All about Korea

Korea is a peninsula in East Asia, connected by land to Northeast China and the Russian Far East to the north, across the Yellow Sea from Beijing to its west, and separated from Japan by the Korea Strait to its east.

The peninsula is divided into two countries:

  • North Korea (Democratic People's Republic of Korea)
  • South Korea (Republic of Korea) 

North Korea (officially Democratic People's Republic of Korea or DPRK) is a country in East Asia. It occupies the northern half of the Korean Peninsula that lies between Korea Bay and the East Sea, also called the Sea of Japan. It borders China to the north, Russia to the northeast and South Korea to the south.

Tourist travel to North Korea is only possible as part of a guided tour. Independent travel is not permitted. If you are not prepared to accept limitations on your movements and behavior, you should not travel to the DPRK at the present time. On the other hand, travel in the DPRK is, if nothing else, a unique experience.

 

Understand

History

In 1910, Korea was annexed by Japan. An exploitative and brutal Japanese occupation lasted until 1945 when Japan was defeated by the Allied Forces ending World War II in the Pacific. Based on an agreement between the Allies, the Korean peninsula was divided along the 38th parallel to facilitate the surrender of Japanese forces. The Soviet Union and the United States occupied the northern half and southern half respectively. Unfortunately the two states disagreed over the form an election for a unified Korea should take, and before long both sides created their own governments. The Soviet Union fostered a communist northern half under Kim Il Sung and the United States fostered a western-leaning southern half under Rhee Syngman. In June, 1950, a civil war erupted on the Korean peninsula when the North invaded the South and a United Nations force led by the United States entered the war on the South Korean side.

After nearly being driven out of Korea, on September 15-16th, 1950, Gen. Douglas MacArthur led a daring amphibious landing of the UN forces at Inchon, just west of Seoul, that dramatically turned the tables. The North was on the verge of defeat with scattered UN forces actually reaching the Yalu River border with China. But then massive Chinese forces secretly entered North Korea and launched a counterattack that pushed the UN forces back south of Seoul. The battles raged back and forth across the 38th parallel for almost three more years. In the end, little was accomplished except the death of over three million people, the vast majority Koreans. An armistice was finally agreed to in 1953 by China, North Korea and the UN forces, with South Korea refusing to sign, therefore leaving no settlement. Korea remains divided after over 60 years with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea in the north, and the Republic of Korea in the south. Kim Il-Sung ruled as dictator until his death in 1994, and his son Kim Jong-Il has ruled North Korea ever since.

The entire Korean peninsula had been economically devastated during the Korean War, but the North, which had been the industrial half of the country while the South had been the agricultural half, rapidly rebuilt its industry and took an early economic lead over the South. In line with central planning theory the North developed its own agriculture using collectivization, machinery and fertilizers relying heavily on support from the Soviet Union. This system began to unravel in the late 1970s and 1980s as the Soviet system began to falter. With the end of Soviet aid in 1991 there was no way to continue to support the agricultural systems need for fuel, fertilizer and equipment. After so many years of government mismanagement, and the bad timing of severe flooding, the North's agricultural system collapsed in the mid-1990s leading to widespread famine and death for countless North Koreans. The North finally allowed international relief agencies to assist and the worst aspects of the famine were contained. However the DPRK continues to rely heavily on international food aid to feed its population while at the same time continuing to expend resources on its "songun", or "military first" policy based on a perceived threat by the United States.

Today the DPRK maintains an army of about 1 million men, most stationed within a few miles of the DMZ which divides the two Koreas. North Korea's long-range missile development and research into nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and massive conventional armed forces are of major concern to the international community. In December 2002, North Korea reneged on a 1994 "Agreed Framework" which required the shut down of its nuclear reactors, expelling UN monitors and further raising fears that the nation would produce nuclear weapons. Missile testing was conducted in 1998, 2006, and most recently April 2009. In October 2006 North Korea announced that it had conducted its first nuclear test. These actions have led to UN, and other international sanctions.

Current negotiations, most notably the "Six-Party Talks" involving China, Russia, Japan, North Korea, South Korea and the United States, are aimed at bringing about an end to the DPRK nuclear weapons program, in hopes that a peace treaty to officially end the Korean War may finally be agreed upon, paving the way for the opening of diplomatic ties between North Korea and the United States. Unfortunately, in March 2010, a South Korean ship was sunk near the 38th parallel, increasing tensions between North and South Korea. Although North Korea claims not to have attacked the ship, the blame has largely been placed on North Korea.

 

People

In North Korea, the vast majority of people are Korean. There are also a few hundred foreigners to be found, however, most of them are fellow tourists. Because of the lack of immigration, North Korea is one of the most ethnically homogeneous nations on earth.

 

Climate

The climate is generally classed as continental, with rainfall concentrated in summer. Summer months are warm, but winter temperatures can fall as low as -30 degrees C. Late spring droughts are often followed by severe flooding. There are occasional typhoons during the early fall.

 

Terrain

Mostly hills and mountains separated by deep, narrow valleys; coastal plains wide in west, discontinuous in east. Mountainous interior is isolated and sparsely populated.

 

Regions

Map of North Korea with regions colour-coded

 
Map of North Korea with regions colour-coded
  Donghae Coast (North Hamgyong, South Hamgyong, Kangwong, KÅ­mgang-san)
 
  Baekdu Mountains (Ryanggang, Chagang)
 
  Pyongan (North P'yongan, South P'yongan, Pyonyang, Shinuiju)
 
  Hwanghae (North Hwanghae, South Hwanghae, Kaesong)
 

  

Cities

  • Pyongyang — the capital city and the former capital of Goguryeo during the Three Kingdoms period
  • Chongjin — Industrial city in the North East, very rarely visited by tourists
  • Kaesong — former capital during the Goryeo dynasty
  • Wonsan — East coast port city rarely visited by tourists
  • Nampo — industrial centre and port city on the western coast

Other destinations

  • Kumgangsan — the scenic Diamond Mountains, accessible on tours from the South
  • Myohyangsan — the Mysterious Fragrant Mountain is one of the North's best hiking spots
  • Paektusan — the tallest mountain in Korea and the Kim dynasty's mythical birthplace
  • Panmunjom — the last outpost of the Cold War in the DMZ between South and North

 

Get in

Visiting North Korea can be challenging, and you will not have the freedom to explore the country without a North Korean escort, either as part of a group or individual tour. There are those who have called for a boycott on tourism to North Korea, due to human rights abuses in the country or how tourism may help finance the government. There is no official free enterprise activity in North Korea, and all tourist facilities are state-owned so the money goes directly to the government of North Korea. Others cite the possible benefits of Westerners engaging with North Korean citizens, particularly in a positive, friendly manner (i.e., contrary to the stereotypes of Westerners presented by internal propaganda); in practice, however, it is nearly impossible for a visitor to North Korea to have a spontaneous encounter of any kind with a citizen, as most activities of tourists are carefully planned and closely monitored. But regardless of political beliefs, North Korea is generally acknowledged to be a unique place to visit. Travellers must make up their own mind about the rights and wrongs of visiting this country.

Citizens of South Korea are normally not permitted to visit North Korea. In addition, there have been reports of difficulties regarding Israeli, American, British, and Japanese nationals. In January 2010, North Korea lifted the restrictions on American citizens who are now free to visit at anytime of the year. Contrary to rumor, Israelis and Jewish citizens of other countries do not face any additional restrictions. Citizens of all countries will need a visa, which will only be issued after your tour has been booked, approved by the North Korean authorities and paid for. Journalists (or those suspected of being journalists) require special permission, which is quite difficult to obtain. The North Koreans do not allow journalists to visit the country on tourist visas. A specialist North Korean travel agency can help you sort out the complex and ever-changing regulations. North Korea will rarely in practice refuse a visa to a tourist who meets the various requirements.

 

Tours

North Korea can only be visited by an organized tour, but this can be a large group or a party of one. Prices start from around $1000/€700 for a 5-day group tour including accommodation, meals and transport from Beijing, but can go up considerably if you want to travel around the country or "independently" (as your own one-person escorted group). Tour operators/travel agencies that organize their own tours to North Korea include:

 

  • Adventure Korea - Seoul
  • Asia Pacific Travel, Ltd. - Chicago
  • Choson Exchange  - US, UK and Singapore. Not a tour agency, rather they provide training in business and economics in Pyongyang, but they occasionally bring people to visit North Korean universities
  • Explore North Korea  - Toronto, Dandong
  • DPRK Travel - Toronto, Beijing
  • Geographic Expeditions - San Francisco
  • Koningaap - Amsterdam
  • Korea Konsult  - Stockholm
  • Korea Reisedienst  - Hannover
  • Koryo Group  - Beijing
  • Lupine Travel  - Wigan
  • North Korea Travel - Spain, Hong Kong
  • The P'yongyang Project - Beijing, Shenyang, New York (organizes academic programs, student delegation trips and study abroad)
  • Viajes Pujol  - Barcelona, Spain
  • Regent Holidays  - Bristol
  • Tiara Tours  - Breda
  • Universal Travel Corporation- Singapore
  • Uri Tours Inc.- US
  • VNC Asia Travel - Utrecht
  • Young Pioneer Tours  - China, Canada

Keep in mind that tourism in North Korea is not in a state comparable to any other country in the world. No matter which company you decide to book with, all tours are run by the Korean International Travel Company (with the exception of a few, such as Choson Exchange and The P'yongyang Project) and it will be their guides who show you around. The average number of tourists per group each company takes will vary considerably so you may want to ask about this before booking a trip.

Most people traveling to North Korea will travel through Beijing and you will probably pick up your visa from there (some agents arrange their visas elsewhere beforehand though). The North Korean consulate building is separate from the main embassy building at Ritan Lu, and can be found round the corner at Fangcaodi Xijie. It is open on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 0930-1130 and 1400-1730, and on all other days except Sundays from 0930-1130. Bring your travel permission, US$45 and two passport photos.

Your guides will take your passport and keep it during your stay in North Korea, or at least for the first couple of days of your tour, for "security reasons" (or simply because your entry and exit dates must be registered - the black stamps on the back of your visa or passport). Make sure your passport looks decent and doesn't differ from the most common passports from your country.

