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South Korea – The funfair of life

  • Written by  Vitali Vitaliev
  • Published in Expeditions
South Korea – The funfair of life All images: Dirk Hedemann
01 Feb
Tracing an old metaphor in modern South Korea – a country permanently calm and thriving, despite the threat coming from the North

My first, indirect impression of South Korea goes back to 1988, when a Moscow-based journalist colleague became one of the very few Soviet reporters to be sent to Seoul to cover that year’s summer Olympics. On his return, he was unusually taciturn and withdrawn. When I asked him how he liked South Korea, he pondered for a minute, as if mesmerised, and then said: ‘It was amazing: all those cars, buildings, people... It was like a funfair of life!’

On the day of my own Korean Air flight from London to Seoul, nearly 30 years later, North Korea launched its most powerful ever ballistic missile into the skies. On the same day, a North Korean soldier escaped to the South by dashing across the border. He was shot at by North Korean border guards, but somehow survived. Probably not the best of times to begin my own search for the ‘funfair of life’.

South Korea rooftopsSouth Korean rooftops (Image: Dirk Hedemann)


It is an astounding fact, but the annual per capita GDP in South Korea, a nation that has no mineral resources of its own and has always had to import them, has grown 300 times since 1967 and now exceeds £22,000. In just 50 years, the country’s economy has grown more than the economy of the whole of Europe managed in two centuries.

This boom is largely the result of its citizens’ devotion, hard work and technological innovation. Wherever you go in South Korea, you see technology in action – beginning with immigration control at the Seoul’s Incheon international airport where every arriving passenger is subjected to a series of biometric tests. While shuffling from one foot to the other, a small monitor shows you pictures of sumptuous Korean cuisine, images that are supposed to help relax your facial muscles while being photographed by a mini-camera on the officer’s desk. And, of course, there are the electronic, state-of-the art (and scarily excessive for a novice) toilets, with buttons like ‘massage’, ‘rhythm’ and ‘enema’ on special control panels above the seats.

My first port of call was to be the alpine county of Pyeongchang in Gangwon province to the northeast of Seoul, site of the imminent 2018 Winter Olympics, that ‘funfair of sport’. We were met at the airport by a mini-van and a gregarious female guide called Kim Sun-kyong, or Suni. ‘Are you concerned about the latest North Korean missile launch?’ I asked her straight away.

‘Yes, but not half as much as you are in Europe...’

That was a typical attitude of South Koreans towards the unending provocations of their troublesome northern neighbour: quiet awareness without fear. It was largely nurtured by dignity – a vital element of a traditional Korean psyche – and also by anshim, a Korean term for ‘calm’ and ‘peace of mind’, inspired by both Confucianism and Buddhism, Korea’s second leading philosophy, teaching to keep one’s sangfroid in the face of the most unsettling circumstances.

The landscape of the Gangwon province, dissected by the Taebaek mountain range, was stunning, and I had to pinch myself from time to time – not just to beat the severe nine-hour jet lag but also to remind myself that I was not in Switzerland. In the words of Yeo Hyung-koo, secretary general of the Olympic Organising Committee, the country is ‘99.6 per cent ready’ and tickets are selling well, albeit the continuing provocations by North Korea not helping. The organisers were taking those occasional setbacks with calmness and a good deal of ‘anshim’, and carried on adding the last touches to the Olympic structures.

Like so many places in Korea – not just the Olympic site – my hotel in Hanwha Resort, with both ‘Western’ and traditional Korean bedrooms (no furniture, warmed-up floor to sleep on), appeared perfect, yet not quite finished. That’s not to say ‘abandoned’, rather ‘fully functioning while still under construction’. This permanent incompleteness was in itself the sign of continuing development and progress, and by the end of my trip I was tempted to start referring to the whole of South Korea as a ‘permanently unfinished’ country.

South Korea templesKorean Buddhism amounts for just 5.5 per cent of the country’s population (Image: Dirk Hedemann)


Since the high-speed KTX rail link connecting Pyeongchang with Seoul was still nearing completion, I took a (very) slow Korail train to the capital from Jeongdongjin, an eastern coastal town to which people from all over the country – following an old tradition – flock to watch the sunrise every New Year’s Day.

Next morning, I woke to a view of skyscrapers, not mountains, from the hotel window. My room in ‘Shilla Stay’ was looking after itself: lights would automatically come on and off, curtains would part and close, the bed would warm up as required. The room felt like part of an urban theme park – a Disneyland of life?

Outside, tradition met modern once more in the ancient ceremony of the changing of guard at the 14th century Gyeongbokgung Palace, when young Korean ‘warriors’, in colourful period robes and moustaches painted under their noses to give them a more fearful look, were marching solemnly across the spacious courtyard under the pagoda-shaped arches – in the shadow of skyscrapers, and to the sounds of the janggu (a traditional hourglass drum), drowned by the unceasing din of traffic beyond the fences.

Using Seoul’s underground rail network was like getting a glimpse of a transportation funfair of the future. Endless white-marble corridors, moving walkways, palatial stations, trains that are always on time, and animated signs behind the carriage windows merging into short, on-the-go movies. Returning to the hotel after midnight one evening, I was pleasantly surprised to see many unguarded stalls in the subways, bearing goods such as perfumes, cosmetics and designer clothes, piled high and left unattended for the night. No fear of theft was apparent.

