Monday, March 8, 2010

MIM Trip - A little bit of Seoul


At Hyundai's Asan manufacturing plant, where they make roughly 1,200 cars a day. Yikes

I will readily admit that, of our four cities and three countries on the MIM Asia Trip, Seoul was at the bottom in terms of preference; I've studied Japanese so long that finally making it to Tokyo was great, Shanghai is a massive modern metropolis, and Beijing is host to a wide variety of fascinating Chinese history. Seoul? Eh.

(I don't think it helps that I was not terribly happy with the travel getting to Seoul. From hotel to hotel in about 10 hours? Arriving after midnight? Whacking my head in the airport tram at Incheon? Big baby right here).


The parking lot at Hyundai Asan is also a fair representation of Korean roads: Good luck finding something that isn't Hyundai or Kia.

However, because I had such little knowledge of the city and country, it's been a big surprise. Tokyo felt very tight — even the major roads were very, very narrow, the raised highways frighteningly so — but Seoul feels a lot wider, bigger, much more like Seattle or Portland than Tokyo. Also, the drivers are a bit crazier here (on my unofficial driving scale, going from little old lady going to church at one end to Los Angeles on the other, Tokyo is close to Portland, whereas Seoul tips toward L.A. China is apparently batshit crazy too). Also, EVERY car here is a Hyundai. Dead serious. Gotta love strict importation laws preventing competition...


This is also definitely my "stranger in a strange land" experience as well. Sure, Tokyo's on a different continent, but it's fairly westernized, I've studied Japanese forever, and I've been reading my travel guide for Tokyo religiously. You can get around Tokyo with zero Japanese very easily. Seoul, however....not counting brand names for western companies, I've seen more signs and markings in Japanese around here than I've seen signs in English. Gaijin charades abound, especially since only one of my graduate cohort is intimately familiar with the Korean language. That said, the place seems nice enough — right near our hotel is a big downtown shopping district, kind of halfway between the excesses of Shibuya in Tokyo and what I'm anticipating the Silk Market in Beijing will be — that is, while there are real stores with legit goods down these alleys, it seems like a good chance to find fakes.


While we had a lot of time to hop around Tokyo on our own, we've been really limited in Seoul. The first full day here was basically dedicated to a DMZ trip, which was fascinating in ways I couldn't comprehend without being here. What you might not be able to wrap your head around is that this is a country still at war. Of course it's not an active, hot war, but when you hear from your tour guide about when Korean men generally get their required army service out of the way, and you see barb wire fences and guard posts lining the highway in the last few kilometers leading up to the start to get the idea a bit.



The above is just about all they'll let you take photos of at the DMZ — actually, what they'll let you keep photos of, I should say. There's a large yellow line about twelve or fifteen feet behind the rail and, while they'll let you go up and look through binoculars to peep at North Korea, you really can't get any kind of photos.

Our tour also went down to Tunnel 3, which is the third of four found tunnels dug by North Korea trying to...well, I don't know. Prepare for an invasion? I guess. Our guide said he believes the South Korean army knows that 13 or 14 tunnels exist, including the four that have been found; chances are there are more and, considering the short 30-mile distance between DMZ and Seoul (which has about 40 percent of South Korea's population in the vicinity), it's not too shocking. The North denied Tunnel 3's existence and, apparently, North Korean soldiers painted the walls black to say it was a coal mine; the South turned it into a tourist trap and profited, upsetting the North to no end. They wanted a cut of the profits!


It's indicative of a very complicated relationship between South and North. I get the feeling that many in the South feel pity for those stuck in the North, and save their hatred for a pig-headed and dogmatic regime that's fractured what was previously a country united for centuries. The hope for re-unification is strong and romantic; there's very real issues that will need to be addressed if and when that happens — the north/south gap is far, faaaaaaar worse than West and East Germany were — but the most cynical of South Koreans just want to delay the cost instead of saying they don't want to address it at all.



The example that really drove this into my mind is Dorasan Station. It's the northernmost train station from the South before going into the North, and it was used for a few years early in the century by the tourists who were allowed from the South to the North to one of a very, very few tourist locations. It's standing still, and as nice a station as any I saw in Japan — it's now a symbol of hope, an extended handshake just hanging in the air until such a time as it's needed. There's still a departure gate for Pyeongyang,'s hard to explain. It's just a very palpable, romantic thing to actually see in person.


Hyundai Asan was fascinating for other reasons. Remember what I said about every car in South Korea seemingly being a Hyundai? Here's part of the reason why. Nearly 350,000 cars a year roll out of Asan for the world market, namely the Sonata and Azera (which are both available in the U.S.). Seeing a huge production plant — one that can roll out a completed car once a minute — was absolutely stunning. I've seen plenty of documentary shows on Discovery Channel and the like about auto manufacturing plants (thanks dad!) but seeing one, walking through one, seeing the robots spot weld, check each body with a laser...seeing cars born right in front of my eyes was spectacular. It's on an enormous, unfathomable scale, made even more impressive because Asan is a highly vertically integrated facility — from raw sheet metal waiting at one end of the factory, to finished Hyundais at the other end, everything can be done at Asan.


So I leave South Korea with a much greater respect and understanding for the country, an amazing sense of sympathy for a country that desperately wants to be one again, and a strong suggestion to give Seoul a chance if you have the opportunity. It's not quite as cosmopolitan as Tokyo, but maybe that's not a bad thing.

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