South Korea’s rapid development following decades-long Japanese occupation and the devastation of the Korean War is sometimes called “The Miracle on the Han River.” The Han runs through Seoul separating Gangbuk—River North from Gangnam—River South. These are efficient names for the areas north and south of a river. It’s this very efficiency across many areas of Korean culture that seems in part responsible for “The Miracle on the Han River.” In that sense, it’s less of a miracle than the result of people getting shit done. As someone who often struggles to get shit done, I find it inspiring to live in a country that drips with efficiency.
Getting around in South Korea is fast and simple. I once got terrifically lost while using the New York City Subway—a system that uses my first language in my home country. The Seoul metro system, which I now use every day, has signs and announcements in English, as well as in Korean, Chinese, and Japanese. The subway cars are clean, spacious, and full of people of all ages. My commute home is usually in a subway full of a mixture of adults, students, and the elderly. (Older Koreans are remarkably active, I’ve found.) It’s uncommon to wait more than four minutes for a train, and during peak times, commuters line up where the doors open. Seoul has more miles of subway line than any city in the world. It also has the best jingles in the world.
There are also city buses in Seoul. A lot of buses. They’re color-coded depending on the route and take you just about anywhere from just about anywhere. Sometimes it seems like the route was designed just so that we could get from our favorite Vietnamese restaurant to a place we buy Q-tips by the quickest way possible. Drivers often greet each rider verbally or with a bow of the head and drive safely but also like they own the road. The buses come so frequently that they are rarely overcrowded, and each bus stop has an electronic sign that shows how many minutes it will take for buses to arrive. There are no jingles on the Seoul buses, but nor are there any of the plastic surgery advertisements that are in most subway cars.
Some people enjoy a dining experience that involves personal interactions with wait staff and time spent choosing and consuming each part of the meal. Jen and I are not in this group, so we appreciate the streamlined process of dining out in Seoul. When ready to order, diners get any server’s attention—either by saying something or literally pressing a button that is on the table. Food is brought out shortly after ordering, as is the bill, which is quickly amended if the table orders more. None of this makes the the diner feel rushed, however. Even though you don’t get to know the name of who “will be taking care of you this evening,” whoever does is generally friendly. There’s no tipping culture in South Korea. I hate to say this as a former server myself, but that part’s pretty fucking awesome.
There’s a convenience store everywhere. We live in an extremely residential area and there are three within a five minute walk. They’re small but have a lot of food, drinks, accessories, and personal items, making sure that anyone in an efficient culture who had a lapse into inefficiency quickly makes up for it by running out to the closest one. Which, again, is a couple minutes away. On our trip to Jeju Island, we found one to refill our transit cards and buy water in an area that only had houses and people who looked confused two foreigners were in their neighborhood.
Bad Heads of State
In 2012, South Korea elected Park Geun-hye its president. She was the country's and region’s first female head of state. But she was also the daughter of a dictator, presided over rampant corruption, and had a shamanistic advisor—also a completely corrupt individual. When the extent of her financial corruption and her allowing a spiritual leader friend access to the highest levels of government were revealed, South Koreans demonstrated in massive and relentless protests that led to her impeachment and removal from office.
Perhaps the most famous Korean in history is King Sejong who reigned in the fifteenth century during the Joseon Dynasty. One of the things that made Sejong the Great so great was his role in the creation of Hangul, the Korean alphabet. He wanted the common people to be able to read and write without the formal education required to know the Chinese characters Korea used before Hangul. Today, South Korea has a 98% literacy rate. There’s even a national holiday commemorating Hangul, a day where not having to work frees up South Koreans to ride the excellent public transportation system to a well-staffed restaurant and a stop at a convenience store to get some drinks before an afternoon protest to bring down a bad elected official.