Life in South Korea
In only 3 days, I explored South Korea from the demilitarized zone at its northern border to the city of Busan on its south coast. The short time was barely enough to get a glimpse of the multifaceted culture of the country. Here are observations, from Gangnam nightlife in the capital Seoul to seafood so fresh it still moves on your plate in the port city Busan to the special culture that has resulted from the division of the nation into North and South.
Korea’s Heart and Seoul
About 10 million people live in Seoul, but the Seoul Capital Area is home to about 25 million people and thus half of the South Korean population. Seoul is a skyscraper jungle. In the Gangnam district, where Metrohm distributor Hwashin Instrument is based, the streets resemble deep valleys that wind between the business district’s glass towers. Neon signs advertising restaurants, companies, and stores aimed at Seoul’s elite cover nearly everything. During the rush hours in the morning and late afternoon, the traffic gets so dense here that it hardly moves at all.
After work hours have ended, thousands of people swarm out of their offices and fill the bars and restaurants of Gangnam where they meet with their colleagues and friends for afterwork drinks. The area gets particularly busy on Friday and Saturday nights, but for Seoulites, every night is a potential night out. From our colleagues at Hwashin Instrument, I learned that they meet with their colleagues for afterwork drinks around three times in an average week. For those who love dancing, Gangnam’s famous clubbing landscape offers a place to go.
Gangnam literally means «south of the river». When you cross the Hangang River to the north side, you’ll find that this part of Seoul is very different from Gangnam. This is where the old city center is located with its small shops that sell lamps and furniture and electronics. Remnants from other eras like the Gyeongbokgung Palace, which dates back to 1395, seem a little out of place in this hypermodern city where almost everything seems to be shiny and new. But the building that stands here today isn’t actually that old. The original Palace burned down during the Japanese invasions at the end of the 16th century, but was restored by the last king of Korea in the late 19th and early 20th century.
A Story of Conflict and Division
Since the 1950s, Korea has been struggling with its very own story of war and conflict. During the Korean War, which began in 1950, the country was divided into North and South Korea, North Korea being under control of the Soviet Union and South Korea under the control of the USA. The Korean War ended in 1953, but the relationship between South and North Korea has been tense since, to say the least: repeated attempts of North Korea to invade the South as well as military attacks to provoke and frighten South Korea have created a hostile atmosphere that only improved in recent years.
The tragic stories that unfold in the background of war and armed conflict are those of families, lovers, and friends separated for almost 70 years. Rare events of family reunifications after decades apart have moved the whole nation to tears. While many older Koreans still dream of a unified nation, the youth is skeptical. Never having known a unified Korea, the cost of a reunification with the impoverished North weighs heavier than the ideal of a unified nation.
I have to admit that, before arriving in Seoul, I knew little about the Korean War and the history of the division of Korea. When I asked our colleagues about it, I was surprised at how familiar their stories sounded: it felt like a trip into German history—a history that I, a post-Cold War child, never witnessed, but that is deeply engraved in German collective memory and has been very present all my life. When you’re 8000 kilometers from home, you expect everything to be different. But it turns out that Germany and Korea—and their people—have a whole lot in common owing to the parallels in their histories. (And they also love beer.)
Nature: The Conflict’s Unexpected Beneficiary
Between North and South Korea lies a 4-kilometer-wide strip of land that serves as a buffer zone: the DMZ, or demilitarized zone. Guided DMZ tours will bring visitors to some historical places around the DMZ. The theme-park-like world of souvenir shops and action-packed documentaries that has been created in these places makes it hard to believe at times that this was probably one of the most dangerous places on Earth just a few years ago, before the relations between North and South Korea started improving.
The DMZ itself is a barbed-wire-fenced no man’s land. Hardly anyone has set foot on it in the past 60 years. Undisturbed by humans, it has become an unexpected haven for both plants and animals, among them many endangered species. But the peaceful appearance of flourishing nature is deceiving: even in the event of a reunification, the landmine-infested area would have to be thoroughly cleared before opening it up to the civilian population.
Busan Food Adventures
In the harbor city Busan at the southern tip of South Korea, all of this seems far away today. The city is famous in Korea for its beautiful views of mountains and the sea, and the colorful houses of the Gamcheon Culture Village, which is sometimes called the Korean Machu Picchu. But it hasn’t always been like that. During the Korean War, of the few areas that was never captured by the North Korean army and hosted refugee camps for Koreans.
Located at the see, Busan is Korea’s culinary heartland. As a peninsula, Korea takes many of its food staples from the sea, and here in Busan you can get some of the freshest and best seafood in Korea. This includes much more than just fish sashimi, prawns, and squid. You can eat sea squirts and sea cucumbers, various kinds of mussels and snails, and pretty much anything else you can (and cannot) imagine coming out of the sea.
Unfortunately, my courage to try new foods failed me when the tentacles of our freshly chopped, raw octopus wouldn’t stop wiggling all over the plate. By now I regret that I didn’t try the popular specialty, but in that moment, I just couldn’t ignore what was going on on the plate. I decided to indulge on different varieties of kimchi instead, which are served with all meals in Korea. The fermented cabbage or vegetables spiced with red pepper has become a favorite of mine that I’ll surely miss!