My colleague Hugh has been collecting data in South Korea’s capital city, Seoul. I was there briefly on my way to Mongolia a few years ago and was impressed. Hugh seems to have liked it too! More below, regards Mark.
When The Republic of Korea (or South Korea) grabs the media attention in the Western world, it is often in relation to its troubled relationship with its neighbours to the north, The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (or North Korea). Travelling on a high speed train from Incheon International Airport into the capital Seoul, I began to wonder how the modern metropolis coming into view could be so far removed from my perception of Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, a city just 200km to the north and once part of the same country.
The country was divided, along the 38th parallel, following the victory of the allied forces over Japan. In 1945 there was an agreement for the United States to temporarily occupy the south while the Soviet Union occupied the north, with a view to a unified independent government being formed ultimately. This never materialised, with the conflicting political ideologies leading to two polarised governments forming instead. With both claiming sovereignty over Korea, tensions grew and, in 1950, North Korea invaded The South, resulting in the Korean War which lasted for three years.
Since the war, the two countries have had contrasting fortunes. South Korea’s economy has flourished since the 1960s, Largely reliant on the expansion of its manufacture-based exports it has benefitted from the establishment of huge multi-national conglomerate corporations (‘chaebol’) such as the Samsung, Hyundai and LG groups.Although the economy was setback by the 1997 Asian financial crisis, it has since continued to prosper and is currently ranked 11th globally in terms of GDP (International Monetary Fund, 2015).
Despite undergoing rapid economic development, South Korea remained under authoritarian regime until 1987. However, when, in 1981, Seoul was awarded the 1988 Olympic Games this acted as a catalyst for political reform, focusing global attention on increasingly frequent pro-democracy protests within the country.
In contrast, North Korea remains under strict totalitarian dictatorship. Its economy is ranked as one of the poorest globally, declining rapidly since the 1970s after weakening ties with China and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Travelling around central Seoul it is immediately obvious that the city has plenty of appeal. The streets are immaculately clean and the efficient transport system, accompanied with multiple translations, makes getting around for a foreigner a pleasant experience. There has even been a concerted effort by the Korean Tourism Organisation to correct nonsensical English translations (known as ‘Konglish’) on signs, by handing out prizes to people sending in corrections.
Unlike my recent trip to China, I wasn’t the subject of constant staring and felt more comfortable when wandering around the city. The people I interacted with were very warm and welcoming, even if they weren’t able to speak English particularly well (but better than my Korean!). There was a noticeable level of respect and politeness between everyone. For example, people would wait courteously for passengers to disembark before boarding the Metro (not the case in China – or London a lot of the time!).
The city itself feels very safe, although when I was there the American Ambassador was stabbed and badly injured by an anti-US activist. This incident was very unusual in Seoul, though, and led to a huge police presence around the US embassy for the duration of my stay.
On the whole, I liked Seoul. It is very easy to navigate and there is no shortage of things to see and do in the city. Korean cuisine is emerging as a global favourite but for those missing their favourite food from back home there are still plenty of international cuisine options. The shopping environment is excellent, with its flashy department stores such as Lotte and Shinsegae offering top quality brands of groceries, clothing and electronics. However, I did speak to an expat who, being taller than the average Korean, expressed how hard he found it to find clothing in his size, so that’s something to be aware of.
The main supermarkets sell a range of good quality produce. However, expats may struggle to find some of their favourite brands from back home there. This has led to the emergence of supermarkets specifically targeted at foreigners, stocking items like Heinz Tomato Soup. Expect to be paying top dollar though! Indeed, Seoul isn’t cheap for expatriates. Our latest cost of living ranking showed it in 10th place globally, up 6 places from the previous year.
Not many Koreans speak English well, so the language barrier can be significant if you don’t know the local lingo. While there is a good selection of English-language books within Seoul surprisingly I was unable to find any international newspapers during my visit. Not that that’s an excuse for not keeping up with current affairs: the internet there happens to be the fastest on the planet.
Pollution levels in the city, while not as bad as in China, were bad enough for my expat acquaintance (the one with the tight clothing!) to complain that he had aged badly over the few years he’d been in the city. Interestingly that’s not the only thing that might age you in Seoul. The custom in Korea is to count your age at birth as one instead of zero. Additionally, everyone becomes a year older on the Lunar New Year, regardless of when their birthday is. Depending on your luck, this could make you either one or two years older than you are back home. I wasn’t sure whether my new friend was aware of this, but I decided I better not mention it!
Hugh is part of ECA International’s International Data Research team. He travels the world regularly, capturing price data for goods and services to assist with cost of living comparisons around the world.