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.
Where to go in South Korea
Korea is still something of an unknown territory, and more than half of all its visitors get no further than Seoul. One of the largest and most technically advanced cities in the world, the capital regularly confounds expectations by proving itself steeped in history. Here, fourteenth-century palaces, imperial gardens, teeming markets and secluded tearooms continue to exude charm among a maze of skyscrapers and shopping malls. From Seoul, anywhere in the country is reachable within a day, but the best day-trip by far is to the DMZ, the strip of land that separates the two Koreas from coast to coast.
Gyeonggi, the province that surrounds Seoul, is a largely unappealing area dissected by the roads and railways that snake their way into the capital, but two of its cities certainly deserve a visit: Suwon, home to a wonderful UNESCO-listed fortress dating from the late eighteenth century; and cosmopolitan Incheon, where you can eat some of the best food in the country before making your way to the islands of the West Sea. By contrast, the neighbouring province of Gangwon is unspoilt and stuffed full of attractions – in addition to a number of national parks, of which craggy Seoraksan is the most visited, you can head to the unspoilt beaches and colossal caves that surround the small city of Samcheok, or peek inside a genuine American warship and North Korean submarine north of the sleepy fishing village of Jeongdongjin.
Stretching down from Gangwon to the South Sea lie the markedly traditional Gyeongsang provinces, home to some of the peninsula’s most popular attractions. Foremost among these is gorgeous Gyeongju; capital of the Silla dynasty for almost a thousand years, and extremely laid-back by Korean standards, it’s spotted with the grassy burial tombs of the many kings and queens who ruled here. There’s enough in the surrounding area to fill at least a week of sightseeing – most notable are Namsan, a small mountain area peppered with trails, tombs and some intriguing Buddhas, and the sumptuously decorated Bulguksa temple, another sight on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Although less picturesque as a town, Andong is almost as relaxed as Gyeongju, and a superb base from which to access Dosan Seowon, a remote Confucian academy, and the charmingly dusty village of Hahoe, a functioning showcase of traditional Korean life. The region’s rustic charm is actually best appreciated offshore on the windswept island of Ulleungdo, an extinct volcanic cone that rises precipitously from the East Sea, and where tiny fishing settlements cling barnacle-like to its coast. Thrills with a more urban flavour can be had in Busan, Korea’s second city, which has an atmosphere markedly different from Seoul; as well as the most raucous nightlife outside the capital, it has the best fish market in the country, and a number of excellent beaches on its fringes.
Even more characterful are the Jeolla provinces, which make up the southwest of the peninsula. Left to stagnate by the government while Korea’s economy kicked into gear, they have long played the role of the renegade, though this energy is now being rechannelled. Violent political protests took place in regional capital Gwangju as recently as 1980, though the city has reinvented itself to become one of the artiest and most business-savvy in the land. Jeonju has a similar feel, plus a delightful district of traditional hanok housing, and is justly famed for its wonderful, flavoursome cuisine. Earthy Mokpo is the hub for ferry trips to a mind-boggling number of West Sea islands, dotted with fishing communities where life has changed little in decades, while inland there are a number of excellent national parks.
The Chungcheong provinces at the centre of the country are bypassed by many travellers, but this is a shame, as they contain some fine sights. The old Baekje capitals of Gongju and Buyeo provide glimpses of a dynasty long dead, Daecheon beach hosts a rumbustious annual mud festival that may well be Korea’s most enjoyable event, and there are temples galore – the gigantic golden Buddha at Beopjusa is surrounded by 1000m-high peaks, while the meandering trails and vivid colour schemes at Guinsa make it the most visually stimulating temple in the land.
Lying within a ferry ride of the mainland’s southern shore is the island of Jeju, a popular honeymoon destination for Koreans. While it’s undoubtedly a touristy place, it has its remote stretches and anyone who has climbed the volcanic cone of Hallasan, walked through the lava tubes of Manjanggul or watched the sun go down from Yakcheonsa temple will tell you the trip is more than worthwhile.
And finally, of course, there’s North Korea. A visit to one of the world’s most feared and most fascinating countries will instantly earn you kudos – even experienced travellers routinely put the DPRK at the top of their “most interesting” list. Visits don’t come cheap and can only be made as part of a guided tour, but the country’s inaccessibility brings an epic quality to its few officially sanctioned sights.
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”.
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.
• The Korean peninsula is split in two by the 4km-wide Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), sharing borders with China and – for about 20km, south of Vladivostok – Russia. These frontiers form a northern boundary with North Korea – the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” – whose population of around 24 million live in an area half the size of the United Kingdom. South Korea, also known as the “Republic of Korea”, is slightly smaller and has a population of 49 million, making it the world’s 26th most populous country.
