Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Korea – an amazing country

During our recent visit to Korea — “South” Korea, that is, although Koreans simply refer to their country as “Korea” — we were astonished by many things, probably too many to discuss here, but I shall try to give a reasonably representative account of the things about the country and its people that we found so impressive.

The first thing that strikes one about Korea is the fact that everything seems to work — something that I also experienced in Japan a few years ago. This goes hand in hand with the fact that everything seems to run on time. If you happen to have bought tickets for the high-speed (KTX) express train from Seoul to Busan, and the ticket states that it leaves at 18h08 from Platform 5, you had better board the train by 18h05, because it will leave at exactly 18h08, even if another KTX departed for Busan at 18h00, and another will follow at 18h30, all on time. Moreover, if it states that the time of arrival at Busan is 2 hours and 45 minutes after departure, you can trust this information to be correct, barring an interruption of the trip by an earthquake. This trip would take about six hours by car. The same punctuality marks the operation of the subway trains and buses.

The second unforgettable impression about the country is the friendliness and helpfulness of the people, who always try to assist you — even if it is in broken English — when you need directions or information. The chief organiser of the English Literature Conference we attended in Busan exemplified this friendliness when he offered to waive the conference fee for both myself and my partner, because we had “travelled so far” to attend the conference. Needless to say, we insisted on paying like everyone else, although we accepted his offer of attending the gala dinner without paying.

Our hostess (a professor of English), who invited us to the Busan conference, as well as to her university — Kyung Hee University, just outside of Seoul — was as hospitable as any South African could be, considering that we have the reputation of being among the most hospitable people in the world. She took us to no fewer than three restaurants, insisting on paying for us despite our protestations — a Vietnamese restaurant and two traditional Korean restaurants, the second one of which was evidently very exclusive, and located on the slopes of one of the mountains surrounding Seoul. Actually, her husband, a theologian, settled the bill there, and when I tried to reciprocate at a coffee shop afterwards, he insisted on picking up the tab there too. She also took the trouble of taking us to a traditional village outside Seoul, to make sure that we would experience the traditional way of life of Koreans — which was extremely interesting, down to drinking a variety of teas in the village, including ginger tea and Ginseng tea (which was very welcome, under conditions of -16C outside the little tea house!).

Because both of us appreciate a mug of good filter coffee, or even better, cappuccino, we were delighted to discover that Korea is a coffee-loving society — almost every second shop is a coffee shop, and their coffee is as good as Italian coffee, which I had always regarded as being unparalleled, until now. Our favourite coffee shop chains were Edya Coffee, which sold coffee from Africa, at the best available rates — 2800 Korean Won (about US$2.8 or R22) for a cappuccino, and Tom ‘n Toms, at 2900 Korean Won, but with much more comfortable furnishings.

The cleanliness and safety of the two cities we visited were conspicuous. Sadly, one could not help but envy the Koreans the atmosphere of free and safe movement anywhere one went, during the day until late at night (we frequently had a late night coffee just before midnight at a coffee shop). We only made use of the subway once in Seoul — only to travel to the furthest point on the other side of the colossal city (of 14 million people) from where we stayed — walking everywhere instead, and never once did we feel insecure or exposed. I have no doubt that, like every nation on earth, Korea does experience criminal activity, but compared to South Africa, where one can seldom relax in the knowledge that one is safe, it induces a wonderful feeling of being at ease wherever you go. Our country has a long way to go in this respect.

It was quite daunting to climb up to one of the snow-covered mountain ridges overlooking Seoul in sub-zero temperatures, but we were rewarded, not only with good exercise, but also with beautiful vistas of the sprawling city below us. On the lower reaches of the mountain we were surprised at the number of Koreans walking or running on the mountain paths, stopping occasionally to do gym exercises on the equipment provided at regular intervals in outdoor gym areas. And these people included quite a few senior citizens.

