Category: South Korea

Thoughts on Korea

Thoughts on Korea

We were only there a few days, but here are some thoughts, albeit fairly random, about Korea…..

Korea has had a rough deal over the past 107 years. We all know the superpowers and their Cold War catalysed the division of the peninsula after 1945, but we didn’t realise prior to this, since 1910 in fact, the country was occupied by the Japanese.

The Koreans we spoke to just get on with everyday life and don’t try and worry too much about the apparent nuclear threat from the North. They follow developments on tv, but then switch over to romantic drama. They live for the moment. To them, it’s just another escalation that’s previously included assassinations, invasions, missiles and axe murders. But dreams of a united Korea will depend on renewed direct contact between the two governments.

Although population numbers have increased rapidly in the last decades, and the profile comes across as very young, the birth rate is declining and experts are predicting the population may peak as early as 2024. So the government is incentivising marriage (with new housing) and births (with money).

Ordinary Koreans hate the power, and corruption, of the large family corporations that control so much of the economy – which are known as the Chaebols. Think Samsung, Lotte and Hyundai. Amazingly the revenue of the 10 largest is more than 80% of South Korea’s GDP, with Samsung accounting for 20%. Although they powered Korea’s economic success in the last few decades, today many think the Chaebols hamper future growth.

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On the day we flew out, newspapers reported the jailing for corruption of the Samsung heir-apparent

Tourists are made very welcome here. The Korean Tourist Board displays a nice line in workwear (see top photo), provides great maps and guides in English and even offers a hotline for tourists to ring whenever they are stuck, lost or have a complaint. Although there are lots of historical treasures to visit, many of them are recently rebuilt from scratch. In our opinion, it’s best to visit the country for its modern lifestyle rather than its history.

Young Koreans love to sing and are performers at heart; in both Seoul and Busan we enjoyed watching many street acts. But the young are very image conscious, always checking themselves in mirrors, and their smartphones, and spend all their time out-and-about taking thousands of selfies. But we were delighted to see that alcohol or smoking doesn’t seem to be part of their culture.

Like Japan, South Korea is an incredibly homogeneous country. We saw hardly any mixed relationships or indeed many foreigners who live here. In Busan or Seoul you do not see posters in the street promoting the benefits of diversity (unlike Jasper and Sydney).

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Looking at North Korea

Looking at North Korea

In 1945, two Americans drew a line across their map of the Korean Peninsula. Above the 38th parallel, the Soviets would demilitarise the Japanese (who had controlled Korea since 1910), whilst below the task would fall to the Americans.

72 years later, there’s still a divide, just a bit more diagonal. But now a very dangerous and sad one; for families separated, for a people divided and for millions who live with the threat of nuclear war. Plans, hopes and dreams potentially obliterated on the whim of Kim Jong-un or Donald Trump.

On a grim wet day, Roger travelled 50 miles (80 km) north of Seoul into a grim landscape – beyond the civilian exclusion zone and Freedom Bridge, down one of the North Korean tunnels and looked across the Korean Demilitarised Zone (DMZ).

This is a view that should make many world leaders, past and present, ashamed. All of them too powerful, all of them men, and all of them pathetic creatures who nurture power instead of healing.

In 1989, with the collapse of the Iron Curtain, Europe was able to move out of the shadow of WWII and the Cold War. When will Korea be able to?

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On the barbed wire at Freedom Bridge, South Korean messages of hope
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Roger’s view across to the border. Near the centre, just seen through the mist and rain, are the flags of North and South Korea
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Built in 2002 by the South Koreans, Dorasan Station is a station without trains. A political statement

If you plan to do this Try and book the combined Joint Security Area (JSA) and DMZ tour. Because of the joint South Korean/American military exercises taking place whilst Roger was in Seoul, all tours of the JSA at Panmunjeom were cancelled.

Seoul style

Seoul style

This is an exciting city in which to spend three nights.

The “financial controller” (also known as Hilary) had relaxed the spending limits a bit, so after a terrible place to stay in Hiroshima (noodle smells from below and a bathroom shared with the owner), we splashed out on a nice hotel. The price was still pretty cheap, but we found a gem, a boutique style hotel that offered a great atmosphere. Pictured above, it’s called Hotel Manu, for when you are next in South Korea. It’s so super-cool, we spent all three evenings in-house drinking beer, eating pizzas and giving each other massages.

Now we know we are supposed to be seeing Seoul and its culture and vibe, and we did do a bit of that (see below), but sometimes as a traveller you just want a place called home, food you can pronounce, white Egyptian cotton sheets and lots of chill-out time.

We hired some bikes and cycled along both banks of the River Han for miles. Wonderful views, with a cafe stop on one of the islands in the middle of the river.

A few minutes from our hotel was the Sungnyemun Gate. Originally built in 1398, it was one of the four main gates of the city.

Hilary at Seoul Tower. From here we saw an ocean of skyscrapers. Enough for 24 million people.

Seoul – relaxing on the walkway

Seoul – relaxing on the walkway

Right outside our hotel in Seoul is a new walkway, a bit like the High Line in New York, except this is a converted roadway. It welcomed us to the capital from the station, and what might have been a difficult walk across lanes of gridlocked traffic, became a lovely stroll through pots of plants and trees, mini-cafes, kids’ trampolines, tiny art galleries and a pool to dip your toes in.

