Understand South Korea
Early history and founding of a nation
Archeological finds of prehistoric toolmaking on the Korean Peninsula date back to 70,000 BC, and the first pottery is found around 8000 BC. Comb-pattern pottery culture peaked around 3500-2000 BC.
Legend has it that Korea began with the founding of Gojoseon (also called Ancient Chosun) by the legendary Dangun in 2333 BC. Archeological and contemporaneous written records of Gojoseon as a kingdom date back to around 7th-4th century BC. Gojoseon was eventually defeated by the Chinese Han Dynasty and a couple regions of Korea were governed by four Chinese commanderies. The political chaos following the fall of the Han Dynasty in China allowed native tribes to regain control of Korea and led to the emergence of the Three Kingdoms of Korea, namely Goguryeo, Silla and Baekje. Despite repeated attempts by China, namely the Sui Dynasty and later the Tang Dynasty, to conquer the Korean Peninsula, northern-based Goguryeo managed to repel them. Eventually, Goguryeo fell to a Silla-Tang alliance, which had earlier defeated Baekje. This unified Korea under the Silla dynasty. Even though Tang later invaded, Silla forces managed to drive them out, thus maintaining Korea’s independence.
Unified Silla was replaced by the Goryeo (also called Koryo) dynasty, from which the modern name “Korea” derives. One highlight of the Goryeo dynasty was that in 1234 the world’s first metal movable type was invented by a Korean named Choe Yun-ui (200 years before Gutenberg’s printing press). Goryeo was replaced by the Joseon (also called Chosun) dynasty, after a coup by one of its generals. The Joseon dynasty ruled Korea from 1392 to 1910, being one of the longest actively ruling dynasties in world history. It was during the early part of the Joseon dynasty that Korean technological inventions such as the world’s first water clock, ironclad ship, and other innovations took place. During the rule of King Sejong the Great, the world’s first rain gauge was invented and the Korean alphabet known as hangul was created.
Japanese occupation and division
In the late 16th century, Korea experienced the first invasions by the Japanese, then led by Toyotomi Hideyoshi. However, an alliance between the Joseon dynasty and China’s Ming dynasty eventually defeated the invaders, and this, in addition to the untimely death of Hideyoshi, forced the Japanese to pull out of Korea.
Korea’s status as an independent kingdom under the Chinese sphere of cultural influence (사대교린) ended in 1895 after China’s defeat in the Sino-Japanese War and the signing of the Treaty of Shimonoseki. Under the terms of the treaty, Qing Dynasty of China was to recognize the severing of the several centuries-old, nominal elder-younger brother relationship between China and Korea, bringing Japan the window of opportunity to force Korea into its own growing sphere of influence. Although the elder-younger brother relationship between China and Joseon was a voluntary diplomatic formality assumed by Joseon’s rulers in order to receive the benefits of advanced Chinese culture and trade, it was a symbolic victory for Japan to achieve the breakage of this link. It put Japan in a position extend its imperialism into Korea without fear of Chinese intervention. In 1910, Japan officially annexed Korea, thus beginning a 35-year occupation of the country. Despite numerous armed rebellions, assassinations and intellectual and cultural resistance, suppression and a cultural assimilation policy that included forcing Koreans to take Japanese names and forbidding them to speak the Korean language allowed Japan to maintain colonial control.
After Japan’s defeat in World War II, Soviet forces occupied the northern half of Korea while US forces occupied the southern half. North and South each declared independence as separate states in 1948, with Kim Il-Sung establishing a communist regime with the support of Soviet Union in the north, and Syngman Rhee establishing a capitalist regime with the support of the United States in the south. The disastrous Korean War, which destroyed much of the country, began in 1950 when Kim Il-Sung attacked the south. US and other UN forces intervened on South Korea’s side, while the Soviet Union and China supported the North. An armistice was signed in 1953 splitting the peninsula along a demilitarized zone, with no significant territorial gains made by either side. But a peace treaty has never been signed, and the two Koreas remain technically at war with each other to this day.
Republic of Korea
Despite initially being economically outdone by its northern rival, South Korea achieved rapid economic growth starting in the 1960s under the leadership of former military general President Park Chung Hee. As one of the East Asian Tigers, the South Korean economy’s industrialization and modernization efforts gained traction in the 1980s and 1990s, with per capita income rising to 20 times the level of North Korea. In 1996, South Korea joined the OECD or “the rich nations club”. Today, South Korea has been recognized as an industrialized, developed economy with some of the world’s leading high technology corporations such as Samsung and LG.
Demands for greater freedom of press and human rights fomented to nationwide demonstrations that led to democratic elections in 1987, just prior to the South Korean capital of Seoul hosting the 1988 Summer Olympic Games.
