SEOUL -- I hadn't believed the theory, advanced in some post-Vietnam accounts, that "men love war." Not until I landed here in the midst of last month's rioting with my husband and two sons.
Our family arrived in Seoul on June 10, the day that President Chun Doo Hwan announced his hand-picked successor and fighting broke out in earnest between South Korean students and riot police. Spending the next month in Korea probably taught our children something important about Asian politics and even the value of democracy. It taught me something more unsettling about men, large and small.
As we tried to ride into town from the airport, stopping in clogged intersections and watching formations of police in full riot regalia, I thought the accident of timing that had brought us to Korea might be a mixed blessing. The excitement would be a healthy change from the sleepy year we had just passed in Kuala Lumpur, but did we really want to be taking our children into a riot zone?
During that first evening in Seoul, our boys, ages 7 and 10, stared with a mesmerized look of amazement at what they exuberantly called the "real war" being played out before them -- and in disbelief that their parents, always pulling them away from potential danger and reminding them to be careful before crossing streets, had actually led them into this.
Our tourist ventures into the city, to explore open markets and palace grounds, abruptly turned into searches for surgical masks and swimming goggles, the layman's best protection against tear gas. (The only civilians who could buy real gas masks were foreign journalists.) During the next days and weeks, our sightseeing took on more and more of a martial tone. By day, one of the boys would always be "spotting" for a crowd. As soon as they saw a cluster of four or five people they called out their pet phrase, "Look -- something's going on over there."
By evening, they begged for a stroll toward the main riot areas, City Hall or Myongdong Cathedral, hoping to find the edge of some street battle. By night, they'd stand guard at the hotel room window, watching for any sign of mounting activity at the police station we overlooked or at the Seoul train station, a frequent spot for confrontations.
Our 10-year-old begged my husband to let him tag along on a stealthy trip into the back alleys of a city market where black-market gas masks could be found. Only with a bright yellow hardhat and an ominous black-rubber gas mask could a journalist, like my husband, feel like one of the guys. The boys waited impatiently for hourly news reports of street action, and one read aloud to another the lengthy "downtown Seoul is a battle zone" accounts from the morning papers. They listened to their father's graphic accounts of rock fights and tear-gas assaults, only to beg for more: "Yeah, Dad, but what was it really like?"
This was when I started to worry. My boys were playing war, more seriously than in their backyard games, and loving every minute of it. It chilled my heart to see how much they enjoyed it.
Of course, it wasn't just the children. My husband was a little too eager to put on his blue jeans, helmet and gas mask and head out to see the street fighting. "It's my job," he told the kids, but I saw the gleam in his eye.
It's conceivable that even the fierce-looking Korean students were playing the same game: For all the seeming violence of the fighting, practically no one was hurt, and the rock-throwers stood at the precise distance that let their stones bounce and dribble into the shields of the riot police. One student was killed, so was a policeman, and hundreds of thousands of people got tear gas in their eyes -- but for most people the street battles held no real danger, so they could play at war.
All right, maybe I liked it a little bit, too. If I'm wholly honest, I must admit that I might have preferred to be on the edge of the fray watching the police than in the hotel room watching the kids.
Just as I was beginning to reach dark conclusions about my children, my husband, Koreans, men and people in general, my spirits got a lift. I recognized my childrens' fascination with battle but also discovered, I hope, its limits.
One evening, strolling on our rounds into town, we got a little too close. Massed formations of police, like we'd seen from the safety of our windows, were suddenly crowded all around us. They formed into lines and marched through drills that their sergeant barked to them. They were keeping the crowd on edge, letting us know who was in charge, brushing us off the sidewalks when we were accidentally in their path. With the rough feel of these strong and uniformed bodies against their own, both boys panicked, as did I, and we clutched hands and rushed toward our hotel.
On our way back, amidst the bumper-to-bumper traffic in the eight-lane street, we passed an open-backed pickup truck, piled high with hundreds of the bright and cuddly stuffed animals that are Korea's second-leading export item. The boys stopped and stared at the furry little creatures, as wide-eyed as they had stared at the riot police. I was encouraged to see the animals as equal attractions, for now.
Deborah Fallows is the author of "A Woman's Work."