Monochrome Seoul


I don’t get into Seoul as much as I’d like to. Although recently I’ve been fortunate enough to hit up the tourist trails around Myeong-dong. I miss the big city. The feeling you get as you’re lost in a tidal wave of more people. I miss the main streets, and the side streets. I miss looking up from the cavern floor of a canyon of highrise. I miss getting lost in a world of alleys and emerging and finding my way around because it’s just Seoul.

Here are a few shots I took recently uploaded to an album on flickr. All shots were taken between April and May of 2014.

To view more of these grainy and shaky Seoul street shots please follow this link.

To view more of these grainy and shaky Seoul street shots please follow this link.

To view more of these grainy and shaky Seoul street shots please follow this link.

 

Photography © Conor O’Reilly 2014

 

 

Reading the Korean War


I don’t profess to be an expert on much, such is my modesty. Even though I’ve lived in Korea for over nine years now and am invested in the country through family, I can’t really attest an authority on much of the country’s history. This is certainly an embarrassment as I’m supposed to be a history graduate.

When I first arrived in Korea I read Michael Breen’s The Koreans, and it was the kind of book that just seemed to give enough of everything so that, if you were curious about some other aspect of the country, you could easily be wise enough to make the wise decision on some follow up reading. I think I finished that book in 2006, if not 2005, when I first arrived here.

That’s quite a long time to spend learning about a country without reading much on it. This indeed may be a problem which much of Korea’s expatriate experts, in that we spend a lot of time here and profess to be armchair experts on the condition of being in Korea, yet we hold very little knowledge beyond a decent gogi jib and our opinions on ActiveX and Internet Explorer. I say this because this is basically me, and while I know there are plenty who know more than most, I can imagine there are plenty who know less than me.

It was in some respects an accident that I picked up Andrew Salmon’s books on the British, Australian, and indeed Scottish and Irish involvement in the Korean War. Around this time last year I was very fortunate to represent the Irish community in Korea when I laid a wreath at the unveiling of a memorial for Irish people who fell in the Korean War. Throughout the process of arranging the memorial, Andrew Salmon was a constant figure advising on the experiences of the Irish in the war, specifically the Royal Ulster Rifles, who suffered some of the highest casualties of the British and commonwealth units in the war. Throughout the process and after his first book To the Last Round was lauded as a must read.

Reading about the British involvement for me, while being Irish, brings it a little closer to home. While we are at all attempts proclaiming ourselves radically different, a commonality exists in many respects. Maybe this stems from a certain familiarity with our neighbours, one that is more realistic than a television impressed notion of Ameicanism.

I went online to check the books out, and here I found a second book of his Scorched Earth, Black Snow which I saw was from earlier in the year. So being a history graduate and knowing the importance of the period before the period we’re talking about, I decided I’d give that a read first. So I tapped away at the screen of my iPad, and before I knew it I had a digital copy downloading away.

That being said, I didn’t actually get around to reading the actual book until I was in Thailand this winter, about eight months later. So shoot me, but I’m a distracted soul, and admittedly one who really hadn’t been reading as much as I would have liked. But I think I’ve been doing better of late. Good books have helped.

After reading both of his books I contacted Andrew himself and asked him a few questions about the writing of the books. I has always interested me how authors who work full time as writers fit in the time to write a non-ficition book, and especially one on history which requires extreme levels of not only dedication but beyond meticulous research. Pick up either of his books and you will understand what I am talking about.

In an email Andrew explained that most of these books were written ‘after midnight’, and that the writing was ‘personally and professionally satisfying, but financially non-remunerative’. This is probably something that scares many away from writing books, this constraint on our time is not recuperated in our wallets – not that I’d know, I’m just saying.

Throughout both books there is extensive first hand reports from those who fought in the battles and slit trenches. From the Busan Perimeter to the heroic holding action at Pakchon in North Korea, relieving the 1st US Marine Division in Chongsin Resevoir, and the of course the slaughter and defiance from the battles along the Imjin River just to the north of Seoul, so much of these books comes from first-hand experience you cannot discount their authority. It seems at times that it’s unfortunate that there weren’t more pages in the books.