 

Visa-free entry from South Korea

There is one place in North Korea that can be visited without needing any kind of North Korean visa:

  • Joint Security Area (often called by the misnomer Panmunjom), the jointly controlled truce village in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) dividing the two Koreas, has regular one-day bus tours from Seoul.

Until 2009, visa-free (or, rather, special group visa) tours were possible to two other places in North Korea — however, at time of writing, these have been suspended until further notice.

  • Kaesong (Gaeseong), open to day-long group bus tours from Seoul organized by Hyundai Asan.
  • Kumgangsan (Geumgangsan), accessible by group bus tours from South Korea organized by Hyundai Asan. There are daily buses from Seoul to Hwajinpo, the marshaling area for tourists, who then go by special buses through the DMZ to Kumgang. Tours are normally 2 days-1 night, or more appropriately for foreign travelers, 3 days-2 nights.

All three locations are (were) accessible to Americans, South Koreans, and most other nationalities, although a different list of restricted nationalities applies for Panmunjom (see article).

Hyundai Asan was planning to open up tours to Paektusan (Baekdusan), called Changbaishan on the Chinese side of the border, involving a charter flight from Seoul to Samjiyeon near Mt. Paektu, with the rest of the tour by bus and on foot. These never materialized though, so for time being, your options are to visit the Chinese side of the mountain (no special permits required) or add it as an expensive add-on to a standard North Korea tour.

 

 By plane

North Korea's sole airline, Air Koryo [22], currently has scheduled flights from Beijing, which depart at 11:30 every Tuesday and Saturday, and return from Pyongyang at 09:00 on the same days. Air Koryo also flies to and from Shenyang in Northeast China every Wednesday and Saturday, and to Vladivostok every Tuesday morning.

Air Koryo is the only 1-star (worst) airline on Skytrax's list [23] and has been banned in the EU due to concerns over safety in the past, though is now allowed to fly in to EU territory again. To date, Air Koryo has only had one incident resulting in death, this was in Africa in 1983. The Air Koryo fleet consists largely of Soviet-made aircraft built between 1965 and 1990, plus the pride of their fleet, a 2008 Tupolev Tu-204, which now usually handles the core Beijing–Pyongyang route. Otherwise, you'll most likely end up on one of their four Ilyushin IL-62-Ms (1979-1988 vintage), but Air Koryo also flies Tu-154s dating back to the seventies and Tu-134s from 1983.

The only other airline with scheduled service to North Korea is Air China, which flies three times weekly from Beijing to Pyongyang. Neither Aeroflot nor China Southern continue to fly to North Korea.

By train

Train K27/K28 connect Pyongyang to Beijing in China via Tianjin, Tangshan, Beidaihe, Shanhaiguan, Jinzhou, Shenyang, Benxi, Fenghuangcheng, Dandong and Shinuiju four times a week. There is only one class on the international train between Beijing and Pyongyang: soft sleeper. It can be booked at the station in Beijing, but reservations must be made several days in advance. Your tour agency will usually do this for you, unless you are travelling on work purposes. It has been increasingly difficult to book space on the Beijing–Pyongyang route, so confirm your tickets well in advance.

Once a week train K27/K28 also conveys direct sleeping cars from Moscow via China to Pyongyang and vice versa. The route is Moscow - Novosibirsk - Irkutsk - Chita - Harbin - Shenyang - Dandong - Shinuiju - Pyongyang. Departure from Moscow is every Friday evening, arrival at Pyongyang is one week later on Friday evening. Departure from Pyongyang is Saturday morning, arrival at Moscow is Friday afternoon.

There is also a direct rail link into Russia, crossing the North Korean/Russian border at Tumangan/Khasan. This route is served by a direct sleeping car Moscow - Pyongyang and vice versa and runs twice monthly (11th and 25th from Moscow), arriving Pyongyang 9 days later. However, since the mid-nineties this has not been an officially permitted route for tourists, and KITC refuses to organize trips using this route; two Western tourists have been successful in taking this train into North Korea, but report that further trips on this route would unlikely be successful.

By boat

There is an unscheduled cargo-passenger ship between Wonsan and Niigata, Japan. Only available for use by some Japanese and North Korean nationals, the boat service has been suspended indefinitely due to North Korea's reported nuclear testing; Japan has banned all North Korean ships from entering Japanese ports, and has banned North Koreans from entering the country.

By bus

A bus is theoretically available from Dandong (China) across the Yalu River to Sinuiju, it's run by the "Dandong China Travel Company" but is only open to Chinese citizens at present.

Get around

All your transport needs will be dealt with by your tour company. Most of the time this means buses, although tour groups visiting remote sites (eg. Paekdusan, Mount Chilbo) occasionally use chartered flights by Air Koryo.

A carefully stage-managed one-station ride on the P'yÅ?ngyang metro [24] is included on the itinerary of most trips to Pyongyang, but use of any other form of local public transport is generally impossible.

Talk

The official language is Korean. Note that North Koreans are quite picky about referring to Korean as ChosÅ?nmal, not hangukmal. Unlike South Korea, North Korea has abolished Chinese hanja characters and uses hangul characters, known as ChosÅ?n'gÅ­l, exclusively.

Your guides will speak fairly decent and understandable English (some better than others) and will translate something if you wish. Other guides have the ability to speak both Korean and either Mandarin, German, Japanese, or French, depending on where you come from.

Although locals may be discouraged from speaking with foreigners due to government propaganda that implies foreigners are generally up to no good, and language can prove to be an additional barrier, there is no formal law preventing citizens of the DPRK from interacting with tourists. A visit to the DPRK around their holidays may give you more of a chance to interact with the locals.

 

Buy

In 2002 Foreign Exchange Certificates (FEC) were abolished and along with them went all the different coloured currencies. Now there is just the standard North Korean won, which officially trades at 175 or so to the euro. Black market rates (especially in northern China near the border) are more favorable, but importing or exporting Korean won is strictly forbidden. Conversely, were you to sneak out some won, they are practically worthless outside the country, but make unique souvenirs.

In reality, foreigners are expected to use Euros or as an alternative Chinese RMB, US Dollars, or Japanese Yen. Getting the local money is possible, but it is difficult to use as the shops all want foreign currency. Currency handling is often bizarre, with a frequent lack of change and a number of rule-of-thumb conversions leading to highly unorthodox transactions. So be sure to bring lots of small change. On the other hand, since you will already have paid in advance for your hotel, transportation, and meals, your only expenses will be bottled water, souvenirs, snacks, drinks at the bars, laundry at the hotel (which is as expensive as in Europe), and tips for your guides.

In any case, the only shops you will be likely allowed to visit are the state-run souvenir shops at your hotel and at the various tourist attractions. It is generally impossible to visit a real local shop which serves the local population, though you might get lucky asking your guide if he/she trusts you enough.

 

Souvenirs

There are numerous hard-currency only souvenir shops at tourist sites. Interesting souvenirs include propaganda books and videos, postcards and postage stamps. At some tourist sites (such as King Kongmin's tomb), you can purchase freshly finished paintings with your name and the artist's name at the bottom. And if you are very lucky you might be able to get hold of some socialist realism paintings, although customs officials are not keen on these things going out of the country, so do beware.

On the tour to Kaesong tourists are warned not to purchase anything that could be construed as North Korean propaganda including any images of North Korean leaders such as stamps or postcards. No biographies or books are permitted back into South Korea. This is a South Korean restriction, it does not apply to border crossings with China. If you are leaving the country via flight to Beijing or train via Dandong you should encounter no problems bringing home any North Korean merchandise for your own personal enjoyment.

You are, however, allowed to buy post cards and send them to yourself in any country except South Korea which apparently will not deliver them.

Some excellent paintings on silk or linen were available in Kaesong directly from the artist. Haggling for price is not permitted but the prices are very low.

 

Costs

You will pay for most things up-front as part of your tour. Most sights have a shop associated with them where you can buy bottled water, souvenirs and snacks. These are reasonably priced. In August 2007, large bottles of local beer cost US$2 at the hotel bars in Pyongyang. If you haven't planned on spending money on gambling at the casino at Yanggakdo Hotel, €200 for one week should be enough to cover your costs of water, drinks at the bars, souvenirs and tips for the guides.

 

Eat

Despite severe food shortages in North Korea which have left millions dead, you will not have any problems getting food. Your guide will order all your food for you, and you will eat in hard-currency only restaurants. Vegetarians, and people with food allergies/dislikes of common foods such as seafood or eggs will need to make arrangements in advance. A visit to a "real" local restaurant may be possible; enquire with your guide. Note that although your food is better than what the majority of the population eats, it's still not necessarily great. Shortages combined with the typical use of Korean cooking styles mean that there is a relatively limited variety of food, which can get wearying on tours of more than a few days.

 

Drink

The local speciality is insam-ju, Korean vodka infused with ginseng roots. Locally made Taedonggang beer is very good--the brewery was purchased from Ushers in the UK in 2000 and physically moved to Pyongyang--and some of the Sojus are not bad either. Local alcohol is inexpensive; a 650mL bottle of beer is 0.5 euro. However do not get drunk and cause trouble. Toe the line and show respect, or you and your guide will face serious penalties.

When it comes to water, stick to bottled water, as with other under-developed countries, the water is not always properly treated.

 

Sleep

This is likely to be your principal expense while in North Korea. You may only stay at "designated tourist hotels", for which you will need to pay in hard currency. There may be discounts if you ask for lower class accommodation, if you are travelling as part of a group, or if it is low season (November – March). Costs for your tour, which will include accommodation, all sightseeing activities and meals, will range from US$70 to US$200 a day, depending on these factors.

Usually you pay for all your meals, hotel and Beijing–P'yÅ?ngyang journey to your tour operator before you leave. One week in high season at a four-star hotel will then cost something between €1300 and €1600, depending on your tour operator. See e.g. VNC Asia Travel [25], Koryo Tours [26], Korea Konsult [27] and Regent Holidays [28]. Depending on the rate of the U.S. dollar, it is also worth checking out the American tour operator Asia Pacific Travel, Ltd. [29], the Beijing-based American organization Access | Exchange [30], or the Asian based Canadian company Young Pioneer Tours [31], where you might get as low as €800 for one week.

