The Korean People
Once divided strictly along nearly inescapable social-class lines, South Koreans today are comparatively better off in terms of economic opportunities and are more individualistic in their world view. Nuclear rather than extended families have become the norm, and birth rates are among the lowest in the developed world. Still, strong traces linger of Korea’s particular identity; remnants of its Confucian past coexist alongside ‘imported’ spiritual beliefs and a striking devotion to displays of material success.
Korea’s Sporting Culture
Baseball rules as the most popular spectator sport – the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO) reported 8.4m spectators during the league's 2017 season. Among the young, soccer is a popular game to play, or to watch on TV if the match involves the Korean national team in a World Cup match. Interest in soccer peaked with Park Ji-sung, the most decorated player in Asian history. Since his retirement in 2014, Park has served as a Global Ambassador for Manchester United.
There are 10 professional teams in the KBO, all sponsored by jaebeol (business conglomerates). Five teams are based in or around Seoul. The LG Twins and Doosan Bears share Jamsil stadium in Seoul. The other five teams play in Korea’s largest cities and regions. The season runs from April to October and each team plays 144 games. Since 2014, teams have been allowed to sign up to three foreign players (in the past, two players), a strategy designed to increase the calibre of play. Salary caps and mandatory one-year contracts for foreign players were abolished by the league in the same year.
There are two divisions in Korean professional soccer: 12 teams play in the top tier K-League 1 and 10 teams in the second division K-League 2. Matches are played between March and November. The Korean national team’s greatest accomplishment was finishing fourth in the 2002 World Cup.
Ten teams play in the Korean Basketball League (KBL). Each team plays 54 games during the regular season, October to March. Two foreign players (usually Americans) are allowed on each team; in 2018, the KBL imposed new height limits for foreign players, stating that one player cannot not be taller than two meters and one may be no taller than 1.86 meters. David Simon, an American centre player for Anyang KGC and the number one scorer in the league during the 2017-2018 season, was expelled for standing 2.02m, along with several other players.
By some accounts taekwondo is the world’s most popular martial art (measured by number of participants). This is despite only having been cobbled together at the end of WWII by fighters who wanted a sport that, on the surface at least, was unrelated to anything Japanese. Bits were taken from (ahem) karate and blended with lesser-known Korean fighting skills such as taekyon, which relies primarily on leg thrusts. By the mid-1950s the name ‘taekwondo’ was born.
Today, taekwondo thrives as a sport that most boys practice as elementary-school students. It is also part of the physical training program that young men complete as part of their compulsory military service. Taekwondo in Korea is not a popular spectator sport. Matches are not broadcast on TV and few tournaments draw popular attention outside the Olympics. In 2014, the World Taekwondo Federation opened a training facility and museum in Deogyusan National Park in Muju-gun.
The Main Belief Systems
The state religion of the Joseon dynasty, Confucianism (Yugyo, 유교) lives on as a kind of ethical bedrock in the minds of most Koreans.
The Chinese philosopher Confucius (552–479 BC), known in Korean as Gongja (공자), devised a system of ethics that emphasised devotion to parents and family, loyalty to friends and dedication to education. He also urged that respect and deference be given to those in positions of authority. These ideas led to the system of civil-service examinations (gwageo), where one could gain position through ability and merit rather than from noble birth or connections. Confucius preached against corruption and excessive taxation, and was the first teacher to open a school to all students solely on the basis of their willingness to learn.
As Confucianism trickled into Korea it evolved into Neo-Confucianism, which combined the sage’s original ethical and political ideas with the quasi-religious practice of ancestor worship and the idea of the eldest male as spiritual head of the family.
The Confucian Mindset
Not everyone follows the rules, but Confucianism does continue to shape the Korean paradigm. Some of the key principles and practices:
- Public, symbolic displays of obedience and respect towards seniors – parents, teachers, the boss, older brothers and sisters – are crucial. Expect a heavy penalty if you step out of line.
- Seniors get obedience, but it’s not a free ride. Older sisters help out younger siblings with tuition fees, and the boss always pays for lunch.
- Education is the mark of a civilised person. A high-school graduate, despite having built a successful business, still feels shame at their lack of scholastic credentials.
- Obvious displays of one's social status, from winter-coat brand names worn by middle-school children to overzealous criticisms by an airline executive about the way a steward presents a bag of nuts, are paramount. Every action reflects on the family, company and country.
- Everything on earth is in a hierarchy. Never, ever, forget who is senior and who is junior to you.
- Families are more important than individuals. Everyone’s purpose in life is to improve the family’s reputation and wealth. No one should choose a career or marry someone against their parents’ wishes – a bad choice could bring about family ruin.
- Loyalty is important. A loyal liar is virtuous.
When first introduced during the Koguryo dynasty in AD 370, Buddhism coexisted with shamanism. Many Buddhist temples have a samseong-gak (three-spirit hall) on their grounds, which houses shamanist deities such as the Mountain God.