We visited a number of museums, all of them free of charge, and were impressed by the evidence of Korea’s history of scientific and technological development. The second-oldest known star chart, carefully chiselled on a monolith, and dating back to the cusp between the late middle ages and the early modern period, as well as technical devices such as water clocks (with an astonishing degree of accuracy) dating back to the 14th century, were among some of the artefacts which evinced the Koreans’ ingenuity as a nation.

Incheon Airport outside Seoul has received recognition as the best airport in the world for seven years running. Apart from boasting a beautiful building, the airport offers a symphony orchestra, and actors in traditional costumes, as well as women playing on sitars make sure that passengers waiting for their flights are never bored. Add to this Koreans’ prowess in the development of smartphones (we saw the impressive headquarters of Samsung in Seoul), and their recent success with automobile innovation (KIA as well as Hyundai, whose headquarters building was opposite our hotel in Seoul, has recently come up with cars that are virtually on a par with their Japanese counterparts), and it is clear that South Africa lags way behind by comparison.

At Kyung Hee University we were impressed by the interest and keen attention of the postgraduate students in my seminar on the use of advanced theory in the interpretation of literature. They were not always fluent in English when they asked questions, but it was clear from the concepts they tried to articulate that they understood what I was trying to get across. To sum up my personal feelings about Korea, sometime in the future I would love a contract post at a university there, to teach philosophy, theory of literature or art, psychoanalytic theory, architectural theory, semiotics or film studies. After all, in addition to Korean society’s many commendable features, the country boasts impressive mountains, which count among the things I love most in the world.

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    • Maria

      The countries of the East are frequently underestimated as far as their cultural achievements are concerned, and I have the perhaps very personal impression that this applies especially to (South) Korea. It is only comparatively recently that it has gained more international prominence, because of Samsung’s success with tablets and smartphones. But one should not forget that there was a time, centuries ago, when the West lagged behind the Orient in science as well as technology.

    • Guinness Holic

      Koreans are indeed extremely honourable, polite and decent people. I do a lot of business with Koreans and know them pretty well.

      Bert, you mind-boggling belief that South Africans are considered, “…among the most hospitable people in the world”, certainly flies in the face of the facts, which you have conveniently pointed out for us when you soberly admit that, “Sadly, one could not help but envy the Koreans the atmosphere of free and safe movement anywhere one went, during the day until late at night…” (as well as how astonished you were at the actions of your hosts).

      You cannot be among the world’s friendliest nations, yet have the highest murder, rape and violent crime rates too. And take a gander at how foreigners are treated at your international airports when entering and leaving, and you might take a rather dim view of the locals alleged ‘friendliness’ when compared with how you are treated in Korea.

      South Africa USED to be a neat and tidy country with litter unseen, of course this was during the bad old Apartheid days when whites ruled, and the national flower was the Protea and not the OK Bazaars packet.

      It should be noted that SA and Korea were on an economic par during the 60’s, but SA has since been overtaken during that same decade and have been galloping ahead ever since. They are industrious, productive, diligent and honest. Virtues sadly lacking in today’s New (yet hopelessly unimproved) South Africa.


    • Guinness Holic


      Korea had become a fully evolved and industrial first world nation a mere 8 years after the war with it’s Northern neighbours was considered a tie. South Africa – 19 years as The NuSA – have done nothing but slip into the abyss of crime, cronyism and catastrophe. Led into this quagmire by the ANC and it’s sycophantic supporters.

      You should be sad when you leave Korea, Bert. Sad for leaving such beautiful people, and for the loss of all hope for your nation.

    • ian shaw

      Remarkably, I had similar experiences in Japan and even China, where I was invited to lecture on my research in artificial intelligence and industrial control systems way back in 1997.

    • K Mzala

      The Korean story is quiet remarkable. 50 yrs ago South Korea was poor and even got some donations from Ghana ( Ghana was richer than Korea then), but now South Korea is a 1st world country. Her people have a very strong work ethic.