 

Stay safe 

Crime levels are practically zero, at least to tourists on a strictly controlled tour. However, pickpockets are the least of your worries. The authorities are very touchy, and you need to watch what you say and how you say it. Just do what the guides do, praise every stop on your tour, and remember the rule, "If you can't say anything good, say nothing at all." Also, the official policy is that you are not to wander around on your own. You are expected to get permission and/or have a guide accompany you if you are leaving your hotel on your own. This will vary depending on what hotel you are in. The Yanggakdo Hotel is on an island in the middle of the Taedong River in Pyongyang. Therefore you can walk around the area a little more freely than if you are at the Koryo Hotel right in the center of town. You should always be friendly and courteous to your guides and driver who will normally reciprocate by trusting you more and giving you more freedom. For taking photographs, one needs to exercise restraint, caution and common sense. If you appear to be looking for negative images of North Korea, the guides will not be happy and will tell you to delete any questionable images. In particular, you are not to take photos of anything military, including personnel, or anything showing the DPRK in a bad light. Try to recognize a good photo opportunity, raise your camera at a reasonable speed, compose and take the picture, and lower the camera at a reasonable speed. Try not to spend overly long times composing a perfect masterpiece, or make fast, or furtive motions. This will only call attention to yourself and the image you are trying to take and can result, whether justified or not, in your being told to delete the image.

Digital cameras are commonly inspected when leaving the country. A simple workaround is to leave a memory card with innocuous snaps in the camera and file away any cards with ideologically dubious content.

 

Stay healthy

Drinking water is untreated and there are reports of foreigners being hospitalized in the DPRK after drinking the water, sticking to bottled water is highly recommended. Medical facilities are clean, but outdated and often lacking in basic supplies, and if you fall ill you might be better off going to China for medical treatment. Contact your embassy or consulate in North Korea (if your country has one) for assistance. US citizens may contact the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang for advice if needed.

  

 

South Korea, formally the Republic of Korea is a country in East Asia. South Korea occupies the southern half of the Korean Peninsula, with North Korea to the north, China across the sea to the west and Japan a short ferry ride to the southeast.

 

Understand

History

Early history and founding of a nation

Archeological finds of prehistoric toolmaking on the Korean Peninsula date back to 70,000 BC, and the first pottery is found around 8000 BC. Comb-pattern pottery culture peaked around 3500-2000 BC.

Korea's history begins with the founding of Gojoseon (also called Ancient Chosun) by the legendary Dangun in 2333 BC. Archeological and contemporaneous written records of Gojoseon as a kingdom date back to around 7th-4th century BC. Gojoseon was eventually defeated by the Chinese Han Dynasty and Korea was governed as four commanderies. The political chaos following the fall of the Han Dynasty in China allowed native tribes to regain control of Korea and led to the emergence of the Three Kingdoms of Korea, namely Goguryeo, Silla and Baekje. Despite repeated attempts by China, namely the Sui Dynasty and later the Tang Dynasty, to conquer the Korean Peninsula, northern-based Goguryeo managed to repel them. Eventually, Goguryeo fell to a Silla-Tang alliance, which had earlier defeated Baekje. This unified Korea under the Silla dynasty. Even though Tang later invaded, Silla forces managed to drive them out, thus maintaining Korea's independence.

Unified Silla was replaced by the Goryeo (also called Koryo) dynasty, from which the modern name "Korea" derives. One highlight of the Goryeo dynasty was that in 1234 the world's first metal movable type was invented by a Korean named Choe Yun-ui (200 years before Gutenberg's printing press). Goryeo was replaced by the Joseon (also called Chosun) dynasty, after a coup by one of its generals. The Joseon dynasty ruled Korea from 1392 to 1910, being one of the longest actively ruling dynasties in world history. It was during the early part of the Joseon dynasty that Korean technological inventions such as the world's first water clock, ironclad ship, and other innovations took place. During the rule of King Sejong the Great, the world's first rain gauge was invented and the Korean alphabet known as hangul was created.

 

Japanese occupation and division

In the late 16th century, Korea experienced the first invasions by the Japanese, then led by the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi. However, an alliance between the Joseon dynasty and China's Ming dynasty eventually defeated the invaders, and this, in addition to the untimely death of Hideyoshi, forced the Japanese to pull out of Korea.

Korea's status as a Chinese protectorate ended in 1895 after China's defeat in the Sino-Japanese War and the signing of the Treaty of Shimonoseki. Under the terms of the treaty, Qing Dynasty of China was to recognize the independence of Korea, allowing Japan to exert its influence. In 1910, Japan officially annexed Korea, thus beginning a 35-year occupation of the country. There were numerous rebellions, but through suppression and a cultural assimilation policy that included forcing Koreans to take Japanese names and forbidding them to speak the Korean language, Japan maintained colonial control.

After Japan's defeat in World War II, Soviet forces occupied the northern half of Korea while US forces occupied the southern half. North and South each declared independence as separate states in 1948, with Kim Il-Sung establishing a communist regime with the support of Soviet Union in the north, and Syngman Rhee establishing a capitalist regime with the support of the United States in the south. The disastrous Korean War, which destroyed much of the country, began in 1950 when Kim Il-Sung attacked the south. US and other UN forces intervened on South Korea's side, while the Soviet Union and China supported the North. An armistice was signed in 1953 splitting the peninsula along a demilitarized zone, with no significant territorial gains made by either side. But a peace treaty has never been signed, and the two Koreas remain technically at war with each other to this day.

 

Republic of Korea

Despite initially being economically outdone by its northern rival, South Korea achieved rapid economic growth starting in the 1960s under the leadership of former military general President Park Chung Hee. As one of the East Asian Tigers, the South Korean economy's industrialization and modernization efforts gained traction in the 1980s and 1990s, with per capita income rising to 20 times the level of North Korea. In 1996, South Korea joined the OECD or "the rich nations club". Today, South Korea has been recognized as an industrialized, developed economy with some of the world's leading high technology corporations such as Samsung and LG.

Demands for greater freedom of press and human rights fomented to nationwide demonstrations that led to democratic elections in 1987, just prior to the South Korean capital of Seoul hosting the 1988 Summer Olympic Games.

South Korea is now a liberal democracy and an economic powerhouse. In June 2000, a historic first summit took place between the South's President Kim Dae-jung and the North's leader Kim Jong-il (leading Kim Dae-jung to be awarded the first Nobel Peace Prize for South Korea), but the peace process has moved at a glacial pace.

In recent years, a phenomenon known as the "Korean Wave" (or Hallyu) in which the popularity of South Korean film, television, music, food and other culture aspects has swept most of Asia and many other parts of the world has brought increased attention to the country.

 

People

South Korea is a very homogeneous country, with nearly all native residents identifying themselves as ethnically Korean and speaking the Korean language. The largest resident minority are the Chinese, numbering around 20,000-30,000. However, there is a number of foreign laborers from China, Mongolia, Bangladesh, Southeast Asia and other parts of world as well as English teachers from the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Ireland and South Africa. In addition, about 30,000 American military personnel are stationed throughout the country, especially near the DMZ. South Korea's large and growing economy has attracted people from all over the world and Seoul's status as a leading financial center has brought many financial workers from North America, Europe and Japan. Today, over one million foreigners reside in South Korea.

It is one of the most densely populated countries in the world, but also has one of the world's lowest birthrates (1.21 children per woman). Dealing with this very low birthrate will be one of the major problems for this country in the 21st century. Confucian attitudes about the importance of a male heir have led to a strongly skewed sex ratio, with about 112 men for every 100 women encouraging many Korean men in rural areas to seek wives from other countries such as China, Vietnam and the Philippines. About 85% of South Koreans live in urban areas.

Though East Asian tourists have been visiting Korea in droves since the turn of the millenium due to the Korean Wave, it is still largely off the radar of most Western tourists. As such, having locals stare or listen to your conversations is still somewhat a common experience among Westerners visiting Korea. Children in particular will approach you or shout a "Hi!" in passing. Much of this is done out of curiosity and eagerness to hear English spoken by native speakers. Although most Koreans have been educated in English since elementary school and most companies set a premium on possessing a certain level of fluency, in general the people will find it difficult to understand or speak it. However, most in the city will be able to read and write English proficiently. Tourists will normally find Koreans to be quite friendly and helpful when trying to find their way around.

 

Culture

Having been in the cultural sphere of China for much of its history (various Korean states had tributary relations with Chinese dynasties, (similar in history to Tibet, Mongolia and Ningxia), substantial Chinese influences are evident in traditional Korean culture. Nevertheless, many fundamental differences remain and Korea has managed to retain a distinct cultural identity from its larger neighbour. Koreans are fiercely proud of their heritage and their resistance to outside domination.

During the Joseon dynasty, Korea's dominant philosophy was a strict form of Confucianism, perhaps even more strict than the Chinese original. People were separated into a rigid hierarchy, with the king at the apex, an elite of officials and warriors and a small group of nobility below him, a middle class of merchants below them, and then a vast population of peasants. The educated were superior to the uneducated, women served men, and everybody stuck to a defined role or faced severe consequences. While Korea adopted its own version of the imperial examination system used in China to select officials, unlike its Chinese counterpart which was open to the general public, the Korean imperial examination was only open to those from the aristocratic or yangban class. Buddhism and its supposedly dangerous notions of equality and individual spiritual pursuit were suppressed. While the Joseon dynasty ceased to exist in 1910, its legacy lives on in Korean culture: education and hard work are valued above all else, and women still struggle for equal treatment.

Koreans believe that the things that set them the most apart from other Asian cultures are their cuisine, their language and their hangul script. Outsiders will note their extreme modernity, tempered by a well-developed artistic and architectural joyfulness. Nothing goes undecorated if it can be helped, and they have a knack for stylish interior design. South Korea also has a vibrant film and TV industry, and the country is one of only a few countries in the world in which local films have a greater market share than Hollywood films.

Korea has a significant number of Christians (26%) and Buddhists (26%), with churches dotting the towns and temples and monasteries on hills. However, some 46% of the country profess to follow no particular religion.

 

Holidays

Korea's traditional holidays follow the lunar calendar, so they fall on different days each year. The two biggest, Seollal and Chuseok, are family holidays and entail everybody returning to their hometowns en masse, meaning that all forms of transport are absolutely packed.

