Category Archives: Korea

A walk far from home, a Norwegian on the Baekdudaegan

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A walk far from home, a Norwegian on the Baekdudaegan

I am a long way from home, standing at the summit of Cheonwangbong (1915m), the highest mountain on the mainland of South Korea. Home is Oslo, the capital of Norway, and I have travelled far to get to the starting point of the Baekdudaegan. The mythical ridge that forms the watershed and the spiritual backbone of Korea and home to the long-distance trail of the same name. With no skills in the Korean language, I have a daunting task ahead of me.

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For the next seven weeks, I will walk about 735 kilometres across South Korea to the pass of Jinburyeong. From there I can go no further, but the mountain ridge however, does not care for human borders. The White Head Great Ridge runs unbroken through the Korean Peninsula, all the way up to the sacred mountain of Baekdusan (2744m), situated at the border between North Korea and China. The Baekdudaegan is a spiritual heritage for the Koreans; so spiritual that according to legend, the Japanese drove spikes into the ridge to destroy its spirit under their invasions of Korea.

tarjei-photo-10Clouds surrounds the Heavenly King Peak. Guided by the ropes and fences of Jirisan National Park, I take the first steps on a journey that will lead me to the heart of the Korean people. I spend the first night on the trail at the Seseok shelter. I pay 8.000 won and in return, I receive a small space on a hard wooden platform. The night is hot and the dormitory is vibrant with snoring, sleepless in Jirisan. The clouds however, does not sleep through the night, they move on, leaving behind a ridge of emerald beauty the morning after. My adventure is off to a beautiful start.

The first days on the trail, is a hard lesson in Korean topography. The mountains here are not extremely high, but they are always undulating and are at times exceedingly steep. It is as the lifeforce, called gi, from Baekdusan flows like waves through Korea, and the trail negotiates them head on. One week of walking and I am already wondering if I am going to make it to the finish line, stumbling tired up to the summit of Baegunsan. The morning after, I crawl out of my tent to a beautiful sunrise. With thin layer of clouds floating like ethereal rivers through the valleys below, and in the horizon the mighty peak of Cheonwangbong. That is the spirit of Baekdudaegan and the price of beauty, for the Baekdudaegan will reward you for your hardship.

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Nights on the trail is mostly spent in my tent or at what the Koreans call minbak, which most closely translates as homestay, but my most haunting nights are spent in a jeongja. These are pavilions, often very ornamented, which you are allowed to sleep in once other visitors has left. After walking for two days through the beauty of Deogyusan National Park, I arrive at Bbaejae, where I sleep in the breath of clean air under the protective roof of the jeongja there. Only to be awakened up at two o’clock in the middle of the night by a bus loading off a huge group of hikers, the Bone Pass is soon teeming with headlights and voices in the dark.

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Such is often the way Koreans hike in the mountains, I meet them in both small and large groups, hiking or sitting down eating large quantities of food. Each time trying to get the formal greeting of ‘annyŏng haseyo’ pronounced correct. The meeting with the Koreans on the trail also gives me huge reasons to practice saying thanks correctly, ‘kamsahamnida’. For the hospitability I meet on the trail is a source of constant wonder. Often I am invited to sit down with them, where they eagerly share their food and drink with me, even though we do not speak each other’s languages. Other times I receive small gifts like apples and grapes, to the occasional chocolate bar pushed shyly into my hand.

At Keunjae, I arrive to the sound of children laughing; there is a kindergarden from Gimcheon there visiting the educational centre about nature and Korean culture for children at the pass. I meet Mr. Cho Byeongsam, one of the teachers at the kindergarden. We talk about me doing the Baekdudaegan and the temple of Jikjisa. Just two days earlier, I stood atop Mt. Hwangaksan looking down upon the temple grounds, with an urge to climb down to it. Then the amazing thing happens, Mr. Cho is inviting me to Gimcheon with the kindergarden, from where he and his wife, Baek Seung Hee, are driving me to the beautiful temple. What a fantastic twist of fate. Afterwards we eat dinner at a local restaurant nearby the temple, before they drive me back to a motel near Keunjae. Such a tale brought me joy on the walk, and it did not take long before I was looking forward to the next encounter with the Korean people. Just as much as I was looking forward to the next magic moment on the Baekdudaegan.

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I walk through the mesmerizing Songnisan National Park, going through fields of boulders where I have either to push or drag my backpack behind me. The descent from Daeyasan may be the most notorious single section of the Baekdudaegan, where you climb down from the summit on what is called the ‘100-meter rope’. It is a fun ride, but caution should be taken.

Outside the confines of the national parks, I follow the fluttering ribbons for guidance of where the trail goes. It is an interesting aspect of hiking here in Korea that it is the hikers themselves that are marking where the trail goes. Each ribbon carries a personal mark of the hiker, and you find them in almost all the colours of the rainbow. As I progress on the trail, I start to recognize the different ribbons, and wonders who the hiker beyond each ribbon is. Though I have to be careful following the correct ribbons, I look closely for the 백두대간 Hangeul characters denoting the Baekdudaegan. At some ancient fortress walls below Huiyangsan, I follow the wrong ribbons downwards for a long time before I become aware of my mistake, resulting in a strenuous return to the ridge.

