You've heard of tea with Mussolini. What about poison tea with Kim Jong-un? That describes my afternoon in Seoul recently, albeit with a few qualifications. The "poison tea" was actually a traditional Korean drink called ssanghwa, made by boiling the roots of various plants such as white woodland peony, lovage and Mongolian milkvetch.
Illustration by Simon Letch.
It's jokingly referred to as "poison" because of its stridently medicinal taste. If it helps get it down, think of all the good it's doing your liver
And Kim Jong-un? That was my tour guide's full name. It's quite a common one in South Korea, but given her line of work she decided it would be best to introduce herself to foreigners with another name, so I knew her as Skye.
Over a week together, I learnt a lot from Skye about the lived impact of a divided Korea. Her family history to me sounded extraordinary, but to Koreans is a familiar story. Skye, who grew up in the Seoul area, is 48 years old and unmarried; her matter-of-fact label for herself is "expired woman". (This applies to any single woman over 40 and seems not to carry the same stigma of, say, "spinster". As Skye cheerfully explained, being an expired woman means she doesn't have to style her hair in the short permed bob typical of married women and can instead wear it in a long braid.
Skye's father grew up in the North Korean capital Pyongyang, one of five children born to anti-communist parents. Military service was compulsory, and one of his uncles was killed by the authorities for resisting. Wanting him to avoid the same fate, Skye's grandmother urged Skye's father to flee to South Korea. He did, and shortly after met and married Skye's mother, a lifelong Seoul resident. They had two children and Skye's father never saw his siblings or parents again.
These days all anyone wants to talk about in Seoul is the upcoming talks between the two Koreas and the Donald. Many South Koreans frame these talks, and politics generally, as a battle of wills between pro-America and pro-China camps. The pattern of protesting, which is practically a national pastime, seemed to bear this out. I saw large groups led by enthusiastic American and Chinese flag-bearers marching towards Gyeongbokgung Palace.
The South Korean perspective on these tense times results in what to a westerner is a scrambling of conventional political affiliations. One woman I met who worked for the national tourism organisation saw President Trump's ascendancy as a net positive for achieving peace because, she said, he had enforced sanctions on the North more effectively than his predecessors.
She was pro-America, and by extension anti-China, yet not a "progressive"; if anything, her views were seen as conservative.
I came away feeling more hopeful about peace, not least because South Koreans seem so committed to that outcome. Recall that these talks came about in part because South Korea had been calling the North on a designated border hotline twice a day for two years, and that in January, North Korea picked up – which led to their appearance at the PyeongChang Olympics and then its announcement that denuclearisation is on the table for discussion.
Skye, too, is cautiously optimistic. In the miraculous event of reunification, would she try to find her father's family? "How could I?" she said. "My father has passed away and there would be no way of finding them." We finished our tea and the conversation flowed on.
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