  • Shinjeong,means New Years day: on the 1st day, January
  • Seollal, on the 1st day of the 1st month in the lunar calendar, is also known as "Korean New Year". Families gather together, eat traditional foods-especially Ddugguk and perform an ancestral service. The public holiday lasts for 3 days, which includes the eve and second day.
  • Sameeljjeol: 1st, March, in commemoration of the March 1st resistance movement against the invading Japanese Imperial Army in 1919.
  • Orininal: means children's day, 5th, May
  • Buchonnim osinnal or sawolchopa-il : means Buddah's birthday, 8th, 4th month in the lunar calendar
  • Hyeonchung-il: means memorial day, 6th, June. In commemoration of people who gave their lives to the nation.
  • Gwangbokjjeol: means independence day, 15th, August. In commemoration of the liberation of Korean peninsula from the Japanese rule with the end of the second world war.
  • Chuseok, often dubbed "Korean Thanksgiving", is celebrated on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month of the year (usually September-October). Koreans celebrate by eating traditional foods, notably a rice cake called songpyeon and playing folk games. The public holiday lasts for 3 days
  • Gaecheonjeol: 3rd, October. In commemoration of the first formation of the nation of ancient Korea
  • Christmas has become a major holiday in Korea due to the large number of Christian converts in recent times. As such, it is an ideal time to visit and soak up the festive mood, and maybe listen to a couple of Korean renditions of popular Christmas songs.

Climate

  • Spring is a great time of year to be in Korea. The temperatures are warm, but not hot and there's not too much rain either. However, spring is also the time when yellow dust blows over from China. Some days can be horrible to breathe because of this.
  • Summer starts with a dreary rainy season in June and turns into a steambath in July-August, with extreme humidity and the temperature heading as high as 35°C. Best avoided unless heading to the beaches.
  • Fall, starting in September, is perhaps the best time to be in Korea. Temperatures and humidity become more tolerable, fair days are common and the justly renowned fall colors make their appearance.
  • Winter is a good time to go skiing or hot-spring hopping, and the Korean invention of ondol (floor heating) helps defrost any parts that froze outside. However, January and February can be bone-biting cold due to Siberian winds from the north.

Electricity

South Korean households and hotels use the same dual round sockets for their electrical outlets as are found in most of Continental Europe. Anyone bringing an electronic device is advised to bring some adapter should their charger's plug be something other than the dual round type. However, some hotels may provide an adapter for you to use which you can query from reception. However, they may ask you for a deposit should you want to borrow.

South Korean electrical outlets accept appliances with a voltage rating of 220V at 60Hz. If your appliance has this rating that includes 220V (Such as 100-240V that most laptop chargers now accept), you will be able to use the appliance with only a plug adapter. If it falls below or above this rating, you will need to purchase a transformer or a voltage adapter before leaving your country.

Regions

  Gyeonggi
surrounding Seoul and covered in its urban sprawl
  Gangwon
natural wonderland; Seoraksan National Park, east-coast beaches and ski resorts.
  North Chungcheong
landlocked province filled with mountains and national parks
  South Chungcheong
central western part of the country. Flat area made up of rice paddies. Point where main train lines and highways converge. Notable Places: Daejeon, hot springs, Mt. Gyeryongsan.
  North Gyeongsang
largest province and richest area for historical and cultural sites. Notable places: Andong, Gyeongju and the islands of Ulleungdo.
  South Gyeongsang
known for its gorgeous seaside cities and most respected temples. Notable Places: Busan, Haeinsa Temple.
  North Jeolla
Great Korean food.
  South Jeolla
Lots of beautiful small islands and landscape, fantastic food (especially seafood along the coast) and good for fishing.
  Jeju
Korea's honeymoon island, built by a volcano. Great scenery with wild flowers and horseback riding. One of the few places you may need a car.

 

Cities

  • Seoul — the dynamic 600 year old capital of South Korea, a fusion of the ancient and modern
  • Busan— the second largest city and a major port city of Korea.
  • Incheon — second busiest port in the country, location of the country's largest international airport
  • Daegu — a cosmopolitan city, rich with ancient traditions and sights
  • Daejeon — a large and dynamic metropolis located in Chungnam province
  • Gwangju — the administrative and economic centre of the area, the largest city in the province
  • Gyeongju — the ancient capital of the Silla Kingdom
  • Jeonju — once the spiritual capital of the Joseon Dynasty, now a leading center of the arts filled with museums, ancient buddhist temples, and historical monuments
  • Chuncheon — capital city of Gangwon province, surrounded by lakes and mountains and known for local dishes, dakgalbi and makguksu

Other destinations

  • Seoraksan National Park — spread out over four cities and counties, the country's most renowned national park and mountain range
  • Andong — historically rich in Confucious traditions and home of living folk village
  • Guinsa — spectacular mountain headquarters of the Buddhist Cheondae sect
  • Panmunjeom — the only tourist site in the world where the Cold War is still reality
  • Boseong — rolling hills blanketed with green tea leaves where you can stroll along a wooded path and stop at a nearby spa to drink the home grown tea and take a seawater bath.
  • Yeosu — one of the country's most picturesque port cities especially at night, nominated to host the 2012 World Expo. Famous for its seafood and beaches, you can visit some of the islands in Hallyeo Ocean Park with cruise or watch sunset from its fabulous Dolsan Bridge or romantic cafes near marinas.
  • Somaemuldo — an hour off the coast of the South Gyeongsan province there's a hidden island surrounded by aquamarine waters and a breathtaking view that will stop you in your tracks
  • Jindo — commonly associated with the dog native to that area, the Jindo, every year people flock to the area to witness the parting of the sea and participate with the accompanying festivities
  • Ulleungdo — scenic remote island off the east coast of peninsula

Get in

The nationals of 109 countries and territories, including all the usual suspects, will receive a visa on arrival valid for 30 to 90 days; see the official Hi Korea site [2] for the latest details. Rules for visiting only Jeju are even more lenient, allowing in everybody except citizens of 11 countries. Don't overstay, even by a single day — this incurs heavy fines and possible jail time, and you'll probably be banned from re-entering.

Military personnel travelling under the SOFA for South Korea are not required to possess a passport for entry, provided they hold a copy of their travel orders and a military ID. On the other hand, dependents must hold a passport and A-3 visa for entry.

By plane

South Korea has 7 international airports: Busan(Gimhae Airport),Cheongju, Daegu, Jeju, Muan, Seoul(Gimpo Airport and Incheon Int. Airport).

Incheon International Airport, about 1 hour west of Seoul, is the country's largest airport, with good connections throughout the world. This is also arguably the best run and best designed airport in the world - a pleasure to use, although if you arrive late watch out for pushy taxi drivers lying about the hotel buses and trying to get you to pay 3x the normal fare. There are direct inter-city buses to many locations throughout South Korea just outside the international arrival hall. You can buy the tickets at the airport.

Busan's Gimhae airport and Jeju field significant numbers of international flights, links from the rest being limited to nearby major Japanese and Chinese cities. The "city shuttle" services from Seoul's otherwise mostly domestic Gimpo Airport to Tokyo-Haneda and Shanghai-Hongqiao are quite convenient though.

Korean Air [3] and Asiana [4] are the principal carriers to and from South Korea. Air France, KLM, Lufthansa, Finnair, Aeroflot and Turkish Airlines serve Seoul-Incheon and Busan(Munich-Seoul-Busan) from Europe(including Russia). United, Northwest and Delta all serve Seoul-Incheon from the United States, although many flights stop over in Tokyo-Narita. Singapore Airlines [5] has nonstop flights from San Francisco.

By train

Travel from North Korea (and hence anywhere else in Asia) to South Korea by train remains impossible in practice. There have been a few test runs on the newly rebuilt railroad connecting the two, but it will likely remain more of a political statement than travel option for some time to come. However, for travelers coming from or continuing on to Japan, special through tickets [6] are available, giving discounts of 30% on KTX services and 9-30% on Busan-Fukuoka ferries as well as Japanese trains.

By boat

Busan Port International Passenger Terminal [7] is the largest seaport in the country and offers ferry rides mostly to and from Japan. There are fairly frequent ferry connections from Busan to Japan. JR's Beetle hydrofoil service from Busan to Fukuoka manages the trip in just under three hours with up to five connections a day, but all other links are overnight slow ferries, such as Pukwan Ferry Company [8]'s services to Shimonoseki from cost from $US60 (one-way). A Busan-Osaka ferry is operated by Panstar Line Co., Ltd. [9].

Incheon's International Ferry Terminal 1 has services to several cities in China, such as Weihai, Dandong, Qingdao and Tianjin. The largest operator is Jinchon [10], but Incheon Port has full listings on their website [11]. The Chinese ports of Rizhao, Rongcheng and Lianyungang, all in Shandong province, can also be accessed by ferry from Pyeongtaek.

There are also weekly departures from Sokcho (Gangwon-do) to Vladivostok from US$270 operated by Dong Chun Ferry Co. Ltd. [12].

By land

Due both to its location at the end of the Korean peninsula and the political situation with North Korea, entering South Korea overland is practically not possible. The border between North and South Korea is considered the most heavily fortified border in the world, and while some crossings have occurred at the truce village of Panmunjeom, one of the cases (a Soviet defector in 1984) was shot at by both sides and, although he survived, you might not be so lucky. In the 80's and the early 90's most of those who crossed the border either way would be arrested and prosecuted for reasons mostly referred to as 'threatening national security'.

Get around

South Korea is fairly compact and you can get anywhere very fast if you fly, and reasonably fast even if you don't. Subways are available in most of the cities in metropolitan area including Seoul and other big cities have serviced or been on the way to make its subways. And you can easily get on buses or taxis. But it would be much cheaper and better to ride a bus.

By plane

South Korea is small enough that flying is more of a luxury than a necessity, with the notable exception of connections to the island of Jeju. The long-standing domestic flight duopoly of Korean Air [13] and Asiana [14] was broken in 2005 by the arrival of low-cost competitors Hansung Airlines [15] and Jeju Air [16], which offers flights not only to Jeju, but also serves the Seoul-Busan sector with lower fares than the KTX express train.

By train

KTX network map    Shared track (KTX)       Gyeongbu Line (KTX)      Gyeongbu Line (normal)      Honam Line (normal)

KTX network map       Shared track (KTX)        Gyeongbu Line (KTX)       Gyeongbu Line (normal)       Honam Line (normal)

National train operator Korail [17] connects major cities in South Korea. Neglected for a long time, a large amount of money has been plowed into the network in recent years and trains are now quite competitive with buses on speed and price, and much safer and more comfortable to boot. The main problem is that the network is still a little limited and services in rural areas are limited, with trains only once every few hours.

