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March 2016

 

 

South Korea

 

 

I hadn't written up our trip to South Korea (in March 2016) but Google Pictures gratuitously put an album together from my Cloud library so I was motivated to add a few words and put it up on my Website.  Normally I would use selected images to illustrate observations about a place visited.  This is the other way about, with a lot of images that I may not have otherwise chosen.  It requires you to go to the link below if you want to see pictures. You may find some of the images interesting and want to by-pass others quickly. Your choice. In addition to the album, Google generated a short movie in an 8mm style - complete with dust flecks. You can see this by clicking the last frame, at the bottom of the album.

A few days in Seoul were followed by travels around the country, helpfully illustrated in the album by Google generated maps: a picture is worth a thousand words; ending back in Seoul before spending a few days in China on the way home to OZ. 

 

The album starts with some sights around Seoul then the memorial to the Koran War, that loomed large during my childhood and I still find interesting.  That war influenced our economy and international relations and initiated our fear of Communism and thus the Democratic Labor Party.  As a student politics changed my life, and without it I probably would not have met Emily's mother. And without that story going exactly as it did, my children would not have been born. Wendy's son Heath and I had this speculative discussion as we roamed the museum.  His birth was equally contingent on this and previous wars.

Heath is the tall man in some of the images.  He was living in Seoul for some months for work and was the catalyst for our trip.

South Korea was interesting for many likenesses to Taiwan, that we visited a year earlier.  They are both 'Asian Tiger' economies and recent democracies, having been colonies of Japan and then under United States military protection since the 1950's.  But unlike Taiwan, Korea has a language and script that is unique.  It is also under greater daily threat from their evil twin across the DMZ than is Taiwan from China.  Like Germany, Vietnam and Palestine, Korea's opposed forces were partitioned during the 'Cold War' but in the Korean case there has never been a peace agreement and a state of war still exists. It was fascinating to go to the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) and look across to the tree-denuded hills on the other side, where poor North Korean peasants use the timber as a dwindling source of energy while, at the same time, their bellicose leaders threaten the world with nuclear war.  Almost as bizarre are the invasion tunnels that the North has dug under the DMZ hoping, like Greeks in the Trojan War, to invade in the dead of night and capture the South's defences and critical infrastructure or perhaps stage a coup.

The South has been living with this black comedy for so long that it seems relatively unconcerned as threat piles upon threat. The tour organisers explained that from time to time the threat gets so high that they can't go to the DMZ.  On this occasion they felt that despite the latest madness, in response to joint Naval exercises with the US, it should be OK.  It's a bit like the weather, they need to watch the daily forecast.

Unfortunately my DMZ hat that appears briefly in the album - only available onsite - is now lost.  It's somewhere in Berlin, probably in a toy or coffee shop. This is the only record of its existence.

Elsewhere in South Korea people were going about their business. Pulling things down and putting them up, farming their crops, milling about, driving hither and thither in this dynamic economy.  But despite 'Romance Hotels' and love & sex museums on the honeymoon island of Jeju, the otherwise puritanical Koreans are not very busy having babies. At less than 1.1 births per woman, South Korea now has the lowest fertility rate in the world. The population is just over 50 million but further growth is due entirely to aging, as people already here are living longer. 

For cultural and language reasons immigration to South Korea is negligible, mainly Chinese and American expatriates, so they had better think about a reconciliation with the North where fertility is higher if they want to avoid having the oldest population on earth.  Maybe the North's cunning plan is to wait them out?  Probably not, they prefer something faster, like building infiltration tunnels and nuclear weapons.

There have indeed been efforts at reconciliation including a shared manufacturing facility in the DMZ and a proposed train line to Europe, through the North to China and Russia and on to the West. Enthusiastic US support, with a Presidential visit to the project, was part of the Sunshine Policy of engagement but this was firmly rejected by the second Bush administration and the North got labelled a 'rogue state'. Since then, and particularly after the death of Kim Jong-Il in 2011 with power passing to Kim Jong-un, all these bets are off.  The trains rust to the tracks and the factories are silent. Instead propaganda blasts back and forth across no-man's-land.

Unlike Taiwan, the relationship with the ex-colonial power, Japan, is sometimes strained too.  Koreans have removed most of the painful colonial memories by demolishing and building over them, for example the sculptural but rather cold and inhuman Dong Daemun Design Plaza, built on a former Japanese sports field. The red building at the top of the album is an ex-colonial building and, as in Taiwan, the similarity to British colonial buildings is striking.

Yet it was to Japan that South Korea turned for technical expertise in the early days of the economic miracle.  In particular, the excellent Seoul Metro was developed with Japanese technical assistance.  It is now one of the world's most advanced, similar in length to the New York Subway (and Moscow Metro) but carrying 50% more passengers than New York (about the same patronage as Moscow).  It has less stations but it is in the midst of significant expansion.  It has more than once been sited as the world's best urban transit system.  We used it daily, made easier for us, as against say a French speaker, because, as in most systems around the world, the signs and station announcements are duplicated in English. 

A reassuring feature on many, if not all, stations is the gas mask closet, that looks like a vending machine, and the heavy blast doors held ominously open in the access tunnels, reminding us that Seoul is within artillery range of the North.  No need for rockets to take out this city.  Less reassuring is that there are two types of mask: one against smoke and nasty things like saran and another for radiation. But then you'd probably be killed in the fight to get to the masks as there are obviously insufficient, given the number of commuters.

The main confusion we suffered was getting out of the huge station complexes, that labyrinthically connect to Seoul's extensive underground shopping plazas and from which each exit delivers the commuter to an entirely different streetscape above, so that it's easy to emerge a kilometre from where you want to be and/or to go the wrong way once above ground.  Above ground there is very little English signage and not a lot of English speakers.