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It takes three weeks before I get a taste of bad weather, but when it comes, it comes with a vengeance. I walk the exposed and funky ridge of Mungyeong Saejae between Ihwaryeong and Joryeong in a typhoon. Rain lashes down on me ceaselessly, as I negotiates the trail using ropes up and down huge boulders. I get soaking wet, including my boots, as the water runs down the ropes and onto my arms, and so forth made its way under my raingear. The day after was designated my first rest day.

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The Baekdudaegan is a hard walk and I feel constantly tired, but for all its tribulations, it is a rewarding rollercoaster ride. Walking through the azalea gardens of Sobaeksan National Park, which will bloom pink in the spring. Visiting the mighty temple of Buseoksa. Sitting on top of Seokbyeongsan, watching a verdant wonderland in the setting sun. Waking up early to catch the rise of the morning sun from the summit of Noinbong.

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A thunderclap salutes my entry into Seoraksan National Park with its jagged peaks and towering cliffs on the 43rd day of walking. It is raining and low clouds, with no visibility. It is a haunting walk of mysterious beauty in the beginning; through the clouds, I can see the torn landscape. Another hiker rescues the raincoat of my backpack and we keep company to the shelter of Jungcheong and the summit of Dacheonbong. Arriving at the peak, the weather has lifted and the immense beauty of Seoraksan is unveiled. I stand looking at the famous rock of Ulsanbawi, the dinosaur spine of Gongryong Neungseon, Sokcho and the East Sea. Magic. In the evening, I sit between the spines of the dinosaur and watch the lights from the squid boats out on the sea.

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Then I stumble tired down past the ghost resort below Masanbong. My sore and weary feet aches as the last few steps are taken; I can see the stele at Jinburyeong, the finishing line. I stumble out of the forest, past the last of the fluttering ribbons.

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Turning around, I can look back at 45 beautiful, but hard days on the Baekdudaegan in South Korea. Looking back at great moments in the mountains and nature, but most of all, looking back at the meeting with the Korean people. In the end, I feel that the spiritual backbone is not the ridge itself, but the people that inhabits the land on and around it.

You can read the whole story at:  http://tarjeinskrede.blogspot.no/p/baekdudaegan.html.

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Tarjei Næss Skrede, born in 1976, works as an IT Consultant at Bouvet in Oslo, Norway. He has for a long time been interested in outdoors activities and in recent years, he has grown a big interest in long distance trails. In 2013, he crossed the Pyrenees from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean on the GR10, after which he set sight on a far more exotic trail, the Baekdudaegan of South Korea.

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Will IKEA succeed in South Korea?

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Will IKEA succeed in South Korea?

It finally happened. On December 18th of last year (2014), IKEA opened its first store in South Korea in the city of Gwangmyeong after years of rumors and long awaited anticipation by local consumers. With a floor space of 59,000 m2 (640,000 sq ft), the store at opening was the largest-to-date for IKEA worldwide. It surpasses the size of any of IKEA store in Sweden, the United States and even mainland China.

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News-to-Date and Unexpected Surprises

150221 ikea-03During the first 2 months after opening its first store in South Korea, a few unexpected surprises took place for IKEA. The biggest surprise was perhaps the issue which has to do with a map that was (is) being sold at IKEA stores worldwide. The body of water (ocean) between Korea and Japan was previously called the “Sea of Corea (Korea),” “the East Sea” and/or the “Gulf of Korea” on ancient maps. Now, the maps which were (are) being sold at IKEA represented this body of water as the “Sea of Japan” – which was received as being inaccurate, culturally insensitive and also ultra-offensive to 99.9% (or let’s just say the greater majority) Korean shoppers during its first few weeks after store opening. To address how and why the “Sea of Korea” became the “Sea of Japan” is a very long story and not the purpose of this article, so we won’t get into it any further today.

Another big surprise was the sheer number of visitors who came to see what was displayed at this IKEA store. On its 35th day of opening its Gwangmyeong store, IKEA Korea welcomed its one-millionth — count 1,000,000 — visitor. Roughly 30,000 to 35,000 individuals had visited the store on weekends and about 20,000 to 25,000 visitors during weekdays. Such crowds caused heavy traffic jams, shortages in parking space and very long waiting lines.

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In addition, three other reports related to IKEA Korea made recent news. The first was a report of visitors hoarding all the pencils. Second was the news report about the city of Gwangmyeong, who had welcomed IKEA to their city with open arms, was now going to penalize IKEA for causing massive traffic jams to deal with their civic complaints. Lastly, there were reports which had suggested that IKEA had over-priced all of their products in South Korea compared with other countries. After an in-depth consumer investigation, however, it turned out that some of their products were more expensive (partially true) and others were less expensive compared with prices in other countries (partially false).

One more aspect of the Gwangmyeong store is the “messiness” of its blankets and linen on display beds. It will take additional resources (additional labor) in South Korea to frequently make-up all the beds in all the showrooms due to unique (unusual) consumer behavior.