Particularly useful are the high-speed Korea Train eXpress (KTX) [18] services between Seoul and Busan via Daegu and Daejeon, which use French TGV technology to zip along at up to 300 km/h. The full trip currently takes 160 minutes, a figure which is expected to improve to 116 minutes by 2010 when the second stretch of high-speed track is taken into use. The KTX trains have 18 cars with the first 3 being first class and the rest reserved economy seating except the very last car (number 18) which is open seating. There are drink vending machines on board and an attendant that comes by with a snack cart which includes reasonably priced beer, soda, cookies, candy, sausages, hardboiled eggs, and kimbap (rice rolls).

Seoul to Busan by train

Type Time Price
KTX 2:40 W48,100
Saemaeul 4:45 W39,700
Mugunghwa 5:30 W27,000

Non-KTX trains are poetically ranked as Saemaeul ("New Village"), Mugunghwa and Tonggeun, corresponding roughly to express, semi-express and local services. Saemaeul trains are a little pricier than buses, while Mugunghwa are about 30% cheaper. However Saemaeul trains are extremely comfortable, having seats that are comparable to business class seats on airplanes. Though with the introduction of the KTX, there are much fewer Saemaeul and Mugunghwa services, they are worth trying them out. Tonggeun, formerly Tonggil, are cheapest of all, but long-distance, non-aircon services have been phased out and they're now limited to short stopping commuter services. Most longer-distance trains have an entertainment car with a small cafe/bar, computers with internet access (W500 for 15 minutes) and a few trains even have private compartments with coin-operated karaoke machines!

Smoking is not permitted on any Korean trains or stations (including open platforms).

Seoul also has an extensive commuter train network that smoothly interoperates with the massive subway system, and Busan, Daejeon, Daegu and Incheon also have subway services.

Tickets are much cheaper than in Japan but more expensive than other Asian countries - although the damage can be lowered by travelling on local trains rather than KTX. Buying tickets is fairly easy - self-service terminals accepting cash and credit cards are in multiple languages and are very simple to use. Station staff can usually speak basic English. Most stations are clean, modern and have good signposting in Korean and English, and compared to China or Japan, Korea's rail system is very user-friendly.

KR Pass

The KR Pass' [19] is a special rail pass introduced in 2005 for non-resident foreigners only, allowing unlimited travel for a set period on any Korail train (including KTX) and including free seat reservation. The pass is not valid for first class or sleeping cars, but you can upgrade for half price if you wish. The regular pass costs US$76/114/144/168 for 3/5/7/10 days, with additional discounts of 10-20% for youths (age 13-25), students and groups of 2-5 traveling together. The pass must be purchased at least five days before travel (preferably before arrival in Korea), and will require a fair bit of travel (eg. Seoul-Busan roundtrip) to pay off.

By bus

Buses remain the main mode of national transport, connecting all cities and towns. They're frequent, punctual and fast, sometimes dangerously so, so fasten the belts you'll often find in the seats.

There is a somewhat pointless division of long-distance buses into express buses and inter-city buses, which often use separate terminals to boot. Express buses are marginally faster on long runs, but inter-city buses go to more places. For additional comfort, look for Udeung buses which have just three seats across instead of the usual four; these cost about 50% extra.

  • Korean Express Bus Lines Association [20]

 

Timetables and fares of the Express bus routes in South Korea

 

By boat

Ferry boats surround the peninsula and shuttle out to Korea's many islands. The main ports include Incheon, Mokpo, Pohang, and Busan. The most popular destinations are Jeju-do and Ulleungdo. However even at peak times, the mostly undiscovered and scenic islands off of Incheon can seem almost deserted. Foreigners as well as locals will opt for the warmer shores of the South and East.

By car

An International Driving Permit (IDP) may be used to drive around South Korea. In general, road conditions are good in South Korea and directional signs are in both Korean and English. Car rental rates start from â?©54400 a day for the smallest car for about a week. Traffic moves on the right in South Korea.

However, if traveling in the big cities, especially Seoul, driving is not recommended as the roads are plagued with traffic jams, with parking expensive and difficult to find, and many drivers tend to get reckless under such conditions, weaving in and out of traffic. Drivers would often try to speed past traffic lights when they are about to turn red, and several cars will typically blow-through the light after it has turned red whether pedestrians are in the crosswalk or not. Driving habits in Korea, while not the best, are still significantly better than in China. Note that road courtesy is almost non-existent in Korean cities and it is best to read up on Korean road culture before attempting to drive.

By taxi

Taxis are a convenient, if somewhat pricey way of getting around the cities, and are sometimes the only practical way of reaching a place. Even in the major cities, you are extremely unlikely to get an English-speaking taxi driver, so it will be necessary to have the name of your destination written in Korean to show your taxi driver. Likewise, get your hotel's business card to show the taxi driver in case you get lost.

Talk

 

See also: Korean phrasebook

 

Koreans speak Korean, and knowing a few words of this will come in very handy. Unfortunately the language is rather drastically different from any Western language in its grammar, and pronunciation is rather difficult for the English speaker to get right (though not tonal). Depending on which part of the country you go to, various different dialects are spoken, though standard Korean, which is based on the Seoul dialect, is understood and spoken by almost everyone. Most notably among the dialects, the Gyeongsang dialect spoken around Busan and Daegu is considered to be rather rough and aggressive compared to standard Korean, and the Jeju dialect spoken on Jeju island is known for being almost incomprehensible to speakers of standard Korean.

Written Korean uses a unique phonetic writing system called hangul (hangeul) where sounds are stacked up into blocks that represent syllables. It was designed by a committee and looks like, at first glance, all right angles and little circles, but it is remarkably consistent and logical and quite fast to pick up. Many Korean words can also be written with much more complex Chinese characters, known as hanja in Korean, and these are still occasionally mixed into text but are increasingly few and far between. Nowadays, hanja are mainly used for disambiguation if the meaning is ambiguous when written in hangul. In such instances, the hanja is usually written in parentheses next to the hangul. Hanja are also used to mark janggi or Korean chess pieces, newspaper headlines, as well as personal names on official documents.

Learning to read hangul before you arrive in Korea will make traveling much easier, as many signs and menus are written in hangul only. Even basic pattern-matching tricks come in handy: for example, if you know that a circle at the bottom of a block is read -ng, you can already distinguish Pyongyang from Seoul. Further, the Korean words for many common products -coffee, juice, computer- are often the same as the English words, but will be written in Hangul. If you can read hangul, you'll find survival Korean surprisingly easy.

The spelling of Korean words in Roman letters can be quite inconsistent, so don't be too surprised to see adjacent signs for Gwangalli and Kwanganri — it's the same place. In 2000, the government officially standardized on the Revised Romanization system also used in Wikitravel, but you will frequently encounter older McCune-Reischauer spellings and just plain weird spellings. Notably, words beginning with g, d, b, j may be spelled with k, t, p, ch instead, and the vowels eo and eu may be spelled o and u. The letters l, r and n also get swapped often, and the vowels i and u are sometimes written as ee and oo respectively. In foreign words imported into Korean, f turns into p, so don't be too surprised by a cup of keopi or a round of golpeu.

All Koreans who have attended elementary school have taken English lessons as part of their education, and the English level of the country is being improved by government policy and investments. However, due to lack of practice (as well as fear of mispronunciation), many Koreans have little more than a very basic grasp of English phrases in actual conversation. If you're in a pinch and need someone who speaks English, your best bet would generally be the high school or university students. Reading and writing comes much easier however, and often people will be able to read and understand a great deal of English even without any practice with real conversation. Nonetheless, travellers can get by in major cities with English only; however it goes without saying that learning basic Korean phrases will enrich your travel experience.

A common experience for western travellers in South Korea is to be approached by children interested in practicing their English skills. They will often take a picture of you, as proof they really talked to you.

Older folks may also still speak some Japanese. The city of Busan, being a short trip from Fukuoka in Japan has a larger number of Japanese speakers per capita, and the dialect itself is more similar to Japanese in the same way that the Japanese dialect in Fukuoka also has a large Korean influence. However, many Koreans (especially older ones) still resent the Japanese for the atrocities committed during the occupation, so try not to address a Korean in Japanese unless you have no other choice. Thanks to the "Korean wave" (hallyu) of Korean pop music and soap operas throughout East Asia, many shopkeepers in touristy areas speak some Japanese, Mandarin or Cantonese.

See

Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) – Third Tunnel of Aggression, created by North Korea, was discovered in 1978. This tunnel is not more than an hour or 44km away from Seoul and it is 1.7 km long, 2 m high, 2 m wide and about 73m below ground. Black coke was painted on the wall as a camouflage to look like a coal mine. On July 27th 1953, The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) was established as a cease-fire agreement with a boundary area of 2km between North and South Koreas. It is also said that there are still a lot of landmines buried in DMZ. In addition, Panmunjeom is the only ‘truce village’ of the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) where tourists could view North and South Koreas without much hostility. It is probably the only unique area without any troops around as the other area separating the two Koreas is the most heavily armed in the world.

 

Buy

The currency of South Korea is the won, written in hangul. As of December 2009, the exchange rate was approximately 1150 won to the US dollar.

Coins come in denominations of 100 and 500, while banknotes come in denominations of 1000 (blue), 5000 (red), 10,000 (green) and 50,000 (yellow). 1 and 5 coins, while they exist, are very rare. The largest bill currently in circulation is only 50,000 (US$39, €27), which makes carrying around large sums of currency a bit of a chore. 100,000 "checks" are frequently used, and some of the checks go up to 10,000,000 in value. These checks are privately produced (by banks, etc.) which can be used as "c-notes".

A new series of notes was released in 2006/2007, so expect to see several versions floating around, and be prepared for hassles with vending machines which may not accept the new or old versions.

ATM are ubiquitous, but most Korean ATMs don't accept foreign cards, only Citibank ATMs [21] and special Global ATMs do. These can be found at airports in some areas frequented by foreigners in major cities, including Hongdae, some subway stations, and in many Family Mart convenience stores. Sometimes however even the Global ATMs may not accept your foreign card so it's wise to have a second source of money for those times. Be sure to stock up on cash before heading to the countryside, and if you plan on staying in Korea for a longer time, you'll probably want to set up a local account at eg. Woori Bank, which can then be used at the bank's ATMs throughout the country.