South Korea is now a liberal democracy and an economic powerhouse. In June 2000, a historic first summit took place between the South’s President Kim Dae-jung and the North’s late leader Kim Jong-il (leading Kim Dae-jung to be awarded the first Nobel Peace Prize for South Korea), but the peace process has moved at a glacial pace.
In recent years, a phenomenon known as the “Korean Wave” (or Hallyu) in which the popularity of South Korean film, television, music, food and other culture aspects has swept most of Asia and many other parts of the world has brought increased attention to the country. The country elected its first female president in 2012.
Namdaemun Gate, Seoul (presently under reconstruction)
South Korea is a very homogeneous country, with nearly all native residents identifying themselves as ethnically Korean and speaking the Korean language. The largest resident minority are the Chinese, numbering around 20,000-30,000. However, there is a number of foreign laborers from China, Mongolia, Bangladesh, Southeast Asia and other parts of world as well as English teachers from the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Ireland and South Africa. In addition, about 30,000 American military personnel are stationed throughout the country, especially near the DMZ. South Korea’s large and growing economy has attracted people from all over the world and Seoul’s status as a leading financial center has brought many financial workers from North America, Europe and Japan. Today, over one million foreigners reside in South Korea.
It is one of the most densely populated countries in the world, but also has one of the world’s lowest birthrates (1.21 children per woman). Dealing with this very low birthrate will be one of the major problems for this country in the 21st century. Confucian attitudes about the importance of a male heir have led to a strongly skewed sex ratio, with about 112 men for every 100 women encouraging many Korean men in rural areas to seek wives from other countries such as China, Vietnam and the Philippines. About 85% of South Koreans live in urban areas.
Though East Asian tourists have been visiting Korea in droves since the turn of the millenium due to the Korean Wave (also known as 한류 hallyu), it is still largely off the radar of most Western tourists. As such, having locals stare or listen to your conversations is still somewhat a common experience among Westerners visiting Korea. Children in particular will approach you or shout a “Hi!” in passing. Much of this is done out of curiosity and eagerness to hear English spoken by native speakers. Although most Koreans have been educated in English since elementary school and most companies set a premium on possessing a certain level of fluency, in general the people will find it difficult to understand or speak it. However, some city dwellers can speak at a basic level. Tourists will normally find Koreans to be quite friendly and helpful when trying to find their way around.
Decoration of a royal palace, Changdeokgung, Seoul
Having been in the cultural sphere of China for much of its history, substantial Chinese influences are evident in traditional Korean culture. Nevertheless, many fundamental differences remain and Korea has managed to retain a distinct cultural identity from its larger neighbor. Koreans are fiercely proud of their heritage and their resistance to outside domination.
During the Joseon dynasty, Korea’s dominant philosophy was a strict form of Confucianism, perhaps even more strict than the Chinese original. People were separated into a rigid hierarchy, with the king at the apex, an elite of officials and warriors and a small group of nobility below him, a middle class of merchants below them, and then a vast population of peasants. The educated were superior to the uneducated, women served men, and everybody stuck to a defined role or faced severe consequences. Korea adopted its own version of the imperial examination system invented by and used in China to select officials, creating somewhat of a premodern meritocracy for government like its Chinese counterpart. Buddhism was suppressed largely due to the widespread corruption and greed of monks and temples during the waning stages of the Goryeo dyansty. While the Joseon dynasty ceased to exist in 1910, its legacy lives on in Korean culture: education and hard work are valued above all else, and women still struggle for equal treatment.
Koreans believe that the things that set them the most apart from other Asian cultures are their cuisine, their language and their hangul script. Outsiders will note their extreme modernity, tempered by a well-developed artistic and architectural joyfulness. Nothing goes undecorated if it can be helped, and they have a knack for stylish interior design. South Korea also has a vibrant film and TV industry, and the country is one of only a few countries in the world in which local films have a greater market share than Hollywood films.
Korea has a significant number of Christians (29%) and Buddhists (38%), with churches dotting the towns and temples and monasteries on hills. However, slightly less than a third of the country professes to follow no particular organized religion but most, if not all, are strongly influenced by traditional Korean Buddhist and Confucian philosophies that have been seeped into the Korean cultural background.
Baseball was brought to Korea by American missionaries in 1905 and is the most popular sport in the country. Football (soccer) gained popularity when the South Korean national team reached the World Cup semi-finals in 2002. Nevertheless, baseball is the most popular sport with a strong following, with many Korean players becoming famous MLB players in the United States, and the Korean national baseball team is regarded as one of the strongest in the world.
Other popular sports include golf and basketball. Badminton, table tennis and bowling are also popular and facilities for the public are widely available in cities. Korean martial arts such as taekwondo are also popular. Golf particularly has a strong following, with membership fees for Korea’s top golf clubs being more expensive than those in neighbouring Japan or even the United States. Also, many of the world’s top female golfers originate from Korea or are of Korean descent.