Road to Success in South Korea

There are some very unique aspects of the South Korean market to consider for IKEA’s success in South Korea. Here is a list of are just a few of them:

  1. The nature of “cookie-cutter-made” apartments (condos) and studio apartments (a.k.a. Office-Tel): Floor plans for these residential types are highly standardized and virtually the same. How consumers fit (mix-and-match) IKEA’s furniture into these overly standardized floor plans in Korea will be something interesting to watch.
  2. Appealing to “newly-weds” and single professionals: People in South Korea seldom live together before getting married. Getting married means getting a new place to live; and then buying “new” furniture for the entire home. Moveover, an increasingly number of young professionals, who are not yet married but have disposable income, prefer to live alone (not at their parent’s house) in small studio apartments. These apartments need furniture and home accessories.
  3. Becoming the preferred choice for local mom-and-pops (neighborhood) interior designers and carpenters: There are thousands of local carpenters who fix-up homes and apartments in South Korea. All of them have existing local suppliers who are doing business with them. Getting on the list (minds) of these home-interior remodeling stores will be important.
  4. Becoming the preferred choice when replacing “built-in” system kitchens: A typically high-rise apartment (condo) complex in South Korea has anywhere in between 500 to 1,200 residential units. Becoming a first-supplier, by working with construction companies (builders), and electronic-appliances (washer-dryer, gas-range) companies, to a select segment of apartments (condo) complexes could become another consideration for accelerated market penetration. Moreover, buyers of older homes (apartments) often “upgrade” their kitchen to make it feel new. This market for replacing existing system kitchens is also a big segment in South Korea.
  5. Product durability to withstand (survive) frequently moving Koreans: South Korean who do not own homes move around at least 3-10 times before eventually becoming home owners. The question of whether “self-assembled IKEA products” can withstand being moved around so much is something of interest to Korean consumers.
  6. Sitting on the Floor Culture: Traditionally, and even today, people sitting on cleaned floors, especially when gathered together at home, is a prevailing custom in South Korea. Understanding and applying how IKEA products may work best to accommodate this culture and introducing products that will fit with such cultural behavior is also something to consider. For example, other large retailers sell “bamboo” carpets to help consumers accommodate for South Korea’s hot-muggy-summers. Whether IKEA will localize their product line by introducing these “bamboo-style” mats (carpets) will be a point of interest by Korean consumers.

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As with any business, and at the end of the day, IKEA’s success in South Korea will hinge upon how many repeat consumers it can generate in terms of “life-time” buyers and getting good-to-great “word-of-mouth” ratings with reference to customer satisfaction. Although, it’s way too early to tell how business will turn out for IKEA in South Korea, it is certain that their presence will bring about extra-ordinary change to local competitors and many benefits to, and more choices for, end-consumers.

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East Asia’s Currency Unit – the Hidden Story behind Yuan, Won and the Yen

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East Asia’s Currency Unit – the Hidden Story behind Yuan, Won and the Yen

To those who aren’t familiar with Chinese characters, the Chinese Yuan, Korean Won, Japanese Yen and even the Hong Kong Dollar may all seem to be different currency units. This is true when the currency unit is written in English, or Romanized (Latinized).

However, if only (purely) Chinese characters are used, these seemingly different currency units are all represented by the same (single) character (letter/word) “圓” which is (and has been) a common “currency unit” for all of these East Asian countries.

ca-cur-unt-compositeWhat this means is that there is a greater commonality amongst the East Asian countries (which is not visible to an un-trained eye, or to a person who has never had any training in reading and/or writing Chinese-characters.

Now, if we take a look at this from another angle and with a trained-eye, Yen is way of how Japanese pronounce the Chinese character “圓” which the Japanese have transformed (modified, simplified) into today’s “円” character. Also, the way Koreans pronounce the Chinese character “圓” is Won which also uses the same Chinese character — i.e., same as the Chinese and Japanese — to represent its currency unit.

For your visual inspection (validation), the table below represents six currency units — from East Asia — which all use the “圓” as their non-English-way for currency representation.  Note that every country’s currency leads back to the same Chinese character “unit” of “圓” in its original (native) language.

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If you have worked in, or are currently working in, the Financial Industry, this piece of information may not be new to you – nothing new. However, if you haven’t traveled to all of these East Asian countries, you have just now picked-up an interesting piece of knowledge.  Is this piece of information (knowledge) interesting to you – yes / no?

For a further visual check (validation), below are currency notes — a mix of old and new — from the above listed countries with the same character  “圓” (Won, Yuan, Yen) unit emphasized.

MACAU (澳门)

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SOUTH KOREA (韓國)

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JAPAN (日本)

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MANCHUKUO (a.k.a. Empire of Manchuria, 滿洲)

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 TAIWAN (臺灣)

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CHINA  (中国)

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HONG KONG (香港)

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Can you think of — name — any other “country-currency” in the world that can trace its roots back to the one Chinese character “圓”  when it is written in native (local) language form?

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Understanding Foreign Brands – What’s the meaning of “KIA”?

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Understanding Foreign Brands – What’s the meaning of “KIA”?

When you hear the word KIA, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? It is IKEA (the Swedish furniture company)? Is it tennis? Super Bowl commercials? What about affordable cars with good quality? Or the image of an Asian automotive company? Or even perhaps the name Peter Schreyer — the world famous car designer? For all practical reasons, the answer could be all of above.

But now, what’s the meaning of KIA in the first place? Is it an abbreviation of the Korean Industry Association? Or does it mean, something else, like the “Korean Inventors of Asia”? Well, before we get to the answer and if you care to know, we’ll need to investigate and decipher its original meaning by taking into account the following three-step language layer(s) which involve English, Korean and Chinese characters.

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Now, if we take a closer look at the above, the name KIA is derived from the Korean pronunciation of two Chinese characters — (1) “起” and (2) “亚” — which have the following meaning(s).

  • “起” can take on several meanings, but in this context (a Korean’s context), it typically means to “awake” as in 起床 (get-up out of bed, or to wake-up) or “rise-up (stand)” as in the word 起立拍手 (기립박수 – a standing ovation).
  • “亚 (亞)” is easier because it phonetically represents the first syllable in Asia (亞細亞).