One of Buddhism’s main precepts – never to take something that is not yours – was obviously at play. In the words of Seung-mook, senior monk at Seoul’s Jogyesa Temple, ‘in South Korea, pretty much everything, including politics, is a little bit Buddhist.’ That partially explained the Koreans’ keep-calm-and-carry-on attitude to continuous danger from the North.

My visit coincided with the Korean Buddhism Jogyesa Chrysanthemum Fragrance Sharing Festival, and all Jogye Order temples were decorated with flowers. As someone who practises a different, Western, style of Mahayana Buddhism, I was honoured to take part in the prolonged Moktak (monk)-led Yebul (chanting ceremony). Chants and hapjangs (semi-bows) in the company of several hundred people underneath three golden statues of the Buddha couldn’t fail to instil mindfulness and peace. Underneath all its bustling places and rushing traffic, Seoul is still full of serenity.

South Korea soldiersThe changing of the guard ceremony at the 14th century Gyeongbokgung Palace (Image: Dirk Hedemann)


With just a couple of days left in Korea, I still had one important place to visit – the Demilitarized Zone, only 50km north of Seoul. Myself a defector during the USSR days, I was both willing and fearful to see the world’s last remaining Cold War border, to come close to my own totalitarian past for the first time in nearly 30 years. Since the collapse of the Berlin Wall, it’s the North-South Korean divide that has come to deserve the dubious moniker of ‘The Mother of All Borders’.

My first surprise was how touristy the trip was promising to be. Coachloads of people – Koreans and foreigners alike – were heading towards the Joint Security Area across the pristine landscape of the no-man’s land – a 4km-wide, watchtower-ridden buffer zone, filled with lush vegetation and thriving undisturbed wildlife. On the way, I ticked off flocks of exterritorial herons, wild geese and majestic Siberian eagles floating in the sky in huge numbers like benign, wide-winged fighter bombers.

Our passports were checked four times as our guide, with a smile glued to his face, was announcing lunch arrangements, finishing with a tactlessly facetious rhetorical question: ‘Is anyone planning to ignore lunch and to starve themselves like the North Korean people?’

No one laughed.

We soon reached Camp Bonifas, a US Army base named after Captain Bonifas, an American officer killed by axe-wielding North Korean border guards in 1976. The camp had a visitor centre, with regulation souvenir shop selling DMZ chocolates, DMZ vinegar(!), laminated North Korean banknotes and ‘I’ve Done the DMZ’ t-shirts.

Before being escorted to the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) inside the conference building, we had to listen to a short introductory talk by two US privates, both speaking with a characteristic Mid-Western drawl. They told us we were not allowed to wear flip-flops, ripped jeans or shorts that exposed the buttocks. We then had to sign a peculiar ‘Visitor Declaration’, paragraph D of which read: ‘Visitors will not point, make gestures, or expressions like scoffing – abnormal action which could be used by the North Korean side as propaganda material against the United Nations Command.’

In a disorderly formation we proceeded to the conference building, where both sides used to meet to resolve disputes, from where we were allowed to ogle (and to take photos of) a couple of stern-looking and motionless North Korean officers who were ogling us in return. Private Earp, our escort, told us they nicknamed one of the North Koreans Jack, and the other Bob. Several visitors, including myself, ventured across the MDL that ran through the middle of a small negotiations table and momentarily ended up in North Korea de facto. Despite the touristy touch, the sensation was ticklish.

We looked at some other DMZ attractions: The Bridge of No Return, where POW exchanges used to be conducted; the Third Infiltration Tunnel, secretly built by North Koreans and discovered by the South after a tip by a defector; the Dora Observatory – a look-out platform, from where pay-as-you-view binoculars are able to see bits of the North Korean territory, including the fake and permanently empty buildings of the Kijong-dong ‘propaganda village’. Contrary to its intentions, the North was making money for the South just by the very fact of its existence.

The last – and the most moving – stop on our itinerary was Dorasan train station, built during a temporary thaw in North-South relations, the so-called ‘Sunshine Policy’ under Kim Jong-il. The long-disused station had an eerie feel. It spelled the end of hope. Platform-only tickets were on sale at the station’s ticket office and once on the platform, we could examine the solitary sign reading: ‘Seoul – 56 km; Pyongyang – 237 km’, and the empty tracks running to nowhere. US President George W Bush hoped the station would reunite Korean families in a speech given at the official station opening in 2002. The hope lasted six years before the North closed the border to crossings again.

South Korean saleswomanSouth Korean saleswoman (Image: Dirk Hedemann)


Our last stop inside the DMZ was actually a real-life Korean funfair, part of the Imjingak Peace Park, situated right on the border with North. It’s a proper ‘Western’-style theme park, complete with roller-coasters, merry-go-rounds and crowds of laughing, ice cream-devouring visitors.

