South Korea 2003 Part II: To The Ancient Heartland Of Korea

South Korea: Looking For Calmness In Land Of The Morning Calm

Part II: To The Ancient Heartland Of Korea



We drove southwards on the country’s wonderful motorways, across the rolling hills and valleys of this mountainous country.  We drove past the industrial metropolis of Daejeon and Daegu, each with more than a million inhabitants.  South Korea is about the size of Portugal but has almost five times the population.  70% of the population live in cities and about half that number in Seoul and its surrounding region.  South Korea is an incredible industrial machine.  It is one of the world’s greatest manufacturing and trading nations.  Brands like LG, Samsung and Hyundai have become household brand names worldwide. 


Yet, 10% of the South Korean population remain farmers who account for 4% of the GDP (in contrast to 3% in terms of population and GDP for France), a relatively high number for a high income and high cost country.  The high degree of protection against imports prevents this percentage from dropping further. South Korean farmers are a militant lot and they agitate actively against any moves to liberalise trade.  A few months ago, during the WTO talks in Cancun, Mexico, a Korean farmer stabbed himself to death in protest of agricultural liberalisation and free trade. 


This week, thousands of farmers marched to Seoul’s Yeouido area where the National Assembly government buildings, bank headquarters as well as broadcasting networks are located.  In this area where politicians rubbed shoulders with bankers and movie stars, the farmers demonstrated and rioted against change.  History has a way of dealing with people who cannot accept technological change.  Unless Korean farmers adapt to change, they would suffer the same fate as the radical textile workers of Lancashire, who protested against the advent of textile looms pretty much the same way two hundred years ago.




It is often said that Korea is a conservative country where Confucian values are paramount, even to an extent greater than the original Chinese societies such as China, Taiwan and Hong Kong.  I was told that the latest action block blaster “Kill Bill” had to be shown in black and white because that would dilute elements of violence.   Sounds like an over-do, but at least, I think that makes a lot more sense than Singapore, which has silly and outdated Victorian laws that make oral sex and homosexuality criminal offences.  Korea is a lot more progressive than that.




Getting a soup wrong can provoke serious responses in Korea.  A friend was once reprimanded in a Korean restaurant for mistaking a Korean soup for the Japanese Miso soup.  He was given a stern lecture on how this soup was made, the high quality materials used, and how lousy Japanese Miso soup was. 


In Korea, one often come across comments on how scientific the Korean language is, how wonderful the cuisine is, how ethnically homogenous it is, how hardworking the people are, and in short, why this is one of the best countries to be in.  Not that these are necessarily wrong statements, but just that they are an indication of how nationalistic the Koreans are, wonderful and friendly people they certainly are. 


And of course there are other nationalities that are fond of making chauvinistic proclamations like that, such as Singaporeans, Chinese, Americans and the Japanese, but quite often in Korea such sentiments do impact on the way business and everyday life is conducted. While I was in Korea, the Joong Ang Daily reported on its headlines that U.S. Olympic skater Ohno won’t race in Korea because he had received death threats.  Foreign investors also often complain about how bona fide business decisions and investment plans get bogged down when the other parties start playing the Korean nationalist card. 


For Korean manufacturers, the Korean people’s affinity to anything Korean is a great asset, for it insulates the country against foreign competitors.  Foreign marketers have as a result found the Korean market very difficult to penetrate.  Korean manufacturers therefore can delay the almost inevitable process of relocating less efficient plants abroad despite the high cost of operating in Korea.  It’s debatable how long this process can be, considering the enormous cost advantage China has.




Between the 1st and the 3rd centuries A.D., three rival kingdoms arose on the Korean Peninsula.  Silla based around Gyeongju in southwestern Korea was once of the three kingdoms that arose during those early years of Korean nationhood.  In 668 A.D., it united all Korea after defeating not only the rival kingdoms of Baekje and Goguryeo, but also the Chinese imperial armies under the Sui and Tang Dynasties. 


It was said that the Korean wars were so disastrous for Sui Dynasty that tax burden and loss of military and political prestige that it was overthrown by Tang Dynasty, which subsequently became known as the Golden Age of the Chinese civilization.  The United Silla Dynasty was the Golden Age of Korea.  Arts, architecture and religion flourished in the capital Gyeongju. Numerous palaces, temples and monasteries were built, the remnants of which are still being seen in the city and its surroundings today.


We drove to Bulguksa Temple, one of Gyeongju’s architectural gems where we wondered in the thousand years-old World Heritage Site in the last days of the magnificent autumn foliage.  The chants of monks resonate around the ancient multi-tiered stone pagodas of the Silla period.  This was once an important monastery but was largely destroyed during the Japanese invasion of 1593, and only rebuilt in the 1970s.  The Koreans have an antagonistic relationship with Japan.  The Japanese have invaded Korea several times over the past 1000 years, and it does not take long for any tourist to Korea to notice references to destruction caused by Japanese invasions at temples, palaces and historical monuments of all sorts.


In the mountains behind the temple is the Seokguram Grotto, a cave where a huge Silla-era Buddha statue was rediscovered in 1909.  Dedicated by a Silla Prime Minister in 742 A.D. to his late parents, this Buddha is the symbol of Korean Buddhist art and culture in the Mediaeval times.  Long lost in the deep mountains, the statue was rediscovered by local farmers and it was a miracle the Japanese who at that time had just occupied Korea, did not succeed in their initial plan to move the statue to Japan, as they did to many of Korea’s artistic treasures.


