There are two sides to every story.

So, the WWII ended and the influential elite divided the country into two parts, while at the same time establishing the longest demilitarised zone in history. On one side is the part which represents “ruthless communism”, on the other “bright capitalism”. This story is about the latter.

After WWII Seoul was left in ruins and the new leaders who came to power steered the country towards industrialisation and land reform.

Korean War Memorial.

Despite repressive rulers, South Korea’s economy began to grow rapidly from the 1960s, and by the 1990s the country had undergone an economic miracle. It was transformed from a poor, relatively undeveloped country with a largely illiterate population, into a thriving and rich economy. This period saw the government build roads and bridges and expand education across the country.

Seoul skyline.

The South Korean economy continued to grow and the country climbed out of poverty completely to become an affluent society. Today Seoul is a truly 24 hour city, and has become the economic, political and cultural hub of the country.

If you’ve done anything wrong or if your clothing is simply outdated you’re sure to be chased by the Korean fashion police.

Tourist police.
Tourist police.

Seoul has transformed into the epitome of a modern, working, eating and entertaining city.

Street food stalls ensure that food is available at all times and people here often eat on the go. Some stalls have tables or seats next to them so that people can sit down to eat before rushing off.

Couple eating street food.

As one of the largest cities in the world and a leading global metropolis, Seoul has become the city of choice for the head offices of many international companies. It currently plays host to the headquarters of the likes of Samsung, LG, Hyundai and Kia. It also generates over 20% of South Korea’s gross domestic product.

These companies are mostly set up in privately owned skyscrapers with fancy looking exteriors and interiors. Opposite the Samsung building.
Exterior and interior of Samsung D’light, Gangnam district.

Well known within the creative community, Seoul is home to the curved Dongdaemun Design Plaza designed by Zaha Hadid, the same architect who designed the Guangzhou Opera House in China. It has become most iconic landmark of the Korean design industry.

At night the building is lit up by lights set up behind metallic panels.

South Korea is a densely populated country. To accommodate all of its residents most have to live in fairly simple apartment buildings, much like those that were built in the USSR and still remain in Russia. For me, visiting Seoul’s residential areas was like going back home to Tallinn or to any other Russian city.

Apartment buildings here first started to grow decades ago, as a means of accommodating South Korea’s booming middle class, they were the embodiment of a nation in rapid ascent. Today, these buildings, compared to those of the USSR, are high-tech dwellings; some even have robots to do the housework.

Most south Korean construction companies try to differentiate their apartment buildings by stamping their company logos and unit numbers on the sides.

These buildings are built by some of the world’s most powerful brands – like Hyundai, Samsung and others. While living in these kinds of residential blocks in Europe (for example UK, France and Russia) is seen as a sign of lower social status, some South Koreans say that the apartments have become a symbol of success and that moving into bigger units serve as milestones in their lives.

Koreans themselves are a people related to the Mongoloid race, which also includes the Chinese. They share much in common with their neighbours Chinese, Mongolians, and Japanese, whom they still don’t get on so well with as a result of the Japanese invasion during WWII.

Man spreading the word about Jesus and Hell.

Korea is regarded as a Christian country as well as buddhist, therefore celebrations such as Christmas and Valentine’s day are widely celebrated.

Valentine’s Day in South Korea is celebrated with a financial twist. Here it’s a day where women show their love for their men by buying them chocolates and gifts. But on 14 March, Koreans celebrate White Day, where men buy gifts for their ladies, the rule being that they spend three times the amount they received on Valentine’s Day. Fair play, sounds much like Defender of the Fatherland Day and Women’s day in Russia.

White roses outside the Dongdaemun Design Plaza.

One of the nicknames for the South Korean people is “People Who Wear White”, which came from the graceful, white hanboks that commoners wore in the early kingdoms. The hanbok is still worn today, mainly ceremonially, and is honoured as a cultural treasure. Often, young people like to dress up in traditional clothes and have a photo session. In fact, Koreans along with the Taiwanese and Chinese are true posers.

