVERYWHERE ELSE
"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, not long before he takes 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 his band, Crying Nut.
The world commonly perceives South Korea as enjoying its national prosperity (particularly when compared to their brothers in the North), but all is not well on the streets of Hongdae, the student district of downtown Seoul. 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. All that stuff naturally leads to punk.
The Geeks, the helmsmen of Korean hardcore, play shows in the capital almost every weekend. "School culture here is terrible," says frontman Ki, an intelligent and articulate chap. "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."
Despite diplomatic efforts by governments of both countries in recent years (such as conjointly hosting the 2002 World Cup), Korea and Japan aren't the best of friends. Japan's never officially apologized for colonizing the Korean peninsula between 1909 and 1945, when the country committed atrocities and deeply suppressed native Korean culture. "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 fundamental 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 early stages of understanding what generates its frustrations. Rosa, one of the scene's most dedicated stalwarts, is in the front of every show, every night.
Rosa's 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 in 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."
When The Geeks take the stage, the crowd roars. Ki draws a big X on the back of his hand. Drinking culture here is so out of control it makes European bingers look like they're solemnly celebrating mass with the Pope. That gets boring fast. So being straight-edge in Korea is a pretty potent life decision.
But more irritating than the drone of school life or the dullness of drinking culture, the nation's two years compulsory military service is the biggest thorn in Korean hardcore's side. The country's ardent militarism is at total odds with the country's rapid economic growth, mass-appropriation of Western values, and general sense of social stability.
"Military service was fucking awful," says 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 and 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?"