‘I started with the regimental and veteran associations’, Andrew Salmon explained of how he made this possible, ‘the nature of these groups is that, if they trust you or like you, once you speak to Chap A, he recommends Chap B, and so on ad infinitum. I was surprised at how open most of these guys were. I think 99 percent of them had never had anyone ask them about their experiences in the “Forgotten War” and as they are now in their twilight years, they wanted to speak, to get their war on the record for posterity. Many of them volunteered material that I was initially hesitant to ask about. For example, the account of one atrocity – the murder of a Korean civilian by a soldier who simply wanted to test his rifle (told in To the Last Stand) – was told to me, without prompting, in the back of a bus, in the company of several other veterans. None of them contradicted him.  I am pretty sure these kinds of incidents stuck in their minds, and they wanted some kind of release’.

Like these couple of incidents, there are so many images and memories specific to individuals which not one person who would there would attest against. I wouldn’t say you get numbed to atrocity, but after some time you kind of stop being amazed and just accept it as a circumstance.

Of all these incidents though two much discussed ones come to mind which I couldn’t help but be frustrated or shocked by – the first was the accidental napalming of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, or Jocks, which was perhaps as brutal and unfortunate an incident of friendly fire as you’ll come across, and the action of the 8th Kings Royal Irish Hussars as 29 Brigade withdrew from their Imjin defensive positions – not only was it the first time these newly touted tanks had a chance to really operate, but it was in such desperate circumstances that you had to wish they could have done more.

Of course throughout these books, it must be expressed, there is descriptions of rampant slaughter described and it is hard at times to remember that the Chinese who were mown down could have been as desperate as the men whose experiences I was reading about were. It was a time that we can be grateful to have lived after.

With more and more devices providing reading experiences, writers are being coerced into providing a more diverse package. I read my copy of Scorched Earth, Black Snow on my iPad, and as I read I followed 27 Brigade north with Google Maps. I tried and failed to find their positions on the Naktong bridgehead, but as they moved on to Seoul, and then North Korea and along the main highway through Sariwon, Pyongnyang, Sukchon, Anju, and of course Pakchon and on to Chongju, feeling eternally like this was going to lead to one great bloody Borodino – if only it was so glorious. You knew something was going to happen but you couldn’t really tell how or when it would, but when they captured that Chinese soldier while on patrol you knew that something was about to happen that they would have little control over.

‘I wish my publisher had added film of one of those as part of the eBook package’ Andrew said, ‘that would have given the reader a huge amount more visual material to look at, but I don’t think technology has been well-leveraged or well-deployed by traditional media managers’. For the digital age, this is the advantage that eBooks have, and it is one being leveraged by the media, just not publishing. ‘As a print journalist, I am being asked to become a photographer, a film recorder, a presenter, a film editor as well as my core task’ Andrew continued. ‘The upside is that one has to upskill. The downside is that I am not being paid more’. If we expect so much of the media, perhaps publishing will follow soon, but we shall see how high the quality will be.

And perhaps it is our expectations that are dragging so much for nothing from everything. With the internet, nobody expects to pay, and this is where our problems start. ‘The Internet is killing journalism and publishing’ Andrew continued, ‘though it has to be said, the blame for this long, slow, death really lies at the hands of the management of the newspaper and publishing industries, who have failed to come up with financial models that will guarantee the future of traditional media’. This is something that is happening, but it is slow, and expensive, and a learning process. ‘In the future, when online media has matured, we will look back on the first two decades of the 21st century as the critical, transformative period. Alas, it has been bloody; the number of working journalists has fallen horrifically. This is not good for media but – without wishing to sound alarmist – it is not good for democratic governance either.’ A stern warning indeed.

In terms of the books, I’d recommend them to anyone. Enthusiast or casual interest, these books should be read, not only because of what I have said above, but also because they have kindled an understanding and gratitude for our present situation, and made me appreciate my extended family further.

