A short article on South Korea after I visited it for 2 weeks. You can find the article where I talk about my itinerary with all the photos here.
A bit of history
“Koreans are familiar with such highs and lows. Their country has long been a land of drama and extremes. Its rift into pros-Soviet North and pro-American South in 1945 was the most extreme among divided nations in modern history. Three million Koreans died when the two sides when to war. In the South, you will find Asia’s most fervent Christians. The North produced a communist personality cult that was – and remains – more fanatic even than Mao’s or Stalin’s. In the second decade of the twenty-first century, the North is still described as Stalinist. Exhausted by food shortages, it is economically shriveled. The rival South, meanwhile, is one of the world’s leading economies.”Michael Breen
The first kingdoms: Silla
The history of Korea begins in the Lower Paleolithic. There is evidence of a first kingdom in 2333 BCE, called Gojoseon, which occupied the entire peninsula up to and including Manchuria. Around the III century BCE it would be divided into small kingdoms. Around year 0 the three kingdoms of Baekje, Silla and Goguryo take possession of the Korean peninsula, rivalling each other. In 676 CE the kingdom of Silla emerged victorious from a long work of unification, thus creating the first unitary kingdom occupying a large part of the peninsula. Today we can see the remains of the capital in present-day Gyeonju, not far from Busan, which boasted of rivalling the famous Chinese Chang’an. The burial mounds, above all, with their findings of precious objects, are the main archaeological attraction of the city.
In the ninth century, after 250 years of prosperity, political stability and artistic, religious and cultural development, the kingdom fell, dividing again into three states, until the 935, when the Goryeo dynasty (often transliterated into Koryo, from which the name Korea derives) takes over by creating a new united kingdom. The Goryeos inaugurate an era of development by introducing a code of laws, a state administrative apparatus and marrying Buddhism as a state religion. In 1238 also Korea, like the rest of Asia, suffers the Mongol invasion that will lead to a tough struggle of 30 years, at the end of which the two kingdoms will sign a peace treaty, which will lead the kingdom to become a vassal of the dynasty Yuan ruled by the Mongols in China for about eighty years.
When, finally, King Gongmin succeeded in reforming an autonomous government, taking advantage of the wars inside the Yuan dynasty, he found himself in front of a country divided by corruption, by infighting between Buddhists and Confucians, by aristocrats still in favour of the Mongols, by disagreements over the land ownership. Thus, in 1392, taking advantage of the situation, General Yi Seong-gye took power and founded the Joseon dynasty. The capital is transferred to Hanseong, the current Seoul, and Confucianism becomes the official religion, to the detriment of the Buddhist religion. A period of great scientific and cultural development begins. King Sejong the Great promulgates the hangul, the Korean alphabet still in use, which replaces Chinese writing, used solely by the aristocracy. Tensions with neighbouring Japan become unsustainable and result in the Joseon kingdom’s attempt to invade the current Japanese island Tsushima, in 1419. In turn, in 1592, the Japanese invaded the Korean peninsula but were eventually repelled thanks to the expertise by Admiral Yi Su Sin, his tortoise-ships and the help of China of the Ming dynasty, in 1598.
After another invasion by Manchuria in 1626, which forced the kingdom of Korea to submit to the Chinese Qing empire, years of peace followed but also of closure to Western imperialism, preventing Europeans from landing on the peninsula until 1880. Despite this, Christianity arrived in Korea in 1794: first with French Catholics, 40 years later with German Protestants. The new religion makes several proselytes creating many internal tensions. Towards the end of the ‘800 Korea opens its economy to other states, such as Japan and the USA. The first, after defeating China in 1895 in a war for control of Korea, has the Korean empress Myeongseong assassinated. Finally, in 1905, after defeating Russia always for control of Korea, Japan annexed the peninsula which thus became its protectorate. The Land of the Rising Sun dominates Korea until its surrender in 1945.
Division of Korea
At the end of the Second World War, Russia had invaded Korea from the North, the United States administered the southern part and both had agreed to keep separate temporary management, with the idea of leaving Korea united under a single government. The question went on too long when the first signs of the Cold War began, which saw the communists and the pro-Americans on two fronts. This means that in 1950 the two territories remained separated with the recognition of South Korea as the only legitimate state by the United Nations Security Council. North Korea decided to invade the South immediately after the UN resolution. Thus was born the Korean War, which ended only in 1953 but without a real peace treaty. From there, North Korea remained a communist country under the influence of Russia while that of the south developed a capitalist democracy that led it to rapid economic and technological development to the point of being the fourth largest economy in Asia and fifteenth in the world.
“Not considering Koreans is a much used pastime in the history of humanity, with rather modest results.”Federico Buffa
I spent too little time in Korea for being able to describe it a little more deeply, but I can still share my feeling by instinct. South Korea is a country with strong economic growth, which is investing heavily in technological progress. Eternal rival of Japan, we can safely say that for many things it has surpassed it: the Land of the Rising Sun, in fact, seems to have stopped 10 years ago. It is not possible, at the threshold of 2020, to still have to pay everything in cash; to enter bars, restaurants, cafes and don’t find WiFi for customers. Like all Asian countries with advanced progress, Korea lives with strong internal contradictions generated by attachment to tradition and the drive towards the future, development and progress.
