Sixty years ago, South Korea was a virtually unknown country devastated by war and poverty, and desperately in need of military, medical and financial assistance from the United Nations. During the Korean War, 21 countries volunteered to help South Korea: 16 countries sent ground forces and five dispatched medical units to the Korean Peninsula. Then, South Korea was a destitute country hopelessly suffering from the atrocities of war.
Today, however, South Korea has become a proud member of the G20 summit, and an affluent, dynamic society which has achieved remarkable economic success in a short time. These days, one can easily find Korean products all over the world. For example, Samsung LCD-LED television sets, LG electronic washer-dryers, and Hyundai and KIA cars. South Korea is also a leading producer of mobile phones, ships, and prize-winning films. Nine members of the G20 helped South Korea during the Korean War and the delegates from those nations will surely be astonished at the spectacular development of the once poverty-stricken, barren land.
For the foreign visitors and reporters who come to Korea to participate in or cover the G20 summit, South Korea can be an exciting place to travel. Those who want to explore Korean culture may want to visit Gyeongbok-gung Palace, the Secret Garden, and Deoksu Palace, all of which are conveniently located in the heart of Seoul, near City Hall. They may also want to see Insa-dong, which is full of cultural artifacts such as ceramics, calligraphies, paintings, ornaments and so forth. While strolling around Insa-dong, tourists can stop at one of the many cafs to relax, sip tea and shop for traditional teas with distinctive flavors and tastes. One should also not miss the opportunity to savor exquisite Korean cuisine at intimate restaurants hidden down small alleys.
Those who want to experience Korea’s culinary tradition may want to try bibimbap, which is a healthy mix of vegetables and rice. Those who prefer noodles should try japchae, served with mushrooms, spinach and carrots. To quench your thirst, try sikhye (sweet rice juice) or sujeong-gwa (dried persimmon juice), which, unlike carbonated drinks, are pleasantly mild and naturally delicious.
When you have had your fill of sightseeing and eating, you may want to go shopping. Many foreigners’ favorite place to shop is Itaewon, a convenient shopping district for foreign tourists, where salespersons can speak English and Japanese. On the streets of Itaewon, you can encounter people from all over the world and truly feel you are in a global village. Other favorite shopping areas are the South Gate Market and the East Gate Market, where one can buy all sorts of goods, including traditional costumes, handicrafts and the newest fashions at bargain prices at all hours of the day.
If you want to make friends, perhaps the best way to become close with your Korean companions is to go to a pub and have a few drinks. Koreans tend to believe that you never know another person well enough until you have had a few drinks with him. After a few drinks, Koreans usually go to a nearby noraebang (karaoke room) to sing together. Going to a noraebang is another great way to make friends; as you let go of your inhibitions and sing oldies and the newest hits into the night.
To envision 18th or 19th century Korea you are advised to visit the Folk Village in Yongin near Seoul. There you can appreciate traditional architecture, gardens and street markets where you can buy mementos, souvenirs and Korean food. If you time it right, you can watch a traditional wedding ceremony staged for tourists. Those who want to venture a bit further to explore the culture and history may want to visit Gyeongju, the ancient capital city of Silla, which is full of rich heritage.
People who want to witness the division of the peninsula may want to visit Panmunjeom, located at the border between North and South Korea. The border is only an hour or so by car from Seoul, but you need to secure prior permission to visit, and join a guided tour. At the Demilitarized Zone, you can witness soldiers from both sides of the divide on guard, as well as one of the best preserved natural habitats in the world, full of rare animals and plants.
We hope the G20 summit serves as a good opportunity to let the world know about Korea. If you are in town for the summit, enjoy the beauty of Korea’s traditions and the excitement of its modern face.
Kim Seong-kon, a professor of English at Seoul National University, is president of the Association of Korean University Presses. Ed.