Gwangju, South Korea—When I arrived at Incheon International Airport near Seoul on April 2 to start a two-month stay in South Korea, I was immediately struck by the sharp contrasts between America and this bustling country of 50 million.
First was the airport itself. Incheon is one of the best-designed and most efficient airports in the world; it’s years ahead of the dilapidated structures that US air travelers are forced to endure. The lines for immigration and customs move briskly, and weary travelers are assisted by guides who speak English and politely lead you to the right gate.
Upon entry, the government agents who stamp your passport (and demand your fingerprints on a fancy electronic device) have the same authoritarian air as in most countries. But they’re a far cry from the grim and determined Customs and Border Patrol agents who have become notorious under President Trump for their rude and insulting behavior toward foreign visitors and refugees.
Then, as soon as you emerge into the terminal itself, you encounter South Korea’s fabulous and mostly public Wi-Fi system. Smartphones and computers are immediately connected to the Internet without charge or registration, making it easy to e-mail or text friends or family upon disembarking. High-speed Wi-Fi is prevalent throughout the country, and makes South Korea the most wired place on earth.
And right across the street from the terminal is the beautiful, futuristic structure for KORAIL, South Korea’s high-speed train system, which connects Incheon with every major city in the country. As with Europe, Asia has invested heavily in rail—unlike the United States, where such systems are still pipe dreams. My 159-mile trip the next morning to Gwangju, a city of 1.5 million in the southwest that’s known as the cradle of Korea’s democratic revolution, took less than three hours.
So far, however, my stay here has overlapped with the greatest contrast of all: the sharp difference between American and South Korean coverage of North Korea’s nuclear and missile program and the huge perception gap about the situation by US and South Korean citizens.
Shortly before I flew from Washington, DC, to Seoul, a US Navy aircraft-carrier group led by the USS Carl Vinson was ordered to move toward Korean waters. Immediately, the US media started broadcasting dire reports about the possibility of US pre-emptive strikes from these ships on the North’s military facilities. With CNN available on most cable systems here, the alarming news spread far and wide.