Despite this progressive opening, the atmosphere is still a bit militaristic and dictatorial in some ways. Google Maps, for example, does not work much because the South Korean government has rejected the request to use mapping data, worried that they could be used by neighbouring North Korea (which instead accepted the request and in fact, Google Maps there works well, paradoxically ). To move around, South Koreans use Naver Map or Kakao map. Moreover, porn sites are all blocked (a problem that can easily be circumvented with a VPN), which is definitely funny and you would never expect in a country with an atheist majority.
The South Koreans are great workers, at least as much as the Japanese. They always do extra hours and they throw body and soul into their work. Even worse than in Japan, for this reason, there is a constant competitive climate, which generates considerable stress. Despite this, Koreans are very welcoming and more relaxed people from a social and human relations point of view. However, there are still many unwritten social rules on how to address the father of one’s girlfriend, for example, and similar things. Unfortunately, I had little interaction with the locals, even when I was hosted by Koreans they were too busy to share time with me. Those I dealt with have always been extremely kind, helpful and ready to help. Of course, they too have extravagances, like the ones I noticed in these two weeks.
The first one, particularly annoying when visiting a tourist site, is to take dozens and dozens of photos. They stop in one spot, the most touristic of course, and they take photos of themselves without the slightest worry that there is a line of people waiting for them to take a picture of themselves. Indeed, it seems that it is quite normal to wait for 5 to 45 minutes to take a picture (I am not joking: in Gamcheon I saw a row of people to take pictures with a statue of the Little Prince. I have been there several times and there was always the same row).
The wounds inflicted by the Japanese occupation are still open in the soul of the Koreans. The hatred towards the Land of the Rising Sun is still widespread and felt. The government constantly feeds this flame in every way possible. You can see advertising in the metro showing past events when Japan invaded an island, with valid documents or not, etc. When a young guy who was looking for offers for a non-profit organisation knowing that I had been to Japan before, he asked me which country I liked the most. Fortunately, I had just arrived in Korea and replied that it was too early to express myself. He greeted me by saying: “Hi, I hope you like Korea better than Japan.” However oppressive the Japanese occupation may have been, it is particularly annoying to see these constant anti-Japanese demonstrations. Imagine if every state were to systematically spit venom on previous oppressors, it would a never-ending flame!
Koreans tend to be very superstitious. On the streets of Busan, for example, you can find many fortune tellers who read tarots for a fee, as in other cities. It is also easy to come across Chinese horoscope vending machines. This makes one smile as it is unexpected in a technologically advanced society like the Korean one, above all because almost 50% of Koreans declare themselves atheists, but apparently beliefs are very difficult to eradicate.
One of the things that I liked most about Korea is that practically all the houses have a numeric code to enter instead of the key. In my opinion, this makes everything easier. There is no danger of losing the key or locking yourself out of the house, and it is easy enough to let friends or parents enter the house at an emergency.
I don’t remember the names of the dishes I tried. I must say that Korean is a difficult language for me, especially for pronunciation. It seems to be a cross between Japanese and Chinese. One thing is certain: they eat spicy as fuck! The most famous dish is kimchi, which all in all is still bearable. It is served as a side dish to every dish, it is like bread for Italians practically. Besides that, lots of other dishes all very spicy. There are also non-spicy ones, thankfully! What is certain is that for those who do not eat meat, finding a solution is not easy (although better than Japan, where they are hardcore carnivores). Being already difficult to find meatless dishes, I often had to settle for eating spicy even when I didn’t want to. The result was a burning of the oesophagus and stomach almost constant (but no consequence to the lower parts, fortunately!).
Although there is a belief that Korea is a predominantly Buddhist state, in reality, 46% of the population claims to be non-religious. Christians are 28%, divided between 18% Protestants and the remaining are Catholics. Buddhists are 22%. Despite this declaration of atheism, most of the Koreans continue to follow the philosophical and moral precepts of Buddhism and Confucianism, realities interpenetrated among them over the centuries. As for Buddhism, the first institutionalised religion, which merged with local shamanism, works like this: although there are various schools, a national unification has been made to create a single Buddhism, which embraces all currents. The most widespread is the one called Seon, which derives from the Chinese Chan, better known in the West with the Japanese name of Zen.
Unlike Zen and Chan, this school was strongly influenced by an earlier current, called Hwaeom, which is based on the study and recitation of Sutras. Thus the Korean Buddhism of today is meditation (Seon school) but also study and sutra (Hwaeom). There is no lack of other currents such as the Pure Land (Jeongto) and the Won school, born under Japanese occupation. In fact, this brought no small amount of trouble by introducing marriage for monks and nuns who until then followed celibacy. Korean Buddhism has a rather troubled history. Well received since the fourth century CE, it grew and flourished under the reign of Silla unified to become a state religion under the Goryeo dynasty.
Confucianism and modern era
With the advent of the Joseon kingdom, due to rampant corruption, excesses and internal struggles, Buddhism declined in favour of Confucianism, which became the official religion. Only since 1800, thanks to the defeat of Confucianism due to clashes with the West, the Japanese invasion and the fall of the Chinese Qing dynasty, Buddhism rises again to the main religion. Confucian concepts and morals, however, still permeate the Korean mentality, although by now Confucianism itself is seen only as a historical relic to be studied. The life of Korean Buddhist monks, today, is quite eventful. In fact, monks move constantly from one monastery to another, studying and teaching according to the current of that monastery.
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