Buddhism was persecuted during the Joseon period, when temples were tolerated only in remote mountains. The religion suffered another sharp decline after WWII as Koreans pursued worldly goals. But South Korea’s success in achieving developed-nation status, coupled with a growing interest in spiritual values, is encouraging a Buddhist revival. Temple visits have increased and large sums of money are flowing into temple reconstruction. According to 2015 data from Statistics Korea, 7.7 million Koreans (15% of the population) claim to be Buddhist.
Korea’s first exposure to Christianity was in the late 18th century. It came via the Jesuits from the Chinese Imperial court when a Korean aristocrat was baptised in Beijing in 1784. The Catholic faith took hold and spread so quickly that it was perceived as a threat by the Korean government and was vigorously suppressed, creating the country’s first Christian martyrs.
Christianity got a second chance in the 1880s with the arrival of American Protestant missionaries who founded schools and hospitals, and gained many followers. Today, about 13.5 million Koreans (26% of the population) claim some sort of affiliation with a Christian church.
Historically, shamanism influenced Korean spirituality. It’s not a religion but it does involve communication with spirits through intermediaries known as mudang (female shamans). Although not widely practised today, shamanist ceremonies are held to cure illness, ward off financial problems or guide a deceased family member safely into the spirit world.
Ceremonies involve contacting spirits who are attracted by lavish offerings of food and drink. Drums beat and the mudang dances herself into a frenzied state that allows her to communicate with the spirits and be possessed by them. Resentments felt by the dead can plague the living and cause all sorts of misfortune, so their spirits need placating. For shamanists, death does not end relationships. It simply takes another form.
On Inwangsan, in northwestern Seoul, ceremonies take place in or near the historic Inwangsan Guksadang shrine.
Koreans don't think much of happiness. It's not a state of mind that people generally aspire to. When discussing the human condition, stress is a much more descriptive word. People here, it seems, are in a continual state of stress or are seeking ways to escape it through faddish elixirs. Much of that stress comes from the way life is manifest: it's a zero-sum game. From corporate manoeuvres to elementary-school maths class, everything is competitive.
Take, for example, the country's hyper-competitive education system. To get into a top Korean university, high-school students go through a gruelling examination process, spending 14 hours a day or more memorising reams of data for the annual college entrance test. But that's only part of the story. A good number of students give up the game, feign studying or simply sleep in class because the race to the top is no longer a reflection of one's abilities or willpower. Vast amounts of money for private education are required to be competitive at school. As a result, higher education is no longer a social leveller, it exacerbates social divisions.
To stay competitive, Korean fanaticism extends to health. The millions of hikers who stream into the mountains at weekends are not only enjoying nature but also keeping fit. Thousands of health foods and drinks are sold in markets and pharmacies, which stock traditional as well as Western medicines. Nearly every food claims to be a ‘well-being’ product or an aphrodisiac – ‘good for stamina’ is the local phrase.
Contemporary & Traditional Culture
Driven by the latest technology and fast-evolving trends, Korea can sometimes seem like one of the most cutting-edge countries on the planet. People tune into their favourite TV shows via their smart phones. In PC-bang (computer-game rooms) millions of diehard fans battle at online computer games.
General fashions too tend to be international and up to the moment. However, it’s not uncommon to see some people wearing hanbok, the striking traditional clothing that follows the Confucian principle of unadorned modesty. Women wear a loose-fitting short blouse with long sleeves and a voluminous long skirt, while men wear a jacket and baggy trousers.
Today hanbok is worn mostly at weddings or special events, and even then it may be a more comfortable ‘updated’ version. Everyday hanbok is reasonably priced, but formal styles, made of colourful silk and intricately embroidered, are objects of wonder and cost a fortune.
These days most people visit street-tent fortune tellers for a bit of fun, but no doubt some take it seriously. For a saju (reading of your future), inform the fortune teller of the hour, day, date and year of your birth; another option is gunghap (a love-life reading), when a couple give their birth details and the fortune teller pronounces how compatible they are. Expect to pay ₩10,000 for saju and double that for gunghap. If you don’t speak the language, you’ll need someone to translate.
Korea is a monocultural society. As of 2016, foreigners (the local name given to foreign nationals) numbered 2 million or 3.9% of the population. Foreign residents tend to congregate in pockets, such as international tradespeople working in the shipbuilding industry on Geojedo, though none qualify as a distinct cultural community.
Much like a foreigner among any homogenous group of people, you can expect to get stared at in public. This can be more intense depending on how melanin-rich your skin is, and often lingers most unabashedly from people of older generations.
- The Koreans: Who They Are, What They Want, Where Their Future Lies, Michael Breen (1998)
- Still Life With Rice, Helie Lee (1997)
- The Birth of Korean Cool: How One Nation is Conquering the World Through Pop Culture, Euny Hong (2014)
- Korea: The Impossible Country, Daniel Tudor (2012)
- The Korean Mind: Understanding Contemporary Korean Culture, Boye Lafayette De Mente (2017)
Koreans give their family name first followed by their birth name, which is typically two syllables, eg Lee Myong-bak. There are less than 300 Korean family names, with Kim, Lee, Park and Jeong accounting for 46% of the total.
