The Korean peninsula is a tantalizingly unexplored slice of East Asia – a pine-clad land of mountains, misty archipelagos and rice paddies of emerald green, studded with urban pockets of incomparable joie de vivre. While its troubled history has made Korea’s very existence nothing short of miraculous, amazingly its traditions and customs have largely survived intact – and for visitors, this highly distinctive culture is an absolute joy to dive into.
Having gone their separate ways in 1953 after the catastrophic Korean War – essentially a civil war, but one largely brought about by external forces, which left millions dead and flattened almost the whole peninsula – the two Koreas are now separated by the spiky twin frontiers of the Demilitarized Zone. North Korea has armed itself to the teeth since 1953, stagnated in its pursuit of a local brand of Communism and become one of the least accessible countries in the world. Unbelievably, many foreigners seem to expect something similar of South Korea, which shows just how well kept a secret this fascinating place really is: beyond the glittering city of Seoul, gimchi, dog meat and taekwondo, little is known about the country in the outside world (and in actual fact, one of those four has largely gone the way of the dodo anyway).
After the war, the South gradually embraced democracy and has since gone on to become a powerful and dynamic economy. Its cities, bursting with places to visit, are a pulsating feast of eye-searing neon, feverish activity and round-the-clock business. Here you can shop till you drop at markets that never close, feast on eye-wateringly spicy food, get giddy on a bottle or two of soju, then sweat out the day’s exertions at a night-time sauna. However, set foot outside the urban centres and your mere presence will cause quite a stir – in the remote rural areas life continues much as it did before the “Economic Miracle” of the 1970s, and pockets of islands exist where no foreigner has ever set foot.
And for all its newfound prosperity, the South remains a land steeped in tradition. Before being abruptly choked off by the Japanese occupation in 1910, an unbroken line of more than one hundred kings existed for almost two thousand years – their grassy burial mounds have yielded thousands of golden relics – and even the capital, Seoul, has a number of palaces dating back to the fourteenth century. The wooden hanok housing of decades gone by may have largely given way to rows of apartment blocks, but these traditional dwellings can still be found in places, and you’ll never be more than a walk away from an immaculately painted Buddhist temple. Meanwhile, Confucian-style formal ceremonies continue to play an important part in local life, and some mountains still even host shamanistic rituals.
As for the Korean people themselves, they are a real delight: fiercely proud, and with a character almost as spicy as their food, they’re markedly eager to please foreigners who come to live or holiday in their country. Within hours of arriving, you may well find yourself with new friends in tow, racing up a mountainside, lunching over a delicious barbequed galbi, throwing back makkeolli until dawn, or singing the night away at a noraebang. Few travellers leave without tales of the kindness of Korean strangers, and all of them wonder why the country isn’t a more popular stop on the international travel circuit.Read More
The creation of hangeul
The creation of hangeul
One thing that will strike you on a trip around Korea is hangeul, the peninsula’s distinctive, almost Tetris-like alphabet. Amazingly, this was a royal creation, having been the brainchild of King Sejong in the 1440s. Most of this creative king’s subjects were unable to read the Chinese script used across the land at the time, so he devised a system that would be easier for ordinary people to learn. Sejong was forced to do much of his work in secret, as the plan did not go down well with the yangban – Confucian scholars who were even more powerful than the royalty at the time. As the only truly educated members of society, the yangban argued fiercely against the change in an effort to maintain their monopoly over knowledge.
Hangeul experienced periodic bursts of popularity, but was almost erased entirely by the Japanese during their occupation of the peninsula (1910–45). However, it’s now the official writing system in both North and South Korea, as well as a small autonomous Korean pocket in the Chinese province of Jilin; it’s also used in Bau-Bau, a small town in Indonesia.
The alphabet, while it appears complex, is surprisingly easy to learn, and demonstrating that you can read even a handful of simple words will generate gasps of admiration across Korea. Just a few hours of hard study should suffice.
South Korea’s national flag – the Taegeukki – is one of the most distinctive around, and is heavily imbued with philsophical meaning. The design itself has changed a little since its first unveiling in the 1880s, though its fundamental elements remain the same: a red-and-blue circle surrounded by four black trigams, all set on a white background. The puritanical connotations of the white are obvious, whereas the circle and trigrams offer greater food for thought. The four trigams make up half of the eight used in the I Ching, an ancient Chinese book of divination. Each can represent a number of different concepts: moving clockwise from the top-left of the flag, these may be read as spring, winter, summer and autumn; heaven, moon, earth and sun; father, son, mother and daughter; as well as many more besides.