If you use your phone for navigation, away from WiFi, you'll pay an arm and a leg for global data download. So it's time to find a coffee shop and get some WiFi.

Catching a taxi, the universal solution to being lost, is no solution here, unless you have your hotel address in Korean, as addresses are entirely irrational and based on tradition.  Asking to go to the main station is an alternative of last resort.  But you could end up at the airport.  Isn't that where all tourists want to go?

As with the technology, much of the food is Japanese or Chinese inspired; except perhaps, the iconic Korean kimchi: fermented cabbage typically brewed with fish paste; ginger; garlic; and red pepper.  It has a very strong smell that pervades the country for the new-comer, like eucalyptus in Australia, but one soon gets used to it.  In general the food, as in China, is excellent, if a little more expensive.

One colonial memory particularly rankles: the sexploitation of Korean 'comfort women' to amuse Japanese soldiers.  Japan has repeatedly apologised and paid several rounds of financial compensation.  Now, following the last agreement and another payment, it wants Koreans to put the issue behind them and a memorial to these women to be removed from the street in Seoul.  But local protesters have camped-out to protect it.  They seem to have popular and possibly tacit official support. Korea is not going to forget easily.

Religion in South Korea is also interesting and it wouldn't be a travel report from me without mentioning it. 

Despite the obvious Buddhist influence and many temples it's predominantly Christian.  In the Seoul region Christianity is predominantly Protestant although Roman Catholics make up a third of the Christian believers in South Korea.  Korean Buddhism has almost all of the balance of theists - just over 20% of the population.  Both these great religions are growing and others are mostly shrinking. The percentage of those Koreans reporting no religion has also dropped (from 57% in the 1970's to 47% today). The Protestant/Catholic split seems to favour Protestants in regions where Buddhism is strongest.  Maybe they are more evangelical?  Nevertheless, according to Wikipedia, the Social Hostilities Index (that measures acts of religious hostility by private individuals, organizations or groups in society) is very low and a fraction of that in the Asia-Pacific in general. It obviously disregards hostility from the mad mob to the North.

We were doing our own thing, more or less going to places recommended by the tourist guides but using local transport.  So we could see that not everyone is living in the lap of luxury.  Have a look at the men carrying goods on their backs for a pittance in the street photos.

So this is not an egalitarian country. Its three political parties are each, in their way, beholden to one or more of a handful of big family-controlled businesses or 'chaebol' and by big I mean very big. They dominate the South Korean economy and several have family members in politics. You will have heard of them. You see their products on our roads in our kitchens and entertainment areas and in people's hands everyday.  Samsung has now passed Apple (even in the US) as the largest supplier of mobile phones.  But that's just a fraction of the giant Samsung chaebol's business.  Similarly Hyundai and Kia cars and trucks are just a fraction of the business of the Hyundai chaebol and the next largest chaebol: LG (previously Lucky-Goldstar) also has a finger in many pies, beyond consumer electronics. Others in the top ten include the SK Group, energy, textiles and telecommunications, with close connections to a previous South Korean President. Influence is immediately obvious in the streets and in the shops.  Where are the Japanese cars, trucks or machinery?  Where are the foreign consumer goods?  The chaebols also own or control most of the international transport, wholesales, retailers and financial institutions. Other barriers to unwanted trade include the unique Korean language and script.

Elsewhere in the world this level of political influence, oligopoly and business collusion and hidden trade barriers would be illegal corrupt practice. Yet, like the United States and Japan, Korea is a democracy in which corrupt officials can be removed and have been.  For example, according to Wikipedia:

In 2015, Lee Wan-koo, the prime minister resigned following evidence that he had corruptly received money from Sung Wan-jong, a construction tycoon who committed suicide, leaving a note implicating the PM. The President was also damaged by the revelations.
[Also] in 2015 a report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found that "almost 70% of South Koreans distrust their government, while less than 30% of them are confident in the nation's judicial system." This rate is significantly lower than the OECD average, which was 41.8%.
The government has since taken steps to fight corruption, such as the Act on the Protection of Public Interest Whistle-Blowers.
"However, large chaebols pose significant difficulties as illicit business behaviour is still common among them. Their powerful role in South Korea's economy has made corruption investigation very difficult."
 

 

Yet most of the voting-age population is registered to vote and most do, indicating a high level of political awareness and motivation.  So South Korea is actually more 'democratic', in the sense of rule by the people, than the US or Japan, where only about half those of voting age actually vote, yet where big businesses and other interests also exert significant, although less obvious, political influence through electoral donations. 

No doubt things for the common person in South Korea are better than they were.  And had we visited in the 1980's I'm sure we would be amazed today by the changes and improvements in overall well-being, as reflected in life expectancy and material wealth.

On this trip we stopped off in China on the way home to Sydney.  It's another country where the rich are getting very rich, so that expensive European cars and Swiss watches abound, and the poor are getting a lot better off too.

 

Comments  

# Leslie Farkash 2017-07-24 13:56
Very good article Richard.

Whilst Dr. Strangelove is still a very scary prospect I have moved on to seeking motives and agendas that motivate military action ("And it is not that they envy our freedoms") that are far more likely to create conflict than the actions of a so called madman or Rogue State.

I had been scratching my head as to what is prompting all the sabre rattling, in and around the Korean Peninsular and you may have hit the nail on the head. An under the radar Korean Reunification plan/attempt.

That would make so much sense as to why China is being threatened, why all the nuclear posturing, lifting of Japans rearmament restrictions and the exposure of South Korea's corruption riddled government. In that light it has the makings of a reunified Vietnam.
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