What struck me more than anything in these books was not the descriptions of war and sacrifice by foreign troops, but the images of a poor and agricultural society made destitute by the destruction wrought from the international deliberations over its territory. The people who lowered themselves so dejectedly, who fought their own demons, who fled, who stayed, who starved, but who stuck around and dug in sacrificing more to build up what is truly a remarkable miracle, 21st Century Korea.

*

On the reception his books have received Andrew Salmon told me this:

‘[The responses have been] universally positive: Mainstream media – including The Times, The Daily Mail, and BBC History Magazine  – have been kind. I’d add that “To the Last Round” has 130 five-star reviews on Amazon UK, which is an unusual number for a non-fiction book, and which I am particularly pleased about. The only negative review I suffered was from the writer of an expatriate magazine here in Seoul. What is most gratifying is the response from veterans, who have said: “You have captured it – this is what it was like!” One, the late Colonel Mervyn McCord, said in an Amazon review, “Anyone suffering from PTSD should not read this book – they would have a relapse.” I have also had endorsements from two “true” heroes – Derek Kinne, George Cross and Bill Speakman, Victoria Cross. That kind of response is deeply gratifying’.

 

Andrew Salmon’s personal blog/website is tothelastround.wordpress.com (this particular page on the site is worth particular attention in my view)

The books can be purchased online here

Images all courtesy of Andrew Salmon via flickr.

Flea Marketing


Myself and Herself have half a kind of a hobby these days. By these days I mean Autumn, as its kind of a seasonal thing. We go to flea markets and sell our *ahem* stuff.

The reason why we say it’s kind of a hobby is because we’ve only ever done it three times, and at the same time we only have so much to sell. But yeah, we’re well into it. We’ve a big black suitcase packed full of old but decent clothes, a few other bits a and pieces, as well as our mat for sitting on, and we head off and start selling our stuff. It’s good fun, social, and we usually come out with a few quid in our pocket.

I think it’s kind of a fad at the moment, because there seem to be flea markets for all sorts of occasions. There are a couple of charity ones, and of course there’s one in Hongdae, and for some reason they seem to be getting a lot of attention of late. Don’t ask me why. Probably because of Hongdae, but who am I to presume?

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We got into it last year when our local neighbourhood, 4 danji (4단지), in Yeongtong organised a small one in between the three main apartment complexes. There is nice treelined laneway which cuts in between the three big apartment complexes. Here vendors set up their stuff on one side, while people were free to walk up and down checking out what people had to sell. There was also a stall selling noodles, or to be specific 잔치국수, and a person with a long table full of pickled roe and squid.

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We did alright that day. In fact we did so well that we set our sights on next year as we headed up the steps to our appartment double counting our thick bunch of 1000 won notes.

It was also good fun. We paid for dinner that night, but we also found a rare sampling of community which is hard to find in the often bland and solitary apartment complex. As it was a Saturday, there were all kinds of people out getting involved. Of course there were familys selling all their household bits and pieces, like clothes, books, toys, and of course ornaments, jewelry, and kitchen wares. There were also plenty of the same kind of people walking up and down haggling for the best deal. It was really just a bit of fun, and I don’t think we sold anything for over 5000 won.

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This year we thought we had our secret weapon, the diamond we could sell for millions and retire off the takings. We had for the past ten months building up a bounty of baby clothes and other baby related goodies, which had gone beyond their use for obvious reasons, and we now planned to put their former owner through university with the proceeds from their sale.

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Ready for our onslaught of the flea markets of Suwon, Herself found our first battle ground. There would be a flea market on a Friday on the roof of the AK Plaza at Suwon was our destination, and the customers were sure to be women, but more importantly young or expectant mothers keen to snap up a few bargains in the hunt for appropriately equipping their little bundles of joy – and by appropriately I mean with as much stuff that the other kids don’t have and at as cheap a price as possible.

