Some Random Thoughts on Korea

Here are some thoughts about our holiday in South Korea.

First up. It was so cool (in every way) to get there for the end of the cherry blossom festival. The blossoms were so beautiful. And as you walked under the trees there was a gentle "snowing" of petals on you and all around you. Stunning. What a way to start our two weeks.  

My second thought is that they do transport really really well. Great train and bus service. Relatively cheap, so it is well used. On time. Comfortable. Like reclining leather seats for our bus up from Gwangju to Incheon. For a few days we used public transport a lot. All up we used about $20 worth on the around the city trips. It all makes New Zealand look unreliable and expensive, which it is.

The roads were what got me. In Gwangju some of the main roads around and through the city were 8 lanes each way. 8 lanes for a city the size of Auckland. So cars move around. There is the peak hour gridlock, but the rest of the time is free flowing. Imagine Auckland starting again and putting in 8 lane roads each way. This means the buses can move on time, and because they are cheap people use them. People wanting to fix our roads are simply not going to be able to. We don’t have room to put the lanes in, and we are too late to put in the public transport infrastructure needed. 

The main roads around South Korea move through some very hill ground. And yet they are all at least  lanes each way and free flowing, going though hills in tunnels and over dips on bridges. The bridge to Incheon airport is really long and quite amazing. It is mostly tolled but not heavily so people use the roads. All of which means you can get around really easily. It made it time so much easier to manage. Well done South Korea.

The food is great. So great. Trust me. Luckily the South is renowned for food. And Gwangju is in the South. Barbequed chicken, beef, duck. On hot plates right in the middle of the table. Every meal is served with a number of side dishes, it banchan, which at the least will include kimchi and radish. Lots of meat and lots of vegetables. Usually not tons of carbs. Barbequed kimchi was great as was kimchi pancake. The barbequed black pork in Jeju was superb. I am going to miss the food. Not so much the metal chopsticks. I found them harder to use than bamboo. 

The "Chinese" air was not great. Air pollution is a really big issue. Some comes from China but he's is made by coal electrical generation and industry. My sinuses struggled a lot. The distance always looked like it might rain. Blah. And that was in the South. Seoul is way worse. It explains why so many Koreans seem keen on wearing face masks. Not always effectively. But you get the need. So while some politicians seem really keen on keeping on with coal mining because of the jobs involved, many those same politicians should go live awhile in places which live under the cloud of that coal burned for industry. 

One of the big learnings for me was how hard Koreans have had it, and how relatively easy we have had it. The world has changed a lot over the last century. In South Korea that time frame is much shorter. In 1950 Korea was actually at war, and the fighting was brutal and costly. In 1960 South Korea was one of the poorest countries in Asia, thanks in part to being under Japanese rule from about 1910-1945, and then pawns in the Cold War super-powers power struggle. 

South Korea is no longer one of the poorest countries in Asia. It is one of the wealthiest. This is not without controversy. In part this was achieved under military rule. There are a lot  of questions about the families that now control the huge companies that have been in the forefront of this rise – companies like Samsung, Korean Air, Hyundai, Kia to name a few. Corruption is just under the surface – as we saw with the last President. And yet for many people life is a lot better than it was. And all in a generation. Life is still hard for the rural poor. Michael works in a rural high school and knows some of that. Many, if not most, live is small apartments. Pollution is an issue now. But it is still impressive. 

Lastly, it was sobering to realise how hard won Democracy was. The USA was very suspicious of true democracy. Who knew what kind of leanings and crazy policies a truly elected government would put in place that would not be in the USA's best interests. Much better a pseudo democratically elected government with significant military involvement. Military coups litter the recent history of South Korea. And the south of South Korea led a lot of the pro-democracy action. They were apparently ignored by successive governments as to rural. So there are memorials for those killed marching for democracy in several cities. The biggest is in Gwangju where, after another military coup, on  May 18 1980, students marched demanding democracy. They were fired at by government troops. The people of Gwangju rose up against the troops. Eventually the generals sent in regiments of paratroopers, with the USA's support, to crush this tilt at democracy. About 450 people were killed. Many more imprisoned and tortured. Today there are a number of sites around Gwangju that commemorate this struggle and those who died. Those who died were exhumed once the Generals were deposed, and were reburied in a new cemetery. This cemetery is now part of a significant national memorial to all those involved. It is seen by the government at least as one of the birth places of democracy in South Korea, and a stark reminder of what democracy costs to gain and maintain. It was a sobering and inspiring place to visit. It has been around 130 years since there was significant violence in this land. We have not and still do not treat some of our citizens well. But nothing like this. It makes me so very grateful that I live here in Aotearoa. WE have big big issues here. We have a lot to work on. But we are o so lucky.