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Korea Blog: Stroll through the Real Cities of Korea with YouTube’s Seoul Walker

In recent weeks, Seoul looked about to get back to how it used to be. Or at least it looked about to resemble how it used to be, with an impending relaxation of certain restrictions — on the size of gatherings, on the hours of bars and restaurants — implemented at the height of the coronavirus pandemic. Alas, a new “surge” in the number of COVID cases has pushed back even this small step toward normality. Despite having once been the second-most-threatened country in the world by the pandemic, South Korea hasn’t had life disrupted anywhere near as severely as many other countries. The streets of Seoul never really emptied out — at least not before 10:00, by which hour most businesses are now ordered to close. In response, no few Seoulites simply begin their evenings earlier, some of them now managing to get smashed while it’s practically light out.

Still, it’s not quite the same. I feel the difference even in my own neighborhood of Sinchon, especially when I compare it to a video from two years ago. Shot from a first-person perspective, its unbroken 15-minute shot captures a walk along streets that look both familiar (I’ve never spent as much of my adult life in any other neighborhood) and strange. Some of that strangeness comes from the absence of masks and some from the presence of Westerners — not in great numbers, but certainly greater than one sees today. Whatever their origins, nearly everyone who passes through the frame is young. With no fewer than three major universities in the vicinity, Sinchon has long been a youth-oriented part of town. That manifests even amid its now somewhat diminished liveliness, but it did so much more vividly, so I’m reminded, in the summer of 2019.

This video’s YouTube channel, Seoul Walker, launched just a few months earlier. Its creator, who calls himself Nathan and seems to be Korean, describes it as “a channel where you can experience as if you’re walking in the cities, including Seoul.” Of course, when it comes to Korean cities, the capital — with its metropolitan area home to half the population of the entire country — is dominant, never just included. The bulk of Seoul Walker’s most-viewed videos depict Seoul, and most of those focus on one part in particular: Gangnam, the only neighborhood someone who doesn’t know the city, or indeed Korea, is guaranteed have heard of. Of course, as those familiar with Seoul understand, Gangnam isn’t actually a neighborhood but rather a variously defined area south of the Han River, one home to new buildings, new cars, and — as virally satirized by PSY — new money.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.