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December 2003 - January 2004


Seoul - Soul of South Korea

by Krishan Gopal Dutt

To the first-time visitor two things seem to stand out in the democratic Korean Capital: the tall majestic skyscrapers and the efficient traffic system. I was truly impressed by such fine examples of modern architecture , and the adorable civic sense of motorists, in an Oriental city of seven million People.

Quite impressive, too, were the clean and tidy roads within the Capital; and the courtesy shown by the citizens of Seoul to foreigners, with a smile, was another fascinating facet of Korean culture and tradition {wouldn't it be wonderful if Londoners, or for that matter Dilliwallahs, went about with an eternal grin!]. Coming to Seoul was indeed a very pleasant experience and well worth a visit.

From the 4th-floor window of my room in Seoul Hilton, the neat rows of trees on either side of the road and clinging to Namsan Hill opposite the hotel, were a sheer delight to the eye.It wasquite warm outside, but the airconditioning inside, and a glass of ice-cold orangejuice in my hand were so refreshing.

Needless to say that with adult literacy rate as high as 97% and a strong and prospering economy, this small country is a giant in the field of high-precision electronics and the second largest ship-building nation in the world.Barely 38,000 square miles with a population not exceeding 50 million (less than that of Britain), South Korea far surpasses the industrial output of much larger nations.

Short History of South Korea

But it was a different story altogether not long ago when, in 1948, South Korea became a democratic republic south of the 38th parallel latitude, and soon thereafter was invaded by North Koreans with massive support from the Communist Chinese army.The invading troops inflicted heavy damage to Seoul and its citizens, and it was not until the 26th of September 1950 that UN forces including American troops liberated Seoul and restored the shattered city as the Capital of the new democratic republic of South Korea. The Korean War (1950-53) is reckoned as one of the great battles of the 20th century.

Economic Growth

Though agriculture has been the major activity, since the mid Sixties in an era of acute austerity, rapid industrialization carried out with unprecedented verve and vigour has pro-pelled Soutyh Korea to aposition of prominence as a large-scale manufacturer of high-quality ultra-modern electronics hardware in the Far East, to rival even Japan. And today this nation plays a leading role in world trade and commerce.

I went to see the colossal headquarters of electronics giant Samsung in downtown Seoul. The fvoyer in this splended edifice of steel and glass was as BIG as a cinema hall! Not to mention an army of bright and young office workers in smart Western suits and one-piece overalls scurrying around as if they had a deadline to meet.

Other facets of Korean Life

Buddhism (50% of the population), Confucianism, and the large Christian population exist side by side in complete harmony. \the kind of racial strife and religious conflict we see in many other Eastern countries is, happily, non-existent here as, in the words of a Korean police officer I talked to, "We don't allow alien trouble-makers like the Islamic extremists, into our country."

Another interesting point: whereas worldwide the most poipular colpor of the automobile in red, South Korea is probably the only country in the world which doesn't have red cars! The overwhelming majority of motorcars, vans and scooters I saw in Seoul were white or black; Koreans seem to say, 'We like color as long as it is white or black!' Also, red ink is never used in writing a living person's name; if you did that, you'd become persona non grata - the most undesirable person in South Korea!

Regarding etiquette with Korean people, remember not to squeeze hard when shaking hands, especially with females, and when a Korean hands you a liquor glass as a gesture of friendship, don't ever gulp the contents after filling the glass - you are to fill it for him/her to empty it! And if you have smelly(!) feet, do give them agood wash before entering a Korean home as shoes are not worn inside Korean residences.

Tourist attractions in Seoul

I would highly recommend the 20" x 30" folding map of Seoul (available free from the Korean Tourist Office in London, Tel: 020 7321 2535); just this single full-color illustrated may would serve as a useful guide to sight-seeing in Seoul. [the Indian tourist organization in New Delhi could do well by following suit]. Namsan Park From right in front of Seoul Hilton one can reach the top of Namsan Hill by taxi or cablecar and enjoy a leisurely stroll in the park. Seoul/ Tower with observatories and a revolving restaurant (like the ones in Frankfurt and Toronto) in a very popular tourist attraction. From here one gets an excellent bird's eyeview of the sprawling city below (remember to take along a sturdy tripod if you would like to capture the brilliant lights below at night).

Kyungbokkung Palace

One of the five old royal palaces in Seoul, Kyungbokkung, built in 1394, is the most ancient and prominent, and it is here in the colossal palace courtyard that I observed the Korean National Day spectacle in all its glory. In celebration of this national event,for one day in the yhear the vast courtyard is turned into a boisterous though orderly parade ground.

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