Thus, if we combine (1) and (2) together, a new meaning appears which means “Rise (or rising) in Asia” which also conveys a secondary meaning which is “Visible in Asia” because if you stand-up, you also become visible at the same time. Well, there you have it. Now you know — this is the meaning of KIA.

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Note: According to the English version of Wikipedia, it is mentioned that “ki” in KIA stands for “to come out”. However, in reality (the use of Chinese characters), “ki” (起) represents more than just one meaning. For instance, if one uses Google Translate, “ki” gives out the following eight definitions (i) start or begin, (ii) build, (iii) extract or pull, (iv) get-up or rise, (v) grow or raise, (vi) set-up, (vii) unship and finally (viii) work out. The Korean language has adopted and applied this Chinese character — “ki” (起) — to usually (99.9% of the time) mean only (iv) get-up or rise, and not the other seven meanings in the dictionary. Thus, a person from China who doesn’t have any knowledge over how Chinese characters are used within the Korean language may give you a different answer to the meaning of KIA. If you have a different interpretation, please feel more than welcome to leave a comment (provide insight) in our discussion box below.

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5 most difficult hurdles I had to overcome when I left S’pore for Korea

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5 most difficult hurdles I had to overcome when I left S’pore for Korea

Just because you know how to sing all the latest K-pop hits doesn’t mean Korea is the place for you.

When in Rome Korea, do as the Romans Koreans do.

Moving to a completely foreign country like Korea requires a few years of preparation, and still you can never be too prepared. Both Singapore and Korea might be Asian countries with a somewhat similar economic development story, but the similarities end there.

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Korea, with its unique community, culture and lifestyle, takes a lot more to adapt to than simply learning a few Korean words and/ or K-pop ditties.

I made the decision a few years ago to head out of Singapore, and I chose Korea as my destination. I have been living in Korea for almost two years now.

Like it or not, I had to face the consequences of that choice, and there were a number of difficulties I faced when I first arrived in Seoul.

Here are the 5 of the most difficult problems I encountered and solved one by one by one, — alone — in a completely new environment.

 

1. Language

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The very first hurdle I had to overcome was the language. Coming from a country where the majority is effectively bilingual, you’d think it’d be relatively easy to pick up another language, right? Wrong.

I started studying the Korean language in 2010, about two years before my move, and then I spent another six months in Korea picking up intermediate Korean. Basic conversational Korean managed to help me get around and order food, but that’s about it.

I needed a higher level of Korean proficiency if I wanted to live comfortably in Korea. Things got exponentially easier once I was able order food beyond bibimbap, shop for my own groceries and get around the city in modes of transportation other than the subway.

I had to deal with several important administrative matters where all information is almost exclusively in Korean — like signing a lease for a rental room, contracting a mobile phone line, and opening a bank account. A good command of the language, both written and spoken, helped greatly in navigating these matters.

 

2. Accommodation

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The real estate market in Korea is expensive, and there was no way I would be able to rent an apartment. I searched several websites like Craiglist and some Korean websites to find a suitable room to rent, and it took at least two months in Seoul before I found a more permanent place to stay.

I soon found out that there were studio apartments called one-rooms that I would be able to rent at reasonable prices, and set up appointments to view these places. More often than not, I was disappointed with them — they looked nothing like what the pictures on the websites showed. Space was an issue, and some of these one-rooms were in such bad condition and had no windows.

I started to think out of the box and searched websites like Airbnb. Most listings on such websites would only rent to travelers or those on short-term stays, and I had to learn to convince (usually in Korean) the home owners to rent their rooms to a poor student like me for at least a year.

 

3. Food

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There is a lot of delicious food in Korea, and for a while, I enjoyed myself trying out all the different foods the country had to offer. Everything tasted delicious and authentic, and cost only a fraction of what I had to pay for Korean food in Singapore.

But we don’t call Singapore a food paradise for nothing. I started missing the diversity of flavours I took for granted back home. You can classify all Korean food as either spicy or bland. And while I am a fan of spicy, spicy Korean food doesn’t even get close to sambal belachan.

I wanted to cook some simple Singaporean food — Yong Tau Foo, Laksa, Chicken Rice — but I couldn’t get the ingredients I needed for these dishes. No non-sticky rice, no coconut milk, no tau pok available at even large supermarkets like Lotte and E-Mart.

I had to rely on my friends coming to Korea for travel to bring some ingredients — like pandan leaves for Nasi Lemak — whenever I needed to satisfy my cravings.

 

4. Administrative Matters

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No one likes to deal with administrative matters — they’re long drawn hassles, and you sometimes have to deal with unreasonable staff processing your documents.

Getting my D2 Visa to study in Korea seemed like a simple enough process, except that I needed a long list of official documents ready before I could actually apply for it. Certain visas qualify a foreigner to apply for an ID (called the Alien Registration Card in Korea), and without it, I would be ineligible for a number of essential services like a bank account and a mobile phone line.

Of course, tied to these services are deadlines and requirements (you need to have an eligible visa to apply for an ID — which you have to do within 90 days of entering the country — an ID to apply for a bank account, and a bank account to apply for a mobile phone line), which I had to figure out on my own, after several wasted trips to the embassy, immigration center, bank and telecom store.

