Thursday, December 3, 2009

Return to South Korea

I have returned from a quick visit to South Korea, my second trip to the country. The first time was in 1993. I noticed a number of changes. Some obvious. The banks of the Han River are much greener, more landscaped and more accessible. The city as a whole looks much greener than the uniformly grey of the concrete city I remember. Air quality, despite the huge increase in traffic, is noticeably better although still not great. The sheer weight of traffic as well as the airborne pollution from China creates a pall of smog across the city. Seoul is more globalized: there are Starbucks and more signs in English. South Koreans are connected to the rest of the world through economic linkages as well as diasporic connections and Internet traffic.

Of course there are the things about any foreign country that stand out. The ethnic homogeneity continues to be very obvious compared to other powerful economies. South Korea is more economically than culturally globalized. South Korea is one of the world’s most educated societies. Almost 90 percent of South Koreans go on to higher education, a truly staggering figure. Colleges and universities are some of the driving forces of national and local economic development. The confidence and ambition of a rapidly growing economy stand out against the slower pace of more developed economies. In some cases the confidence is played out in massive modernization projects such as the new district of Songdo currently being built near the city of Incheon.

Songdo (Photo: John Rennie Short)

There are also more subtle changes. A more pragmatic attitude to the costs as well as benefits of rapid economic growth is increasingly evident from speaking with the people and listening to their debates. There is fuller reckoning of the colonial legacy of Japanese control, of the collaborations as well as the resistances. While there is justifiable pride in economic achievements, there is a deep sense of the trauma inflicted on the country by the recent history of colonialism, war, and rapid industrialization. There is a palpable grappling with history. Seoul now boasts a new National Museum of Korea and the grand Joseon palaces of Changdeokgung and Gyeongbokgung are refurbished and open to the public.

Ceremony at Gyeongbokgung (Photo: John Rennie Short)

Other visible reminders of the past are not such venerable legacies. You do not have to travel very far from Seoul to see the barbed wire that separates South and North, a developed country from one bordering on mass starvation. Since my last visit, South Korea has prospered while North Korea has spiraled down into even more authoritarian rule, misery and hunger.

Countries are too large to understand and summarize in a quick visit. South Korea seems poised to enter a more settled period in which the legacies of the past and the prospects of the future are now regarded as more nuanced and complex. To visit the emerging city of Incheon or the fast-paced metropolis of Seoul is to get a glimpse of the speed and feel of a high-octane modernity coming to terms with its past and establishing its future role in the world.