A good Korean friend once told me he attributes Korean success to a desire to better their country despite scarce natural resources. Much like Hong Kong and Singapore, South Korea does not have any natural resources to rely upon for their livelihood (any natural resources in North Korea are unavailable due to their government). As a small country relative to their Chinese and Japanese neighbors, Koreans must always stay on the bleeding edge to remain competitive. As such, they can only depend on their human capital: imagination and hard work.
For those who do not know much about modern world history, South Korea was hardly the Land of the Morning Calm, as it calls itself, for much of the 20th century. From the Japanese occupation to the Korean War to 1997’s economic crisis, life in South Korea has been mostly difficult and desperate. However, Korea seems determined to leave its troubles in the old century. It has entered the 21st century with renewed optimism. Since being bailed out by the International Monetary Fund in 1997, South Korea’s economy, the 10th largest in the world, is on its way to recovery. Growth rates are climbing, and new office towers are sprouting throughout Seoul, the country’s modern capital. Former President Kim Dae Jung, a longtime democratic activist before becoming president in 1998, steered South Korea toward a path of democracy and free trade. In 2000, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts at thawing relations with North Korea. His successor, Roh Moo-hyun, has pledged to continue Kim’s “sunshine policy” with regard to the North.
These days, in any good-sized town there are fashionable areas where you can find discos, karaoke bars, coffee shops and stores selling everything from designer clothing to fresh French bread. But in these same towns you can also find the intriguing maze of traditional outdoor markets, where vendors sell dried fish, ginseng and fresh vegetables as they have done for hundreds of years. The country’s age-old search for tranquility lingers in the pockets of traditional culture and unspoiled scenery that remain.
A very mountainous country (about 70% of its land is mountains), Korea may look small on the map, but it is full of wonderful pockets of culture to explore. The capital, Seoul, is easily navigated without a guide — the subway system is very easy to use (and cheap!) and street signs are translated into English. Outside of the large cities, however, the countryside is best explored with a translator, since most people don’t speak English (although it is widely taught in schools) and signs are only in Korean.