The circle is split into the “Yin–Yang” shape, its two halves representing opposites such as light and dark, male and female, day and night. Though coincidental, connections with the divided Korean peninsula are easy to find, with two opposing halves forming part of the same whole – the red half is even on top.
The Korean peninsula is split into the Republic of Korea (South Korea) and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea). The former is referred to throughout the site as “Korea”; this is how locals refer to their nation when talking to outsiders, though in Korean they use the term “Hanguk”. North Korea has, where necessary, been referred to as such, or as “the DPRK”; North Koreans’ own word for both country and peninsula is “Choson”.
Korean drama has recently enjoyed enormous popularity across Asia, with snow-filled Winter Sonata the biggest success to date. The story runs as follows: a boisterous girl named Yujin meets withdrawn Junsang on a bus. Despite being total opposites they fall in love and Yujin lends her gloves to her new man, who promises to give them back on New Year’s Eve. He doesn’t turn up, and Yujin hears that he died in a car accident on the way. Fast forward ten years to Yujin’s engagement ceremony, when she thinks that she sees Junsang – now, for some reason, choosing to wear pink lipstick – through the crowd. She later finds out that it isn’t Junsang but Min-hyung, a successful American architect. Yujin ends up working at the same company, and one further car crash later it transpires that unbeknown to Yujin not only is the man Junsang after all, but that he’s Yujin’s half-brother. As the pair part ways, Yujin hands him the blueprints for a beautiful house she’d designed as a farewell present. Of course, they’re not related after all, and when Yujin returns to Korea from France three years later she finds out that Junsang is in fact the half-brother of her erstwhile fiancé. She then happens across the house that she once handed Junsang in blueprint form, finds him inside – now blind, just to heighten the tragedy – and they fall in love once more.
Junsang got hearts racing all over Asia, and Bae Yong-jun, the actor who played him, is now an international superstar whose face is plastered across all kinds of merchandise – just look at the socks on sale in Seoul’s Myeongdong district. Nowhere was he more successful than in Japan, where he is now revered as Yon-sama, a title roughly equivalent to an English knighthood. Junsang also helped the stereotypically strong-but-sensitive Korean male replace the martial arts hero as Asia’s role model, and Korean men now enjoy considerable demand from females across the continent.
If you’ve done any sightseeing in Korea, you’ll no doubt have come across information boards telling you when, or how often, certain buildings were burnt down or destroyed by the Japanese. The two countries have been at loggerheads for centuries, but the 1910–45 occupation period caused most of the tension that can still be felt today. In this age of empire, Asian territory from Beijing to Borneo suffered systematic rape and torture at the hands of Japanese forces, but only Korea experienced a full-scale assault on its national identity. Koreans were forced to use Japanese names and money, books written in hangeul text were burnt and the Japanese language was taught in schools. These measures were merely the tip of the iceberg, and Japan’s famed attention to detail meant that even the tall trees were chopped down: straight and strong, they were said to symbolize the Korean psyche, and they were replaced with willows which drifted with the wind in a manner more befitting the programme. The most contentious issue remains the use of over 100,000 comfort women, who were forced into slave-like prostitution to sate the sexual needs of Japanese soldiers.
The atomic bombs that brought about the end of the World War II also finished off the occupation of Korea, which slid rapidly into civil war. This post-occupation preoccupation kept both factions too busy to demand compensation or apologies from Japan – they were, in fact, never to arrive. While some countries have bent over backwards to highlight wartime misdeeds, Japan has been notoriously stubborn in this regard – its prime ministers have regularly paid respects at Yasukuni, a shrine to those who died serving the empire, but notably also to at least a dozen Class A war criminals, and school textbooks have increasingly glossed over the atrocities. This has led to repeated and continuing protests; surviving comfort women, having still not been compensated, hold weekly demonstrations outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. Korea, for its part, has failed to debate successfully the role of local collaborators during the resistance, or to acknowledge fully in its own schoolbooks and museums the foreign influences that ended both the Japanese occupation and the Korean War.