Our bus from Seoul had emptied out at the East Daegu Station. The driver was taking a break somewhere outside in the grey chill. I noticed that the only other person on the bus was sitting directly in front of me--on the other side of the tall seatback. I struck up a conversation with Ms. Yoon, a recent college graduate. She was petite, all of perhaps 22 or 23. Her intermittent fingering of her cell phone didn't keep her from being quite friendly.
We were soon on our way again. The scenery between Daegu and the somewhat more provincial Gyeongsan was flowing alongside our conversation. She was a newly minted elementary school English teacher about to begin her teaching career. She was speaking nearly flawless, accent-free English.
She wasn't much older then my students at Yeungnam University are likely to be. I asked her what she and her friends were talking about these days--what mattered to them. She quickly responded, "K-pop"* (Gayo in Korean) saying that it was a new music genre that was very popular not only in Korea but abroad as well--Korean pop music. Then she added that the issues of the Korean economy and finding jobs were also on their minds. I asked Ms.Yoon if North Korea was worrying her. She smiled and said "No, not really."
Our bus arrived in Gyeongsan and we both waited outside for our rides. She had a small colorful suitcase and told me that she was just returning from a weeklong education seminar in Thailand.
Byeong, my host, greeted me warmly. I introduced him to Ms.Yoon and in departing, I wished her the best. My bags filled the trunk and back seat of his car. We spoke politely as he drove me to my apartment--my new home in Korea. We reflected on the Korean economy of his teenage years--when I was last teaching in Korea. It was as recent as the mid 1970's when both Koreas, north and south, had almost identical per capita annual incomes. Today, North Korea struggles with massive food shortages and an economy that has changed little since 1975. South Korea is now one of the world's leading economic powers and top exporters. I wonder if K-pop has found its way into the dark citadel that is North Korea.**