On the way to the temple: Couple dressed in traditional hanbok clothes.

On a normal day, Koreans follow the latest fashion trends, however these trends remain only in Korea and are only for Koreans, where people buy the same coats and go to the same barber.

Typical South Korean young couple walking in the town.

In addition to its fashion, beauty products and large multinational companies, Seoul’s economy is also focused on building, manufacturing and tourism. Because of its very long history of settlement, Seoul is home to a number of historic sites and monuments.

At Gyeongbokgung there is a guard changing ceremony where the actors, dressed up as guards with fake moustaches and facial tans, perform a parade three times a day. This performance lasts for half an hour and is a show of Korean royal culture, or what’s left of it.

Ceremonial flag at Gyeongbokgung palace and the gates.

Ironically, however, despite rapid progress and a growth in personal wealth South Korea is considered to be the second most suicidal nation in the world. The problem lies primarily in the poverty of the older generation. While SK has managed to climb out of poverty through industrialisation, this luxury has not been shared by all its citizens.

Based on statistics, half of old people here live below the poverty line. A poor social system has resulted in elderly people killing themselves to prevent becoming a financial burden to their families. The traditional social structure of children looking after their elderly parents has largely disappeared in the 21st century.

Another dark side of South Korea is linked to alcohol. While the rapper PSY makes life in the country seem glamorous and carefree, performing on the TV with his Hangover track, many South Koreans are getting shit faced.

Drunk person sleeping on the train.

Nothing too unusual you might say, as the same scene could be seen anywhere else in the world, except for one tiny difference – compared to the rest of the world Koreans are extremely hard-working people. They work the longest hours in the world and workers face enormous pressure from their bosses to perform.

Performing well usually includes staying at work late, certainly until the shift manager has gone home, or even going for a drink or two with him at lunch. Alcohol is considered an obligatory part of the job. Koreans believe that it’s an important way to build bonds in business. Refusal to participate creates social awkwardness and will basically mark you out as a black sheep.

Salary man urinating on a fence after arriving back to his neighbourhood in the taxi.

Drinking isn’t just a national tradition, for many of Korea’s 50 million people, it’s a way of life and is the route to promotion and climbing up the career ladder, something Britons might well say “Why not!” to. While western countries have paid holiday to help relieve stress, South Koreans get drunk to cope with it.

Despite the big drinking culture in South Korea and the social issues that excessive alcohol consumption can bring with it, such as alcoholism, widespread suicide and divorce, the issue of alcohol-fuelled violence isn’t a problem here.

I was repeatedly told that due to hard work a large number of Seoulites tend to stay in hotels, hostels or even motels (paying for the amount of hours slept) near their workplace and go back to work early the next day. It highlights how Korean life is one big competition.
I was repeatedly told that due to hard work a large number of Seoulites tend to stay in hotels, hostels or even motels (paying for the amount of hours slept) near their workplace and go back to work early the next day. It highlights how Korean life is one big competition.

This is generally true, not just of Taiwan or China, but of many East Asian countries, particularly highly modernised ones, whose kids are constantly studying to get some of the world’s best maths test scores. Why maths? Simply because South Korea is one of tech centres of the world.

While adults work more than 14 hours a day, their children study from 8am-12am. Yes! That right, 16 hours per day. Kids from the ages of 7 to 18 study triple hard to score high grades in order to eventually get a prestigious job. There are no average jobs here. Often if a student does not meet the highest test scores, which would offer a position somewhere like Samsung, LG or Hyundai, he will then most likely get depressed and eventually commit suicide.

Children having a lecture in a museum.

To conclude, Seoul may be rich, but life here is hard, even for the wealthy. Leaving Seoul means escaping all that, but it also means accepting a life away from your family that simply won’t be as engaging as the one you left behind.