• Ethnic Koreans dominate the peninsula's population, making North and South Korea two of the most ethnically homogeneous societies on earth. Before splitting, both were traditionally Buddhist nations – though deeply steeped in Confucianism and shamanistic ritual. Since then the North has followed Juche, a local brand of Communism, while in the South Christianity has become the most popular religion.
• Before the Japanese occupation in 1910, the Silla, Goryeo and Joseon dynasties were ruled over by an unbroken run of 116 monarchs, dating back to 57 BC.
• The economies of South and North Korea were almost equal in size until the mid-1970s. The “Economic Miracle” that followed in the South has propelled it to the cusp of the world’s top ten economies, while the North languishes just above 100th place.
On even a short trip around the country you’re more than likely to stumble across a special event of some sort. Many are religious in nature, with Buddhist celebrations supplemented by Confucian and even animist events. Most festivals are concentrated around spring and autumn, but there are many spread throughout the year. If you’re heading to one, don’t be shy – the locals love to see foreigners joining in with traditional Korean events, and those who dare to get stuck in may finish the day with a whole troupe of new friends.
Though there are some crackers on the calendar, it must be said that a fair number of Korean festivals are brazenly commercial, making no bones about being held to “promote the salted seafood industry”, for example. Other festivals can be rather odd, including those dedicated to agricultural utensils, clean peppers and the “Joy of Rolled Laver” – you’ll easily be able to spot the duds. The most interesting events are highlighted below, though bear in mind that celebrations for two of the big national festivals – Seollal, the Lunar New Year, and a Korean version of Thanksgiving named Chuseok – are family affairs that generally take place behind closed doors.
Cherry blossom festivals Usually early April. Heralding the arrival of spring, soft blossom wafts through the air across the country, a cue for all good Koreans to lay down blankets at parks or riverbanks, barbeque some meat and throw back the soju.
Jeonju International Film Festivalwwww.jiff.or.kr. Last week of April. Smaller and more underground than the biggie in Busan, JIFF focuses on the arty, independent side of the movie industry.
Buddha’s Birthday Late May. A public holiday during which temples across the land are adorned with colourful paper lanterns; there’s an even more vibrant night parade in Seoul.
International Mime Festivalwwww.mimefestival.com. May. Held in the Gangwonese capital of Chuncheon, this foreigner-friendly event is a showcase of soundless talent.
Dano Usually June. A shamanist festival held on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, featuring circus acts, ssireum wrestling, mask dramas and a whole lot more. The city of Gangneung is host to the biggest displays.
Boryeong Mud Festivalwwww.mudfestival.or.kr. Late July. This annual expat favourite pulls mud-happy hordes to Daecheon Beach for all kinds of muck-related fun.
International Puppet Festival Aug. Puppets and their masters come from around the world to flaunt their skills in Chuncheon, a city in Gangwon province.
Firefly Festival Aug. Glow worms are the tiny stars of the show at this modest night-time event, which takes place over a weekend near Muju. One unexpected treat is the chance to don a firefly costume.
Gwangju Biennalewgb.or.kr. Sept–Nov. A wide-ranging, two-month-long festival of contemporary art, the biennale usually takes place on alternate autumns, though it has also been held in spring.
Andong Mask Dance Festivalwwww.maskdance.com. Late Sept or early Oct. Legend has it that if a person fails to attend a mask festival in their lifetime, they cannot get into heaven, so if you’re in Korea in the autumn you might as well have a crack at salvation by participating in one of the country’s most popular events – a week of anonymous dancing, performed by the best troupes in the land.
Baekje Festivalwwww.baekje.org. Early Oct. This annual event commemorating the Baekje dynasty is held each year in the old Baekje capitals of Gongju and Buyeo.
World Martial Arts Festival Usually Oct. A week-long series of international fisticuff action, held each year in Chungju.
Gimchi Festival Late Oct. In Gwangju. You’ll be able to see, smell and taste dozens of varieties of the spicy stuff, and there’s even a gimchi-making contest for foreigners keen to show off.
Pepero Day Nov 11. A crass marketing ploy, but amusing nonetheless – like Pocky, their Japanese cousins, Pepero are thin sticks of chocolate-coated biscuit, and on the date when it looks as if four of them are standing together, millions of Koreans say “I love you” by giving a box to their sweethearts, friends, parents or pets.
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.
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.
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.