We set the bar high, asking for high prices on most of what we had. We had done some research and found stuff in no where near as good quality as the baby clothes we were selling on the internet, and it was going for what we thought to be unreasonable prices. Let’s not forget we had some good stuff, especially for a baby about to be born in October or who wasn’t that old. +1 was born in November and we needed as much winter clothes as possible, and now that they were too big we needed to make room for more. There were some other things as well, nice stuff that you couldn’t find in Korea, including some fancy brands and the likes.

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What I gather now is that people go to these things expect everything to be 1000 won. That’s the only explanation as any time we quoted a price people would turn the nose up, complain it was expensive, and then trail off. The odd time they’d come back, showing interest, ask about the price, expecting us somehow to suddenly go “oh that one, oh, sorry we meant to say it was free, not 10,000 won”. I gather that these things are suppsed to be a good way of getting your hands on some cheap stuff, but clearly the notion that people were also trying to raise a little cash was beyond them. I won’t even start a discussion on value.

We persevered and came out relatively well. We didn’t sell half the amount of things we hoped, and we left with a very full and heavy suitcase. Regardless, we made almost 200,000 won. I’m not really sure how much stuff we sold, but if we were to do a comparison, I sold about 15,000 won’s worth of stuff whilst herself, a shark in her previous life, seemed to do better. Despite our attempted tenacity our prices probably quartered from what we had discussed the night before, and to add insult to injury (not that there really was any), herself’s friend who sat next to us sold four things and nearly made as much as us. I suppose in the end it depends on what you’re selling not how much you’re selling it for.

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Today we were ready to go again with another flea market. This time it was again our local 4 danji neighbourhood annual event. We brought down our wares and set things up. Unfortunately, baby clothes were not considered to be as hot a commodity as we’d hoped. Most of the people there had kids who were actually doing the selling while the mothers and fathers stood around chatting and drinking coffee mix.

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The location for this flea market makes it nicer, as it is covered over by trees, and pretty much everyone has to follow the same route. The people are mostly friendly, inquisitive, but also keen not to spend more than 1,000 won on anything. I don’t think we were much better. As was to be expected we sold a few things, but we didn’t have the diversity of bric-a-brac which are suitcase had last year, and the clothes we were trying to sell just weren’t suited to the customers. As Herself said, we’ll have to go to Hongdae ot sell half of this.

But these things aren’t all about selling stuff, because people have to buy things right. We did a little shopping of our own and came out in good nick with a bread maker which we scooped for 10,000 won, and I picked up a stack of baby story books in English for +1 as they’re pretty hard to find here without forking out top won for them. We had some more nice noodles, chatted, met some people we hadn’t seen for a while, drank coffee, joked with customers, and at the end of the afternoon we trudged back home and the three of us collapsed on the bed for a hour and a half long nap.

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(All photographs were taken today in Cheongmyoung Maul 19/10/2013)

Photographs and text copyright Conor O’Reilly 2013©

***

I want to add to this post that perhaps the best flea market you can visit in Seoul has to be the one around Dongmyo Station. It probably sells nothing you will ever want to buy, unless you need half an obsolete mobile phone or a violin with only two and a half strings. This one is purely for those who wish to explore, and it is a mecca for that resource.

Seoul Suburban gives a more in-depth analysis:

“The median age of both vendors and buyers is somewhere north of 50, and interested parties stroll through the spillover from the larger area of flea market near Sindang Station: cleaning supplies, power cords, remote controls, artwork, comic books, portable cassette players, bass guitars, and just about whatever else you could throw on a pile, which, in some cases, is exactly how things are organized.  Not everything here is junk – a few antique shops can be found in the back alleys nearer the stream, and even some decent vintage pickups are available; the shop just outside of Exit 3 sold L.L. Bean flannels, which I haven’t seen anywhere else in the city.  And even if you aren’t looking to buy anything, simply wandering through and taking a close look at what’s there is sport enough.  My favorite spotting was a sheet of stamps from Sierra Leone featuring the Disney characters, including one that pictured the head mouse himself operating a backhoe underneath the tag, ‘Mickey mining bauxite.’”

