Healthcare Economics in the Korean Elderly Crisis


Since 1960 the health landscape of South Korea has drastically changed. From being a mostly agrarian society to being one of the most industrialized countries in the world, the causes of death in South Korea have shifted from acute and communicable diseases to chronic and noncommunicable diseases (WHO). In this massive and incredibly fast growth, several problems interwoven between the social, economic, and health spheres of the country have developed. By nature of the demographics left in the country at the end of the Korean War, combined with the increased life expectancy that came with industrialization, South Korea now has the fastest-growing elderly population in the world, with the current population of Koreans over 60 accounting for 17% of the current population (WHO). Should this trend continue, 37% of Korea’s population will be over 65 by 2050 and the elderly dependency ratio will be near 70% (The U.S.’s current dependency ratio is only about 21%).


Several critical problems have arisen out of Korea’s increased elderly population. Currently, South Korea has the highest population of elderly living in poverty among OECD countries. Of people over 65 in Korea, half live in relative poverty (OECD Database). Less than 20% of the elderly, regardless of their living conditions, report having “Good/Very Good” health, making Korea one of the lowest-scoring countries for health reports in the OECD system (OECD Database). Studies such as the Korean Longitudinal Study of Aging have shown a clear correlation between elderly who rank their health as “Poor/Very Poor” and insufficient funds to seek medical attention (Park, WHO). This explains the inconsistency that develops between the elderly’s poor health and South Korea’s high healthcare consumption. The issue therefore isn’t in South Korea’s healthcare not being in enough supply per se, but rather the limitations to accessibility, delivery, insurance, or even willingness to seek medical care.


(Source: OECD Database)

The issue goes even further beyond basic medical care. Korea also has the highest suicide rate per capita of any other OECD country in the region, and tops among OECD countries for elderly suicides. In 2012 there were 29.1 self-inflicted deaths per 100000 people in Korea (OECD Database), and The Health and Wellness Ministry published a study that showed around 90% of the suicide victims suffered from diagnosable mental health conditions such as depression. This indicates that a significant portion of South Korea’s elderly population is not only suffering from poor physical health but poor mental health as well.

The purpose of this article is to analyze the compounding healthcare and social issues affecting elderly South Koreans, the economic effect that those issues have on South Korea as a whole (which also feed back into the healthcare system), and propose possible policy changes to improve the situation.

Current State of Korean Healthcare

Before assessing methods of improving the Korean elderly’s access to medical and mental care, it’s important to first analyze the Korean healthcare system and identify problems within the system that may particularly target the elderly.

As of 2007, South Korea had over 91,000 physicians, averaging at 2.1 physicians per 1,000 people (The U.S. averaged 2.5 / 1000 the same year). Korea has a national health insurance program, of which over 96% of the population is enrolled. Employers and employees split the bill on paying approximately 5% of an employee’s average annual salary towards the national healthcare program. The out-of-pocket payout distribution is as follows:


Classification Portion of Healthcare Costs


10-20% of total treatment costs


Tertiary Care Hospital Per-visit Consultation fee + 50% of treatment cost.
General Hospital 50% of (treatment cost + per-visit consultation fee)
Hospital 40% of (treatment cost + per-visit consultation fee)
Clinic 30% of treatment cost
Pharmacy 30% of total cost
Long-Term Care  
In-Home Care 15% of total cost
Institutional Care 20% of total cost

(Source: National Health Insurance Corporation)

At first glance, the system seems very good. Because doctors can’t negotiate with private insurance firms over prices, doctor visits cost less and doctors make much less (as much as a quarter less than U.S. physicians). Under the national insurance, Koreans also have the freedom to choose whichever doctor they want to see whenever they want. However, 90% of the physicians practice in urban areas and less than 80% of the population lives in urban areas. Those who live in rural areas without access to quality healthcare usually fit into the elderly bracket. Furthermore, the low cost of healthcare consumption means Koreans spend far more time in the hospital per visit (14.6 days) than the OECD average (7.2), increasing the overall cost incurred.

Due to their lower average income, Korean doctors are often prone to order expensive medical tests – such as MRIs that aren’t covered by insurance (except in instances of cancer or catastrophic disease) – or excessive amounts of prescription medications in order to generate profit. The price of an MRI can be anywhere from 250,000 won to over 1,000,000 and is the most common method Korean doctors use to generate profit. Accidents and physical injuries are also not covered, which is particularly bad for the elderly who are naturally more prone to physical injury.

Overall, there are only a few issues within the Korean healthcare system that could possibly pose large economic burden on the elderly or dissuade Koreans from taking advantage of available healthcare, as the cost of healthcare is relatively affordable. The mental health system, however, is a much different story.

Of the 90% of suicide victims who suffered from diagnosable mental disorders, only 15% sought regular mental healthcare. Less than 25% had seen a mental health professional in the month before their suicide, and only 28% had even seen a physician or traditional medicine doctor (Lee). This shows the difficulty in fully quantifying the problem of mental health in Korea because so much of Korea’s mental health facilities are underused due to social stigma – and to some extent ignorance – involved with mental disorders. A government report on suicide showed that 93% of korean suicide victims showed telltale behaviors related to suicidal tendencies, but 81% of family members “did not consider these signs of anything to be alarmed about” (Lee). How much of this statistic represents true ignorance or feigned ignorance is unknown.

Korea’s suicide rate – a definite correlate of mental disorder – has continued to rise, as has perceived sense of depression and anxiety due to education-related stress in students and social isolation in elders, and yet only 5.6 of the Korean population (roughly 2 million people) have been diagnosed with any sort of mental disorder. Of those 2 million people, only 150,000 of them – .3% of the population – sought regular treatment last year (Lee). Although the Korean government has a western-style medical care program in place, once again they are centralized in urban areas that exclude care for many elderly patients who dominate the rural areas, treatment periods are much longer than average, and there’s no efficient system in place to matriculate patients back into society after prolonged psychiatric care because primary mental healthcare is done through existing public healthcare centers. If further treatment or long-term care is necessary, insurance coverage decreases, along with willingness to pay. As of May 2016 the Korean government passed measures that aim to increase early detection of mental illness, reduce the copayment rate on mental healthcare, and design programs aimed at reducing the social prejudice of mental illness. It’s too early to judge its effectiveness.

The Elderly Economic Support System

South Korea is a society that was built on confucian ideals of honoring the elderly and for much of its history had a support system that was built into the family structure specifically for the elderly’s financial needs. Since the industrialization of the country, however, the structure of a nuclear family has shifted its center away from grandparents and more towards a (usually young) husband and wife, who acts as the financial managers and decision-makers of the family. Young families, much like the majority of health institutions, are also centered in urban areas of South Korea, leaving most of the population in the rural country elderly as previously mentioned. Along with this change in family structure, the growing labor participation of women call for a higher need in long-term care (LTC) and support for the elderly. Movement of such young families into the city not only physically isolates the elderly from familial care but it also increased the cost of living, cost of education, and personal spending drastically and reduced the amount of financial assistance the elderly can expect from their families. In summary, the rapid expansion of the aging population, the active female participation in the job market, and the shift in the paradigm of illness all account for the increase in social isolation for Korean elders.

