A Historic and Whirlwind Week in the South Korean Capital

Miriam Krule ’18
Chazen South Korea

New York—I’m back in the United States attempting to recover from the 13-hour time difference by donning one of the 43 Korean face masks I did not at all impulsively purchase on Dongdaemun Street, so there’s no better time for me to take a few minutes (the directions advise 15-20) to reflect on our whirlwind week in Seoul.

It was a truly fascinating time to be in South Korea. Many in our group arrived in Seoul the day after the president’s impeachment was upheld. Just blocks from our hotel, there were rallies both supporting and protesting this decision on the Saturdays that book-ended our trip . (Video above from March 11, courtesy of Heather Liu.) To top it off, United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spent some of Friday in Seoul due to mounting tension with North Korea and China. This tension also meant that there were significantly fewer Chinese tourists in the country, which, while bad for the South Korean economy, made for an interesting and somewhat empty experience for us. This is all to say that our time spent visiting the DMZ and the Korean War Memorial felt like it held just a bit more significance than it ordinarily might as the historical implications of such a young country could be felt everywhere we went.

The importance of this history was the backbone of many of the companies we visited. Take the skin care and cosmetics company Amore Pacific. Even as its grown to be one of the world’s largest beauty companies, more than half of its company presentation was devoted to its humble origin story about the company’s founder’s mother. This emphasis on a foundation story was true of Lotte and Samsung as well. Even the country’s former president was in the family business. On the other hand, all the companies we visited emphasized their plans beyond South Korea and into international growth. Our meeting with newer companies, like YG Entertainment, SendBird, and Line were informative for us, but also served as mini focus groups for our hosts as they think critically about the opportunities for U.S. expansion. One of the biggest challenges for them is thinking about how to maintain their identity and home base while also appealing to a wider audience. At places like YG Entertainment, this is a particular challenge with language and style presenting a particular challenge, one that I look forward to seeing how they approach.

During our final night (post DMZ, pre Octagon) we had a few moments to debrief in small groups at dinner. My table was interested in looking forward. Coming from the DMZ, we were all wondering if it would be possible for the two Koreas to reunite. The discussion turned into a debate about whether it was economically feasible for the south to absorb the north, or if Russia or China would get to it first. The one image I can’t get out of my mind though is how cut off from the rest of Asia, and by extension Europe, South Korea is by land. At the DMZ, we visited a train station that was meant to be part of the Trans-Asian Railway. It was eerie to see hopeful signs that say “To Pyongyang” despite the fact that North Korea hasn’t agreed to anything yet.

North Korea
Looking to the future … and North Korea.

And no, I didn’t forget about the live octopus dinner. For the queasy (me) or vegan (me) I’ll just link to them here and here.

Seoulong for now!

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