As for winter sports, speed skating (especially short track) and figure skating are extremely popular due to the repeated success of Korea in the Winter Olympics.
A long and complicated relationship, contact between the West and Korea have lead to a plethora of books on the Korean experience. Here’s a list of books that would be available in the two major book centres in Korea as of June 2008.
Battle for Korea: The Associated Press History of the Korean Conflict by Robert J. Dvorchak (1993) – great journalistic photography accompanied by short descriptive narratives
Korea Old and New: A History by Carter Eckert and Lee Ki-Baik (1991) – simply stated writing, good overview of Korea’s history
Korea Witness: 135 years of war, crisis and new in the land of the morning calm by Donald Kirk and Choe Sang Hun (2006) – compilation of articles from foreign correspondents starting from 1871, notably from Jack London, a war correspondent from 1903-4
True Stories of the Korean Comfort Women by Keith Howard (1996) – unflinching look at the atrocities committed during the Japanese occupation period
The Koreans: Who They Are, What They Want, Where Their Future Lies by Michael Breen (1999) – anectodal accounts and insights of a British journalist on the country he spends half the year in, informative and entertaining
Social Change in Korea published by Jimoondang (2008) – compilation of articles written by academic experts on Korea
The Discovery of Korea: History-Nature-Cultural Heritages-Art-Tradition-Cities by Yoo Myeong-jong (2005) – amazing scenic views on Korea
Korea’s traditional holidays follow the lunar calendar, so they fall on different days each year. The two biggest, Seollal and Chuseok, are family holidays and entail everybody returning to their hometowns en masse, meaning that all forms of transport are absolutely packed.
Shinjeong, means New Years day: on the 1st day, January
Seollal, on the 1st day of the 1st month in the lunar calendar, is also known as “Korean New Year”. Families gather together, eat traditional foods-especially Ddugguk and perform an ancestral service. The public holiday lasts for 3 days, which includes the eve and second day. Many shops and restaurants close for the 3 days, so this might not be an ideal time to visit.
Sameeljjeol: 1st March, in commemoration of the March 1st resistance movement against the invading Japanese Imperial Army in 1919.
Orininal : means children’s day, 5th May
Buchonnim osinnal or sawolchopa-il: means Buddha’s birthday, 8th day of the 4th month in the lunar calendar
Hyeonchung-il: means memorial day, 6th June. In commemoration of people who gave their lives to the nation.
Gwangbokjjeol: means independence day, 15th August. In commemoration of the liberation of Korean peninsula from the Japanese rule with the end of the second world war.
Chuseok, often dubbed “Korean Thanksgiving”, is celebrated on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month of the year (usually September-October). Koreans celebrate by eating traditional foods, notably a rice cake called songpyeon and playing folk games. The public holiday lasts for 3 days.
Gaecheonjeol : 3rd October. In commemoration of the first formation of the nation of ancient Korea.
Christmas has become a major holiday in Korea due to the large number of Christian converts in recent times. As such, it is an ideal time to visit and soak up the festive mood, and maybe listen to a couple of Korean renditions of popular Christmas songs.
Korea has four distinct seasons:
Spring is a great time of year to be in Korea. The temperatures are warm but not hot and there’s not too much rain either. However, spring is also the time when yellow dust blows over from China. Some days can be horrible to breathe because of this. Beautiful cherry blossoms bloom.
Summer starts with a dreary rainy season in June and turns into a steambath in July-August, with extreme humidity and the temperature heading as high as 35°C. Best avoided unless heading to the beaches. Summer is a suitable season for go swimming to the beach in Korea. Moreover, trees in summer are in leaf.
Autumn, starting in September, is perhaps the best time to be in Korea. Temperatures and humidity become more tolerable, fair days are common and the justly renowned fall colors make their appearance.
Winter is a good time to go skiing or hot-spring hopping, and the Korean invention of ondol (floor heating) helps defrost any parts that froze outside. However, January and February can be bone-biting cold due to Siberian winds from the north. Snow is fairly common.
South Korean households and hotels use the same dual round sockets for their electrical outlets as are found in most of Continental Europe. Anyone bringing an electronic device is advised to bring some adapter should their charger’s plug be something other than the dual round type. However, some hotels may provide an adapter for you to use which you can query from reception. However, they may ask you for a deposit should you want to borrow.
South Korean electrical outlets accept appliances with a voltage rating of 220V at 60Hz. If your appliance has this rating that includes 220V (Such as 100-240V that most laptop chargers now accept), you will be able to use the appliance with only a plug adapter. If it falls below or above this rating, you will need to purchase a transformer or a voltage adapter before leaving your country.
Some very old buildings and very new hotels and apartments are dual wired and also have 110V outlets (identifiable by the smaller dual flat sockets) in addition to the regular South Korean variety, built specifically to accomodate the Japanese and Americans.