It is a common sight in the teenybob clubland of Taehangno, where the morning pavements are dotted with the mixture of hastily chewed food and liquor. To the foreigner it might seem that Korean youth is out of control, bingeing on affluence. But, having taught in Korea at a prestigious high school and for two years at a university, I can assure you this behaviour is not typical. Nevertheless, it is symptomatic of a deeper change that is under way here.
The pervasive exuberance of Korea's youth - reflected in their yellow, green or purple hair, pierced ears, pony tails and odd mix of gangsta rap, British-mod, or ultra-baggy hip hop clothes - is the sign of a healthy cultural revolution with profound implications.
Many today bemoan the horrors of youthful innocence lost - the rise in teenage crime, runaways, teenage suicides, disruption at school, college drop-outs and unmarried mothers - not to mention the embrace of heavy metal music, foreign films, jazz, funk, punk, rap, tattoos and body piercing. What is really happening is that several generations of confining militaristic rule, autocratic control and male-dominated medieval traditions are giving way to an exhilarating explosion of personal freedom.
Today young people are much more outspoken, more inquisitive and opinionated, more outgoing and expressive - traits their parents were never truly allowed to exhibit with the confines of Confucian culture. They are more imaginative, innovative and creative: evidence of this is growing in every facet of Korean society, art, music, science, business and politics. Increasing numbers write computer software, paint, draw, compose music and read intently, especially magazines, novels and poetry, much more so than their parents. And virtually every young Korean yearns to travel or study abroad.
Frustrated with what they perceive as the old, bloated bureaucracy, inefficient conglomerates that control industry and endemic corruption throughout government and society, most young Koreans yearn for a cleaner, freer, fairer and perhaps more progressive Korea. They back the reform-minded president, Kim Dae Jung, and they admire the entrepreneurs who are reviving Korea's battered businesses.
They know without doubt who brought Korea to the brink of economic collapse two years ago. Not some Japanese-American conspiracy, nor speculator-financier George Soros, nor the big, bad, ubiquitous International Monetary Fund. While some of them will not say so out loud at home, they blame the fumbling and bumbling of the preceding generation.
Although many Korean youths may seem adrift, indulgent or indifferent, many more are active in clubs, volunteer groups, church groups and the fledgling network of social, environmental and consumer movements. In general they are less interested in power and money than the previous generation; they are more concerned about their lives and loves, their friends, the environment and their future as modern, more progressive members of the world community.
Most of them support the reform wave sweeping over Korea and they long for reunification with the North. They want very much to embrace other people and cultures, not shun them as they have often been told to do. For example, oblivious to the Japanese occupation from 1910 to 1945, they buy Japanese comics and borrow ideas from Japanese pop music, even though Japanese records are banned.
Above all, they want freedom, not just political freedom in the form of democracy, for which their elders have fought and won, but spiritual, intellectual and cultural freedom. They want the freedom to choose what novels, poetry or comic books to read and what films to watch without a government censor peering over their shoulders. They want the freedom to make their own decisions about their lifestyle, hairstyle, clothes and music. They want to make their own career choices and to start businesses. In short, they want a better Korea, and that's why I call them the new Koreans.
Copywright: 'Koreana', Korea Foundation.
'Koreana' website: www.kofo.or.krkdata.htm