Tuesday, August 18, 2009

...and there is more.

Spatialworlds website

Picture descriptions:
Left Image: The train bridge in the demilitarised zone between South-North Korea.
Right image: Hopes for re-unification.

Seoul, South Korea: N: 37º 01' E: 126º 36'

More than just geography!
In previous entries I have outlined areas with direct potential for geography classes to study. However there are other aspects of the Korean experience which are worthy of note for study. They are foreign relations, ancient history, military history and democratic studies. Whilst not wanting to go into great detail in relation to these areas of study it is warranted in this entry to provide some useful case study links.

Foreign relations
Korea has played a strategic geographical role over the centuries between China, Japan and Russia. Purely because of its geographic position at the centre of this area, Korea in the modern era has had a pivotal role in the Russo-Japanese War, World War 2 , Korean War and the so-called Cold War. Interestingly this disputed geographical role is still being played out on the issue of the Korean Islands called Dokdo. The study of this present day contentious issue on the ownership of the Dokdo Islands provides a fascinating case study.

Ancient History

Korea has a rich ancient history involving the stories of dynasties, Kings and invasion. One of the most interesting talks we had on the study tour was by Moonjong Choi from the Ewha Womans University in Seoul who traced Korean history from the earliest times through the study of Korean art and pottery. The background to Korean art and pottery provided by this talk was supported by visits to the Seoul Museum and other cultural visits on the field trip. The approach was a very engaging way to learn about the history of Korea by linking the preservation of art with history. One of the highlights for me was the visit to the burial mounds of the Silla Kingdom at Gyeongju . These burial hills had all the mystery, wealth and intrigue of the Egyptian Pyramids. I had never even heard of them before this visit! With the added wonder of the Buddhist religion and relics as evidenced at the beautiful Seokguram Grotto, the study of Korean history is indeed a rich one, comparable with those we are so familiar with from Europe.

Military History
Naturally the Korean War of 1950-53 plays a key role in understanding modern day South Korea. The trip to the 38th parallel demilitarised Zone gives a great insight into the tension between North and South that still exists today. Only the week before our visit the North Korean launched missiles into the Sea of Japan, causing considerable news coverage and restrictions on the areas we could visit. The American teachers on a similar study tour were not even allowed to visit the zone (we could but they couldn’t- much to their disquiet!). The North Korean tunnels, the Freedom Bridge, and lookouts over North Korea are amazing living relicts of the Cold War. Equally eerie was the visit to the massive Dorasan Station which was opened in 2002 for rail traffic between the North and South. With only a few trains a day, this station is an amazing edifice to the hopes of re-unification. The study of the Korean War opens the door to examine related issues of nuclear disarmament, US-Korea relations, China-North Korea relations, the nature of communism in North Korea and the attitude of the South Korean Government to the North Korean regime.

Democratic Studies
South Korea has a rich modern history in relation to liberalism and democracy. The 1960 'People Power' democracy riots which resulted in the April Democratic Revolution (which started at Korean University where our lectures were) and the 1987 Democratization Movement are interesting case studies for the students of revolution in sociology and history.

Despite the comprehensiveness of the program, one of the puzzling factors for the geographers on the trip was the lack of geography as a component of learning. At no time were we introduced to the internal geography of Korea as a topic and there seemed to be a total lack of spatial discussion of the Korean Peninsula, spatial representations used or discussion on environmental sustainability. For a country going through such enormous economic development and cultural change many of us thought that a study of Korea through the lens of geography would have been a necessity. Was this lack of geography and sustainability discussion just an oversight or is it way down the list of priorities for modern South Korea? As an aside to this discussion is the fact that in the Korean countryside postal numbers are based on the year the house was built rather than its location! Does this fact further support the view that history is more important in the Korean psychie that the location of place and their apparent dis-regard of geography? Just a thought!
Again, more questions than answers requiring another visit to Korea in the future. In the meantime I have found the book by Jennifer Barclay: "Meeting Mr Kim, or how I went to Korea and learned to love Kimchi" as an excellent read. As well as being inspiring and amusing the book also gave a great account of the history and culture of Korea and answered many questions I had after my visit. A well worthwhile and enjoyable read!

Sunday, August 2, 2009

South Korea: a unique study for Cultural Geography

Spatialworlds website

Picture descriptions:
Left Image: The clash of the old and new.
Right image: Banging the drums in the Buddhist Temple.

Seoul, South Korea: N: 37º 01' E: 126º 36'

So what is different about Korea from a westernised country such as Australia? Has South Korean culture been lost in this frenetic rush for economic development and the associated demographic changes? When we travel to other countries as tourists it is often difficult to see beyond our own cultural norms and expectations because of limited contact with the people of the country. The great thing about the Korean Studies workshop was that we were able to mix closely with South Korean people (albeit University educated) and get an insight into what being South Korean meant. As enlightening was our frequent wanderings around Seoul and the fact that South Korea’s tourist industry is relatively small compared to other parts of Asia and hence we were often seen as a novelty (particularly out in the country on the field trip). Before making any comments on the characteristics of South Korean culture as a unique entity compared to other Asian countries, the following experiences and observations we (I say we because I had some great traveling companions who were with me most of the time and we frequently asked questions of each other as we observed what was going on around us) experienced on the trip will give an insight into the nature of modern South Korean. Most astonishingly, a South Korean culture which seems to be maintaining its cultural integrity despite the onslaught of modernization.