Of the approximately 6 million elderly Koreans, 1.2 million live alone (National Statistics Office 2012). This over double the amount of a decade ago. According to Yi and Hwang, “Those who are socially isolated are exposed to various dangers potentially leading to negative health conditions, and the issue of social isolation brings about malnutrition, repeated hospitalization, cognitive regression, and grave alcoholic problems.”

However, despite all the described substandard conditions the Korean elderly face, there is another barrier, a sufficient lack of welfare programs to satisfy the growing insurance benefit requests. South Korea has three layers of health security or ‘The Three Arms of Healthcare Security’ (IMC 1): the National Health Insurance Program (NHI), the Medical Aid Program, and the Long-term Care Insurance Program. As the first insurance law in Korea, the NHI is a general coverage for all citizens. Upon ten years since its establishment, all health insurance communities were integrated into a single indemnity, the NHI. The NHI is a guarantee and safety net for most of the Korean citizens to benefit from when their health is at risk and the situation calls for medical care and help. Yet, despite its role as the main supervising institution in Korea, the objective of maximizing efficiency and achieving distributive justice is still a task that remains unfulfilled.

The NHI’s preparation for a timely adjustment adapting to the future rise in health costs wasn’t fully effective and the confined government subsidy limited their capabilities as well. The universal coverage of the act is a good approach to promote gross welfare. However, compared to the improvement of quantity, the financial instability forces the quality of the health care to fall, eventually dealing damage to the effectiveness of the NHI.

Trying to achieve the coverage it offers within a short period of time, the government had paid little attention in assembling a good setting for the medical professionals to afford their medical earnings and sovereignty. It had constructed a medical healthcare plan at the expense of the medical faculty. This caused the professionals to seek their separate ways of securing their gains through the use of excessive medical care services that at times turned out to be unnecessary and costly for the patients. The list includes a range of services from excessive prescriptions of antibiotics to unreasonable amounts of magnetic resonance imaging and c-section delivery rates. Not only should there be an improvement in the monitoring process to prevent such misuse of medical treatments, there should be a general shift in focus in the way the government approaches and achieves to construct a well fortified health insurance.

Repairing the loopholes and rehabilitating the medical professionals would drastically minimize the abuse of authority and ameliorate the disfavoring situation for the elderly. Continual development of new medical technology at an unstable and fragile state could only become unintentionally harmful to the medical systems, pressurizing them into higher costs and worsening the vicious cycle that only victimizes the elderly population. The government should tighten their loose healthcare service structure by devising policies to put precedence on the people’s health needs and the quality of care.


National Pension Scheme

South Korea has a wide-spreading pension scheme that covers most of the population’s employees and elderly, however the particular elderly pension was reported by the OECD to be the least effective in the system for reducing elderly poverty. In 2007 South Korea spent 1.6% of its GDP on elderly welfare, but this is only a quarter of the OECD average. The system has matured since it was first drafted in 1987 (and subsequently reformed in 1998 and again in 2008), but many argue that the system hasn’t gotten any better. The 1998 reform raised the eligibility rate to 65, changed the contribution rate from 6% to 9%, and reduced the benefit level from 70% income replacement to 60%. Under these conditions, the assets were projected to dry up by 2047 (Yang). The 2008 reform reduced the benefit level to 50% and will reduce them to 40% in 2028, but even then assets are still projected to dry up around 2060, as shown by the following graph:


Raw number of contributions from the insured have increased year by year within the national pension scheme, but it hasn’t grown fast enough to continue increasing benefits to the faster-growing elderly population. In fact, benefits have been reduced (Kim). 70% of the elderly population is covered by the pension scheme, but the benefits are so small that it has been assessed as having “little impact on ameliorating poverty of the elderly” (Kim). In summary for the purposes of this article: because the relative benefit from welfare is so low, it plays a very small role in affecting the generalized hypotheses made of how the elderly will act in the healthcare economy.

Assessment and Suggestions

What does this mean for the healthcare economy of the elderly? Given that nearly half of all South Koreans aged over 65 live in relative poverty and many others live very close to the poverty line, it means that the opportunity cost of receiving healthcare is very high. When faced with relative (or close to relative) poverty the time costs are already very high, but given the low cost of healthcare with insurance the price for visiting a doctor and possibly facing more costs if something is wrong, buying a meal or paying rent is a much more attractive offer. The poverty issue is clearly the most prominent part of the elderly’s ability to consume healthcare, even without any sort of statistical analysis. When paired with the isolation issue and / or the silent mental disease issue, the problem becomes a lot more pronounced. Unfortunately, because the issues are so far-spread, it’s difficult to suggest reasonable solutions

As for the issue of healthcare delivery to the rural areas of Korea, a possible suggestion would be for hospitals to set up clinics in the rural towns which could have regular doctor visits on selected days, a pharmacy, and – most importantly – a shuttle option to the parent hospital if the elderly need more attention than the clinic can provide.

The issue of providing mental healthcare to the elderly in Korea is a more difficult one simply because one can’t force a social stigma to go away. As long as the stigma surrounding mental healthcare still exists among the Korean public, there is no “solution” to providing mental healthcare to those that need it. In the meantime, money could be redirected to simply providing mental healthcare consultations instead of keeping empty beds in unused long-term mental healthcare facilities. For those that do need attention in a long-term facility, there needs to be a better support system for integrating back into society, one not made up of government workers but of lay people who understand the mental stress that comes as part of living with the social issues permeating through Korea.

One solution that could prove very effective, in our opinion, is a centralization of Long Term Care programs in neighborhoods and small cities. LTC is so woefully underutilized in Korea where it could potentially have a huge impact in the health utilization and quality of living for the elderly. One of the major issues facing the elderly is that they have no reasonable social structure in their lives to rely upon financially or mentally. We believe that establishing community centers where the elderly could not only socialize but also have access to long-term healthcare or otherwise simple health services. This idea is a bit different from the current community centers in Korea, which are more like neighborhood associations that discuss issues currently affecting the physical neighborhood such as trash collection or sidewalk murals. This idea is also different from current homeless centers in Korea, another program woefully underused but out of the scope of this article. The vision for this project would be a hybrid between a community center and a clinic, a place with free membership under a certain set of conditions (age, income, etc.) where the elderly could not only socialize but get informed on their LTC options and receive mental / physical examinations. The immediate use in urban areas where there are already many options to socialize, but the impact in rural areas where the elderly are most likely to not only be isolated but in need of LTC could be huge. Obviously the logistics of working these centers into the current korean LTC and mental healthcare pensions would not look good given how thinly-spread both pensions are, but that is more an issue of policy economics and less so healthcare economics.