      Next time you visit South Korea, take me with asseblief :).

      Go Tiger Go!!

    • Dave Harris

      So I wonder if Foucault would have uncovered a prison-like world (ours) in which individuals are reduced to “docile bodies” through the infamous Korean gangnam style disciplinary techniques? LOL

    • Chrips

      Maybe you should have visited North Korea directly afterwards so you can give us a first hand account on the virtues of socialism vs capitalism?

    • Bert

      Guinness Holic – I would argue that, DESPITE all the concrete atrocities that correlate with those horrific statistics you mention (which are undeniable), the people of this country are still very hospitable, regardless of race. And I am talking of ordinary South Africans, the ones who are usually the victims of all the gratuitous criminal activities in this country. A group of 8 members (including myself and my partner) of the Mountain Club of SA, who recently climbed a peak in the Kougas, were accommodated royally in a cottage (at a very reasonable rate) on the farm where the mountain is situated, by the owners – who did not know us from a bar of soap when we approached them with the request to climb the mountain. These people are the salt of the earth, as they say. It is quite miraculous, that this hospitality still persists, despite our profile as the crime-capital of the world. But I agree wholeheartedly with you about the Koreans – ‘beautiful people’, indeed.

    • Bert

      By the way, Guinnes Holic, I still believe that the account I gave way back in 2007 for the violent crime in this country is correct, although the explanation is complex. It has to do with economics, poverty, the social sphere as well as the ‘symbolic’ You can look at it here:

    • john patson

      Korean success is even more remarkable when you remember how desperately poor the country was after WW2 and the Korean War — tales of one cabbage leaf being used for a family’s soup for a week abound with only slight exaggeration.
      A long period of fascist military dictatorship also left marks, “lefties” still feel the need to look over their shoulders, more so than in Spain for example.
      So, as in China, where anyone over 60 lived through a full-blown famine, there is a delight in today’s prosperity and social order which comes from knowing how hard things used to be.
      Compare and contrast with DRC for example, where the roads left by the Belgians do not exist any more, and anyone over the age of 60 can remember when it was possible to drive, without a 4×4 with a winch, from Lumbumbashi to Kinshasa.

    • http://[email protected] Alula Raphael

      The accounts of South Africa being such an hospitable country makes me shudder! Then, some reader blames all of South Africa’s woes on the ANC & reminisces on the “good old days” when the white minority ruled that country with the most savage & criminal regime in all of modern history… It just reminds me, it’s all a matter of perspective! One man’s fruit is another man’s poison.

    • Katynomad

      Sadly, South Africans have been impressed by the safety of cities in the world outside for a very long time by now – something citizens elsewhere take for granted, but which our beleaguered people experience as extraordinary. The orderliness and friendliness of Korea exist in many other countries, and here on the East Coast of the USA, as well as e.g. In Germany, which I know well too, the trains also reliably run on time.

    • Hmmmmm…..

      Its hard to pinpoint why we are so slothful compared to other nations. For me it goes beyond socio-economic and political factors. Africans (and not just South Africans) have experienced the same (or worse) deprivation and hardship as the Koreans or Chinese for example, but we seem incapable of bouncing back constructively. I suspect it has something to do with a struggle to break free from what I call the “father” mindset, in terms of which there always needs to be a provider or someone to take care of us – who we rely upon to get us out of trouble when it strikes, even where we have caused it. We are like children whether we want to admit it or not. We live with our emotions on our sleeves and lash out destructively when we can’t get want we want or when we feel frustrated. We exhibit very little self-restraint in anything. We drink and eat and behave with little restraint, we drive recklessly and aggressively without any care about the other, never having learnt to delay gratification or make sacrifices with future generations in mind. While we are truly warm, generous and forgiving, we don’t really like foreigners and we don’t want them here if the truth be told. We blame them for our ills instead of accepting our own culpability. “The government” is expected to perform miracles and we expect a political system to sort out our woes, not accepting that we have to make it work. I wonder how long it will take for us to grow up?