Credit card acceptance, on the other hand, is very good, and all but the very cheapest restaurants and motels will take Visa and Mastercard.

 

Costs

Korea is fairly expensive compared to most Asian countries, but is a little cheaper compared to other modern developed countries such as Japan and most Western countries. A frugal backpacker who enjoys eating, living and traveling Korean-style can easily squeeze by on under ₩60,000 per day, but if you want top-class hotels and Western food even ₩200,000/day will not suffice. Seoul has been particularly expensive in recent years, by some measures even more so than Tokyo, but the current financial crisis has caused a big decline for the Won against the U.S. Dollar and Yen, making South Korea considerably less expensive for Western and Japanese tourists.

 

Tipping

As a rule, tipping is not necessary anywhere in Korea, and is not practised by locals, although bellhops, hotel maids, taxi drivers and bars frequented by Westerners will not reject any tips you care to hand out.

Shopping

At certain retail outlets with a "Tax Free Shopping" or a "Tax Refund Shopping" sign, you can obtain a voucher and get a large percentage of your taxes refunded. When you leave Korea, go to customs and have it stamped then go to the "Global Refund Korea" or "Korea Tax Refund" counters near the duty-free shops. However to get a refund you must leave within 3 months of purchase.

Bargaining is common at outdoor markets and applies to everything they may have to offer. However stating a monetary amount would be a mistake. Normally what you would say is ssage juseyo (ì?¸ê²? 주ì?¸ì??). That means "cheaper, please." Doing this once or twice would suffice. The drawback is you will rarely be discounted more than a few dollars.

  • Ginseng: Korea is the ginseng capital of the world. Thought to have medicinal properties, it is found everywhere in Korea. In addition to ginseng tea and various foods flavored with ginseng, there are even ginseng-based beauty products. There are many grades of ginseng, with the best grades fetching millions of US dollars in auctions. A good place to check out the different types of ginseng include Gyeongdong Herbal Medicine Market in Seoul.
  • Traditional items: Visitors looking for things to bring home can find a wide variety of choices. You can find a blue-jade celadon from the Goryeo Dynasty, handmade traditional costumes, paper kites and ceramic pieces that depict human emotions in their designs at the numerous markets and souvenir shops. Insadong in Seoul would be the first place to shop around. After a while one store might start to look like every other store but chances are you'll find what you need.
  • Fashion: Keeping up with the latest trends, shoppers and boutique owners alike flock the streets and markets every weekend. Centred largely in Seoul with popular places such as Dongdaemun, Mok dong Rodeo Street and Myeong dong, fashion centres can be divided into two large categories; markets and department stores. Markets are affordable and each shop will have trendy similar type clothing that appeal to the masses. Also, be aware that you cannot try on most tops. So better to know your size before shopping there. Though department stores will have areas or floors that have discounted items, they are considered overpriced and catering mostly to an older, wealthier crowd.
  • Antiques: For all things considered antique, such as furniture, calligraphic works, ceramics and books, you can go to Jangangpyeong Antique Market in Seoul. Be careful, as items over 50 years old cannot leave the country. Check with the Art and Antique Assessment Office at 82-32-740-2921.
  • Electronics: They are widely available, especially in larger cities like Seoul and Busan. Korea has most of the latest gadgets available in most Western countries, and much more. In fact, when it comes to consumer technology, South Korea is probably second only to Japan. However, you would probably have to contend with having the instruction booklets and functions being written in Korean.
  • Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs): Korea's greatest contribution to the gaming world. While they may not have been invented in Korea, Korean MMORPG's were a key factor in making the genre popular worldwide. Unlike in Japan, where their comics or manga are often made into cartoon serials or anime, popular Korean comics, known as manhwa in Korean are often made into MMORPG's. However, all games sold will be in Korean and for console games, the regional coding for Korea is NTSC-J, which is used for Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong and most of the rest of East Asia, so you might not be able to play them on your European/Australian(PAL), North American(NTSC-U/C) or mainland Chinese(NTSC-C) consoles.
  • Pop culture: South Korea is the origin of the hallyu ("Korean wave") phenomenon that took East Asia by storm at the beginning of the 21st century, so you might want to buy some of the latest Korean drama serials or movies when in Korea. Fans of K-pop may also like to buy the latest Korean music CDs by popular singers such as DongBangShinKi. However, drama serials and movies sold in Korea are for the Korean market and usually do not have subtitles. In addition, South Korea is in DVD region 3 so the discs bought here would work well in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Southeast Asia, but may not be playable by players bought in North America, Europe, mainland China, Japan or Australia. If you wish to buy, ensure that your DVD player can support it.

Eat

Korean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular outside of Korea, especially in other parts of East Asia. However, few Westerners would fall in love with Korean food at first sight, as it is known for many spicy and fermented dishes. Nevertheless, like all acquired tastes, it is addictive once you get used to it and Korean food is definitely in a class of its own, mixing spicy chillies and copious amounts of garlic with delicate ingredients like raw fish. Although Korean food is quite low in fat, a fact attested to by the observation that very few South Koreans are overweight, those with sodium-limited diets should beware, as Korean cuisine can be heavy in salt.

A Korean meal is centered around rice and soup and likely a fish or meat dish, invariably served with a vast assortment of side dishes known as banchan . The humblest meal comes with three types while a royal banquet may well feature twenty types of banchan. In addition to kimchi (see below), typical side dishes include bean sprouts, spinach, small dried fish, and much more.

The ubiquitous kimchi , made from fermented cabbage and chili, accompanies nearly every meal and may be a bit of an acquired taste for visitors as it can be quite spicy. In addition to the common cabbage type, kimchi can also be made from white radish, cucumbers, chives or pretty much any vegetable that can be pickled. Many different dishes are made using kimchi for flavoring, and kimchi is served as a side dish as well. It is not uncommon to find Korean tourists carrying a stash of tightly packed kimchi when travelling abroad.

Two more condiments found in almost every dish are doenjang, a fermented soybean paste akin to Japanese miso, and gochujang, a hot (or not so hot) chilli paste.

While many of these dishes can be found throughout Korea, every city also has its own regional specialities, such as dakgalbi in the city of Chuncheon on the east coast. See the various city articles for more details.

A common perception amongst Koreans is that foreigners simply don't like spicy food, so you might have to spend some time convincing people otherwise if you really want to eat something hot. Also, while Korean food undoubtedly has the neighboring bland-dieted Japanese and northern Chinese breathing fire, if you're accustomed to (say) Thai or Mexican food you may wonder what the fuss is about.

Be aware that eating is deemed a group activity in Korea, and some restaurants may charge a little bit extra or up to double the stipulated price for a lone patron, or on rare occasions, be uneasy with serving them at all.

 

Etiquette

Koreans use chopsticks with a twist: alone among the peoples of Asia, they prefer chopsticks of metal. Typically, restaurants have stainless steel chopsticks, but fine silver ones are also available. Unfortunately for the chopstick learner, these thin and slippery sticks are not the best implements to practice with, but if you can eat with wooden or plastic chopsticks you'll manage with some fumbling. When eating as a group, communal dishes will be placed in the center and everybody can chopstick what they want, but you'll still get individual portions of rice and soup. Unless you are eating royal cuisine, most dishes are served family style.

In many traditional households, children were taught that it was impolite to speak during meals. Don't be surprised if there's complete silence while eating. People, particularly men, will use mealtimes to quickly eat up and move on to other things. This can be attributed to the short mealtimes during military service that most young Korean men must perform.

Some etiquette pointers:

  • Do not leave chopsticks sticking upright in a dish, especially rice. This is only done when honoring the deceased. Similarly, a spoon sticking upright into a bowl of rice is also not a good sign.
  • Do not start eating unless the eldest at the table has begun to eat.
  • Do not lift any plates or bowls off the table while eating, as Koreans consider this to be rude.
  • You can use your spoon to eat your rice and soup. Koreans will normally use a spoon to eat their rice and use chopsticks to eat the other dishes.
  • Don't be self-conscious of whether you're doing something right or wrong. Just use your common sense of politeness and good manners, and everything will be fine.

Restaurants

Going hungry in South Korea would be difficult. Everywhere you turn, there is always somewhere to eat. Korean restaurants can be divided into a few categories:

  • Bunsik are snack eateries that have cheap, tasty food prepared quickly.
  • Kogijip, literally meaning "meat house", are where you'll find grilled meat dishes and fixings.
  • Hoejip, "raw fish house", serve slices of fresh fish akin to Japanese sashimi, known as hoe in Korean, and complementary side dishes. You'll normally find these restaurants cluttering the shores of any waterway.
  • Hansik. The full course Korean meal, short for hanjeongsik, this Korean haute cuisine originated with banquets given at the royal palace. The course starts with a cold appetizer and porridge. The main dish includes seasoned meat and vegetable dishes that can be either steamed, boiled, fried or grilled. After the meal, you are served traditional drinks such as sikhye or sujeonggwa.
  • Department Stores have two types of food areas: a food hall in the basement and full service restaurants on the top levels. The food hall areas have take-away as well as eat-in areas. The full service restaurants are more expensive, but typically have the advantage of picture menus and good ambience.

 

 

Barbeques

 

Hound by the pound

Yes, it's true — Koreans eat dog. While theoretically illegal, in practice the law is not enforced and dog meat soup remains a popular dish among those looking to improve male virility or just beat the summer heat. It is not popular among most younger Korean people or women though. Another option is suyuk, which is just meat boiled with spices to eliminate smell and make the meat tender.

Aside from the cultural taboo, there are some issues regarding how the dogs are raised, butchered, and processed. These days, dogs are generally not beaten to death to improve the taste, but calling the conditions in which dogs are raised and butchered humane would also be an exaggeration. Even in Korea, where many people are pet owners, people get quite opinionated on this matter. So take anything you hear with a grain of salt.

In any case, you're unlikely to end up chewing on Snoopy by accident, as dog is only served by speciality restaurants, and as they rarely advertise you will have to actively seek them out. If you do make the effort, a bowl can go for under W10,000 and you'll find that dog tastes broadly like beef or veal, if perhaps a tad gamier.