Because the Korean elderly crisis has roots growing outside the scope of healthcare economics, it’s impossible to provide any clear-cut causational data between the elderly and their ability to access affordable healthcare. What this article has outlined, however, are sources that all work together in targeting the elderly and their healthcare consumption capabilities. This issue is not something that the Korean government and Korean private hospitals can sit idly by with measly half-attempts at fixing. The population is going to continue growing older and will be very old in the next 30 years, something that will likely ravage Korea’s economy regardless of any preemptive measures taken today. What can be done, however, is a thorough re-evaluation of the issues discussed in this article and begin designing ways to alleviate them so that when 37% of the population is over 65 in 2050 the framework for a program that keeps healthcare available for the massive elderly population is already in effect.

Being like Bourdain, but without all of the drugs.

Everyone has their own heroes in life. Anybody who knows me probably knows that one of my heros is Ben Folds, but another one of my heroes that I don’t mention as often is Anthony Bourdain: author, (former) chef, and host of CNN’s Parts Unknown.  I’ve been watching Bourdain for a long time, since No Reservations started airing on the Travel Channel back in 2006. I’ve also been reading his work for a while, and my own writing voice is very much inspired by his.

Recently I went to Japan for a week, specifically to Kyoto and Osaka (you can see my favorite pictures from that trip here). I got a few questions from friends and family as to why I chose these two cities as opposed to Tokyo. It’s a bit silly, but I wanted to go to Kyoto after seeing this picture pop up on the internet back in 2014 when Kyoto had a record snowfall, and I’ve wanted to go to Osaka ever since I saw Bourdain go there during the early days of No Reservations. My 12-year-old self probably barely understood half of the jokes the then slightly-more-debaucherous Bourdain was spitting, but I was enchanted by what he had to say about Osaka and the food he was eating there. He had sold me, I was ready to go. It wasn’t until last February that I was able to finally do that.

My time in left in Seoul is becoming shorter and shorter, and recently I found myself reflecting upon some of the other inspirations I’ve learned from Bourdain that I’ve applied not only to my time here but also life in general.

Lesson 1: Eat everything

Good food and good eating are about risk.

I was a very picky eater as a child. I liked toast, cheese toast, and whatever other limited variations of bread and/or cheese existed in my head at the time. It took me a long time to learn that everything is worth trying when it comes to food. When I started watching Bourdain, seeing him eat weird food was something of a novelty (that’s certainly how it was marketed by the Travel Channel), but as I grew older and began to understand the stories he was trying to tell with his experiences of the food I realized that it’s rarely actually a novelty. It’s food, a word that quite literally means something made to be eaten, so what’s the point in ever saying that you won’t eat something because it’s weird or unfamiliar? Not only does it deny the purpose of the food, but it denies the culture that appreciates that food. Grilled chicken feet are a very popular dish here in Korea (and much of the rest of Asia, for that matter), and yet when I take other foreigners to a place that serves chicken feet, they’re almost always prone to saying ‘ew, I’m not eating that! It’s weird looking!’ At one place I had to argue with the owner to actually serve me any feet, because she didn’t want to waste food on foreigners who would chicken (heh) out when they saw what they had ordered. Americans in particular tend to be picky eaters (is “ignorant” too harsh a word?), and it’s an oftentimes true stereotype that most Koreans have of Americans.

Considering how frequently we get told as kids to try new experiences in order to enrich our lives, it’s shocking to me how easily people slip into the mindset of only eating the food they know. If good food leads to good eating, then good eating leads to having an overall better life. Why not try other things if people are telling you it’s good? Have you tried mixing pork or sheep brain into your scrambled eggs or fried rice? Freaking amazing.

Lesson 2: If adventures are times absent of monotony, then people who won’t adventure are monotonous by nature.

Every relationship I’ve had with a woman, at some point very early on I bring them to [a top-rated sushi restaurant] and I watch how they eat. If they talked too much, if they didn’t understand how to eat sushi, if they didn’t eat the uni… that’s it, the end.

There’s more to this quote than saying “don’t date fake b*tches”. The people who can’t learn to appreciate – not necessarily like, but appreciate – something because it seems foreign or too far out of their comfort zone are the people with no sense of adventure.

I have to agree with Bourdain in using food as a medium for separating the adventurous from the monotonous. You can tell so much about a person based on how and what they eat. Beyond being able to tell apart people who are willing to try new things, you can tell apart the people who cook for themselves, the people who are cooked for, and the people who cook from others. One day while I was working a Sunday brunch shift at my old digs, we watched from the kitchen as a woman who had ordered her food – without even tasting a thing beforehand – drowned everything on her plate in salt. The trust between kitchen and customer was non-existent, as a result from not understanding the important relationship between people who want to feed you, whether they’re getting paid or not. Is “adventuring” out to a new restaurant really an adventure if you take control of the situation and bring it back into your comfort zone because you can’t trust the powers that be?

As silly as it is to think about, I do kind of apply this quote literally. If I go out to eat with someone or invite someone to some event – regardless of my relationship with that person – and they act outside of what the circumstances call for, show no intention of reading and adapting to the situation, and / or (most importantly) won’t even try something that’s unfamiliar to them, chances are I won’t bother meeting up with that person much afterwards.

Lesson 3: The simplest pleasures in life are more like religious experiences.

(Alternatively: The simplest pleasures in life usually come in bowls.)

There is a place; there is always a place where something delicious in a bowl is waiting just for you. Down a street, down an alley, there’s a place… where locals will tell you “the good stuff” lives.

Noodles, for me, are a solitary pleasure between me and my bowl.

Some people like books, long walks on the beach, or pina coladas and getting caught in the rain. On this topic, however, I’ve also got to agree with Bourdain. A beautiful bowl of noodles, to me, is an experience that completely disconnects me from whatever I’m doing and lets me sit in bliss for a few brief moments. Here in Korea, the best way I can think of for “treating myself” is dropping $5 on a bowl of Kalguksu at a market that specializes in making the stuff a few subway stops away from my dorm. The same goes for ramen, chicken noodle soup, cacio e pepe, or any other good bowl of noodles. When something is good without having to put much effort into it (if at all), the sense of satisfaction is even more pronounced. For me, noodles are a good vessel for that kind of satisfaction.

DSC00733 edit

Utter beauty.

There’s probably more to say on this topic, but this post is already long and I like following the rule of 3. My time left in Seoul is ticking away, and it’s unfortunate how little I ended up using this blog space. I’ll try to get another post or two out before I leave, but I suppose saying that as a student who’s trying to have adventures on the side may be promising too much. That’s not to say exciting things won’t be happening when I get home, though, so I suppose you can look forward to that.

If, by some miracle, this ever reaches Mr. Bourdain himself: let me use this as an excuse to invite him to Tampa, Florida. The food culture in that sweatbox I call my home town is evolving faster than anyone can figure out, and Floridians have never shied away from attention.

The issue of North Korea: Why we should care and why that’s all we can do.

