Social conformity, pickled cabbage, Confucian values and the highest rate of video game addiction in the world, South Korea is in a little world of its own.
Just off the northeastern end of China, dangling out in The East Sea like a deflated hemorrhoid sits the strategically controversial flash point of Asian and international politics, the Korean peninsula. North Korea – South Korea; this divided little piece of land contains the yin and yang of eastern philosophies, ever an agitation and never wholly understood.
To close one’s eyes and envision Korea, for many, is to draw a blank. At best, one might have tried a little kimchi and barbecued pork at the local Korean restaurant or practiced a few years of Tae Kwon Do as a teenager. If you read the newspapers you might imagine a nation of angry Asian soldiers straight out of Orwell’s 1984; brainwashed North Korean Nationalists with machine guns and grenades, citizens digging up and devouring freshly buried neighbors for lack of alternative food sources.
The latter gruesome depictions represent only the northern half, the yin, to democratic South Korea’s yang. For more information on the northern half of the peninsula it’s a good idea to check out some seriously in-depth books on the subject. The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten years in the North Korean Gulag and Kim Jung Il: North Korea’s Dear Leader are highly recommended. For Road Junky we’ll stick to the south, the foreigner-friendly democratic Republic of Korea, otherwise known as South Korea.
Is it any wonder we draw a blank when it comes to Korea? After all, Korea was once known as The Hermit Kingdom. In the late fifties its gross national product was below that of Bangladesh and even many African nations. Not so today. Nowadays South Korea is more like a soot-covered, over-populated industrial megalopolis of genetically homogenous and mentally unified, socially extroverted busybodies. People rush from place to place stumbling over anyone or anything in their way. Cars and trucks play chicken against bent old women with cabbages tied to their perms and babies on their backs. Usually the old women win, and it’s crucial to keep this in mind at all times. Granny will crush you.
The history of Korea is very interesting. Superpowers like Japan, Russia, America and China have fought over this strategic little hot spot for centuries. So, North Korea aside, it’s no mistake that that international watchdog, America, has positioned so many bases there. Mention of enigmatic leaders like Park Jung Hee, Queen Min, Kim Dae Jung and the teenage schoolgirl rebel Ryu Gwan Soon will make many a Korean fall to his or her knees, weeping with a patriotic mixture of love and hate.
So whatever happens, remember that this is Korea, a country of which Confucius would be mighty proud, a land of utter ethnic homogeneity and absolute admiration for everything and everyone that’s old, a place where the liberal values westerners hold so dear are flipped over upside-down quicker than kimchi.
If you haven’t figured it out by now, Korea is not the most touristy type of tourist destination. Don’t come here for palm trees on white sand or skiing cottages between the pines. Come here for the people, for the grit, for a non-gimmicked, homespun, anti-tourist type of tourism. And always remember, no matter what a Korean might say, how bold or pushy they might seem, Koreans, if they’re not your boss, are quite possibly the best hosts the world over.