    • Cliff Smith

      Korea suffered under a brutal occupation and colonization at the hands of Japan right up until 1945 – arguably far worse than the suffering of South Africa’s indigenous peoples. They where forced to abandon their language and culture as the Japanese sought to colonize not only their land but their very culture. In 1950, set free from Japan at the end of WW2, Korea was one of the 10 poorest nations on earth (UN) needing massive aid. Koreans famously looked on the people of Ghana with admiration for their relative prosperity. South Korea rejected the trend towards communism so prevalent at the time but rather chose the path of entrepreneurial industrialization with an economy intended to produce goods as they have no minerals to dig up and sell (like Africa) and could barely grow enough food to feed themselves. Through hard works, dedication and a shared vision they performed a miracle growing in the space of one generation to be ranked as one of the 10 wealthiest nations in the world. Their current population is the same as SA yet they now send out more volunteer aid workers around the world to assist struggling 3rd world nations than any other nation besides the USA. They build 37% of all the world’s ships, manufacture over 6 millions cars a year and boast the worlds fastest internet with 95% of their family homes enjoying high speed broadband for under R200/month flat rate. Our government should be seeking advice & guidance from this one country alone!

    • BillyC

      There was an interesting SAFM program yesterday that described a form of repressive democracy that sweats the small stuff – many call it the “nanny ” state. . Pacific rim countries such as Korea , Singapore, New Zealand and Japan championed it and all have very high living satisfaction indices.

      Paul Kugama of Rwanda is the first African head of state to apply these principles
      and by all accounts is already reaping rewards

      South Africans find it hard to comply to such a paradigm. We would have to give up hard wired habits such as civil disobedience/unrest, public urination, drunken driving and jay walking

    • GrahamJ

      @Alula Raphael

      “…when the white minority ruled that country with the most savage & criminal regime in all of modern history…”

      I think Milton Obote’s and Idi Amin’s Uganda holds that honour.

    • Theuns

      I absolutely agree with Bert Olivier – I think their recipe for success is their absolute loyalty to their country and their unfailing objective to be successfull in world terms. The number of South korean products allover (Samsung, Huyandai, Kia, LG etc) is evidence of this fact!

    • Garg Unzola

      Two things I note here:

      1. The virtues of drinking coffee.

      2. How cultural capital and technological capital can exist side by side, in flagrant (and in Hong Kong’s case, fragrant) disregard of Marx’s theory of alienation.

    • Zola Zuzani

      It was interesting to read this article by Bert Olivier. But it felt like the writer was painting a perfect picture of Korea. I am a black professional who spent over 9 years in South Korea, even before Inchoen airport was built or the creation of the KTX (Mughuhwa train was the most popular one before the KTX). I had the same impression in my first six month when I first arrived there in January of 2001. But everything after that time was normal. I won’t mention some of the things I was experiencing but it felt like I was in South Africa. And I don’t think it is fair to compare Hangug (as it is passionately called in Hangul: Korean) to South Africa. Korea has been developed for many decades. Korean people have the same goals about their country. They are one race. South Africa has different cultures with different goals. I would understand if the writer said that there are certain aspects about Korea that we as South African can learn. One thing I learned about Koreans is that they are very careful about what they say about their country. But we as South Africans (I am not going to talk about colour) we easily wash our dirty linens in public. Probably that is the reason why many countries don’t respect us. You will be surprised to learn that I wasn’t able to get a job in one of the South Korean universities (though I was qualified) because I didn’t sound American and was not white.

    • Brent

      I have Korean in laws and have visited the country many many times but not recently. The key to their success after being flattened after the Korean war and a country of deep poverty is education, education , education over and over again. In the 80’s when they first took off i researched the country in depth and at that time they owed billions of dollars, mostly borrowed the previous 20 years and used for education from pre primary school, right up to university level. Their experience of doing what works, coupled with a good dose of capitalism/free markets, closely monitored by Govt – why cant we follow them instead of a bunch of failed Marxists/socialists states and 150 years old ideas???