Given the recent North Korean atomic bomb test, and my own recent trip to the DMZ, I feel as though it’s an appropriate time to discuss the issue of North Korea itself: the reasons why everyone should support the reunification of the Korean people and the problems associated in doing so. This will be a longer post, so if you want the big picture then you’d probably like to know that (in my opinion) North Korea will not launch an attack on any other country in the near future, nor will the Kim regime be disappearing anytime soon. I’d like to encourage you, however, to continue reading so that you better understand the situation and the various facets of the North Korean issue.

kijong-dong edit.png

A peek into North Korea’s Kijong-dong, or what the American Army calls “Propaganda Village”, named after the constant stream of NK propaganda that aired in the village years ago due to its proximity to the DMZ.

The Context

The Japanese ruled Korea as a colony from 1910-1945. After Japan’s WWII surrender, meetings were held to decide the future of the peninsula. A Soviet-American commission was established to help re-integrate Korea, with the U.S. primarily taking responsibility of the southern half of the peninsula and the U.S.S.R. the northern half. Although the original plan was to have one Korea, Cold War politics developed as the two world powers argued over what kind of government should be installed and where. Furthermore, the southern half of the peninsula was learning of capitalism while the northern was learning communism.

In 1948, two separate Koreas were established, one ruled by a ruthless autocrat pretending to be president and one ruled by a power-maddened dictator pretending to be God. In June of 1950 the North launched a surprise attack on the South, which was nearly completely consumed until the U.S. stepped in and fought back against the North, which was nearly completely consumed until the Chinese stepped in and stagnated the war around the 38th parallel. Rather than continue the war of attrition, the two sides signed an armistice agreement that – while it did not officially end the war – drew the Military Demarcation Line through the peninsula and ordered that both countries pull their forces 2 kilometers away from it, thus creating the DMZ: the Demilitarized Zone.

Southern DMZ border.png

The southern border of the DMZ.

The Kim Family

Kim Il-sung was, as agreed upon by most historians, born in a small village near Pyongyang in 1912 before his (very anti-Japanese) parents fled to Manchuria in 1920. He joined the communist party as well as a few anti-Japanese militia before becoming political commissar of a small branch of a guerrilla army run by the Communist Party of China. Kim did not accomplish much during his military career except for raiding and capturing a small Japanese-held town within the Korean border for a few hours, but this did garner him some attention among higher officials in the Soviet Union. This would end up being heavily exploited by the Soviets to begin the cult of personality when Kim was installed as premier of North Korea in 1948. Kim Il-sung also did not accomplish much as premier (though he did make himself president for eternity). Throughout much of his early reign the Soviets did the heavy lifting; most of his actual policies were geared towards taking over the Korean Peninsula.

Kim Il-sung’s son, Kim Jong-il began to take over the North Korean government as early as the mid 70’s and officially took over the helm after his father died of a heart attack in 1994. Kim Jong-il took the NK cult of personality to a new level, shoehorning himself in carefully on his father’s coattails and making sure that his control of the government was met with no opposition, be it from within or outside of the government. Kim Jong-il awarded himself over 50 made-up military titles during his career, had the various propaganda machines such as newspapers and posters include his picture or his name in everything related to his father, and to this day all Korean houses are required to keep two immaculate portraits of Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung in their homes (anybody found with dust or damage to those generally disappears). Allegedly, Kim Jong-il told Madeleine Albright at their summit meeting in 2000 that he was fully aware that his people only pretend to like him. Because, however, Kim Jong-il’s power was entirely siphoned off of his father’s status as a living god, he made sure that anything that disrupted his father’s state would be swiftly erased. Citizens are forced to obey by the cult if they want to live; even the highest-ranking officers could not tell Kim Il-sung bad news, less he feel like less of a god who could lord over the people and drag them further into the cult of personality.

While it’s certainly true that a large portion of North Koreans – particularly the young and more educated – are aware that their government education is built on farce, it’s hard to say how much. In her book, The Girl with Seven Names, North Korean defector Hyeonseo Lee writes about how as a schoolgirl on the day Kim Il-sung died, she cried not because she was legitimately sad, but because she knew the teachers and soldiers at the mass mourning were looking for those who weren’t crying. Her mother, however, who has also escaped to South Korea, has struggled hard to escape the idea that South Korea and America are the enemy; that everything the dirty capitalists do is to jeopardize her homeland.

Kim Jong-un is also likely aware of the cult of personality’s sole purpose of political leverage as someone who has had higher education and has studied outside the country. Unfortunately for the 2nd heir to the Kim dynasty, Kim Jong-un is a young ruler in a culture where age is valued over youth, and has struggled maintaining the righteous grip on power his father and grandfather had. Furthermore, while his father had nearly 20 years’ experience of running the country before officially taking control, Kim Jong-un had the position dropped in his lap after his older brother Kim Jong-nam embarrassed himself and the family several times over, starting with an attempted trip to go to Tokyo Disneyland. Kim Jong-un also inherited a broken economy with little to no Soviet reserves left, a continuous drought, and a border that was as leaky as a sieve before he tightened up security.

jsa edit.png

Looking across the border into North Korea from the Joint Security Area.

The Issue of Reunification

Most people have heard plenty of times that the DMZ split more than just a country apart. It split families, cultures, a language, and a singular history apart. Many South Koreans want unification so that Koreans can be one people again. Many North Koreans want the same, especially now that more North Koreans are risking their lives to escape. Internationally there is massive support for reunification. After all, North Korea is a country of 25 million who are, in one way or another, imprisoned. Crops don’t grow, electricity is scarce and often goes out at night, the threat of being sent to a labor camp is a constant source of fear, and education options are extremely limited. From a purely humanitarian standpoint, there is no reason for the Korean peninsula to not be reunited, nor is there a reason why anyone who cares about the lives of those 25 million people not to support the reunification. Why, then, has nothing happened, and will it even happen? Unfortunately, prospects don’t look good.

bridge of no return edit.png

The Bridge of No Return: After the Korean War, prisoners were given an ultimatum to remain in the country of their captivity or return to their homeland. After crossing the demarcation line in the middle of the bridge, however, they could not turn back.

Sabre Rattling

For years North Korea has been making threats, both verbally and physically (in the form of weapons testing) towards South Korea, Japan, and the U.S. The media news people, good storytellers that they are, forget to mention every 6 months when North Korea starts rattling its sabre that every incident involving North Korea is either to:

  1. Make South Korea, Japan, and the U.S. nervous.
  2. Get South Korean or U.S. officials to the discussion table to beg for food and energy.

Regardless of how escalated things become along the DMZ, North Korea usually tries to maintain the status quo. Why is this?


Since the fall of the Soviet Union, China has remained North Korea’s closest (or perhaps only) ally, and nowadays “ally” is pushing the friendliness of the relationship. North Korea receives a lot of aid from China, and much of the North Korean economy is built on illegal smuggling through and from China. Having an economy almost completely dependent on China, as well as a vastly inferior military, means China pulls a lot of the strings in North Korea. What does China want?