 

"Korean barbecue" is probably the most popular Korean dish for Westerners, split in Korea itself into bulgogi, which uses cuts of marinated meat, and galbi, which uses ribs, usually unmarinated. In both, a charcoal brazier is placed in the middle of the table and patrons cook their choice of meats, adding garlic to the brazier for spice. The cooked meat from both of these is placed on a lettuce or perilla leaf along with shredded green onion salad, raw (or cooked) garlic, shredded pickled radish and some chili-soya paste and then devoured. All are optional, so be creative.

The cost of a barbecue meal depends largely on the meat chosen. In most Korean restaurants that serve meat, it is sold in units (usually 100 grams). Pork is by far the most common meat ordered. It's much cheaper than beef and according to diners tastier. You'll rarely see filet mignon, instead common cuts of meat include ribs, unsalted pork bacon (samgyeopsal) and chicken stir-fried with veggies and spicy sauce (dakgalbi). Unmarinated meats tend to be higher quality, but in cheaper joints it's best to stick with the marinated stuff.

 

Rice dishes

Bibimbap literally means "mixed rice", which is a pretty good description. It consists of a bowl of rice with all sorts of condiments on top (vegetables, shreds of meat, and an egg), which you mash up with your spoon, stirring in your preferred quantity of gochujang, and then devour. Particularly tasty is dolsot bibimbap, served in a piping hot stone bowl (watch your fingers!) that cooks the rice to a crisp on the bottom and edges.

Another healthy and tasty option is gimbap, sometimes dubbed "Korean sushi". Gimbap contains rice, sesame seed, a Korean variety of spinach, pickled radish, and an optional meat, such as minced beef or tuna, all neatly wrapped in dried seaweed, topped with sesame oil and sliced. A single roll makes a good snack or meal depending on one's appetite, and they travel well. Basically what differentiates Korean gimbap and Japanese sushi is how they prepare rice: Korean style gimbap usually use salt and sesame oil to flavor the rice, while Japanese style uses sugar and vinegar.

More of a snack than a meal is tteokbokki, which resembles a pile of steaming intestines at first sight, but is actually rice cakes in a sweet chili sauce that's much milder than it looks.

 

Soups and stews

Soups are known as guk or tang, while jjigae covers a wide variety of stews. The line is fuzzy, and a few dishes can be referred to with both (eg. the fish soup-stew dongtae jjigae/dongtaetang), but in general, jjigae are spicier while tang/guk are milder. Both are always eaten with plenty of white rice on the side.

Common versions jjigae include doenjang jjigae, made with doenjang (Korean miso), vegetables and shellfish, and gimchi jjigae, made with — you guessed it — kimchi. Sundubu jjigae uses soft tofu as the main ingredient, usually with minced pork added, but there's also a seafood version called haemul sundubu jjigae where the meat is replaced by shrimp, squid and the like.

Budae jjigae is a interesting type of Korean fusion food from the city of Uijeongbu, where a US military base was located. Locals experimenting with American canned food like Spam, sausages, and pork and beans tried adding them into jjigae, and while recipes vary, most of them involve large quantities of fiery kimchi. Most places will bring you a big pan of stew and put it on a gas stove in the middle of the table. Many like to put ramyeon noodle in the stew, which is optional.

Popular tang soups include seolleongtang, a milky white broth from ox bones and meat, gamjatang, a stew of potatoes with pork spine and chillies and doganitang, made from cow knees. One soup worth a special mention is samgyetang, which is a whole spring chicken stuffed with ginseng and rice. Thanks to the ginseng, it's often a little expensive, but the taste is quite mild. It's commonly eaten right before the hottest part of summer in warm broth in a sort of "eat the heat to beat the heat" tradition.

Guk are mostly side dishes like the seaweed soup miyeokguk and the dumpling soup manduguk (ë§?ë??êµ­), but a few like the scary-looking pork spine and ox blood soup haejangguk, a popular hangover remedy, are substantial enough to be a meal.

 

Noodles

Koreans are great noodle lovers too, and the terms kuksu and myeon span a vast variety of types, sold in fast-food noodle shops for as little as W3000-4000. Wheat-based noodles are a staple of Korea.

Naengmyeon are a Korean speciality, being thin, chewy buckwheat noodles served in ice cold beef broth, and hence a popular summer dish — although it's traditionally winter food! They're also a classic way to end a heavy, meaty barbeque meal. The key to the dish is the broth and the recipes of well known restaurants are usually closely guarded secrets.

Japchae is made from yam noodles, which are fried along with some vegetables (commonly cabbage, carrots, onions) and sometimes beef or odeng (fishcake). Mandu dumplings are also very popular and are served up in steamed or fried as an accompaniment to other foods, or boiled in soup to make a whole meal.

Ramyeon is Korea's variant of ramen, often served with kimchi. Korean ramyeon is well known for its overall spiciness, at least when compared to Japanese ones. Try shin ramyeon for example.

Jajangmyeon is the Korean version of the northern Chinese zhajiangmian, a wheat noodle dish served with a black sauce that usually includes minced pork, onions, cucumber, and garlic — kind of like a tomatoless spaghetti bolognese. Its sauce contains some caramel and therefore makes the overall dish sweet.

Finally, u-dong are thick wheat noodles, similar to the Japanese udon.

 

Seafood

Since Korea is a peninsula, you can find every type of seafood, eaten both cooked and raw. Restaurants where you pick your own fish — or bring it from the fish market next door — are popular, but can be very expensive depending on what you order.

Hoe, pronounced roughly "hweh", is raw fish Korean-style (similar to sashimi), meaning it's served with spicy cho-gochujang (Korean hot pepper sauce with vinegar) sauce. Chobap is raw fish with vinegared rice, similar to Japanese sushi. If ordering fish as hoe/chobap, the bony parts not served raw are often made into a tasty but spicy soup called meuntang.

Another cooked specialty is haemultang, a spicy red hotpot stew filled crab, shrimp, fish, squid, vegetables and noodles.

 

Drink

Alcoholics rejoice — booze is cheap and Koreans are among the heaviest drinkers in the world. Due to the strict social norms in effect at the workplace, the drinking hall tends to be the only place where inhibitions can be released and personal relationships expressed. Significant business deals are closed not in the boardroom, but in the bar. Promotions, grants, and other business advancements are secured over drinks at singing rooms, late night raw fish restaurants, and restaurant-bars. Many Korean men are what would be considered heavy drinkers in the west, and as alcoholism is being recognized as an ailment, public moves have begun to attempt to curb alcohol intake. Don't be surprised to see businessmen in suits lying around sleeping it off, and be careful not to step in the puddles of vomit common on the sidewalks in the mornings. The drinking age in South Korea is 19.

 

Nightlife

Compared to Western drinking habits, Koreans have adopted slightly different ways to enjoy their night out. Sure, you can find Western style bars easily, but going to a Korean style bar can be an interesting experience. Hofs are just normal beer places, which serve beer and side dishes. Customers are supposed to order some side dish to go along their drinks at most drinking establishments in Korea. Recently, due to growing competition, many hofs have started to install various gadgets for entertainment.

Booking clubs are the Korean version of night clubs. What makes them interesting is the "booking" part of the name. It's basically a way to meet new people of the opposite sex by introduction of the waiters (who usually bring women to visit tables of men, but increasingly vice-versa). Booking clubs are slightly more expensive than normal bars and hofs, but can be extremely fun. These can be different from American-style clubs, in that in addition to a cover charge, you are pretty much expected to order booze and side dishes (which can be quite pricey in W200,000-W500,000 range and up). But other than that, the dancing and atmosphere is about the same.

One of the customary things to do at a booking club is to "dress-up" your table or booth by purchasing expensive liquors and fruit plates, which signals your 'status' to the other patrons of the club (especially your gender of interest). Scotch whisky is especially marked up a great deal in Korea, so don't be surprised to pay very high prices for that innocuous bottle of Johnnie Walker. On the other hand, it is a better value overall to buy a bottle of liquor or a "liquor set" than to purchase drinks individually.

On the other end of the spectrum, many locals go out to drink and eat with their friends at the many Korean grillhouses found throughout the city. It is not uncommon for people to consume several bottles of soju (see below) each, and mixing beer and hard liquor is encouraged. Group bonding over liquor and food is a cultural feature across South Korea.

For those who love singing as well as drinking, karaoke is popular and therefore widely available in South Korea, where it's called noraebang (ë?¸ë??ë°©). In addition to Korean songs, larger establishments may include some Chinese, Japanese and English songs.

 

Soju

The national drink of South Korea is soju, a vodka-like alcoholic beverage (usually around 20%). It's cheaper than any other drink — a 350ml bottle can cost slightly over W3000 at bars (as little as W1100 at convenience stores!) — and also strong. Usually this is made by fermenting starch from rice, barley, corn, potato, sweet potato, etc, to produce pure alcohol which is then diluted with water and other flavors. The manufacturing process leaves in a lot of extraneous chemicals, so be prepared for a four-alarm hangover in the morning, even after drinking a comparatively small amount.

Traditionally, soju was made by distilling rice wine and aging it, which created a smooth spirit of about 40%. This type of traditional soju can still be found, for example Andong Soju  — named after the town of Andong — and munbaeju. These can be expensive, but prices (and quality) vary considerably.

History tells that there were numerous brewers throughout the country in the past until late Chosun dynasty and before Japanese colonization. However, by the Japanese colonization and the oppressive and economy-obsessed government in the 60-70s, using rice for making wine or spirits was strictly prohibited. This eliminated most of the traditional brewers in the country and Korea was left with a few large distilleries (Jinro ��, Gyeongwol, Bohae, Bobae, Sunyang, etc), that basically made 'chemical soju'. Brewery distribution and markets were regionalized, and until the 1990s it was difficult to find a Jinro soju anywhere else than Seoul (you would have to pay premium even if you found one), Gyeongwol soju outside Gangwon, or Sunyang outside Chungcheong.

Also, there are soju cocktails such as "socol" (soju + coke), ppyong-gari (soju + pocari sweat - ion drink), 'so-maek (soju + maekju(beer) which adds a bit of a kick to beer) and such, all aimed at getting you drunk quicker and cheaper.

