Somewhere in South Korea is a young woman who was named Leah, after my daughter. When we met on a sunny Friday morning in Seoul she said her “English name” was Eileen, adding that she wanted to change her Western moniker because it sounded like “alien.” Could I suggest an alternative?
“Oh, Leah — that’s so pretty, but it’s a name for a cute girl and I am not cute,” she demured with a giggle.
Of all the conversations I enjoyed with the people of Seoul this is the one I really can’t shake off. In just a few words, my daughter’s new namesake seemed to encapsulate her city’s unapologetic pro-Western stance and the friendliness of its people.
The architecture of this great 24-hour metropolis is just as appealing. Endless shiny skyscrapers, swish retail complexes and neon-saturated streets sit cheek by jowl with the palaces, temples and royal tombs that declare Seoul’s status as a seat of regal power from as far back as 1392, when the Korean Peninsula was united by the kings of the Josean dynasty.
Elegant colonial structures from the city’s Japanese occupation and the clay tiled roofs of Korea’s traditional squat wooden hanok houses, jostle for space with pale clusters of tower blocks adorned with words such as “Harmony” and ‘Happy Home’ on their facades.
None of these tower blocks existed before the 1970s. It is hard to believe it now, but when the Korean War between the communist North and the capitalist South ended in 1953, South Korea was a flattened wasteland and poorer than Zimbabwe.
Just two generations on, its capital is one of the richest cities in the world, the country has a per-capita GDP that surpasses the EU average of US$30,000, and the ultra-modern Asian tiger is home to 10.5 million people. It is difficult not to draw comparisons with the economic miracle of Israel.
Both the Jewish state and South Korea have of course enjoyed significant financial support from America, but as Jews know better than most, a country’s most important resource is its people, not its financial arsenal. And the Korean people are energy, ingenuity and sheer hard work personified.
You see these qualities on roaring display in Dongdaemun Market, a colossal market where you can buy anything from ginseng roots to knock-off Prada sunglasses, and where the atmosphere is best savoured around midnight with a carton of rice balls and red pepper paste and a glass of makkeolli, a fizzy, milky rice-wine. You see it, too, in the city’s full-to-over-flowing coffee shops, in the frenetic business district, and in the pedestrianised streets of Apgujeong where the well-heeled come to splash their cash on international labels but also on threads from Seoul’s young designers.
If Seoulites are the highlight, Korean food comes a very close second. Unlike the cuisines of nearby Japan and China, Korean food has not entered the British culinary mainstream.
Ask a dedicated foodie to name a Korean dish other than kimchi, fermented, seasoned cabbage, and they will almost certainly fumble. But this country’s cuisine is vast: go to a restaurant (shoes off, legs crossed in some) order a ‘royal banquet’ and the number of dishes that arrive will amaze you. Cold noodle soup and sweet potato mash apart,just don’t expect to be familiar with any of the tastes at the end of your (metal) chopsticks.
Though furiously busy there are quieter sides. Spectacular wooded mountains look down on Seoul from all sides, and between them and the skyscrapers lies the ornate, curved roofs of the palace district where there are six royal residences.
In the middle of the city is Samcheong Park where locals exercise in free outdoor gyms.
A few kilometres away lies North Korea where Kim Jong-un rules with a nuclear-armed fist. I was reminded of this dissonance on my return flight with Korean Air. In my reclining seat, I was quaffing a glass of wine and admiring George Clooney in The Descendants when the film was interrupted by a news flash: Kim Jong-un had just test-fired rockets into the South China Sea and a civic defence drill had been planned for South Korea. The contrast between EL AL-style security and the sheer opulence of South Korea’s national airline, and a warmongering dictator who would destroy this miracle nation was a punch to the stomach. Once again, it was impossible not to compare Korea with Israel.
I patted myself on the back for having re-named ‘Eileen’ after an Old Testament matriarch.
The palace sits by mount Namsan and the Han river. it is a large, sprawling complex of courtyards and a pavilion and is a prime example of Korea’s history. Seoul became the capital in 1392 and the palace was built for the ruling family. It was destroyed several times, both bv the Japanese and by Korean serfs. It was rebuilt for the final time in 1969 but the wood structures were replaced by concrete. Put aside at least a couple of hours and have a glimpse of the Blue House (Korea’s presidential residence) and do not miss the Folk Museum in the north east corner of the palace and the charming Hyangwonji pond and hexagonal pavillion — this made its appearance in the film The Moon That Embraces the Sun.