  • China wants to maintain regional hegemony. North Korea launching a nuke would definitely upset the regional stability that China is working so hard to create, as the U.S. and U.N. would swoop in and put the region on lockdown after making quick work of North Korea. Because of this, it is unlikely that China will let North Korea escalate its nuclear tests further without serious repercussions. They’ve already been very vocal against the tests that have already occurred.
  • China wants to keep a buffer zone between it and the U.S. While it is possible for North Korea to do a lot of damage in a short time with a nuke, particularly to Seoul, the Kim regime and Xi Jinping are both very aware that North Korea will not last long if they ever make a serious act of aggression. Should North Korea fall, the U.S. Army’s occupation in the peninsula would likely push up to the Chinese border, which would allow the U.S. to implement economic containment policies and perhaps gain control over the East China Sea, which China absolutely does not want. I could write a whole other article about this topic, but it’s not as relevant. Basically, the two largest powers in the world should not be looking at each other from across a border.
  • China wants stability in its own borders. North Korean reunification could send hundreds of thousands of refugees into northeast China, a humanitarian crisis the government does not want to deal with.

While it is true that the Chinese are not happy with the Kim regime, with some upper-Chinese officials liking North Korea to a “spoiled child”, these reasons will likely make China pursue the current status quo in the peninsula unless they decide to install a new government themselves or the U.S. leaves South Korea, both of which are highly unlikely.

The Rest of the World

Nearly 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Germany has paid upwards of 3 trillion dollars in rebuilding East Germany, and is still paying. Many experts agree that it would take decades, if not a half-century, to bring North Korea into the modern day. This is considering that, should the Kim regime collapse, there will likely be another civil war in Korea between the remnants of the Korean People’s Army and the Republic of Korea Army, there will still be resistance in breaking through the cult of personality, the complete rebuilding of North Korean infrastructure would be necessary, many North Koreans lack the capacity for modern-day skilled labor necessary to integrate into the South Korean workforce, and potential damage to Seoul would need to be remedied if there was conflict. Knowing this, what situations are other countries in?

  • Japan has a lot to gain out of a unified Korea economically speaking, and wouldn’t miss the nuclear threat from the Kim regime, but their current economic state would not handle the years of payout towards the reconstruction.
  • The U.S. has less to fear from the nuclear threat, and would also benefit economically from a unified Korea, but they also don’t want to budget towards the relief fund, especially given how short-term the politicians in Washington operate.
  • Russia wants to keep the U.S. in the region to act as a counterbalance to China. Some think that the U.S. military would leave the peninsula after Korea has stabilized, though I believe the military would stay to pursue the previously mentioned Chinese containment.
  • South Korea, even with the relief budget that has been set aside, would get economically thrashed in a case of reunification. North Korea is tragically poor, even in comparison to East Germany. Despite how much the people of South Korea want to reunite with the North, the reasons I gave in the above paragraph will likely keep them from ever legitimately pursuing reunification.
  • The U.N. would likely have to step in and install a temporary government in North Korea as the peninsula re-integrates, which is always dangerous in a volatile political environment.
  • The Kim Family knows very well what sort of reputation they’ve groomed for themselves abroad, as well as the fates of all the other Soviet satellite dictators. They’re plenty comfortable living their posh life at the expense of their people if it means they’re still living.

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Hopefully this post served to offer some insight into the issue of North Korea and the unification of the Korean peninsula.

If you’re interested in further reading, Reddit user /u/Cenodoxus has a solid recommended reading list, and her AMA at /r/AskHistorians was the source of much of the information you read here (mostly in the last section). There are also many books written by or about North Korean defectors available, such as the one previously mentioned: The Girl with Seven Names by Hyeonseo Lee (who did an amazing TED talk in 2013), or other popular ones such as In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom by Yeonmi Park, and Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden.

When does a wife know her husband is cheating on her? When he complains about the lack of water because he wants to take two showers a week.

–A popular joke told in North Korea

Every Adventure is One Worth Taking


This street marks the border between Sinchon, where I live, and Hongdae, the popular hipster/club district. Taken on a random “adventure” into Hongdae.

How often to adventures go unrealized? Even now as I sit at my computer, arrhythmically typing the night away, what could I be doing instead? Surely there’s something in this city of 10 million that I would find unbelievably fulfilling, or maybe even life-altering. Instead of going out and searching for that, however, I’m in my room on my computer. I’m not Jack Kerouac, or Anthony Bourdain, or anyone else with an innate drive or capacity to adventure at will. I’m a student, I have obligations and limitations. I can’t explore too far outside of the area where I live or I’ll miss my afternoon class, and I can’t stay out super late because the trains stop at 1am. It’s so rare that I get to go out and explore this amazing city, and my life since moving here has settled down to the point where I no longer get the sense that I’m on an adventure in my day-to-day life. When I do find the time, however, the adventures that I go on turn out to be some of the best experiences I’ve had here.

I haven’t really said anything new; everyone knows that to go out and adventure is to live life. Whether it’s moving to a completely new country or trying a new place for dinner, doing something outside the norm and achieving some sense of adventure just plain feels good. But what about the adventures we don’t plan on having? Until recently, if someone burst into my room Kramer-style and tried drag me away from my desk towards some night in town with vague intentions, I would probably get flustered at the spontaneity of it all and reject the offer. I’ve come to understand, however, that sometimes the best adventures are spontaneous. With spontaneity, you don’t have time to get your expectations up. With zero expectations, it’s impossible to be disappointed.

Last weekend a friend of mine said she wanted to visit a palace since she’s leaving Seoul at the end of the semester but still hadn’t visited one. On a whim we decided to go to one two days later. The weather was drizzly, the clouds hung low over much of Seoul, and many probably would’ve considered the day a perfect day to stay inside with a book and warm tea. Fortunately, it would seem as though the world has a way of rewarding one’s sense of adventure:

The Hyangwonjeong pavilion at Gyeongbokgung palace.

The Hyangwonjeong pavilion at Gyeongbokgung palace.

This is one of my favorite pictures I’ve taken in Korea, and it would’ve been impossible to take a picture even similar to this had I continued put off the trip to this palace. Greongbokgung offered some amazing sights, especially for someone like me who’s never seen fall foliage before. The brightness and vibrancy of the trees would’ve brought a tear to Bob Ross’ eye. I hope to visit again in the spring, as the palace has several cherry blossom trees that I’d love to see bloomed.