About 90% of Korean Buddhist temples belong to the Jogye sect (www.koreanbuddhism.net). The Buddha’s birthday is a national holiday, and celebrations includes an extravagant lantern parade in Seoul.
Korean Buddhism operates a templestay (http://eng.templestay.com) program at facilities across the country. Many Koreans as well as international visitors take part in these programs, regardless of whether they are Buddhist or not, as a chance to escape societal pressures and clear their minds.
Architecture & Arts
Historically, Korea was a land of scholar artists, meditative monks and whirling shamans, all of whom have left a mark on the country's artistic traditions. See it in the elegant brush strokes of a calligraphic scroll, the serene expression on a Buddhist statue or in an impassioned folk dance. Contemporary Korea, meanwhile, punches above its weight in cinema and pop culture, and is rediscovering its artistic heritage, too. Its built space includes monumental palaces, charming early-20th-century hanok (traditional wooden homes) and dramatic structures of glass and steel.
Temples & Palaces
Traditional Korean buildings are made from stone and wood, with construction techniques originally imported from China, and emphasise a harmony with the natural environment. Sturdy wooden beams – set on a stone foundation and often joined with notches instead of nails – support heavy, sloping roofs. Location is determined by principles of Chinese geomancy (feng shui). Korea's best known architectural innovation is the ondol, the radiant floor-heating system that makes use of flues under the floor. Archaeological records show that this ingenious invention is likely a thousand years old, and originated in the harsh climes of what is now North Korea.
During the Joseon period, palace design became increasingly influenced by neo-Confucian principles of geometry and restraint. Meanwhile, Buddhist temples, whose reconstruction was often sponsored by merchants, reflected the tastes of this increasingly wealthy demographic. Lavish decoration, such as colourful painted ceilings and intricate latticework, became popular.
Centuries of war and invasion mean that Korea has few truly old structures, though reconstructed temples and palaces are often faithful replicas (Joseon dynasty civil servants were meticulous record keepers). Meanwhile, the oldest structures you'll likely come across are granite pagoda in temple courtyards, some of which date to the Silla period.
Hanok: Saving Korea's Traditional Homes
Hanok are traditional one-storey, wooden homes insulated with mud and straw and topped with clay-tiled roofs. Unlike the ostentatious manor homes of Europe, even an aristocrat's lavish hanok was designed to blend with nature; they are typically left unpainted, their brown and tan earth tones giving off a warm, intimate feel. All rooms look onto a courtyard (madang). Life was lived on the floor and people sat and slept on mats rather than chairs and beds.
Few people live in hanok today – there are less than 10,000 around the country, compared to 800,000 nearly 40 years ago. While colonisation by the Japanese destroyed Korea's monumental palaces and fortresses, modern development doomed the hanok, which were written off as dirty, old and rundown, apt for demolition.
Scheming contractors and perhaps well-intended, but ultimately ineffective government measures didn't help. In the Bukchon neighbourhood of Seoul, for example, which has been a preservation zone since 1977 (and is the only such zone in the country), only one-third of the hanok are original; the rest have been scrapped and rebuilt. (For more about preservation issues in Bukchon, see www.kahoidong.com).
However it seems that the tides are starting to turn: over the last decade, there's been a proliferation of guesthouses, restaurants and coffee shops setting up inside former homes. As vessels of Korean culture, hanok are a way to authentically experience analogue life in an increasingly digital society.
Post WWII & Contemporary Architecture
The Korean War reduced the peninsula to the worst kind of blank slate, and hurried reconstruction resulted largely in a landscape of drab concrete towers. There are some notable exceptions: the most prominent architect of the reconstruction era was Kim Swoo-geun (1931–86), who along with his contemporary, Kim Joong-eop (1922–88), laid the foundation for a modern Korean aesthetic. Among Kim Swoo-geun's most notable structures is the Seoul Olympic Stadium, with curves said to be inspired by traditional pottery.
As Korea becomes richer, design is becoming more and more prominent, especially in cities like Seoul and Busan. Spurred on by its winning bid to be the World Design Capital in 2010, Seoul went on a construction spree, hiring world-renowned architects such as Zaha Hadid for the Dongdaemun Design Park (2013). Of Korea's contemporary homegrown architects, Seung H-Sang is the biggest name; a protege of Kim Swoo-geun, Seung was named Seoul's official architect in 2014. He also worked on Paju Book City in Gyeonggi-do. In 2017 Seoul's Lotte World Tower was completed, making it the tallest skyscraper in Korea and fifth tallest in the world.
Sidebar: Architecture Books
- History of Korean Architecture (Kim Dong-uk; 2013)
- City as Art: 100 Notable Works of Architecture in Seoul (Yim Seock-jae; 2011)
- Joseon Royal Court Culture (Shin Myung-ho; 2004)
- Hanok: The Korean House (Nani Park; 2018)
Korean cinema's first big moment came in the late 1950s and early 60s, after the war and before government censorship made free expression near impossible. The most renowned director of this period is Kim Ki-young (1919–98), the auteur behind The Housemaid (1961), a chilling tale of a seductive maid who terrorises a bourgeois family.