* The people are incredibly helpful. Time and again we were asked if we needed help and people went out of their way to take us to where we wanted to go.
* The calmness of the society. Unlike other parts of the world we heard no horns honking or road rage. A classic experience occurred in a lane when a vehicle knocked a meal from the tray a women was carrying on her head. No histrionics but calm discussion to resolve!
* The hand gesture of receiving with both hands and giving with one with the other touching the elbow is widely practiced.
* The honesty of the society was evident with merchandise often being left out in the streets overnight with no fear of thieving.
* The Korean smile was evidenced as you went about your business, whether at the university, school, streets or subway. The smile seems to be sincere and really is one of welcome.
* It was astonishing when on the subway train that perfect strangers would grab the grey haired members of our group and make them sit down. They insisted our members sit and they stood. Sometimes they were even older than the forced sitter! What was that all about? Respect for the grey haired aged foreigners? We really were quite bemused. On top of that one of the gentlemen who forced us to sit, then gave us all lollies. Not normal behaviours on the train in Australia, even to visitors!
* There is an incredible respect for education and teachers (teachers are quite well paid). When I spent time with the student’s family in Seoul the mother continued to address me as teacher rather than by my name. Observations at the university in relation to the interaction between the lecturers and students tended to reinforce this deferment to educators.
* Males seem to still have considerable influence over females in the society. Whether this is in status, privilege or just prestige I would need more time to determine. Again the obvious demographic evidenced preference for boys would tend to confirm that the society is still rather male-centric in attitude.
* The society has an amazing attitude to cleanliness. This is evidenced by the removal of shoes when entering a living space or restaurant. As well as a preference of sitting on the floor for meals, which is alive and well in the society, South Koreans insist on no footwear in restaurants. Even in some of the hotels and in the homes it was insisted that the shoes were removed. Linked to the cleanliness is the immaculate nature of their toilets. Not only are they all clean and pleasant, they are also decorated by flowers, pictures and even perfumes. The best toilets I have visited in the world!
* The society is remarkably organised. Everything seems to work with a minimum of fuss and all just happens. My experiences in the subway (amazing organisation) or in the hospital, everything was efficient and “fuss-free”.
* A weird aspect of Korea is that the shopping is different. No-one bothers you to buy, haggling over price seems to be uncouth and if you don’t buy there is no animosity. Again a very different experience for a visitor of Asia (if not most parts of the world)
* There seems to be great civic pride in the society. This is evidenced by the proliferation of beautiful statues/artwork everywhere in Seoul (every business seems to have an artwork to be proud of). Such civic pride is also evidenced by the lack of graffiti in South Korea and the provision of complex exercise equipment in parks and streets which would be vandalized in most western cities.

So what can be made about this culture from these random observations? Undoubtedly the society is clean, calm, community based, respectful, pleasant and organized. As one of our lecturers quoted:
“Korea has an “us” culture
Korea is a great place to visit and my observations confirmed the “us” culture view but again various questions are posed by the cultural geographer.

Cultural questions

* Is the respect for education, males and educators based in Confucian traditions?
* Is the reference to Korean Jeong a reality? Is this Jeong still alive and well in South Korea? From my observations, seemingly so.
* With the likely influx of migrants (rapidly “ethnocising” society) to redress the low birth rates and sexual imbalance, will the traditions of the culture be maintained. Will the “us” culture be maintained.
* What will be the impact of rapid economic development on the South Korean culture? Will it be maintained with the onslaught of western values and culture?
* As a visitor one is always aware of falseness in smile and demeanor by those you come across. The pleasure shown by Koreans in being involved with visitors was overwhelming and hard not to be seen as sincere. Are Koreans as happy as they seem?
* What are the social controls in place to encourage people to maintain Korean cultural customs? In view of the low religiosity factor for Korean religion (religion often being the cultural glue for conformity), what is the glue which keeps the subtleties of Korean culture together. The cultural observations discussed in this blog are not social norms requiring law but rather the goodwill of the population to be Korean and be part of the “us” culture.
* What does it mean to be Korean? Are they proudly nationalistic and what is their attitude to people from other countries migrating to South Korea? I found it hard to answer this question in my time in Korea. Is their desire to be Korean homogenous and pride in their “Koreaness” a healthy scene? Apparently there have been only 5 refugees admitted into Korea in recent years. Begs the question, how difficult is it for a non-ethnic Korean to settle in the country? Even the international brides being allowed to enter Korea to redress the sexual imbalance tend to be ethnic Koreans.
* How difficult is it to be a Korean woman and reach the heights of Korean society? Is it a male-centric society, being difficult for Korean women to be leaders in the society?
* With education being so important is the society an “edutocracy” with the only way to advance and be respected is to be highly educated. Or does money talk as in all societies.
* Is there a difference in the “Koreaness” of the people between Seoul and the countryside?

Again, these are just questions, not meaning to be judgmental on Korean culture. What the questions do show is that South Korea is a fascinating study for the cultural geographer, with more questions of a cultural nature posed than answered after a quick visit to this beautiful country and people.