    • Lesego

      Guinness Holic #

      I guess you can now realise the damages of apartheid all around even in your mindset. Remember in Korea there was never apartheid, thats why everyone is positive and not bitter like South Africans. How do you expect progress when people are racist towards each other?

    • Lesego

      Guinness Holic #

      “Korea had become a fully evolved and industrial first world nation a mere 8 years after the war with it’s Northern neighbours was considered a tie. South Africa – 19 years as The NuSA – have done nothing but slip into the abyss of crime, cronyism and catastrophe. Led into this quagmire by the ANC and it’s sycophantic supporters.”

      Could you please just stop the finger pointing and acknowledge that you are also a South African and you are also contributing to the backwardness and stagnation of your country due to your general negative and racist mentality.

    • Lesego

      ian shaw #

      “Remarkably, I had similar experiences in Japan and even China, where I was invited to lecture on my research in artificial intelligence and industrial control systems way back in 1997.”

      thanks for the info, but how dare you mention China? cant you see that we are the anti-marxists trying to put communism in a bad light? Now you ruined everything, now people are gonna start telling us how nice and punctual the Russians and North Koreans are.

    • zola

      South Africa is such a wonderful place. Of course we have our differences and we are the very same people who can bring about change in this country. I don’t think Japan, China or Korea are interested to learn anything from South Africa and the rest of Africa for that matter. So why is it always easy for us to look at other countries to set a good example for us. I remember in 1994 there were many prophets of doom, some were even saying South Africa will be destroyed by “terrorists”. As a result many people were so scared of all these false predictions (you know what happened). However, nothing catastrophic happened. Yes we have crime and social ills but it depends on us, as concerned citizens, to make this country a paradise we can proudly call home. We surely have our own flaws but that doesn’t make us less important than other countries. It is our role, black, white, green, purple and brown to make a difference in this country. Let’s stop whining about trivial stuff and start building this beautiful country. Nkosi Sikelela i Africa.

    • Garg Unzola

      Exactly. South Africa is one of the few places in the world where multikulti has not failed miserably. Still, there’s much to be said for economic freedom that they have in most of the East Asian countries.

    • Brent

      Lesego: “Remember in Korea there was never apartheid, thats why everyone is positive and not bitter like South Africans. How do you expect progress when people are racist towards each other?” The key is not to keep attached to ones bitterness or others racist behaviour. For every thing that happens to one we have choices: to ignore it, to confront it or to overcome/better it. Which reaction by the overwhelming majority of S Africans will march our wonderful country forward? Your answer and subsequent actions is vital for yourself as well as for the healing our country that deserves to achieve beyond our most exotic dreams.


    • Confession

      Now I have a confession…… I like – no LOVE – my wild and lawless country even though it drives me to distraction at times. I like the freedom that I have to say what I want (though I don’t know how long that will last). I like the fact that we have the most sophisticted constitution in the world and that our legal system still repects it. I like the fact that while we may be physically agressive towards one another we live in a country that accomodates us all – warts and all – to a far greater extent than any other country I know or have visited. I like the fact that my gay friends can take partners legally and adopt children if they so choose. I like the fact that I can enjoy the company of my rainbow nation friends in my own home and that we can laugh uproariously at our really wierd and alarming cultural oddities. I like the fact that I can get in the lift in the mornings and listen with pleasure as a black colleague sings a hymn (to herself :0) happily and unselfconsciously all the way to the 20th floor and that the rest of us admire her guts and her freedom to do that. I like the genuine kindnesses that we all extend to one another when the S*&t hits the fan. Travel a bit, see the rest of this anal, deeply divided, conservative and prejudiced world and realise that we are actually an amazing bunch of crazy people just trying to make things work. Maybe we should spend more time doing just that, rather than this continual self-flagellation.