However, no director did more to put Korean cinema on the map than Im Kwon-taek (1936–). The prolific filmmaker (102 titles and counting) won best director at Cannes in 2002 for Chihwaseon – about influential 19th-century painter Jang Seung-up – and was awarded an honorary Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in 2005. He is also considered to have helped pave the way for the art-house movement that took off in the mid-1990s and has been going on ever since.
Today, Korean cinema is embraced by both local audiences (thanks partly to government quotas that mandate a certain amount of screen time for domestic films) and the international festival circuit. Yeon Sang-ho's zombie apocalypse thriller Train to Busan (2016) set a record as the first Korean film of the year to reach more than 10 million theatregoers.
Some films worth watching include: the jaw-dropping action-revenge flick Oldboy (Park Chan-Wook; 2003); the critically acclaimed monster epic The Host (Bong Joon-ho; 2006); the controversial, and hypersexual, Pieta (Kim Ki-duk; 2012), a Golden Lion winner at Venice; and anything by low-budget, shoe-gazer Hong Sang-soo – his 2017 On the Beach at Night Alone won a handful of awards.
Korean Soaps Clean Up In Asia
Psy – the rapper whose Gangnam Style music video was a YouTube sensation in 2012 – may have been the first emissary of Korean pop culture to become a universal household name; however, Korean stars have been making waves around Asia since the early 2000s.
It started with the soap opera Winter Sonata (2002), whose star Bae Yong-joon made Japanese housewives swoon when the show later aired in Japan. The drama My Love from a Star (2013–14), about the budding romance of an alien stranded on Earth and an ice-queen actress, was a sensation in China, notably bumping up sales of fried chicken (the main character's favourite snack); an American remake is in the works.
On free-to-air television, 2017's number one primetime show was the legal thriller Defendant, in which a Seoul prosecutor is accused, wrongfully charged and faced with a death sentence for allegedly killing his wife. On cable, primetime romantic comedy Strong Woman Do Bong Soon, about a woman with superhuman strength who becomes wrapped up in a murder case and shacks up with her long-time crush and CEO boss, took the top spot.
Sidebar: Korean Films
Korean films are occasionally shown with English subtitles in cinemas. For must-sees past and present check out www.koreanfilm.org.
Since its launch in 1996, the Busan International Film Festival (BIFF; www.biff.kr) has grown to become the most respected festival in Asia.
The watershed moment for Korean literature occurred with the introduction of the hangeul writing system in the 15th century, which exponentially increased who could create and consume literature. Previously, all texts were penned in classical Chinese (which continued to be used by the predominantly male elite until the Japanese occupation). Newly in translation, the 18th century Memoirs of Lady Hyegyong, penned by the lady herself, provides a fascinating inside look at the downfall of her famous husband, Prince Sado.
The modern period brought an increased proliferation of voices, including the experimental (read: Yi Sang's Wings; 1936). It also brought a crisis of language: the Japanese occupation mandated that Japanese be taught in schools. Consequently the generation of writers born after WWII are known as the hangeul generation, meaning they were raised neither on classical Chinese nor Japanese but rather in their own native tongue. Important authors include Cho Se-hui, whose novel The Dwarf (1978) recounts the daunting social costs of rapid industrialisation on the working poor during the 1970s, and Choe In-ho, whose award-winning Deep Blue Night (1982) tells the story of two wayward Koreans tearing through California. Kim Young-ha, author of the existentialist, urbane I Have the Right to Destroy Myself (1996) is considered one of the leading voices among contemporary writers. His works are just now coming out in translation.
More and more women are breaking into the literary world long dominated by men and, with translation, onto the international stage. Works to read include: Park Wan-suh's plain-talking, semiautobiographical portrait of a family torn by the Korean War, Who Ate up All the Shinga (1992); Shin Kyung-sook's melancholy meditation on modern families, Please Look After Mom (2011); and Yun Ko Eun's Table for One (2018), an exploration of solitude and social awkwardness in a culture that prioritises community and family.
Sidebar: Literature Anthologies
- Land of Exile: Contemporary Korean Fiction (2014)
- Modern Korean Fiction (2005)
- Words of Farewell: Stories by Korean Women Writers (1993)
- Anthology of Korean Literature: From Early Times to the 19th Century (1981)
Gugak (traditional music) is played on stringed instruments, such as the gayageum (12-stringed zither) and haegeum (two-stringed fiddle), and on chimes, gongs, cymbals, drums, horns and flutes. Notable forms of traditional music include: jeongak, a slow court music often combined with elegant dances; bulgyo eumak, played and chanted in Buddhist temples; and arirang, folk songs.
Recently, the younger generation of Koreans raised on pop music are rediscovering gugak. Bands such as Jambinai, a post-rock group made up of musicians classically trained on traditional instruments, are a hit on the festival circuit. Another noteworthy indie band that draws on traditional music – this time folk music – is Danpyunsun and the Sailors.