An Origin of Korean Discontent


A thought struck me as I was taking a shower before work this morning. With the renewal of tension along the North-South Korean border it’s a sharp reminder of the results of history, and what we’re looking at here, could be considered as one of the final plays in the game of the Great Powers. It, like so many skirmishes before, is taking place in a distant field which effects the lives of people so far away they don’t even look real. Well as one of these people I can assure you that it’s quite real.

Since Korea opened up to outside influence in the late nineteenth century, much like many other small kingdoms, was turned into a pawn in the chessboard of empire building. This process set Korea up to be misused and abused by forces outside their control, and today we are experiencing the continued results of this.

Unlike Ireland, which is also a product of imperialism, modern Korea is a result of the lobbying and gamesmanship which didn’t effect Ireland as it was already well entrenched in the British imperial model of manipulation and exploitation. The imperialism that changed Korea was quite different.

A pre-colonial 1851 map of Japan and Korea – note how little is known of the Korean coastline, compared with Japan. (image courtesy of antiqueprints.com)

Following the arrival of the Japanese (note: not a great power, more on this later) in Korea, and later reactions by the French and American navies on Korean territory, Korea gradually opened up its borders and allowed foreigners to enter Korea. Many came as diplomats, government officials, businessmen, and of course missionaries.

If you visit Seoul and spend some time close to Seoul City Hall, take a wander around the streets and occasionaly you’ll happen upon an old European styled building. Several are pre-Japanese rule and can give you a sample of how these new people began to shape a new Seoul with their influence.

Korea, and especially Seoul began to change rapidly. In fact some Irishmen were heavily involved in this enterprise, notably John McLeavy Brown who functioned as chief of Korea’s customs and as treasurer. While McLeavey Brown was functioning here it’s important to note the Japanese influence in Korea was on the increase.

I’ve read a few articles on this situation and for some reason they seem to point the finger at Japanese imperialism, but let’s not forget what year this was, and who McLeavy Brown was representing; he was the representative of the British Empire, not Great Britain or the UK, the British Empire, and this was a time when they were really the Empire.

Of course Britain was one of the Great Powers, the others of course were France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, and to a lesser extent Italy. Britain, on the world stage, were by far the most significant entity by a large stretch. The British Empire had significant interests in the Far East, especially in China, but also trade with Japan and I can also assume with Korea.

One of the Empire’s biggest concerns was securing the safety of their Indian Empire which was constantly under threat due to the distance from London, but also from the encroachments by the Russian Empire to the north. Much of the eastern expansion of the Empire was to protect their key valuable south Asian empire. Due to this constant pressuring on the extremities of the British Empire, they established Port Hamilton on Komundo, which is between Yeosu and Jeju Island, in 1885. The base didn’t last long but there are still some remnants in the shape of a cemetery.

The Great Game – Russia and Britain at the turn of the twentieth century.

However, the British didn’t last long here despite the dangers from the Russians to the north in Vladivostok. As a means of establishing security and relieving the pressure on the Royal Navy which was significantly stretched in this area, an alliance were sought, and it was to Japan that the diplomats looked.  In 1902 the first Anglo-Japanese Alliance was signed in London.

Not only did this allow the British the security of an ally in very distant place, it also signified the rise of this up until then very small and provincial empire in the east. More importantly it was Japan’s first real foray into colonialism.

It seems to me that this alliance escapes mention, and that Japan’s first major colonial venture did not go unsupported, and was in fact guided and assisted by the greatest power in the world at that time, the British Empire. This was a period long before the United States came to power – itself busy with its own internal colonialism – and a time when China, a huge empire in its own right, was crumbling under the pressure of the Great Powers commercial expansion in its territories.

In fact the only power at the time capable of rivalling Britain was the German Empire, but this had grown disillusioned with colonialism and was concentrating on its own prominence in Europe. This was a very different Germany of course to one you may confuse with the Third Reich of World War 2 infamy. The other European powers, namely the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the French, and the Russians, were in notable decline by the beginning of the twentieth century.