 

5. Finances

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When I made the decision to move out of Singapore, I also wanted to make sure that I made it out on my own. This was an extremely difficult issue, because higher education is costly. I saved up for a number of years before I was ready to be financially independent.

My full-time MBA course is partially financed by a scholarship provided by the school (which means I have to watch my grades), and am currently holding three different part-time jobs to help me to cover my rent, bills and expenses.

It has not been easy juggling being a full-time student with so many other responsibilities, but I’m determined to make this venture work out.

When I moved to Korea, it took me a lot longer than I initially thought it would to know the ins and outs of getting around the place. Sometimes I got frustrated and most other times I’m exhausted from the sheer effort I had to put in to make things work.

Patience and resilience became my two new best friends — and I’ve learnt to always keep them close to me whenever I encounter any difficulties living in a foreign country.

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Note: The views, services and/or experiences expressed in this Featured Post are solely those of the contributor. This featured post was first released via www.mothership.sg on 17 May 2014, and was republished with prior consent. Mothership.sg is a Singaporean digital news agency.

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A Winter’s Night – Poem and Photo Gallery

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EVP & Partner, Stanton Chase Korea

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A Winter’s Night – Poem and Photo Gallery

A Winter’s Night

A Korean Poem by Park, Yong-Rae (1925-1980)

On a sleepless night, snow fell upon my hometown’s garlic-field.

On a sleepless night, moon-light fell upon my hometown’s house-roof-edge.

A home far away that comfortably rests across water ankle-high.

At one corner of my old country-side home’s courtyard shall the wind fall asleep.

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The Battle for Gahoe-dong

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The Battle for Gahoe-dong

In 1987, my wife and I bought a hanok in Seoul’s Gahoe-dong district which has been our home ever since. Living in a hanok brings an understanding of many of the values that were once the foundation of Korean life. Sadly, it also brings an insight into the corruption that characterizes modern Korea.

After six hundred years at the heart of Korean cultural and social life, the traditional beauty of Seoul’s Gahoe-dong district, “the place where beauty gathers,” is being relentlessly destroyed. Gahoe-dong was the last district in Seoul where there were whole streets of traditional Korean houses, hanoks, preserving the ambience of Seoul a century ago. Most of these old homes have now being bulldozed and replaced by modern versions, built mainly of concrete but decorated with traditional architectural elements.

Gahoe-Dong is part of Bukchon, “The Northern Village,” a small area that lies between two former royal palaces, the Kyongbok Palace or “Palace of Shining Happiness” and the Ch’angdok Palace or “Palace of Illustrious Virtue.”

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For most of its history, Bukchon was home to many of the nobles and scholars attached to the Royal Court. Old maps show the area had relatively few buildings in a natural, forested landscape that descended from the mountains.

Changing times

During the 1920’s the character of Bukchon began to change. With the Japanese occupation, the role of the aristocracy and yangban diminished. Eventually, the once-privileged residents of Bukchon began to sell their land and move out. This was also a time when the Japanese redeveloped much of Seoul by erecting Japanese-style homes, commercial, and public buildings as part of their assault on Korean culture and values.

While many Koreans were swept along with the wishes of their new, Japanese rulers many also sought ways to resist and preserve the ideas and values they considered important in Korea’s heritage. One of these was a wealthy builder from the Busan area, Chung Sea Kwon (정세권) who owned one of the largest construction companies of his day. Chung felt that if ordinary people could have the opportunity to live in traditional Korean hanoks, it would help preserve Korean values in the face of an increasing pressure to adopt a Japanese way of life.

Chung seized the opportunity to buy up land in Gahoe-dong and elsewhere and began to build small hanoks for ordinary people. Since most Koreans had little money, Chung also provided financial help to buy them. It was Chung who built our own hanok in 1929 and lived in it before selling to the family from whom we bought it in 1987.

All of Chung’s houses were very well built. They were intended to be an expression of uniquely Korean ideas as well as family homes. The idea caught on and Bukchon became a hanok village for ordinary people. However, most of the hanoks Chung built were demolished as part of the Bukchon Plan, despite the fact that the architectural survey that preceded the plan had endorsed their quality and good state of repair.

Korea’s traditional architecture

Hanoks are single-storey buildings based on a framework of interlocking wooden beams that rest on blocks of stone. Other materials used to complete the buildings are also wholly natural such as straw, mulberry paper, and clay. The materials and methods are fundamentally the same as those used to build the royal palaces of the Choson dynasty as well as old Buddhist temples.

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Until recently, the hanoks in Gahoe-Dong had survived the successive waves of re-development and re-building that have transformed most of the Seoul. Yet even here pressures for redevelopment were gaining power. Accordingly, Seoul City came to designate them as Local Cultural Assets on March 17, 1977, in an effort to protect them and preserve the area. The area was also designated as a Korean-style House Preservation District and put under the special care of the City, according to an entry (now removed) on the metropolitan government’s web site

Despite these measures, by 2000 only two streets remained entirely filled with hanoks giving a feel for how the district ­ and much of Seoul ­ had looked years ago. Elsewhere, apartment blocks and modern offices had already encroached, transforming Bukchon into a district where Western-style buildings predominated. About this time, the Metropolitan government began to consider how best to retain the little that remained of the hanok village as part of plans for the continuing restoration of the historic sites of North Seoul.