Opened just four months ago, the 2km walkway is called Seoullo and it’s a great example of how city planners should be putting pedestrians front of mind.

And as we walked it, we couldn’t help reflecting on the abandonment of London’s Garden Bridge project. Such a shame that this visionary idea couldn’t be made to work.

Women only carriages

Women only carriages

We noticed women only carriages, stipulated on certain carriages during morning and evening rush hours, first on the Tokyo metro system. Our China expert Sophie, told us they were introduced because of the high levels of groping by men on crowded trains.

We’ve since also spotted these notices on Korean metro lines (above). What is the problem here? Aren’t we living in the 21st century in cosmopolitan egalitarian societies?

We note that this week a British Labour Member of Parliament (MP) has been making similar suggestions for the London tube. Glad to say that egalitarians have pushed back and said the solution should be prosecuting men for behaving badly rather than restricting women’s freedom.

Now some of you might say it’s not restricting women, but as Yvette Cooper MP says, “Why should women have to shut themselves away to stay safe.” And Sarah Wollaston, MP added, “In countries where women are segregated on public transport, it’s a marker for disempowerment not safety.”

Sad and depressing to see that in 2017 sexual harassment is still such an issue in advanced societies.

Gyeongju’s delights

Gyeongju’s delights

With six days in South Korea, we only have time for a one night stop between Busan, the port city in the south, and Seoul in the north, and people recommended Gyeongju.

55 miles (90 km) north of Busan and the ancient capital of the Silla Dynasty, Gyeongju is famed for its many historical sites across a wide area. We were “templed out” from Japan, with low expectations for anything special in Korea, but we were proved wrong. Once you escape the hotels and shops that inevitably attach themselves these days like barnacles to any World Heritage Site, this was a rewarding place to be a tourist.

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Bulguksi Temple really impressed us. Built in 774, the site was destroyed by the Japanese in 1593. So it’s a symbol of national pride that the Koreans rebuilt the whole treasure in 1969-1973. We loved its size, renovated Silla Buddhist paintwork and the thousands of hanging lanterns
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The Seokguram Grotto, houses the most beautiful Buddha we have seen to date. Rather than tacky gold plating, or blemished bronze, it’s a classy white marble stone Buddha carved in 751 into its own rock temple
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The Daerungwon Ancient Tombs, are 23 grass mound tombs from the Silla Dynasty, the kingdom located in southern and central parts of the Korean Peninsula from 57BC to 935AD
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Three of the buildings of the Donggung Palace have been rebuilt, and it’s a pleasant stroll around the adjoining Wolji Pond
Gamcheon Cultural Village

Gamcheon Cultural Village

We’d like to coin a new term “Squalid Art” (n), meaning the art created when external artists are invited into a poor housing area to establish a tourist attraction.

Based on our day trip to Valparaiso in Chile ( you can read the post here) and now in Busan’s Gamcheon area, we are great fans of it. However, you do wonder if it’s sometimes imposed on the locals.

Established in the 1950s, as a refugee camp for Koreans fleeing the civil war, Gamcheon’s twisty lanes and steep terraces used to be one of the city’s poorest shanty towns. That was until 2009 when government money started financing the murals and art installations.

Now thousands of tourists get the number 1.1 bus up the very steep hill, buy their trail map and collect ink stamps and postcards at fun, attractive locations. However, when we wandered off the trail, the poverty that still exists behind the squalid art facade was all too obvious.

Emotional energy in Busan

Emotional energy in Busan

Forget the reserve of Japan, it’s a different world in Korea, with chaos and emotion raw and infecting. Middle aged travellers may prefer Japan, but the young will love the energy here.

Moments we didn’t see in Japan……. On the tube, a harassed mother shouting to her boy. Sitting on a bus, the driver remonstrating with a car blocking a narrow road. In the street, teenage girls in the tiniest shorts adjusting their hair. In a taxi, the attitude that makes you demand to be let out.

As well as the people, Korea’s second city is a simmering kaleidoscope of buildings; new and old, battered and glistening. The concrete and neon feels alive, on the go and changing in front of your eyes. Getting higher, getting wealthier, getting more global.

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And we’ve noticed a big generational difference here. Many older people are missing out on the progress, sitting on the pavement selling their fruit, whilst the younger people are amongst the best educated in the world, totally online with a global perspective. The mums look bemused and weary, whilst their kids scan smartphones for the latest music, trend or happening.

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We used the excellent bus and metro system to get around, and enjoyed particularly walking along Gwangalli Beach at dusk past the karaoke performers, with the millions of LEDs on Gwangan Bridge flashing away, the view of the city from the rugged coastline at Igidae, and a visit to Gamcheon Culture Village.

Fast hydrofoil to South Korea

Fast hydrofoil to South Korea

Planning the gap year, the idea of taking a ferry from Japan to South Korea always appealed. But come the day, we discovered hydrofoils were our only option. So what was planned as our “slow boat to Korea” across the Sea of Japan, sitting on deck, basking in the sun, morphed into a comfy chair in a sealed craft.

The crossing from Fukuoka, on the southern island of Kyushu in Japan, to Busan in South Korea took exactly three hours. There were only a few other boats, but we went close to the Japanese island of Tsushima.

The first things we saw on approaching our gap year’s 16th country were massive residential flats. Unlike Japan, with its declining population, South Korea’s has nearly doubled in the past 50 years. Welcome to the new world.