K-Pop and Cultural Exports
K-Pop, with its catchy blend of pop R&B, hip hop and EDM – complete with synchronised dance moves – shows no sign of fading away. As soon as critics declare it over, new groups emerge to capture hearts (and endorsements) around Asia, and more recently, the United States. In 2018 one of the top groups of the moment, BTS – which stands for 'bangtan sonyeondan' (방탄소년단) or 'bulletproof boy scouts' – became the first-ever K-Pop act to take the number-one spot on the Billboard 200 with their album Love Yourself: Tear. The group of seven young men are acclaimed for speaking out on subjects that are especially taboo in Korean culture, such LGBTQ rights, mental health and the pressure to succeed.
But it's not just about covetable hairstyles and infectious tunes. According to the Korea Creative Content Agency, an arm of the South Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, K-Pop was responsible for a record ₩5.3 trillion in revenue based on album, concert ticket, merchandise and music streaming sales generated overseas in 2016. The government has invested heavily in the content industry, and it is paying dividends in terms of gross national cool. Film sites have been known to become overnight hotspots – a huge boon for the tourist industry. Meanwhile, popular tabloid websites such as Soompi (www.soompi.com) cover the behind-the-scenes gossip in English, French and Spanish – showing just how far the appeal goes.
Traditional Visual Arts
Traditional visual arts in Korea were heavily influenced first by China and Buddhism and then, in the Joseon period, by neo-Confucian ideals. Typical styles include landscape and ink-brush painting, religious statuary, calligraphy, ceramics and ornate metal craft (such as incense burners). In painting, particular attention is paid to the brush stroke, which varies in thickness and tone. The painting is meant to surround the viewer and there is no fixed viewpoint. The National Museum of Korea in Seoul has the best collection of traditional art. Cast-iron Buddhist statues and murals depicting scenes from Buddha's life can be found in temples and museums around the country.
Of all the traditional arts, Korea is especially known for its ceramics. Originally using techniques brought over from China, Korean pottery came into its own in the 12th century with the production of Goryeo celadon. The beautiful, jade-coloured works were highly prized in trade on the Silk Road, and today earn thousands of dollars at auction. Another noteworthy style is buncheong (less-refined pottery than celadon), which came into vogue in the early years of the Joseon dynasty. In bold shapes, dipped in white glaze and decorated with sgraffito and incising, buncheong ware has a vibrant, earthy quality and still looks modern today.
The Leeum Samsung Museum of Art in Seoul has an outstanding and informative display of traditional ceramics. You can also go right to the source, to the ancient celadon kilns in Gangjin, home to the Goryeo Celadon Museum.
Pansori is an impassioned, operatic form of storytelling that's been around for centuries (and was named a Masterpiece of Intangible Heritage by UNESCO in 2013). It's usually performed by a single woman, who flicks her fan at dramatic moments, singing to the beat of a male drummer. Changgeuk is an opera performed by a larger cast.
Samulnori is a lively folk style combining music and dance, originally played by travelling entertainers. It died out during Japanese colonial rule but was reinvented in the 1970s to mean musicians playing four traditional percussion instruments. Samulnori troops sometimes play overseas and the style has influenced contemporary productions such as the incredibly popular show Nanta. Other forms of folk performance include talchum (mask dance) and solo, improvisational salpuri (shamanist dance).
Modern & Contemporary Visual Arts
The most important movement of the modern era was the dansaekhwa (monochrome paintings) of the 1970s. Though similar in many ways to abstract expressionism, dansaekhwa is noted for its tactile nature and use of traditional Korean materials, such as hanji (mulberry paper). There's been a recent resurgence of interest in the movement, with exhibitions featuring key artists such as Chung Sang-hwa, Yun Hyong-keun, Ha Chong-hyun and Lee Ufan popping up in New York, Los Angeles and cities across Asia.
However, the most famous Korean artist is, hands down, Nam June Paik (1932–2006; www.paikstudios.com). Paik, who eventually settled in the US, is considered the founder of video art, though he was essentially a multimedia artist. He used sound, circuits and performance to make insightful and playful cultural critiques. One of his larger creations, The More the Better, is an 18m tower with 1000 monitors on display at the National Museum of Contemporary Art inside Seoul Grand Park.
While Seoul is still far and away the centre of the arts scene, Gwangju, home to the Gwangju Biennale and the Asian Culture Centre, is a burgeoning hub. The Arario Museum earned Jeju-si a star on the country's art map.
Sidebar: Arts Websites
K-Indie is the artist-driven alternative to K-Pop. Hunt for new underground bands at Korean Indie (www.koreanindie.com) and their shows at Korea Gig Guide (www.koreagigguide.com). Don't miss the July music festivals Pentaport Rock Festival MUSIC (www.pentaportrock.com) – Korea's answer to Glastonbury – and Ansan Valley Rock Festival (www.valleyrockfestival.com).
Korea is the first known country to develop metal type printing. The oldest existing artefact is the Jikji (1377), but records indicate that printing began at least a century earlier. Learn all about it at the Early Printing Museum in Cheongju.