Towards the end of 2001, the Metropolitan government published detailed plans for the restoration and conservation of Bukchon using public money. The plans were based on a detailed architectural survey of most of the surviving hanoks and aimed to restore the district to its former beauty. The government announced grants and low interest loans to assist hanok owners with this work and set about a variety of related projects including resurfacing roads, improving street lighting, removing utility poles, and providing signage to help tourists and other visitors explore the area.

The Restoration Plan goes badly wrong

From that point on, things went badly wrong. While the original plans can only be praised for their imagination and sensitivity towards the restoration of Korea’s architectural heritage, what happened was the exact opposite. In our own street, for example, ours is now the only surviving traditional hanok.

New buildings that have replaced hanoks have been financed partly via government grants and low interest loans. In one example, an owner was given a government grant of KRW30 million and an interest-free long term loan of KRW20 million for “Hanok Repair and Redecoration.” This money was used to completely demolish a fine hanok and erect a modern two-storey building which was given a general business license to allow it operate under a number of categories, including as a restaurant. Objections eventually prevented the business operating and today the building lies empty.

The new developments potentially bring great profit to speculative developers who purchase the land at prices based on single storey traditional dwellings in order to re-sell it at far higher prices, exploiting loopholes in various regulations and often erecting two-storey buildings.

dkibrn-hse-05f-roofAs a result, Seoul’s last district of original hanoks has been mostly destroyed; government grants to encourage preservation were used for demolition; and ordinary people were denied the chance to realize a fair value of their homes.

Sadly, there was more involved than the destruction of a hanok heritage. While some of the original hanok owners were happy to sell at what seemed a fair market price, others wished to remain in homes where they had lived for many years. These people were submitted to an unremitting campaign of harassment to “persuade” them to sell. This could even involve physical assaults. Worse could follow as the police, prosecutors, courts, and media all failed to fulfil the public duties that a citizen might expect in support of his very basic human rights.

Where once there had been a thriving community of ordinary Korean families, there is now a ghost town of empty buildings. An authentic living community has been eradicated. What really happened to the vast budget the Seoul Metropolitan Government allocated to the Bukchon Plan remains one of the unanswered questions of the Lee Myung Bak era.

Not the first time

Gahoe-dong and Bukchon have enjoyed special status as historic districts of cultural importance since 1976. Although this is supposed to ensure the protection the district’s hanoks, hanok numbers have declined each year. All the special plans and projects the metropolitan and local governments have launched have been accompanied by a decline in hanok numbers. Why so? The reason is quite simple, as the Bukchon plan makes evident, the laws and regulations to protect and preserve hanoks are simply not enforced; the protection plans are never implemented and the budgets associated with them are diverted to other activities.

Korea loses contact with its own culture

In every country, there are issues about what should be preserved from the past and what should be discarded. Every country tends to preserve its palaces, castles, and stately homes. In the UK and also in Europe, governments also preserves many more ordinary buildings such as farm buildings, ordinary houses, shops, and public houses. Some are preserved because of their beauty, some because of their construction techniques, some for the insights they provide into social history and the way people once lived. The preservation work involves public money, donations from business, and subscriptions from the general public. There is a broad consensus that this work is just as important as, say, preserving famous works of art because all these manifestations of human skill and creativity help define the culture and traditions of different peoples. It is so sad that these ideas are not well understood in Korea and that important decisions about what, in reality, is done to preserve Korean culture should be left to petty bureaucrats, small construction companies, and speculators.

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In some ways, there are special problems in Korea. During the Japanese occupation, there was a determined attempt to eradicate Korean culture. This was followed by the Korean War which splintered families, destroyed the social order, and caused immense physical destruction. Next came the period of military rule when individual liberties were suppressed as the country started to build a modern economy at breakneck speed. Perhaps it is not surprising that some Koreans have lost touch with their own traditions and culture as a result. Be that as it may, the decisions made by today’s generation will determine whether anything will be left of Korea’s distinctive architectural culture for their grandchildren to enjoy.

The root cause of this is corruption, by no means a problem unique to South Korea. However, within the OECD, South Korea, sadly, is distinguished by ubiquitous, pervasive corruption that has become an integral part of government – from the offices of presidents to provincial and local government. At least, this is the conclusion of Professors Doh Chull Shin and Chong Min Park, based on a research project into the lives of ordinary Korean citizens which they reported in a paper in the Sungkyun Journal of East Asian Studies in 2005. The story of the Sewol Ferry disaster in 2014 is but one indication that corruption today is just as much a part of government as it was in 2005.

There is an enormous gulf between what city officials publicly proclaim and what they allow to happen. The Bukchon Plan talked of the need to protect, preserve, and restore using authentic techniques and materials. Yet city officials routinely approved wholesale demolition in order to erect new structures, and ignored the basic human rights of residents.

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Surely it is time to halt all the destruction of old buildings in Gahoe-dong, to demolish new buildings with illegal features, and for society as a whole to consider the fate of the district? Is it too much to expect that a country of Korea’s economic power should find the time and the resources to preserve a small window into ordinary life a century ago? Throughout Europe, there are many examples of towns, districts, and buildings of a similar or older age than Gahoe-dong that are rigorously protected and preserved. The lesson from other countries is that such preservation can attract tourism, enhance local culture, and make the modern urban environment a richer, more enjoyable place for all.

David Kilburn

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David Kilburn worked internationally in the advertising industry for many years before becoming a journalist covering business in East Asia. You may connect with him by clicking hereHis web site, www.kahoidong.com  and YouTube channel, https://www.youtube.com/user/kilburnda/ document what has happened to Gahoe-dong and document cultural events organised in the Kilburn’s hanok to raise awareness of the issues.

