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The Seoul of Success

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BOOM TOWN: For all its western looks, South Korea melds tradition with modernity as form and courtesy are valued. Despite its volatile geo-politics, it is a confident nation with an unostentatious public life

Given the plentiful rain it receives, it should be no surprise that South Korea looks lush green. But for a jaded eye accustomed to India's increasingly barren sub-Himalayas - stripped by erosion and unthinking development - the much smaller nation's success in preserving its verdant wealth seems remarkable. As the fast loco moves out of Seoul on its way to South Korea's second largest city, Busan, the countryside is a patchwork of fields, well-ordered settlements and thickly forested hillsides.
Won-Young, an interpreter working with a Korean TV network, offers that as much as 70 per cent of the country is mountainous and covered with woodlands. In fact, only 19 per cent of South Korea, which occupies about 45 per cent of the strategic Korean peninsula bound by the Sea of Japan, Korea Strait and Yellow Sea, is under cultivation. A systematic reforestation effort has seen green cover, ravaged by mining and logging during the Japanese occupation, being restored. New developments are carefully regulated.
With a population of around 48 million and a density estimated at 480 persons per square km, South Korea has an appetite for development. There are more thickly populated areas in the world, but Koreans point out that Seoul itself accounts for 12 million souls. Busan is next, with four million. With agriculture involving only a small workforce, pressure to reclaim the sea and clear forests is not inconsiderable.
Koreans prefer to live, like residents of most big cities, in apartments. Rows of residential blocks can be seen on the outskirts of cities, and Seoul's own inner skyline matches that of any western capital, with the Han river providing a flourish as it snakes through the city. Seoul is a busy place, but somehow not crowded. On Saturdays, the popular Myeong-dong shopping area is swarming with the weekend crowd. Street food sellers and small sit-down eateries do brisk business, while bargains are struck in side lanes. Big brands and malls along the main streets are more exclusive, but, for visitors, just being outdoors seems half the fun.
In this western style society, shorts and skirts rule the female wardrobe while men stick to T-shirts and jeans. It is not easy to spot a very obese person. Tanned limbs paint a youthful picture of the city. The sunny spirit may well be a reflection of South Korea's climb out of recession with per capita incomes expected to touch $21, 000 this year. Though economists at state institutes harp on the "no free lunch" mantra, a sense of wellbeing is obvious.
Not that life is always a party. Korea's well educated youth struggles for skilled jobs and it is common for people to travel to the US, Australia or the UK to learn English and earn higher, better qualifications. Joon, a TV executive, points out that one of the reasons why young couples do not have babies - South Korea's birth rate is 1. 1 per couple - is the cost of education. "School and college are not enough. A student must add higher qualifications to get a good job, " she says.
Anna Kim came back to Seoul after five years in Los Angeles and feels it is not always easy to meet expectations. Many want to stay on in the US and Australia, she says. City life is expensive and marriage is no easy decision. Anecdotal evidence indicates women do not marry till their late 20s or early 30s. Men must first save for an apartment. "No one marries early, " says Seo Kang-soo, assistant minister in the culture and information service. He agrees birth rates are a concern and says there are incentives for the second and third children.
A week in South Korea when the country is busy marking 60 years of the start of the 1950 Korean War offers revealing glimpses of a nation that fashioned a future, but is very aware of its past. The impressive memorial to soldiers who fell in the conflict, and repeated expressions of gratitude on random lips speak of an institutionalised, indebted sense of history.
Interestingly, some 700 Indian Army Medical Corp personnel served in the war, in pursuance of Jawaharlal Nehru's desire to work with the UN. The unit was part of the UN-mandated forces. That small gesture has reaped rich dividends at memorial programmes where US military commanders are a prominent presence.
The two Koreas seem to be still at war. North of the 38th parallel is one of the world's most isolated regimes. The demilitarised zone between the two Koreas is touted as one of the most heavily guarded borders in the world as well as a tourist attraction. On June 24, on the eve of the 60th anniversary of northern aggression, no bullets were fired, but the animosity seems barely dimmed.
Outside the bare concrete "visitors' house" on the North Korean side, a soldier surveys the south through a pair of binoculars. He is watching an elaborate exercise where war veterans from New Zealand, Australia, Greece, Turkey and the US arrive in buses to be feted with quick tours of the border. Close to 40, 000 US soldiers died in the Cold War era's first hot war and, today, Americans make up most of the UN military commission at Panmunjom.
The sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan has reminded the south of its vulnerabilities. North Korea's leader Kim Jong-il is apparently manoeuvering to install son Jong-un as successor. The torpedoing of the Cheonan was a well-timed bit of machismo. There is little love for "cousins" across the border in the south, with young people being the most unsentimental. The official desire for unification has little public resonance.
North-east Asia's geo-politics revolves around China and Japan with Tokyo's economic clout perpetuating a historical influence. The rise of China is the big event and the Korean Development Institute's Joong-Kyung Choi agrees it is both an opportunity and a threat. South Korea's trade is booming and he sees Chinese markets and exporters using Korean expertise and capital. Though he refused to comment on political issues, China is the central influence on North Korea and the Cheonan incident didn't help business confidence.
While the US's shadow over the region is all too visible, North Korea's unpredictable behaviour troubles Seoul. Officials admit it is difficult to anticipate Pyongyang's moves and assess Kim's ability to whip up patriotic sentiment. Despite food shortages and an anaemic economy, the hermit nation's military is a formidable fighting machine. "We are constantly involved in a guessing game. Our options in the face of aggression are limited, " said an official.
Strangely, despite China's recalcitrance to reign in its wayward protêgê, Korean sentiment seems to tilt more towards Beijing rather than democratic Japan, with whom it shares more attributes. It would seem that memories of what was a particularly brutal Japanese occupation from 1910-45 run deep. Even the military governments of the 1960s faced stiff protests when they pragmatically chose to bury the historical animus for much-needed Japanese capital and technology.
The Koreans see themselves as an older, and therefore intrinsically superior, culture to the Japanese. Buddhism travelled from India to China and then to Korea. It reached Japan later. The Buddhist forms are closer to Indian practice and form a close connection with China. Though Japan is less tolerant of North Korea's nuclear ambitions and is a significant business partner, it is less well received.
In this scenario, India has emerged as a partner offering economic advantages to South Korea. Electronic goods have become household names in India as South Korean firms seem to have mastered the Indian business environment quite well. Now, both Japan and South Korea are eyeing a civil nuclear deal with India.
At Busan, the Hyundai heavy works factory is a stunning tribute to the power of organisation and excellence. Massive 1, 600-tonne cranes hew keels to decks as the dry docks ready mammoth tankers for the sea. With its expertise in ship turbines and casting of propellers, Hyundai has a near monopoly in certain categories of ocean going vessels.
Today, South Korea is a modern, western-type nation with Seoul's superbly planned underground. Yet, for all its western looks, it melds tradition with modernity as form and courtesy are valued. Despite its volatile geo-politics, Korea is a confident nation, with an unostentatious public life. At a cultural programme in Seoul, VIPs sat on wooden benches and after they left, the seats were occupied by ordinary folk. It is certainly unlikely to happen in India.

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