With the signing of the Anglo-Japanese treaty, Britain essentially gave its blessing to any Japanese expansion that did not conflict with British interests. In 1906 the Japanese secured their prominence by defeating the Russians in the Russo-Japanese War. The Treaty of Portsmouth was Japan’s prize in this conflict, as well as a renegotiated alliance with Britain, which effectively guaranteed the Japanese complete and unhindered access to the Empire of Korea, which eventually led to Korea being annexed in 1910. With this Korea became another coin in the trading of nations which epitomised the colonial bargaining and pillage of the Great Powers.

Japanese soldiers near Incheon during the Japo-Russo War, 1904 (image courtesy of wikipedia)

Like Morocco and the rest of North Africa, modern day Cambodia and Laos, Nepal, Afghanistan, and so many more territories during that period, European colonial powers carved them up with a pen on a map and distributed them like pieces of cake. Korea’s real carving though would have to wait another forty years.

The dividing of the far east by colonial powers was a colourful affair. (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

To add insult to injury, Korea was again left to the mercy of the dividing pen at the end of World War 2. Korea was not liberated, nor did it win its independence, this was gifted with the collapse of the Japanese Empire in 1945, and this played an important factor in defining the nation’s future. Korea again was set as a buffer between the US and the newly arrived Soviets, who essentially moved the majority of their army from one side of the world to the other following the fall of Germany in a desperate attempt to prevent US hegemony on their Asian doorstep, and they achieved this.

Korean’s watched again as external forces dictated their immediate future, but this time their country was not occupied but it was divided in two. I think it can be safe to say that we know the outcome of this.

The demilitarised zone between North and South Korea.

In the twentieth century two events sealed the fate of this small peninsula. These events, despite the internal mechanisms which may have fought against them, came from outside Korea and were perpetrated by imperial powers. Today both North and South Korea rely heavily on the assistance of their major allies, while those who initially began the process of determining their fate over 100 years ago have relinquished their hegemony.

Much of their rhetoric can be traced to this, perhaps. South Korea insists on standing strong, determined not to let what it has fought hard to achieve be lost in conflict. South Korea has clearly learned its lessons from the past, and while of course now a wealthy nation with much influence in international affairs, has the military support of the United States behind it, the British Empire of our time.

North Korea is not without its lessons also. It’s anti imperialistic rhetoric will certainly ring clearly in the ears of those who live there, as I do not doubt that imperialism is a regular topic in history class. And we all watch as both rattle sabres again, demanding precedence but without much of an idea whether or not one will lunge.

Such is the way the world operates I suppose, but I think this history is worth considering when we try to understand the thinking by both nations at a difficult and tense time like this.

 

This is a rather rough account of my general thought – I don’t really have any further reading links other than the odd Wikipedia one which I used to confirm dates and treaty names. 

Essay on Korea’s National Image – “What is Modern Korea?”


In October I entered an essay competition organised by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Korea. The competition sought to find out what foreigners thought was Korea’s national image. I entered, you’ll be happy to hear, but not because of some overwhelming desire to share my thoughts on what made Korea Korea, more because top prize was a new computer, and I fancied my chances.

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So I dutifully brainstormed a notion and worked away on the essay, then forgot about it, then remembered about it, and of course I waited until the last minute to submit it.

Now, it has to be said that I do have issues with this kind of competition (and with everything else of course), because the way I see it is they’re really just kind of clueless about what they think people think about Korea, and for all the polls they make at Incheon Airport they can never get a satisfactory answer. So they tried this essay competition. I never saw the winner announced or published, but I do know of one person who at least won a prize, which was a slight relief. I would like to have read the winning essay, if only to fuel (or extinguish, let’s be fairish) my cynical belief that they were looking for a specific answer, which would have doomed me from the beginning.

*Update* Follow this link to find a press release from MOFAT about the competition and winners

Here it is in its untarnished form (by that I mean I’m copying it straight from the file I sent to them without reading over it and finding a thousand typos and spelling and grammar mistakes, among other faults). Enjoy. Ish.

What is Modern Korea? by Conor O’Reilly
October, 2013

A common decoration in all royal palaces in Korea is a screen which sits behind the king’s throne. While brightly painted, it is a relatively inconspicuous and simple painting that is not too elaborate considering the weight of its position, providing relief to the most important seat in the land, the throne of the King.

