Cold War in South Korea
We arrived in South Korea just before tensions grew in the border of North Korea. Both sides fired at each other some 60 kilometres from the capital, Seoul. North Korea presented an ultimatum: if South Korea will not stop broadcasting propaganda, North Korea is going to attack.
Calm surface, turbulent underneath
People in Seoul continued their life as usual despite the threat. They walked their dogs, hurried to work, and planned the future. South Koreans have learned to live with their neighbour in the same way as the Finns with Russia. The fear is ever present, but it is not something people think about in their everyday life.
Under the calm surface, South Koreans are anxious. They work obsessively. Most take only one week of their annual leave although they are entitled to 15–25 days. The global average is 20 days. The overworked Koreans search for redemption from various sources: Christianity, Buddhism, Shamanism, and new age. 'Healing' is one of the buzzwords. There is a TV programme called 'healing camp' where celebrities speak about life, and various healing centres and healing coffeeshops abound in the capital. This is perhaps no wonder. South Korea has the second highest suicide rate in the world (Guyana has the highest).
During our stay, we were making a website for one of the new healing centres. It is specialised in Qi energy healing, a holistic method that emphasises the oneness of self and environment, based on an ancient Eastern philosophy. We also creted a website for a Seoul sharehouse called WindRoad that kindly gave us a room and fed us in exchange of our work.
Koreans — just like all nations in the world — are proud of their uniqueness, although all nations owe to each other. Korean culture is said to have a lot of Japanese heritage, but the Chinese influence seemed way more prevalent for us. People are quick to advise and straighten out others just like in China. If you do something that locals think is wrong, harmful, or unhealthy, they will point it out to you immediately whether it is about washing laundry, cleaning, eating, or choosing groceries in the supermarket.
People also speak quite loudly like the Chinese, and because some of the sounds in the Korean language are pretty harsh, it sounds like they were angry, shouting or barking at each other. Just like the Chinese, the Koreans may also give the impression of being rude, although that is not necessarily the case; more likely, they are shy and need some time to get accustomed to you, or they are afraid of speaking English.
There is also a lot of spitting on the street and throwing rubbish around, but unlike in China, cities are cleaner and air less polluted. Street sweepers are at work from early morning hours and trash collectors recycle some of the rubbish.
We were staying in Seoul and had the pleasure to live in one of greatest parts of the town, Jongno-gu, near Sungkyunkwan University. It is a trendy and vibrant area with hundreds of little restaurants and coffee shops as well as many theaters and cinemas. Trees line up the streets and there are many charming little alleys and hillside houses. Otherwise Seoul is just like any huge Asian city: crowded, grey, ugly, and heavily polluted. And like cities in Japan, Seoul has lost part of its soul under ongoing US occupation.
In Jongno-gu, Päivi's favourite was the nearby Naksan Park. There are nice paths for walking and jogging following the ancient city wall and plenty of outdoor gym equipment. The park is on a mountain top and the view over the city is magnificent. There is a rush hour between 5:30–8 am (in the summertime), but even then there's always free space.
People come to Korea for food — or for K-pop for that matter. Eating out is rather affordable but not suited for vegans. Asian cuisine is soiled with fish stock and fried in lard, and seafood is used abundantly. However, we love kimchi when it's home made without fish stock and shrimps. Korean spices are nice, too. You can buy for example chili paste (gochujang) in huge containers that look like tool boxes.
Groceries in South Korea are expensive, even more expensive than in Japan. This applies particularly to fruits, vegetables, beans, and soymilk. Discount apples, for example, cost 1 euro each! The prices were a huge disappointment for us and somewhat restricted out diet. It was easy to decide where to head next: somewhere where there are plenty of exotic fruits and veggies. The cheapest supermarkets we found in Jongno-gu were HomePlus Express (Tesco) and some of the GS25 supermarkets. After 6 pm, some expiring products like toast, tofu, fruits and vegetables are discounted. Unfortunately we were not able to locate any tofu shops selling okara. What was quite annoying as well was packaging. The Koreans like to wrap up products in single size packages and they use a lot of plastic bags just like the Japanese.
Korean tourism and economy
Asian financial crisis has caught up with South Korea. Korean won slumped in 2014, and the country now has to settle for a puny 1% growth instead of earlier 3%. The government has already taken measures to address the slowdown. The sales tax rates on cars and electronics were cut by 30% to boost consumption — an opposite tactic to the one adopted in Europe where austerity is believed to be the cure.
Tourists were few this summer thanks to the MERS epidemic in April–May 2015. Although there were no new cases since the beginning of June, people avoided the area and perhaps the tensions between the North and the South were also affecting. In general, there are not too many must-see sights in Korea. For example temples and historical places are modest compared to those in Japan, but local culture and everyday life itself were fascinating. These are, naturally, not something you can experience on a short trip so it might be best to either skip the country or stay a bit longer.