Seoul pronounced ‘Sole,’ the capital of Republic of Korea (South Korea), is a modern, hi-tech, bustling metropolis, on
the banks of the Hangang, commonly referred to as the Han River. The country has busted the myth that government intervention breeds sloth. In 2012, 25 per cent of venture capital came from the government. It’s easy to forget that in the 1960s, South Korea’s per capita GDP was less than Ghana. Today, South Korea is the world’s 15th largest economy.
Incheon International Airport
Seoul is catered to by two airports — Gimpo, the older airport, serves mostly domestic destinations and shuttle
flights to Japan, Taiwan and China. Incheon International Airport, 48 km from the city, is more recent, and world’s eighth busiest airport.
Incheon’s décor is actually quite minimal, the signages wonderfully clear and welcoming, and in English as well. Airport authorities claim that an average departure and arrival takes only 19 minutes (60 minutes world-wide industry average) and 12 minutes (45 minutes) respectively — I would agree with the latter; I breezed out of the airport in no time. However, on the way out, I had to negotiate a long line at Immigration. Tip: Arrive at departures a few hours earlier to shop or window-shop at the airport.
Connectivity to the city is very established — I take the KAL (Korean Airlines Limousine) bus to my hotel.
Seoul, abloom with azaleas — pink, fuchsia, mauve, white — is a breathtaking sight. Koreans even make a wine out of azalea — dugyeonju — azalea wine. I also see some trees covered densely with white cotton-like flowers and wonder whether these are cherry blossoms. No, I am told, the cherry blossom season is over — this is something they called spring cotton. I am still trying to google it, probably it is forsythia.
Free wi-fi, that too 5G, is available almost everywhere at Seoul — at the airport, in the tube, at the hotel, at the convention centre — you connect instantaneously to the free network. But sometimes there are glitches. The government has wired the entire country for high-speed broadband and is now wiring every household with a one-gigabit-per-second connection, 200 times faster than the US average internet speed. We are told that at the Kintex convention centre, to meet the 2016 Rotary convention, infrastructure will be in place to ensure that 35,000 delegates can use free wi-fi at once.
Twenty per cent of Korea’s total population of about 51 million lives here. It shares one of the most heavily militarised borders with North Korea. About 53 per cent of Koreans have a practicing religion, of which 43 per cent are Buddhists, 55 per cent are Christians (Catholics and Protestants) and the rest follow Confucianism, Islam and other religions.
A Korean name consists of a family name followed by a given name. Traditional Korean names typically consist of only one syllable. Only three surnames, Kim, Lee and Park, account for the appellations of nearly one-half of all Koreans — but “Kim” remains the champ by a wide margin!
Connect with Korea 2016
Rotarians and guests from about 120 countries attend each Rotary convention. The 2016 convention’s slogan, ‘Connect With Korea — Touch the World,’ gives an idea of the emphasis placed on fellowship and networking opportunities. The organisers want to explore how Rotarians might connect on a different scale in the future, using apps, translation and shared cultural experiences.
The 2016 convention logo is the silhouette of the main reception hall at Seoul’s iconic royal palace, Gyeongbokgung. The five basic colours — blue, red, yellow, white and black — correspond to five basic elements: wood, fire, soil, metal and water — the basis of the governing principle of yin and yang which explains how all things in nature grow and develop on the basis of mutual interactions.
In Korean food, coloured ingredients are blended to produce foods that allow the body to efficiently absorb nutrients and stimulate the appetite through the five essential tastes: salt, spicy, sweet, bitter and sour.
We were served three traditional Korean liquors. The first was a green pint bottle, with Korean inscriptions; cryptically on one side it read ‘happy water’ in English. This is ‘soju,’ a strong drink and one gulps it down in shot glasses. It tasted like diluted vodka; I took a couple of shots and made the Koreans happy. Then there was fermented rice wine, makgeolli. With only 6 per cent alcohol and milky, it is the “liquor of the common people.” I liked the way it was served in archaic bowls but did not find it very palatable. The third drink, gwasilju, a Korean fruit wine, was sweet, something like our Goan port wine.
Hallyu, a word that describes the Korean Wave, began in 1997, and refers to the increasing popularity of South Korean culture. The term was originally coined in mid-1999 by Beijing journalists who were surprised by China’s growing appetite for South Korean cultural exports: for many Chinese, globalisation is Koreanisation. First driven by the spread of Korean television dramas, it was carefully nurtured by the South Korean government, evolving into a global phenomenon due to the proliferation of Korean pop (K-pop) music videos and extends to movies, fashion, food and beauty.
K-pop, the genre of slick, mass-produced teen-idol boy and girl bands, has caught the imagination of the entire world. K-pop videos were viewed more than two billion times in 2011. The Gangnam style video has been the most watched YouTube video of all times. Incidentally, it is also the entry music to RI President Ravindran, at the convention. Wonder if we can match the steps!
Gangnam, by the way, is a hip shopping district, the Mayfair of Seoul, home to the enormous underground COEX mall (where part of the video was filmed) and the nearby boutique-lined streets of Apgujeong-dong. The streets are full of young, well-dressed teens mingling with the city’s super rich. This district is also the capital of plastic surgery in Korea. The Chinese come here to look like K-drama stars — they want to have Korean actresses’ noses or eyes.
India & Korea
When Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Seoul, The Economic Times said: “Mr Kemcho meets Ms Kimchi” — referring to the Korean kimchi and the Gujarati ‘Kemcho’ for ‘How are you?’
In 1992 when the then Indian Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao visited Korea, the two countries opened up trade and Indian households became familiar with Korean brands like Samsung, Hyundai and LG. In 1998, the US imposed sanctions on India post-Pokhran 2 nuclear tests, and many of its allies, including Japan followed suit. Seoul decided against imposing sanctions; and won the Indian market.
Getting ready for Korea
For smartphone users, these are a few Apps to download: Visit Korea, Korea Travel Guide, GenieTalk. Also check out the websites: www.visitkorea.or.kr, www.visitseoul.net and www.seoulistic.com which showcase videos on Seoul and Korean culture and customs.
A sure way to bring a smile to a Korean face is to greet her in Korean; Annyeong-haseyo for Hello and Kamsahamnida for Thank you.
(The writer is Past District Governor of D 3250.)