One of the lasting legacies of the truce in the Korean War is that South Korea is swarming with US troops, ready to defend the south if the north try anything funny. After 52 years of having a troop presence, they have become a part of the landscape. Strangly, though, they've never actually been called upon to do anything. Their job is simply to be here. In great numbers.
Current estimates of the US troop presence in South Korea varies greatly, but most estimates put the figure in the tens of thousands. Many are stationed in Seoul, at the vast US army complex at Yongsan, and the evidence of a troop presence is everywhere. There is an army TV channel and army radio channel, broadcasting the lastest news from the Pentagon (and bizarrely after listening the other night, I heard them rebroadcasting Rush Limbaugh. Go figure.) and there is also a soft anti-Americanism that pervades public opinion, particularly amongst younger people who tend the overlook the original reason for their presence. The other charming piece of evidence is the suburb of Itaewan, immediately outside the Yongsan base.
Itaewan is a place that is crawling with all the seedy necessities of a night on the town for a serving soldier. There are greasy bars on every corner, with American paraphenalia covering the windows and bad 80s pop music being played on a loop. Most of them seem to have an overabundance of attractive Korean girls, many no doubt there to meet their sweetheart in a uniform. And many there to make some quick cash. Barely concealed brothels are also there, usually disguised as massage parlours or incredibly run down bars. There are also some other aspects to Itaewan that seem a little incongruous.
Itaewan is also the centre of the gay community in Seoul. A line of bars up one particular alley offer all the fun and games (many of them are perfectly legitimate bars, mind you) that a gay man in conservative Seoul could seek. Indeed, homosexuality may be legal here, but it is met with stern, disapproving stares by many, and is decidedly un-Confucian. The other community which calls Itaewan home is the substantial Muslim community. In the midst of sleazy abundance stands an imposing Mosque, busy with worshippers when I visited on Friday. It seems bizarrely out of place, and says a lot about planning in Korea.
One guesses that one day early on in the life of this city, some practical joker at Seoul HQ said "I know what we can do for a laugh - let's stick the Yanks, poofs and towelheads together... and let God (or maybe Confucious) sort it out." And so it is.