Written by David B. Austell, Fulbright IEA Korea/Japan ’92-93

Seoul is a collision of tectonics,
a fusion of people wary of warfare;
if, for a moment, you lift your eyes from
the tempting leather goods of Itaewon
to look to the hills in the north,
you will see the bitter paradox of this beautiful place,

the razor-wired scrub flanked in ambuscade
by enfilade-ready and triangulated
squad automatic weapons, the minefields.

There is a department store in Seoul
accessed underground through a stretched tunnel
ending in a barrier of steel bars, time-locked and guarded.
At five minutes to ten in the morning, I’d taken a break from reading,
joining the consumers at the gate, just beyond which was
a long enclosed and boulevarded hallway leading
to a vanishing point with open shops and kiosks on either side,
attendants standing taut in front of each, starched uniforms,

merchant marines in a sea of product.

Then came the department store captain, dark three-piece suit,
imposing, important, followed by his assistant, his lieutenant,
a lithe young woman with her hair smartly back,
efficient hands holding a clip board, a poised pen;
they both paraded up the long hall, pausing here and there,
inspecting each shop, each anxious attendant,

white gloves on all hands.

At exactly ten o’clock, two sentries unlocked and opened the heavy gates,
and suddenly intoned in multiple loudspeakers, like a skirl of war-pipes,
was the military march of marches, the mother of all soundtracks,
the bold whistling of  “Colonel Bogey’s March.”

My weight shifted uncontrollably from side to side at the tune,

left right, left right, left right

I don’t know, but I’ve been told,
the center of the world is Seoul.

All the employees were tight at attention as I walked by,

helpless in the martial cadence,

but just another shopping day

in the capital at peace.

David B. Austell was a Fulbright IEA grantee in 1992 in Korea and Japan. He is the assistant vice president and director of the Office of Global Services at New York University.