The painting on the screen in question includes an orange sun and a white moon, and five mountain peaks that rise and fall sharply and steeply. From these mountains flow waterfalls, and in the foreground tall trees all but complete the scene. There is one final element which is not actually part of the painting but which is still an essential component to the image; the throne and the king who sits in it.

This throne and the king were situated in the centre and symbolised the harmony of the universe and also the crucial fact that the king was the central pivot of this image. Without the king situated in his throne completing the scene with the mountains and the sky, the painting showed a mere landscape, and modern Korea is very much the same as this.

It has to be taken into account that during Chosun Dynasty Korea knowledge of the world beyond its borders would have been extremely limited, and it would not be unreasonable to suggest that for the vast majority of the people living then, Korea was their universe, and the King as their ruler was their representative and the symbol of their own very existence. In this respect the King not only represented the universe, but also the people, and this is of greatest consequence.

Without the people who have made Korea into the country it is today, Korea would also be a landscape deprived of those who have persevered to create their own vibrant and adaptive universe that still relies on traditional relationships, not only among actual family but which even extends to strangers in the street.

And for me it was these very people who appeared to be everywhere I looked the first time my airport bus drove steadily into the centre of Seoul. At first these people were only recognisable through the shape of the many tall apartment buildings which seemingly sprouted up along the banks of the Han River, like copses of trees on the verge of a larger forest.

The bus’s journey deeper into that great big constant bustle of a city transformed my wide perspective to one which seemed to zoom in closer on the finer details of Seoul with every few hundred metres the bus passed. From driving through Yeouido beneath the 63 Building, crossing the Han and seeing rows and rows of more and more of the city, and as the bus looped around it somehow found its way to Jongno-ro, where I was amazed further.

I still marvel at the centre of Seoul today despite living in Korea for several years. I come from a small town in Ireland of around eight thousand people where the tallest building is a church steeple. To come to Seoul and witness a building I always admired for its height dwarfed by all but the smallest of buildings, I was knew I was facing more than just engineering prowess. To achieve such a feat as modern Seoul, a society must have more than just money. It needs pride, determination, and a universal sense of community and understanding to drive them forward.

What really struck me more than anything as I drove through the city on an airport bus for the first time was that I wanted to know who built everything and how could I not know about the city in front of me before? How could this human achievement be missed, and what would it take for such a spectacle of the ability of human beings ability to shine independently? I was younger back then and would soon know that I was arriving late to the story that of the Korean people and this is a story which continues today.

If there is a twenty-first century comparison for all that encapsulates Korea it is Jongno-ro. From Gwangwhamun the street passes east as a busy shopping with nightlife close to Jonggak Station, and then by Insadong presenting a different more subdued style of Seoul. Both of these throb with life under the shadows of the high-rise homes of Korea’s corporate powerhouses, such as Hanwha, SK, and Samsung.

This street that stretches from Gwangwhamun Plaza, watched over by the erstwhile Admiral Yi Sun Shin, to Dongdaemun Gate is only a few kilometres long, but along it you can experience more of Korea than you could in famous locations, such as Psy’s virally renowned Gangnam. There is much history on Jongno-ro, such as Tapgol Park, Korea’s first city park, and of course the internationally recognised Jongmyo Shrine. There is the lively neon lit nightlife side streets which almost every visitor to the capital aspires to photograph.

Jongno-ro runs parallel to Cheongyecheon stream, another honest symbol of a new and modern Korea, yet as it moves east the buildings lose much of their glamour and wealth. Here a different Korea can be seen, an older Korea, one with roots in community. It is one which still retracts to the older ways that life was lived, seen in the crowds ever busy around places like Gwangjang Market, which in itself is a reflection of hundreds more urban markets across the country, where small businesses work together in their own street-side version of a modern day department store. This is as much a part of modern Korea as high-rise glass buildings and multi-national corporations that reside nearby.