From the Buddha of Seokguram Grotto, one looks out to the wide open seas to the east,  the body of which the Japanese (and many contemporary maps) call the Sea of Japan, and the Koreans call East Sea (as the Chinese do).  Once again, this is the subject of a bitter dispute between the two nations.  The Koreans say the body of water used to be known as either the Sea of Korea or East Sea, and the Japanese forced a name change when they illegally occupied Korea in the closing years of the 19th century.  This issue, such as that of the Comfort Women (Korean women who were forced to become prostitutes by Japanese troops during WWII), continue to poison the relations of the two neighbours. 


The sensitivity of Korean-Japanese relations entered world headlines when the two countries competed bitterly to host the World Cup in 2002.  As a compromise solution, FIFA awarded the privilege to both countries, and hence the games were jointly hosted by two countries for the first time in history. 


Not far from the coast is a rocky islet where the Underwater Tomb of King Munmu was discovered in 1967.  King Munmu (661 – 681 A.D.), who united all Korea under the banner of the Silla Dynasty, had, according to legends, asked to be cremated and buried at sea so that he could become a dragon to protect Korea from the Japanese who were likely to invade by sea.  It is said that his ashes were kept in a stone coffin which lies in a pool in the middle of the isle.  No one has examined the unusual stone object in the pool to verify this claim.  Legends are usually more useful kept that way, so that dead heroes continue to rally the nation.




Kimchi (or Gimchi in the new translation method), one of the “five treasures of the Korean people”, is the symbol of Korean cuisine and culture.  Love it or hate it, but you certainly can’t miss it.  It’s essentially chopped up vegetables seasoned with generous dose of chilli and garlic and ginger, and then left to ferment in earthen pots, sometimes for as long as six months.  It is often served cold (though not all the time), and can be served either as a main dish, or a side-dish to any Korean meal, be it breakfast, lunch or dinner.  You see it all the time, and everywhere.  In fact, the Koreans have a saying: “the taste of your kimchi is the taste of your mother’s finger tips.”


The kimchi has a pungent, tangy cold flavour, albeit with an electrifying fiery, spicy bite.  However, if you leave it in the fridge, your whole fridge smells as though you just had a kimchi party.  So, Korean manufacturers have invented the kimchi fridge which not only allows you to store kimchi properly but also allows kimchi to ferment at the right temperature. 


Kimchi is most commonly made from cabbage, but they can also be made from virtually all types of vegetables, and mixed with fish, squid, beef, pork – you name it, they have it.  There are 160 varieties of kimchi and most of them quite spicy.  What is amazing is that kimchi didn’t used to be spicy.  Red pepper, which is used for many Korean kimchi today, was only introduced by the Portuguese into Korea in the 17th century. 


2003’s SARS epidemic in China has furthered the popular mythology of kimchi.  Despite the close personal and business contact with China, very few Koreans are diagnosed with SARS.  This sparked off all sorts of theories that kimchi has counter-SARS capabilities.  There appears to be little scientific evidence of this, but it has sparked off kimchi fever in Japan and China, where people are discovering the delights of kimchi.  Most ironically, however, the growing popularity of kimchi outside Korea may just destroy the Korean kimchi export industry.  Food manufacturers in China have now entered the kimchi business and now exporting even to Korea itself – and Korean supermarkets are happily embracing them due to their lower cost and seemingly similar standards. 


This threat further aggravates the kimchi dispute Korea has with Japan, which exports worldwide Japanese style kimchi known as “kimuchi”, i.e., kimchi adapted to Japanese taste, with artificial flavours, minus the fermentation process which takes longer.  In fact, Japanese kimuchi exports have exceeded Korean kimchi exports.  Attempts in 1996 to label Japanese kimuchi as an official Japanese “Olympic food” prompted Korean protests and Korea had requested that the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization that an international kimchi standard be adopted based on the Korean recipe.  Whatever it is, in the longer term, it is not unlikely that it would be Chinese kimchi which would have a say in the global kimchi market.




Back to Gyeongju City, we explored ancient tombs, and ruins of palaces, city walls and an observatory.  The Tumuli Park is an open-air museum of 23 huge Silla royal burial mounds right at the heart of the city.  Covered with fresh green carpet grass, these perfect conical shaped mounds looked like well-proportioned breasts of beautiful young women.  Many treasures were found on the site, including golden crown, jewellery and weapons, all testimony of the level of Korea art and civilisation during the Mediaeval times, when most of Europe was inhabited by unruly tribes.  One of the most important tombs here is the Cheonmachong, or Tomb of the Heavenly Horse, so named due to the discovery here of a painting of a spectacular leaping horse.  


We also went to the National Museum of Gyeongju, where the Sacred Bell of King Songdok was exhibited.  Carved in 771 A.D., it is one of the largest of its kind in Asia.  The bell is also known as the Emile Bell, so-called because of the old Silla word pronounced as “em-ee-leh”, which means mommy.  Popular mythology says that when the bell was first made, it did not ring and had to be melted to be recast.  A vision told the head monk in charge of the temple that a child had to be sacrificed for the bell to work.  And so he threw a little child into the molten metal.  After the bell was recast, it rang when struck and it sounded like a baby crying “Mommy!  Mommy!” when he was sacrificed.


Korea is a strange country in some ways.  Like its two powerful neighbours, China and Japan, its history and culture are full of ironical examples of sophisticated and exquisite taste of art, which often co-existed with instances of brutality and bloodthirstiness.




Five days of rushing around Korea and we returned to Singapore with wonderful memories of a modern nation at the crossroads.  Thanks to the many friends who have entertained us with great hospitality, we had a great time and certainly would like to return again, perhaps to visit the city of Busan and other historical sites in the south.  Of course, to Wee Cheng the traveller to controversial regimes and other supposed Utopias, North Korea and its bizarre regime is a prime destination to the New Year. 



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