Sidebar: Traditional Folk Art
Traditional folk art includes jangseung (wooden shamanist guardian posts) and the dolharubang (grandfather stones) of Jeju-do.
Daldongne (moon village) is the euphemistic term for the shanty towns that appeared on urban hillsides during the postwar reconstruction years – built by those who had been left out of reconstruction. Considered eyesores by some, memories of humbler times by others, many daldongne were slated for demolition. However, a decade ago, local municipalities, residents and artists hit upon an idea: decorating the villages with murals. Today there are around a dozen 'mural villages' scattered around Korea and they've become big tourist draws. Look for them in Seoul (Ihwa-dong), Suwon, Tongyeong and Jeonju. Many artists have since settled in the neighbourhoods, bringing with them galleries and cafes.
The Natural Environment
At 96,920 sq km, South Korea is a similar size to Portugal. Bordered only by North Korea, the country has 2413km of coastline along three seas – the West Sea (also known as the Yellow Sea), the East Sea (Sea of Japan) and the South Sea (East China Sea). Its overall length from north to south (including Jeju-do) is 500km, while the narrowest point is 220km wide.
The largest of some 3400 islands is 1847-sq-m Jeju-do, a volcanic landmass with spectacular craters and lava tubes. Off the east coast is Ulleungdo, another scenic volcanic island. Korea is not in an earthquake zone, but there are dozens of mineral-laden oncheon (hot springs) that bubble up through the ground, some of which have been developed into health spas.
Forested mountains cover 70% of the land, although they are not very high – Halla-san (1950m) on Jeju-do is the highest peak. Many mountains are granite with dramatic cliffs and pinnacles, but there are also impressive limestone caves to visit. The 521km Nakdong-gang and 514km Han River are the country’s longest. They, like most other larger rivers, have been dammed, creating scenic artificial lakes.
The plains and shallow valleys are still dominated by irrigated rice fields that are interspersed with small orchards, greenhouses growing vegetables, and barns housing cows, pigs and chickens. In the south are green-tea plantations and on Jeju-do citrus fruit is grown.
The hundreds of sparsely populated islands scattered off the western and southern coasts of the peninsula have relaxed atmospheres; a few have attractive sandy beaches. Here you can go way off-the-beaten track to islands where the inhabitants have never seen a foreigner.
A DMZ National Park?
The dearth of human intervention in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) for more than 50 years has made it something of an environmental haven. The zone is home to 5097 wild plants and animals, including 106 endangered species such as the Siberian musk deer, the Amur goral (a mountain goat that resembles an antelope), a third of the world’s remaining red-crowned cranes and half the remaining white-naped cranes. Environmentalists hope that the day the two Koreas cease hostilities, the DMZ will be preserved as a nature reserve, a plan that has the support of the South Korean government. As a first step towards this goal, trekking and cycling paths are being created within the Civilian Control Zone, a buffer zone that runs along the southern border of the DMZ.
Jeju’s Environmental Initiatives
It’s no accident that Jeju was chosen to host the World Conservation Congress in September 2012, a 10-day symposium where experts exchanged ideas for tackling pressing environmental issues including climate change, biodiversity and green growth. South Korea’s largest island, recognised by Unesco for its extraordinary ecosystem and natural features, is through various schemes pushing ahead with its aim to be crowned, in the words of Korea’s environment minister Yoo Young-sook, as the ‘environment capital of the world’.
A trust has been set up to protect gotjawal (forests on rocky terrain), which cover around 12% of the island. Considered the ‘lungs of Jeju’ they are not only an essential part of the island’s groundwater supply system but also a species-rich biosphere. Five of Jeju’s wetland regions are also listed under the Ramsar Convention as being of ‘international importance’. In 2015, Jeju's Governor Won Hee-ryong declared that he would push skyrocketing Chinese investment in property development on the island towards renewable energy. You will already find 50% of South Korea's electric cars on Jeju, and in 2018 20 electric buses were introduced on the island.
Along the northeast coast of Jeju, giant wind farms form part of the island’s Smart Grid Testbed (www.smartgrid.or.kr) – an attempt to use information technology to transmit power and cut down on CO2 emissions. The long-term plan is to make Jeju carbon-free and self-sustainable by 2030 through renewable energy resources. Already the island of Gapado off Jeju’s southwest coast is carbon free: its power comes from wind farms and solar panels, its cars have been replaced with electric vehicles and its water comes from a desalination plant.
Korea’s forested mountains used to be crowded with Siberian tigers, Amur leopards, bears, deer, goral antelopes, grey wolves and red foxes. Unfortunately these wild animals are now extinct or extremely rare in Korea.
Small efforts are being made to build up the number of wild animals in the country – goral antelopes have been released into Woraksan National Park and there’s an ongoing project to protect the tiny population of Asiatic black bears (known in Korea as moon bears) in Jirisan National Park. In Seoul, small populations of roe deer and elk live on Bukak-san and in Seoul Forest Park.