The wind was bringing in the muffled, near-orgiastic snippets of North Korean propaganda broadcasts, continuously projected by loudspeakers housed across the border. Those ecstatic sounds, almost inhuman in their insane aggressiveness, mixing with the jolly carefree rings, bleeps and dings of the funfair rides, merged into a seemingly inane, yet extremely meaningful cacophony of South Korea’s daily reality – exciting, inspiring and somewhat schizophrenic.

The New York Times recently wrote that: ‘There are some 8,000 North Korean cannons and rocket launchers aimed at Seoul, in effect holding the inhabitants of the city hostage.’ Here, in a tourist-friendly hotspot on the border between the two nations, I felt as if I had not been visiting just another ‘free’ Western country, but a colourful, defiant and courageous ‘funfair of life’ taking place straight under the barrel of a gun.

Korea Air


South Korea Regional Map

Geographic location: East Asia
Latitude/Longitude: 37° 31’ 57.36” N, 127° 1’ 28.60” E
Name: ‘Korea’ derives from the ancient kingdom of Goguryeo and was first spelled as ‘Korea’ by Hendrick Hamel, a late-17th century Dutch travel writer
Population: 48.6 million Land area: 99,313 sq km
Geographic neighbours: The Korean peninsula faces China and Russia to the north and west, and Japan to the south and east
Per capita GDP: £22,193
Main religions: Christianity and Korean Buddhism
Climate: Humid continental and humid subtropical


• c.2333-109BC Gojoseon, the first Korean kingdom
• 57BC-668AD Three kingdoms vie for power:
     57BC-935AD – Silla
     37BC-668AD – Goguryeo
     18BC-660AD – Baekje
• 668-935 Unified (or ‘Later’) Silla conquers rivals to unify the whole country
• 936-1392 Goryeo is founded by King Taejo
• 1392-1897 Joseon dynasty is founded by Yi Seonggye after Goryeo collapses
• 1897-1910 Formation of the Korean Empire
• 1910-1945 Annexation by Japan
• 1945 to present time Republic of Korea


North Korea soldiers marching

Known as the ‘Land of the Morning Calm’, Korea has endured its fair share of turbulent times. The country has survived numerous foreign invasions, colonisation by Japan and a political divide into separate northern and southern nations.

Despite the tensions in the Korean Peninsula running high for decades, South Korea has progressed to a degree that few could have expected, with the economy becoming one of the top 15 globally, and a multi-party democratic system providing relative governmental stability.

On the other hand, the threat from the communist North has grown in recent years, and the Korean War, interrupted by the 1953 armistice, is still technically in progress – a fact that the USA sees as justifying keeping tens of thousands of its troops in the country.

Hope for an ease of tensions seemed ever more remote of late, especially given the ‘interventions’ of the current US president, but a recent agreement by the North to enter talks with South Korea this year is being hailed as a positive step, even if previous such meetings haven't always been the most fruitful.


korea 11

The Olympic Winter Games in Pyeongchang will be held from 9-25 February, 2018. 6,500 athletes and officials from over 100 countries will compete for 102 sets of medals in 15 main Olympic disciplines. The Paralympic Games, with over 3,000 participants (athletes and officials) from 45 countries competing for 80 sets of medals, will take place in the same venues between the 9-18 March, 2018.

The Games will see a number of technological innovations, including a new high-speed KTX rail link to Seoul, 5G mobile phone connection service and Ultra High-Definition TV broadcasts.

With the completion of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, South Korea will become the sixth country (after France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Russia) to have hosted all four of the world’s largest sports events: Winter and Summer Olympics, the FIFA World Football Cup and the World Athletics Championship.


Korean rapper Psy performing (Image: Debbie Wong)

‘Korean Wave’ is a relatively new term to describe a recent and rather sudden global popularity of South Korean pop culture. Korean Wave started in the 1990s, and in its initial stages was characterised by the spread of K-Pop and the so-called K-Dramas (mostly TV serials) across Asia, including China where they had reached a truly cult status. Hordes of foreign fans flocked to South Korea to visit the familiar film sets and – with luck – to bump into a favourite Korean musician or film star.

That popularity has gone global in recent years largely due to South Korea’s highly developed technologies, particularly smart phones – now owned by 98 per cent of South Koreans – and its thriving social networking and online video platforms. It has led to an unprecedented boom in the numbers of overseas visitors and helped to boost the country’s economy.

Among the most successful K-Pop artists and bands, are rapper Psy (of Gangnam Style fame, pictured above), boy bands H.O.T., Shinwa and Infinite, as well as Jang Yoon Jeong, the rising star of ‘trot’ – Korean traditional pop music – whose recent number, Omona, is also a hit among an older fanbase.

Of the cult K-Dramas, one of the most popular is the ongoing serial Guardian: the Lonely and Great God, better known in Korea as Goblin, starring Gong Yoo and Kim Goeun. It is a beautifully filmed, yet hugely sentimental, predictable and seemingly endless story of a goblin looking for a bride to end his immortality, which had become a burden at his venerable age of 900 (which, incidentally, doesn’t stop him looking any older than 25).


Korean Air: www.koreanair.com
PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics: www.pyeongchang2018.com
Go Korea: gokorea.co.uk
Shilla Stay: www.shillastay.com

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