Sometimes you plan adventures but have no idea what to expect. I certainly didn’t know what I was getting into when T and I visited Yongma Land, an abandoned theme park on the eastern side of Seoul.

yongmaland combo

Yongma land was abandoned years ago and left to the elements after failing to be profitable. Tucked into a plateau on the side of a mountain in a quiet part of Seoul, it was a fairly well-kept secret until 2013 when a certain k-pop group filmed their music video there. After the video took off, fans of the group, tourists, and both professional and amateur photographers began finding their way to the park. It’s a very photogenic place, and on a beautiful day such as the one when we were there, it (unfortunately? disappointingly?) lacks any sort of “spooky abandoned theme park” ambiance. The old man who acts as a groundskeeper keeps one building air conditioned so that the modelling agencies can set up a wardrobe of sorts, and since the original music video Yongma Land has become a popular place for both professional and amateur kpop bands / dance troupes to film music videos. When we were there the place was filled with photographers and models.

I think the best adventures, however, are the ones that strike you with an impact you weren’t prepared for.

About two months ago T and I were walking through downtown Sinchon drinking beers when three Koreans randomly approached us. They told us they wanted to form a sort of exchange / friend group with foreigners and asked us a bit about ourselves, making small talk while we traded contact info before eventually going our separate ways.

Two months pass without hearing from any of them again until recently one of them messages me out of the blue to comment on how the weather was getting colder. From there I practice a bit of Korean with her, as her English is about as limited as my Korean. She then invites me to this:

The Korean specifies the date, time, and a location you can't find on Google Maps or the Korean equivalent.

The Korean specifies the date, time, and a location you can’t find on Google Maps or the Korean equivalent.

I had no idea what a “healing concert” would entail, or where the 43th story was. For all I knew I could have been listening to psalms for two and a half hours, entering a cult, or participating in some weird cosmetic-based fetish symposium. Google will also yield no results for anything in the picture above. As one could imagine, I had some reservations about whether I wanted to be “healed”, but after considering how friendly my newfound acquaintance had been at our initial meeting and the patience she took in helping me with my budding Korean, I decided to give the healing concert the benefit of doubt. As was true with the trip to the palace, I was greatly rewarded.

The concert was held as a benefit in the small space of an equally small volunteer organization which aims to provide free music lessons to children of low-income families. The concert, performed by a quartet of volunteers, was held for the rest of the volunteers and their friends, a crowd which amounted to maybe 25 people. Besides being an opportunity to raise some money, the roughly-translated synopsis I received after the concert said that the organization leaders wanted to host a small event to offer simple and enjoyable music during the stressful season of finals, college applications, cold weather, friction at the workplace, or anything else that may be bothering someone. Especially after a week of feeling the stress of living a life so different from the one I lived 3 months ago, and being so far away from my friends and family, the honesty of the concert resonated with me on a level I didn’t expect whatsoever.

This experience made me realize the idea that eventually became the title of this post: every adventure is one worth taking. When you least expect to, or maybe when you least want to, an adventure can give you a reason to open your eyes and get your mind out of the rut that day-to-day life has worn in. Whether you’re in Seoul, Tampa, or anywhere else in the world where this is being read, there’s bound to be something that you haven’t done yet. If you do it with no foresight or no preparation, when you have no expectations to meet, the worst that happens is you leave feeling the same as when you entered. More than likely though, it’ll be the best point in your life since your last adventure.

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The Consequential Beer Post

As I mentioned in The Obligatory Food Post, the state of beer in Korea exists in a very weird place. I come from Tampa, Florida, which perhaps has skewed my perception of beer a bit.

Tampa is home to one of 12 Anheuser-Busch breweries in the U.S., and throughout the 80’s and 90’s the beer market was dominated by this and other multi-national brands such as Miller-Coors and Pabst. The Tampa Bay area, however, has experienced a massive surge in the number of microbreweries, brewpubs, and bottle departments since 2005, and was quick to receive it because not only were the local brews still competitively priced enough for local restaurants to carry, but customers were willing to pay a little extra to support local businesses and have a good beer. Moreover, import beers – which have been common and accessible for a while – got even cheaper in 2008 with the repeal of the Special Occupational Tax on marketers of alcohol beverages. Some aspects of beer culture in Seoul show immense promise to blossom into an honest local industry, but long-standing legislative limitations hold it stagnant.

The History


Beer was first introduced to Korea in the early 20th century, but it wasn’t until 1933 that Hite Brewing, one of the current market leaders, began its operation. Oriental Brewing was founded in 1952, and would absorb Jinro-Coors, founded in 1994, in 1999. Thus sets the stage of Korean beer, as shown by the picture: Max, Hite, and various off-shoots like Dry Finish owned by Hite Brewing, and Cass (which has a number of off-shoots) owned by Oriental Brewing. These are the titans of the beer market, and at least one of these brands’ brews can be found in nearly every beer-serving restaurant in Korea for $3-$4 for a 500mL pour off the tap, and all of these can be found in convenience stores for about $2 for a 500mL can.

They all taste about the same, with varying levels of disappointment. As Greg Boone aptly puts it in his article Chaebol vs. the Microbrewer, the taste of korean beer serves as “a reminder that better beer waits elsewhere in the world”.  They’re light, watery, and noticeably more fizzy than other western beers (which makes them harder to chug and get them over with quickly). I had a Guinness not too long ago – only because it was on sale from its usual outrageous $4 price tag – and thought it was flat, it’s so smooth compared to Korean beers.

The disappointing taste can be attributed to the fact that these “beers” use little to no malt in their recipes, opting for rice or corn substitutes instead. There’s a 275% tax on the import of barley malt in Korea, so even beers that do include malt such as Max are so watered down that the taste amounts to nothing.

The Start of Craft Beer Culture

In the 1990’s imported beers slowly became accessible in Korea. Irish pubs in the foreigner-heavy districts of Seoul started selling Guinness at exorbitant prices – over $15 a pour – and eventually Anheuser-Busch and Japanese beers such as Asahi joined the mix. Interest in foreign beer stayed strong enough to to allow the law of supply and demand to run its course, and now import beers run at about $2.50-$3.50 for a “cheap” import beer. Higher-end import beers can still destroy your bank account. I’ve seen the Belgian Delirium Tremens, usually a $4 bottle in the U.S., go for $13 here.

At the turn of the century, the world began looking towards South Korea as the host of the 2002 World Cup. The Korean government was pushed by the WC committee to make Seoul a more international-friendly drinking culture, and so the domestic liquor tax was amended and the government started to give homebrewers the opportunity to start their own microbreweries.

Into the Modern Era and the Future

Magpie Brewing Co. offers growlers for about $10. Every time you want one of Magpie's beers to go, you can fill either a 1L or 2L jug up and be on your way. You only pay based on the volume of beer you buy, ever time you return a growler you can get a big or small one filled up at no extra charge.

Magpie Brewing Co. offers growlers for about $10. Every time you want one of Magpie’s beers to go, you can fill either a 1L (pictured) or 2L jug up and be on your way. You only pay based on the volume of beer you buy, every time you return an empty growler you can get a big or small one at no extra charge.

It wasn’t until around 2010 that western-style taphouses and brewpubs started to find their stride. One of the most successful ones is the Craftworks Tap House, which after 5 years already has 3 different locations and is carried by over 100 craft beer shops. Other notable successes include Magpie Brewing Co. and The Bottle Shop. Although the craft beer culture in Seoul is still in its infant stages, it shows a lot of promise to become something much bigger than it is already.