Jindo is home to a special breed of Korean hunting dog, Jindogae. Brave, intelligent, loyal and cute as any canine on the planet, the breed can be a challenge to train and control, but they possess an uncanny sense of direction – one dog was taken to Daejeon but somehow made its way back to the island, a journey of hundreds of kilometres. Being hunting dogs, they are an active, outdoor breed that is not suited to an urban environment. Any other breed of dog found on Jindo is immediately deported to the mainland in order to maintain the breed’s purity.
Magpies, pigeons and sparrows account for most of the birds in towns and cities, but egrets, herons and swallows are common in the countryside, and raptors, woodpeckers and pheasants can also be seen. Although many are visiting migrants, more than 500 bird species have been sighted, and Korea has a growing reputation among birders keen to see Steller’s sea eagles, red-crowned cranes, black-faced spoonbills and other rarities.
Moonbears: A Glimmer of Hope
According to legend the Korean nation was born from a bear – one of the reasons why Asiatic black bears (also called moon bears because of the crescent moon of white fur on their chests) are accorded the status of a national treasure and a protected species. However, by the late 20th century the hunting of bears for their meat and use in traditional medicine had contributed to them being thought extinct in the wild in South Korea.
Then in 2001, video footage proved that up to six wild bears were living in a remote part of Jirisan National Park. Soon after, the park established a project with the aim of building up a self-sustaining group of 50 wild bears in Jirisan (as of 2010 it was believed there were 19 bears). However, according to Moonbears.org, one of several Korean groups campaigning for protection of the animal, even these few are threatened by poaching. This is despite the fact that well over 1000 bears are bred at farms across the country for the lucrative bear-meat and gall-bladder trade. The conditions that the bears are kept in are often horrific.
Moonbears.org, Bear Necessity Korea, Green Korea and other pressure groups have long campaigned for the government to ban such farms. A landmark agreement was reached between the government and the Farmers Association of South Korea in 2014, resulting in a voluntary exit plan for farmers and encouraging them to have their captive bears sterilised in order to stop the breeding of new bears for the industry. In early 2017, the plan was completed.
Northern parts of South Korea are the coldest and the flora is alpine: beech, birch, fir, larch and pine. Further south, deciduous trees are more common. The south coast and Jeju-do are the warmest and wettest areas, so the vegetation is lush. Cherry trees blossom in early spring followed by azaleas and camellias.
Korea’s mountainsides are a pharmacy and salad bar of health-giving edible leaves, ferns, roots, nuts and fungi. Many of these wild mountain vegetables end up in restaurant side dishes and sanchae bibimbap (a meal of rice, egg, meat and mountain vegetables). Wild ginseng is the most expensive and sought-after plant.
National & Provincial Parks
With an abundance of river valleys, waterfalls and rocky outcrops, plus brightly painted wooden Buddhist temples and hermitages gracing many mountains, it’s not surprising that many visitors rate Korea’s national and provincial parks as its top attractions.
Since the first national park, Jirisan, was established in 1967 it has been joined by 19, others covering 3.7% of the country. For more details see Korea National Parks (http://english.knps.or.kr). There are also 22 smaller provincial parks (covering 747 sq km) and 29 county parks (covering 307 sq km). All the parks have well-marked hiking trails; some have been so popular that they've had to be closed to protect them from serious erosion.
The parks can be enjoyed in every season. In spring cherry blossoms, azaleas and other flowers are a delight; in summer the hillsides and river valleys provide a cool escape from the heat and humidity of the cities; during the summer monsoon, the waterfalls are particularly impressive; in autumn red leaves and clear blue skies provide a fantastic sight; and in winter snow and ice turn the parks into a white wonderland, although crampons and proper clothing are needed for any serious hikes. Korean winters can be arctic, especially if you’re high up in the mountains.
All the parks have tourist villages near the main entrances with restaurants, market stalls, souvenir and food shops, and budget accommodation where big groups can squeeze into a small room. Camping grounds (₩6000 to ₩7000 per person per day) and mountain shelters (₩10,000 to ₩13,000 for a bunk) are cheap, and while some have modern facilities, most are very basic.
South Korea’s economic growth since 1960 has transformed the country from an agricultural to an industrial society. Sprawling apartment-block cities and huge industrial complexes have been constructed, rivers have been dammed and freeways have been bulldozed through the countryside. Authoritarian governments stamped on any opposition to development projects and the environmental effects of the projects were ignored.
Fortunately the 70% of Korea that is mountainous and forested is still largely undeveloped, and the hundreds of offshore islands are also unspoilt. For a developed country Korea is surprisingly green, as 90% of the population is packed into high-rise city apartments.
Nowadays politics is more democratic, politicians win votes by promising green policies and environmental groups are no longer ignored by the media. Unpopular construction projects can face fierce opposition. Among the country’s most contentious environmental flashpoints are what to do with nuclear waste and land reclamation.
Shortly after being elected into office in 2017, South Korea president Moon Jae-in unveiled plans for energy policy reform that would move the country away from coal and nuclear sources. They will be replaced with gas-fired and renewable resources – coal power will drop from 40% to 21% of electricity generation and nuclear-fired power will decrease from 30% to 22% by 2030.