 

Rice wine

 

Cheongju vs. sake

There are two major differences between Korean rice wine and Japanese rice wine. The first is that Korean wine uses nuruk, while Japanese wine uses koji. While both can be considered yeasts, nuruk contains various kinds of fungi and other microorganisms, while in koji a more selected breed of fungi does its job. The treatment of rice is also different: traditionally rice for making cheongju is washed "a hundred times" , but for sake, the rice is polished until the grain size is as little as 50% of its original size. Therefore, some people comment that in general cheongju tastes more complicated and earthy, while sake tastes "cleaner" and "sweeter".

 

Traditional unfiltered rice wines in Korea are known as takju, literally "cloudy alcoholic beverage". In the most basic and traditional form, these are made by fermenting rice with nuruk, a mix of fungi and yeast that breaks down starch in rice into sugar, for a short while (3-5 days usually). Then this is strained, usually diluted to 4-6% and imbibed. However, as with the case of traditional soju, unless explicitly stated on the bottle most takju are made from wheat flour and other cheaper grains. Makgeolli is the simplest takju, fermented once and then strained, while in dongdongju more rice is added once or more during the fermentation to boost the alcohol content and the flavor. Typically you can find a couple of rice grains floating in dongdongju as a result.

Yakju or cheongju is filtered rice wine, similar to the Japanese rice wine sake. The fermentation of rice is sustained for about 2 weeks or longer, strained, and then is kept still to have the suspended particles precipitate. The end result is the clear wine on top, with about 12-15% alcohol. Various recipes exist, which involves a variety of ingredients and when and how to add them accordingly. Popular brands include Baekseju and 'Dugyeonju.

Those with an interest in the wine production process and its history will want to visit the Traditional Korean Wine Museum in Jeonju.

 

Ginseng wine

One expensive but tasty type of alcohol you can find in Korea is Korean ginseng wine, which is believed to have medicinal properties and is particularly popular among the elderly. It is made by fermenting Korean ginseng, just as the name implies.

 

Beer

Western-style lagers are also quite popular in Korea, with the three big brands being Cass, Hite and OB, all of which are rather light and watery and cost around 1500 won per bottle at a supermarket. Korea's version of the beer pub is the hof, which serve pints of beer in the W2000-5000 range, although imported beers can be much more expensive. Note that you are expected to order food as well, and may even get served grilled squid or similar Korean pub grub without ordering, for a charge of W10000 or so.

 

Tea and coffee

Like their neighbors, Koreans drink a lot of tea, most of it green. However, the label cha is applied to a number of other tealike drinks as well:

  • boricha, roasted barley tea, often served cold in summer, water substitute for many household
  • insamcha, ginseng tea
  • oksusucha, roasted corn tea
  • yulmucha, a thick white drink made from a barley-like plant called Job's tears

Coffee is also widely available, especially from streetside vending machines that will pour you a cupful for as little as W300, usually sweet and milky. Latte snobs will also be glad to know that Starbucks and assorted copies are spreading like wildfire. Starbucks is particularly widespread in Seoul and the drinks served taste exactly as they do in Starbucks locations in the United States, so make sure you hunt around for a decent cup.

 

Other drinks

Some other traditional drinks worth keeping an eye out for:

  • sikhye, a very sweet, grainy rice drink
  • sujeonggwa, a sweet, cinnamon-y drink made from persimmons

Sleep

There's plenty of accommodation in all price brackets in South Korea. Note that prices in Seoul are typically about twice that of anywhere else in the country.

Some higher-end hotels offer a choice of both Western-style and Korean-style rooms. The main feature of Korean rooms is an elaborate Korean-invented floor-heating system known as ondol, where hot steam (or, these days, water or electricity) heats stone slabs under a layer of clay and oiled paper. There are no beds; instead, mattresses are laid directly on the floor. Other furniture is typically limited to some low tables (you're also expected to sit on the floor) and maybe a TV.

 

Motels

Some of the cheapest accommodation in South Korea are in what are locally termed motels or yeogwan, but these are rather different from motels in the West and closer to Japan's "love hotels". Motels in South Korea are generally very cheap hotels targeted at young couples aiming to spend 'time' together away from their elders, complete with plastic beds, occasionally vibrating, with strategically placed mirrors on the ceiling, as well as a VCR and a variety of appropriate videos. However for the budget traveller, they can simply be inexpensive lodging, with rates as low as W25,000/night.

The easiest way to find a motel is to just look for the  gaudy architecture, particularly near stations or highway exits. They're harder to find online, as they rarely if ever show up in English-language booking sites, but Hotel365 [22] (Korean only) has comprehensive listings for the entire country.

In some motels picking your room is very easy, as there will be room numbers, lit pictures and prices on the wall. The lower price is for a "rest" (hyusik) of two to four hours, while the higher price is the overnight rate. Press the button for the one you like, which will go dark, and proceed to check-in. You'll usually be expected to pay in advance, often to just a pair of hands behind a frosted glass window. English is rarely spoken, but the only word you need to know is sukbak ("staying"). You may or may not receive a key, but even if you don't, the staff can usually let you in and out on request — just don't lose your receipt!

 

Hotels

Full-service hotels can be found in all larger towns in Korea. Cheaper hotels blend into motels with rooms from W40,000, while three and four star hotels are closer to W100,000-W200,000 and five-star luxury hotels can easily top W300,000. Outside peak season you can often get steep discounts from the rack rates, so be sure to ask when reserving.

 

Hostels/Guesthouses

While not as common in South Korea as in other parts of Asia or the world, hostels and guesthouses can be found. Major cities, such as Seoul, will have a few dozen, while smaller cities may have a handful. Prices can vary widely, even within one hostel. In Seoul, mixed dorms average W15,000 to W25,000 per person; private rooms with a shared toilet and shower average W20,000 to W30,000 per person; and private ensuite rooms average W25,000 to W40,000 per person. Many hostels will have a common room with free TV, games, computers, and internet; some will have a public full kitchen and other amenities.

 

Minbak

In rural areas in and near national parks, you can find a minbak. Most of these are just a room or two in someone's home - others are quite fancy and may be similar to yeogwans (motels) or hotels. Generally, they have ondol rooms with maybe a TV and that's about it. You don't usually get your own bathroom in your room, although some of the fancier ones do have an en suite. Minbaks usually run around 20,000 won off-season though the price may go up quite a bit during high season.

 

Homestay

Very similar in concept to a Minbak, these aren't limited to just rural areas or near national parks. Since the World Cup in 2002, many families around the country have opened their doors and hearts to foreigners looking for a good place to sleep and a breakfast included in the price. These can run between 30,000 and 35,000 won per night. Try eg. Homestaykorea [23] or LABO [24].

 

Jjimjilbang

For the budget traveller public bath houses known as jjimjilbang (��방) can offer a great way to sleep. Entrance costs around W5,000-W10,000 to get in, and includes a robe or pajamas to wear. Inside the facilities can be expansive, including showers, public baths, restaurants, computer/video game rooms, a room with DVD movies, and places to sleep, although this often means little more than a quiet, warm room with maybe some wooden blocks to rest your head on. These places are more often meant for families or couples coming in for the day and as such are not perfectly catered to travelers. When you leave you have to take everything with you, and pay to get back in. There is no secure place to leave your things except a single locker. Aside from these drawbacks, jjimjilbang offer a very relaxing place to sleep and bathe.

 

Temples

Jogye (ì¡°ê³?ì?¬), Korea's largest Buddhist sect, runs a popular Temple Stay program where visitors get to spend 24 hours living at a Buddhist temple. Korean ability helps but is not necessary at some temples, but you will be expected to work at the temple and get up at 3 or 4AM to participate in morning prayer. In exchange for three meals and a basic bed for the night, a "donation" of W50,000-80,000 is expected. Reservations are necessary and can be made at the Temple Stay site [25] or via Korea Travel Phone, tel. +82-2-1330

 

Others

  • Taekwondo — If you're interested in martial arts, you should learn Taekwondo. Taekwondo is originally from Korea, and you can study at any of the numerous schools all over the country. Taekwondo is a very courteous sport.
  • Chang or Pansori — If you like music, this will be good for you. It's a unique traditional Korean form of singing. If you want to learn about Pansori through film, "Seo Pyen Je" would be an excellent choice.
  • Korean — Seoul National University, Korea University, and Yonsei University(in Seoul) provide Korean language programs. You can meet people from all over the world while studying Korean.
  • Korean Traditional Dance — You can go to a dance studio and learn Korean traditional dance. You will wear "Han Bok" - Korean traditional cloths.
  • Baduk — Korean name for the ancient board game called Go in English. Many Koreans play the game, and among them are some of the world's finest players. There are even schools that specialize in Baduk.
  • Janggi — Also known as Korean chess, a board game similar to Chinese chess, with which it shares its origins, though the rules have diverged significantly from Chinese chess.

Stay safe

Crime

South Korea is a relatively safe country, with reported crime rates significantly lower than in Western countries, although theft, assault and hotel burglary might happen in major cities such as Busan or Seoul. Take care especially in known tourist areas. Nevertheless, violent crime is especially rare and you are unlikely to be a victim of one as long as you stick to your commonsense and do not go around provoking people. Use only legitimate taxis. Illegitimate taxis run even from the airport, and their safety and honesty cannot always be guaranteed. Should you be assaulted or mugged in Korea, DO NOT defend yourself. The police will always take the side of the Korean and you will be expected to pay compensation, and might even face jail time.

 

 

Garden at North Korea

 

Juche Tower – Pyongyang , North Korea

 

The High Mountain Area, Kumgangsan

 

City Night View, South Korea

 

South Korea

South Korea's capital, Seoul

 

 South Korea

South Korea

 

 

 

South Korea Luxury Vacations, South Korea Luxury Tours and South Korea Travel Guide, South Korea Vacations Image provided by the Korea Tourism Board

South Korea

 

 South Korea Luxury Vacations, South Korea Luxury Tours and South Korea Travel Guide, South Korea Vacations Image provided by the Korea Tourism Board

South Korea

 

jeju art museum

Jeju Art Museum, South Korea

 

Hansik

 

 

Typical Korea Food 

 

Hot-Pot in Korea Style
 

Traditional Food in South Korea 

 

Korea BBQ

 

Samgyetang, Korean ginseng chicken soup at Tosokchon

Tosokchon, Seoul

 

Korea KimChi

 

 

Korea Food

 

 

Korea Dishes

 

Tornado Potatoes