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Note: The views, services and/or experiences expressed in this Featured Post are solely those of the contributor.

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South Gate (a.k.a. Namdaemun) of Seoul – Then and Now

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South Gate (a.k.a. Namdaemun) of Seoul – Then and Now

Designed and built with an uninterrupted high-wall stone fortress encircling the entire city, Seoul during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) had 8 city entrance gates which opened in the morning and closed at night. Shown below — in this elegant map created between 1846 and 1849 — are the wonderful Eight-Gates of Seoul.

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Because of their complex names, the best way to differentiate and remember all of these gates is to say that there are the North, East, South and West gates which makes four. And then, if you further divide-up these four gates by adding either a Big or Small to each one of them, this renders a total of eight gates – voila.

Although six of the eight gates still remain standing today, outside visitors to Seoul will probably come across only two of these gates which are the South Gate and East Gate – both of which fall under the “Big” Gate category vis-à-vis Small. A photo of the South (Big or Grand) Gate, a.k.a. Namdaemun, was taken circa 1902. Here’s a then-and-now photo of the South Gate in Seoul. Today’s contemporary photo was taken on March 2nd, 2014 from where it says “location” on the above map.

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To give our readers an idea of the uninterrupted stone wall fortress which had surrounded the city of Seoul by visual image, a photo was taken near the very top of Namsan — written as Mongmyeok Mountain in the above 1846 old Seoul map — during the autumn 2014, and is shown below.

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By looking at the photos of Seoul’s city fortresses at the South Gate and on top of Namsam, these high-stone-walls are one-in-design, and about 7 to 8 meters high — approximately 25 feet — encircling the entire capital city with solemn grandeur. If you consider that these gates started their construction in the year 1392 A.D., the city of Seoul from its beginning period (late 14th century) would have a been a spectacular, if not certainly an extraordinary, place (city) to visit compared with other great cities of the world from that era.

♦ Language Footnote – Names to the Eight Gates of Seoul ♦

  1. South Gate, 남대문 (南大門) = Namdaemun, South Big (or Grand) Gate
    • Sungnyemun, 숭례문 (崇禮門), Exalted Ceremonies Gate
  2. East Gate, 동대문 (東大門) = Dongdaemun, East Big (or Grand) Gate
    • Heunginjimun, 흥인지문 (興仁之門), Rising Benevolence Gate
  3. North Gate, 북대문 (北大門) = Bukdaemun, North Big (or Grand) Gate
    • Sukjeongmun, 숙정문 (肅靖門), Rule Solemnly Gate
  4. West Gate, 서대문 (西大門) = Seodaemun, West Big (or Grand) Gate
    • Donuimun, 돈의문 (敦義門), Loyalty Gate
  5. South Small Gate, 남소문 (南小門) = Namsomun
    • Gwanghuimun, 광희문 (光熙門), Bright Light Gate
  6. East Small Gate, 동소문 (東小門) = Dongsomun
    • Hyehwamun, 혜화문 (惠化門), Distribution of Wisdom Gate
  7. North Small Gate, 북소문 (北小門) = Buksomun
    • Changuimun, 창의문 (彰義門), Showing the Correct Thing Gate
  8. West Small Gate, 서소문 (西小門) = Seosomun
    • Souimun, 소의문 (昭義門), Promotion of Justice Gate

♦ Value-Added Insight ♦

Prior to being the Capital city of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), Seoul was also the Capital city from where the Baekje Dynasty (18 B.C. – 660 A.D.) was born over 2,000 years ago. During this Baekje (also spelt as Paekche) period, the city’s name was called Wiryeseong.

People have been living in the Greater Seoul Metropolitan area since the Neolithic (7,000 B.C to 2,000 B.C.) Era. One famous archaeological site from this past period of Seoul’s History is the Amsa-Dong Prehistoric Settlement Site.

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Homer Hulbert – Man of Vision & Friend of Korea

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Homer Hulbert – Man of Vision & Friend of Korea

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Well known amongst Koreans for the words written on his tombstone, Homer B. Hulbert (1863-1949) was the famous American who said, “I would rather be buried in Korea than in Westminster Abbey.”

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Homer Hulbert first came to the Kingdom of Joseon (1392-1910) — today’s Korea — on the 4th day of July, 1886 (age 23) to spend 5 years an educator for the “Royal College” at Seoul. This Royal College at Seoul was the first modern day school created directly by King Gojong for the purpose of introducing an English and western-world-oriented education system. An initiative which was based upon the recommendations that came from the Korean (a.k.a. Corean) “Bobingsa” delegation — the First Korean Embassy delegation — after their trip to the United States in 1883.

Upon his arrival, he (Homer B. Hulbert) became quickly fluent in Korean, and began his life’s journey toward becoming one of the greatest Americans to have set foot on Korean soil.

150108-hul-03-his-krAfter having served, in full, his five-year term (1886-1891) in Korea as a teacher (educator), Homer Hulbert returned back to the United States, and then came back once again to Korea (Kingdom of Joseon) in 1893 (age 30) as a Methodist Church missionary. During this period, Homer B. Hulbert would publish many of his landmark books written in English such as the History of Korea (1905) and the Passing of Korea (1906).