To reach this ambitious goal, the country plans to increase its capacity of renewable energy from 11.3 gigawatts to 58.5G gigawatts over the next 12 years. Solar and wind power capacity will also see an uptick – the plan calls for the addition of 30.8 gigawatts for the former and 16.5 gigawatts for the latter. The Korea Gas Corporation will soon begin construction of South Korea's fifth liquefied natural gas-import terminal at Dangjin Port, with goals of being fully operational by the year 2031.
Reclaiming the mud flats off Korea’s west coast for farming and construction has become a highly emotive and divisive issue. According to Korean Federation for Environmental Movements (KFEM), since 1990 more than 140,000 hectares of coastal wetlands have been reclaimed or are in the process of being reclaimed.
The environmental impact that such projects can have is seen at Saemangeum in Jeollabuk-do where in 2006 a 33km sea wall was built to reclaim 40,000 hectares of mud flats. Opponents, who battled hard against the project during its construction, stressed the importance of the mud flats as a fish and shellfish breeding area and as a vital feeding ground for more than 100,000 migrant birds, including black-faced spoonbills and 12 other threatened species.
In response to the Saemangeum protests, the government declared 60 sq km of wetlands at the Han River estuary in Gyeonggi-do a protected area. Ten smaller wetland areas (covering a total of 45 sq km) had already been protected. The Ministry of Environment has since increased the number of protected wetlands, and with Sumeunmulbaengdui on Jeju-do and the Hanbando Wetland in Gangwon-do in May 2015, Korea’s list of Ramsar Wetlands stands at 21. In one of these wetlands, Suncheon-man – the winter nesting ground of five endangered species of crane – the cancellation of a land-reclamation project in favour of the area’s promotion as an ecotourism destination is a positive sign for the future.
In June 2015 South Korea announced it would aim to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 37% by 2030. This was another step in the strategy mapped out in 2008 to create jobs using green technology and clean energy. The government reached a milestone in 2012 by completing the ‘Four Rivers Project’, which saw the cleanup of four major rivers (the Han, Nakdong, Geum and Yeongsan) and their surroundings to reduce flooding by building water-treatment facilities, banks and 20 new dams. It also included a 1757km bicycle route running alongside the four rivers. The project was such a success that both Turkey and Paraguay looked to it as a model for cleaning their own waterways.
Among the other ‘ecofriendly’ success stories on the government’s green agenda was the construction of a 20-mile solar-panel-covered bicycle lane between Daejeon and Sejong, south of Seoul; and converting all of Seoul’s 8750-plus buses to low-polluting natural-gas, full-hybrid or fuel-cell electric vehicles. Ongoing work includes more high-speed railway lines; the provision of energy-saving ‘green homes’ and energy-recycling projects including the production of gas from garbage.
Many of these policies were given the thumbs up from the UN Environment Program but local environmental groups felt the Four Rivers Project opened the door to reviving a plan for a grand canal between Seoul and Busan.
Despite commitments to preserve wetland and coastal areas, Seoul is also building two more tidal power plants along the west coast, in addition to the two already in operation there – Uldolmok in Jeollanam-do and Sihwa Lake in Gyeonggi-do, which is the largest in the world. Incheon Tidal Power Station began construction in 2017 and Garorim Bay Tidal Power Station is still in the proposal stage.
What Can You Do?
Responsible travellers can do their bit for Korea’s environment by keeping in mind the following:
- Use the country’s excellent public transport system or rent a bicycle where you can.
- Place your rubbish in the appropriate recycling bins for paper, cans and plastic.
- Refuse unnecessary packaging in shops – carry your own shopping bag.
- Patronise organic and vegetarian restaurants and businesses that have a seal of approval from LOHAS (Lifestyles of Health & Sustainability; http://korealohas.or.kr).
World Natural Heritage Sites on Jeju-do
- Hallasan National Park
- Seong-san Ilchul-bong
- Geomunoreum Lava Tube System
Caves by Kyung Sik Woo (2005) is a lavishly illustrated book on Korean caves by a geological expert and cave enthusiast.
International Aid for Korean Animals (www.koreananimals.org) promotes animal protection in Korea.
Field Guide to the Birds of Korea by Lee, Koo & Park (2000) is the standard bird guide, but doesn’t include all feathered visitors.
Beautiful Wildflowers in Korea (2002), published by the Korea Plant Conservation Society, has photos of 200 native flowers and will encourage you to stop and ID flowers on your travels.
With an average of five million visitors a year, Bukhansan National Park, located on Seoul’s doorstep, has qualified for a Guinness World Record as the national park with the highest number of visitors per sq ft in the world.
Korea’s largest environmental nongovernment organisation is Korea Federation for Environmental Movements (KFEM; www.kfem.or.kr), which has around 80,000 members and 31 branch offices across the country.
Green Korea (www.greenkorea.org) is a pressure group with practical ideas such as Buy Nothing Day, Car Free Day (22 September in Seoul) and Save Paper Day.
Birds Korea (www.birdskorea.org) is a conservation NGO with an online bird-ID guide.