As you move down the street the city transforms in all but a few hundred metres of walking. You pass by stores selling everything from cosmetics, traditional clothes, to home lighting, hardware, picture frames, and butchers. Nor can you ignore the ubiquitous gold and jewellery shops which always heave with anxious customers considering varieties of fluorescent dazzled necklaces and rings. There is less glitz, but this is still very much Korea.

Here, the tall exuberant buildings of Gwangwhamun and the teeming and vibrant streets around Jonggak Station are forgotten as you meet an older city, where people have the jackets closed tightly against their chest. Here they walk with less leisure in a bustle to get somewhere to do something. This end of the street as it comes closer and closer to Dongdaemun is a wiser and more cautious part of the city, a part of the city that has seen more of troubled past and lived through these lessons. This part of the city knows that time has passed but it continues to accept change, while still holding on tightly to the ways which established its current situation.

This is not an area which is reluctant to change, it is a place where change will only come when those who populate it no longer need their past, a past suffered by so many through occupation, war, and dictatorship. To see these people is to know Korea and to understand why the Korean people, with their undying spirit of national community, have built one of the strongest and wealthiest economies from the scraps of destitution and bloodshed.

But to suggest that the Korean people are the most unique aspect of the country is pretty much a given. Is it worth reducing to second place all the other magical and unique characteristics that make up Korea? There is the food (which I love), the music – from K Pop to pansori, and all the culture and traditions which families and individuals have built their lives around, but all that I try to compare with the hope of recognising something more noteworthy or more exceptional, it always comes back to the people who developed these cultural and national attributes over the years.

You could also argue that the people are crafted by the landscape and environments they live in, and that these would supersede the importance the people creating their own unique identity. Although this is a reasonable assertion, when you look at the history of Korea the only geographical feature which truly influenced Korea was its position as a peninsula protruding into the sea between China and Japan, a fate which was instrumental in the establishment in Korean’s resilience and modern determination to excel above its self perceived lot. There is no doubt that Korea’s geographical position has both threatened and benefitted its existence over the years. However, as the foreign influence was so slight up until the twentieth century, I contend that it is the doggedness of the people which elevated Korea to its current status and earned the respect across the world in every conceivable area of thought and action.

The determination and resilience of the people is continuously apparent as Korea’s name appears on lists with the worlds finest. In the recent Olympics in London, Korea was placed fifth in the medal rankings ahead of countries such as Germany, France, Australia, and Japan. The Olympic Soccer team recaptured the spirit of the World Cup in 2002 with an epic adventure into the semi-finals of the competition, followed by a clash with old rivals Japan. While on the subject of sport, let’s not forget the fine individual efforts of Kim Yu Na at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, and the exciting prospect of Korea hosting this event in 2018.

Korean’s success has extended beyond sports, from politics to business to technology, Korea’s influence has spread across the world, and always guided at the helm by people who recognise the national thirst for excellence reaches beyond the borders of the country. For all that is celebrated about Korea; none would exist without the will of the people, because it is the people who we remember more than anything when we leave Korea.

Both the new Korea, one which is modern and wired with Smartphone’s and the latest Italian fashions, and the old, one where old traditions based around ancestors and lunar patterns still resonate strongly, coexist together. You can see it when you step off the bus in any part of a city or country town, and you can see it when people meet and greet each other in different situations, be it with family, friends, or co-workers. Korea’s people are always aware that it is they who determine their nation’s status, and it is they who determine their future. They know that they have been born on this planet to live together in harmony for the continued prosperity, and they fight tenaciously to do this.

Through my years living and working in Korea, it is this determination and sense of purpose which I have witnessed to be what Korea really stands for; these are what make Korea the land of the Koreans. It is here where you can witness so many characteristics which when they are combined together can only be truly described as Korean.

You see the magnificence of aged palaces, the glitz and wealth of the many cities, the countryside tended to diligently year after year, and success after success on the international stage. These standards are so common that you cannot miss them. They are the traits of a nation, and it is a nation which is proud to blatantly display and espouse its characteristics like a trophy.