The problem is, of course, that the craft beer culture in Korea is funded almost entirely by foreigners. The current drinking population of Korea isn’t entirely ready for craft beer, they’ve only just had to grapple with the idea of flavored soju, which popped up about a year ago. Drinking is something you do with food in Korea, and anything that’ll get you drunk cheaply doesn’t necessarily have to taste good. There’s no sense in Korea of going to a tap house or brewpub just to have a drink; even finding western-style bars is a rarity (much less a decent Gin & Tonic… but that’s for another post). Beyond that, the Hite and OB beers have such a tight hold on the market that microbreweries are stifled, relying on foreigners who crave the good beer of the western world to survive.

Beyond that, the import tax on barely malt and foreign hops is outrageous. It’s already incredibly difficult for a new brewery to break into the market, but the fact that their profit margins are so tight makes the craft beer scene seem like an expensive hobby for both the producers and consumers. What’s the point of paying twice as much for a beer that has the same alcohol by volume as some cheap can from the convenience store? How much more do I value having a more enjoyable 10 minutes while I drink my beer?

Maybe as the younger generation graduates and gets more disposable income the beer market in Seoul will mature even further. I don’t know if it’s in a bad place, though. Right now, craft beer in Seoul is like something of a poorly kept secret, and knowing a few good places for a real beer is something of a secret handshake. I think I like it that way, it makes the few really good beers you can get in Seoul, such as the one pictured below, feel that much more extraordinary. In that sense, I suppose I’m glad I came here while craft beer was still in its infancy.

Me, enjoying the Craftbros

Me, enjoying the Craftbros. “Grizzly” Coffee Vanilla Stout.

The Obligatory Food Post

A bit of exposition may be necessary before I completely delve into this post. First, a bit about myself for those that don’t know: between my junior year of high school and coming to Korea I worked as a prep cook for a lovely set of restaurants known as The Refinery and Fodder and Shine under Chef Greg Baker. While Fodder and Shine offers mainly southern country cooking, Chef aptly calls the food theme at The Refinery “country cooking from every country”. While I was working for The Refinery I got to play around with a massive variety of ingredients and really connect with a lot of foods from nearly every part of the world, something I perhaps took for granted before reflecting on the food in Korea. This reflection was only aided by the amount of traditional southern cooking done at Fodder and Shine. I’ve made thousands more biscuits and hundreds of gallons more country sausage gravy than any 19-year-old should be able to admit to, and perhaps the routine of it made me lose sight of the idea of “country cooking”.

Next, some exposition about food in Korea: the Korean climate makes it very difficult to grow much, and while there’s a massive expansion of the food scene in Korea that’s been happening for the past few years, it’s hindered at times by the fact that common ingredients in most other cuisines simply don’t exist in Korea. Anything shipped in from other countries gets hit by a rather brutal import tax, which increases cost and stifles the growth of different cuisine (more about this in an upcoming beer post). Food that grows in Korea is limited to hardy produce such as cabbage and other hardy greens, root vegetables, pumpkin and squash, peppers, stonefruits, certain beans and nuts, and of course rice. Pork is the meat of choice in general, and your location at any given time can more or less determine the prevalence of other meats.

Samgyeopsal, a cut of pork belly that's brought out raw for you to cook. Usually served with lettuce and sesame leaves to wrap your chunks of pork in when you cut it up, as well as garlic and kimchi (which are meant to be grilled in the pork fat) and different sauces.

Samgyeopsal, a cut of pork belly that’s brought out raw for you to cook. Usually served with lettuce and sesame leaves to wrap your chunks of pork in when you cut it up, as well as garlic and kimchi (which are meant to be grilled in the pork fat) and different sauces. Samgyeopsal is usually no more than $6 per person for low-quality meat, or upwards of $15 for something fancy like Jeju Island’s famous “black pork”.

Beef ribs are used in many traditional dishes but western cuts can be surprisingly difficult to find. Fried chicken may as well be in the running for national dish of Korea behind kimchi, as you’re never too far away from a chimek (portmanteau of chicken and the Korean word for beer) restaurant. In the neighborhood where I live there are at least 5 chimek restaurants within 2 blocks of each other, never mind the total in the neighborhood. Fried chicken is a fairly recent fad that exploded in the last 10 years; grilled or stewed chicken is also very common and a bit more traditional.

Some places serve their chicken with french fries or chips, however T and I's favorite place just does straight chicken. You can get 1 boneless chicken or 2 bone-in chickens for the same price (we always get bone in and gnaw at it like savages). It's much different than western fried chicken. For one, the chicken (which is smaller than western chickens because no GMO's) is hacked into bite-sized pieces rather than legs, wings, breasts, and thighs. The batter is also different, much lighter and more willing to take on sauce than western batters.

Some places serve their chicken with french fries or chips, however T and I’s favorite place just does straight chicken. You can get 1 boneless chicken or 2 bone-in chickens for a total of $16-$18 depending on if you get your chicken drenched in sauce or not (we always get bone in and gnaw at it like savages). It’s much different than western fried chicken. For one, the chicken (which is smaller than western chickens because no GMO’s) is hacked into bite-sized pieces rather than legs, wings, breasts, and thighs. The batter is also different, much lighter and more willing to take on sauce than western batters. 

Seafood is quite popular, though seemingly not as much with the younger people. Similar to Spanish mackerel in the Gulf of Mexico, Korean mackerel is one of the default cheap fish to eat. You can often find street vendors selling fishcakes made from mackerel and other cheap grunts blended into a paste. My favorite preparation of fish, however, has to be gui (pronounced ‘gwee’), or whole roasted fish. Similar to Spanish mackerel, which my dad and I always grilled at home, the Korean mackerel is fatty and briny enough to need very little preparation or seasoning to be delicious. Cephelapods are very common and prepared in a variety of ways, from freshly killed and still moving to stir-fried to deep-fried. Japanese style sushi can be quite expensive, and unfortunately I don’t have enough experience with Korean style sushi (‘hweh’) to comment.

A simple roasted mackerel, which usually runs about $7-$8. Higher quality fish and more delicate roasting can get rather expensive though.

A simple roasted mackerel, which usually runs about $7-$8. Higher quality fish and more delicate roasting can get rather expensive though. My face looks supremely unamused in this picture but it was, in fact, very delicious.

"Jeon" is a suffix used to refer to fried pancakes made with a simple flour and water batter. Pajeon is the very traditional scallion pancakes, but there's also kimchi jeon and spam jeon. This picture  features haemul jeon, or seafood pancake. It has octopus, squid, and shrimp in it along with veggies. Many places give you spicy ramen and a salad with your jeon for $15-$18, which feeds 2-3.