In addition to this, and on 28 October 1903, Homer Hulbert along with James S. Gale (1863-1937) and Philip L. Gillett (1874-1939) started the YMCA in Seoul located at Jongno-2-ga. Near, or shortly after the year 1905, the YMCA (Young Men’s Christen Association) in Seoul had begun to introduce the sports of baseball, basketball and ice-skating to Koreans for the first time.

After having become a witness to the injustice brought upon to the people of Korea (Joseon), Homer Hulbert later in his life became an active international figure who had helped, so vigorously, to protect, save and keep Korea’s Independence from the Japanese. In his own words, “Calumny has does its worst, and justice has suffered an eclipse” in reference to what had seen unfold in front of his very own eyes.

A few more words from his famous book, The Passing of Korea (1906), resonate as the truth today. These words are (were) . . . “when the spirit of the nation, quickened by the touch of fire, shall have proved that though sleep is the image of death, it is not death itself”.

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During the early 1900s, not all Americans had supported the idea of America, in international affairs, as a nation which should ultimately seek to pursue an European-like Imperialism with respect to their overseas territories.

By the same token, Homer Hulbert was openly critical of Theodore Roosevelt’s view of approving Japan’s takeover in Korea (Source: New York Times, December 5, 2009), in order to create a crisp swap scenario for solidifying and securing the United States acquisition of the Philippines without hostile military threat from Japan.

Today, the content of the Taft-Katsura (Secret) Agreement – whether it was a simple memorandum, signed agreement, or an exchange of talk by ghosts, in nature – seem all to be approaching a level of truth.

Now, and all this time, without having first-hand knowledge of, and insights into, such clandestine war operatives (talks) happening in the background, Homer Hulbert agreed, without reservation, to serve as a special envoy for Korea’s King Gojong to represent Joseon (Korea) overseas during his trip to the United States in 1905 and months prior to the Second Hague Convention (1907) with the end-goal of communicating the truth and injustice, to the world, and the invalidity (forcefully fabricated nature) of the Japan-Korea Treaty of 1905 (a.k.a. Eulsa Treaty) which never obtained the consent nor the signature (stamp/seal) of King Gojong.

However, the Korean emissiary delegation was blocked from entry into the Convention Hall. Joseon (Korea) – whether right or wrong – had somehow already been stripped of the power to exercise diplomacy, as an independent nation, in the eyes of attending nations.

Shortly thereafter, word spread to Tokyo. Homer Hulbert was expelled — not permitted to return back to Korea and forced to go back to the United States — during May 1907 by the Japanese-resident General, and King Gojong (Emperor Gojong) was eventually forced to abdicate his throne. The Kingdom of Joseon (1392-1910) — i.e., the Yi Family Dynasty — forever ceased its existence on 29 August 1910 with the “Passing of Korea.”

Miraculously, it would take another 35 years — and the Liberation of Korea (on 15 August 1945) — before Hulbert’s prophecy in which he said, “sleep was an image of death, and not death itself” and in which he also dreamt that Korea would one day rise from its sleep soon became a “vision” that would eventually come true.

150108-hul-05-medalHomer Hulbert was 86 years-old when he returned back to see an independent Korea in 1949, as a honorary high-level State guest, at the invitation of South Korea’s first President Syngman Rhee. A total period of 42 years had gone by for Homer Hulbert. During this trip in 1949 to Seoul, he become ill and soon passed away.

Today, Homer Hulbert rests in external peace at the Yanghwajin Foreigner Missionary Cemetery located in Northwestern Seoul – north of, and along, the Han River.

After his death, Homer Hulbert was awarded the Republic of Korea’s (South Korea’s) Order of National Foundation (Independence Medal of Honor) on the 1st day of March 1950.  His Korean name is “Hul-Bub” (흘법, 訖法), which sound very similar to his last name Hulbert, and is so inscribed in South Korea’s national registry by using his Korean Name.

150108-hul-06-cmedalMore recently (last year), he was recognized once again on the 9th day of October 2014, (Hangul Day), by the Republic of Korea’s (South Korea’s) government by being awarded with the Order of Cultural Merit (Gold Crown Medal of Honor) – 64 years after receiving his Independence Medal.

As a great American in Korea (East Asia) — he, with grace and tremendous dignity, greatly represented his Republic, the nation under God, and a country which stood (stands) for liberty and justice for all.

In 1999, the Hulbert Memorial Society was formed by Professor Dong-Jin (DJ) Kim. He is still actively serving as the Society’s Chairman to help honor and remember Homer B. Hulbert. The Korea Society invited Mr. Kim to speak on April 6 (Wednesday), 2011. This 2011 presentation can be viewed by looking it up on YouTube, or by clicking HERE.

♦ Language Footnote ♦

  • Homer B. Hulbert, Korean Name = 흘법 (訖法)
  • Royal College at Seoul // 육영공원 // 育英公院
  • Bobingsa // 보빙사 // 報聘使
  • Jongro-2-ga // 종로2가 // 鍾路2街
  • Yanghwajin Foreign Missionary Cemetery, 양화진외국인선교사묘원 (楊花津外國人宣敎師墓園)

♦ Related Outside Stories and External Links via the World Wide Web ♦

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Urban Skies along the Han River (Photo Gallery)

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Urban Skies along the Han River (Photo Gallery)

Our contributor, Mr. Seokbum Kim, is having a photo exhibition at the Hanwon Museum of Art between December 14 (Sunday), 2014 until January 16 (Friday), 2015. Below is a selection of his photos taken along the Han River (a.k.a. Hangang) in Seoul.

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