Lotte World, looking out over the ice rink, Disney style music playing away in the background numbing us into thoughts of all things happy and innocent, and my attention fixes on a group of very young speed skaters and their coach. But there's something not right about the body language. When the coach moves towards them they back away fearfully, and no matter where he goes, they are very careful about not turning their back to him.
The answer quickly comes. He grabs an arm, pulls one of the young children around and swiftly connects the baton he's carrying with the unfortunate owner's bottom. Even standing some distance away and above all the other noise in Lotte World, the sound of baton hitting child reached us micro-seconds later. I watched this spectacle unfold for some time. Bottom hitting was a favourite but sometimes landing a blow to the helmet was an acceptable alternative. Trying to sit on the ice to avoid a beating does not work, you'll just be picked up and hit anyway. Sometimes the little skaters managed to avoid a blow by pushing out their hands in a desperate plea to stop - a gesture as apparently futile as a small rabbit asking a lion to give them a break - but it did occasionally work. I guess that's what separates us from the animals.
Coming from a country where corporal punishment is outlawed, watching these scenes of fear play out beneath us was an odd experience, often infuriating and perhaps even surreal given the way all the other people on the ice and near the rink seemed completely oblivious to what was happening. In fact there's nothing to say that parents weren't watching, although perhaps that's even more troubling. But I've formed the impression in my time here that beating children to get results is still something which is very much part of mainstream thinking in Korea. I guess that's something that separates us from the Koreans.
Will it make them better skaters? Will it make them better people - more disciplined, more respectful - or does it just perpetuate a social environment - especially among the male population in Korea - where casual violence against those weaker than yourself is acceptable?
Growing up in Korea is a competitive and tough business. In education and in sport. Maybe 13 years from now they'll be at the Olympics all the years of being hit with batons will seem worthwhile. Or maybe it won't.
Korean tags: 서울, 경기, 폭력