“Jeon” is a suffix used to refer to fried pancakes made with a simple flour and water batter. Pajeon is the very traditional scallion pancake, but there’s also kimchi jeon and spam jeon. This picture features haemul jeon, or seafood pancake. It has octopus, squid, and shrimp in it along with scallions. Many places give you complementary spicy ramen and a salad with your jeon for $15-$18, which feeds 2-3.

While many of these foods are certainly popular, I wouldn’t call them Korean “country” cooking. Korean country cooking, as I’ve come to identify it, revolves around presenting any variation in quantity of 5 basic ingredients (chili paste, soybean paste, kimchi, pork broth, stew meat) in 3 different ways (in a soup/stew, over rice, with noodles). Omissions and additions to the ingredients obviously exist, and I’m sure there are exceptions to the presentations, I’m just generalizing here.

Take jjigae for example. Jjigae is a suffix used to identify stew. Any jjigae you come across will be pork broth seasoned with chili paste, soybean paste, the juice from a batch of kimchi, with whatever add-ins the specific jjigae calls for. If you add soft tofu then you have sundubu jjigae, adding kimchi yields kimchi jjigae, and ge jjigae has crab.

My boiling bowl of budae jjigae, or wartime stew. Popularized during the Korean war as a way to use up rations, it features ground pork, spam, and vienna sausages. Very cheap and easy to find at $4-$5 for a large bowl.

My boiling bowl of budae jjigae, or wartime stew. Popularized during the Korean war as a way to use up rations, it usually features ground pork, spam, and vienna sausages. Very cheap and easy to find at $4-$5 for a large bowl.

Another classic Korean food that people are probably most familiar with after kimchi is bibimbap. “Bap” means rice in Korean, and is also used to refer to food in general. “Bibim” refers to mixing together. As such, bibimbap may be one of the simplest dishes ever because it’s just a bowl of rice with vegetables, maybe some scruples of meat, spicy sauce and a fried egg on top. From a restaurant perspective it’s brilliant, since the customer even does all of the mixing.

The sushi-roll-looking thing in the picture above is called kimbapkim referring to dried seaweed. Traditionally it’s just a rice roll with vegetables and kimchi, although ones filled with spam, tuna salad, or fried pork/chicken cutlets (such as above) are pretty easy to find and often quite cheap.

Let me clear the air by saying that I think Korean food is delicious. But after many meals and realizing the simplicity of traditional Korean food, the culinary side of me didn’t really feel very excited anymore. I came to expect a standard of normality from traditional korean food (which I do eat a lot of, since it’s cheap and I’m on a budget) because, well, it is pretty standard. The major opportunity for variation in traditional korean cooking is the kimchi, which can have varying levels of garlic, salt, and fermented funk, but these changes when the kimchi is used in a main dish as opposed to on its own as a side dish are difficult if not impossible to notice. I became more amused at seeing western food executed well, like a good burger or slice of pizza (mexican food is a tragic lost cause, unfortunately) simply for the sake of novelty and nostalgia. In my time cooking I had gotten so used to using making complex dishes with exotic ingredients that some people can’t even pronounce for The Refinery, but I had forgotten that proper southern cooking is just as simple if not simpler than Korean cooking. I suppose it gave me a much better appreciation of the simplicity of those thousands of biscuits and the hundreds of batches of sausage gravy or collard greens I’ve made, and re-sparked my culinary interest in the simplicity of traditional Korean food.

There’s a ton of stuff I’ve left out in effort to keep this post succinct, such as Korea’s unique use side dishes and the influence of Buddhism on Korean cuisine, so questions below or to my Facebook are encouraged. Look out for a post about beer in Korea and why it’s simultaneously the best and worst thing, which is hopefully getting written in the near future. The future of videos on our youtube channel is uncertain, as T and I have been very busy with midterms and research projects. In the meantime, thanks for reading~.

Being in Seoul vs. Living in Seoul

This is the city and I am one of the citizens,
Whatever interests the rest interests me, politics, wars, markets, newspapers, schools,
The mayor and councils, banks, tariffs, steamships, factories, stocks, stores, real estate and personal estate.
–Walt Whitman
Song of Myself, Section 42

Introspecting on one’s own state of being is always a curious process. I found that I was prompted to do so because friends and family from back home always ask the same question before anything else when I talk to them: How are you doing?

There’s nothing wrong with asking this of course, in fact it’s a pretty common conversation starter. But the more people asked me, the more I got to thinking… how am I actually doing? As of writing this I’ve spent over three weeks in Seoul, and I’ve found it surprisingly difficult to describe my state of being. Three weeks seems to me like the beginning of a period of limbo, longer than most people would consider a vacation but too short to say I’ve “lived” in Seoul. I wouldn’t, however, describe how I’m doing as “being in limbo”. In reality, I settled into this life as a dust mite settles onto the top of a shelf: ready to stay in place untouched until spring cleaning comes around. There was never any sense of culture shock, never an instance where I felt overwhelmed by the massive upheaval my life was subjected to. It’s as if this life was taken off of pause, and I started where I left off.

Unfortunately, this still doesn’t answer the question. I’m in Seoul, but do I live in Seoul yet? A little light was shed on this thought with our trip to Bongwon-sa Buddhist Temple.

another bong

The temple was founded in 889 where Yonsei University (that’s the school I go to) now sits. The temple moved into a niche of an adjacent mountain in 1748 where it stands now, and it’s about a 15 minute walk from my dorm. The trip to the temple is very surreal. At the base of the mountain there’s a highway that’s constantly busy, a Starbucks, convenience stores, and modern apartments. As you begin to climb the road up towards the temple the buildings get older and older, homes with outdoor gardens start appearing, traffic has suddenly disappeared, and the only reminder of the outside world is the smell of coal heating the saunas at the nearby bath house (expect a post about that place in the coming weeks once it gets colder).

Then you reach the temple grounds. It’s peacefully quiet. The only sound that can be heard is the trickle of water coming out of the natural spring fountain and gongs being used for a prayer ceremony in one of the halls. The idea that minutes ago you were in the bustling Seoul metropolis becomes unfathomable. People simply move about along the temple grounds. Some head up the mountain to hike, others head to the various halls to pray. Compared to the trip to Ansan Mountain, where you could see and experience all of Seoul from its peak, this felt incredibly down to earth, as if nothing existed beyond the temple grounds. I lit a stick of incense for my dog and briefly entered the 3000 Buddha hall to pray to nothing in particular, my head in a fog from the whole experience

The 3000 Buddhas Hall. As the name suggests, there are 3000 Buddha statuettes inside.

The 3000 Buddhas Hall. As the name suggests, there are 3000 Buddha statuettes inside.

I thought that if Seoul could offer me such an intimate moment, then maybe it’s just as willing to accept me as I’ve accepted it. I felt less afraid to say that I live in Seoul.

As for how I’m doing, I think the question gets more and more complicated in my mind every time I’m asked. At least now one issue has been resolved: I’m not someone who’s “in Seoul”. I’m someone who “lives in Seoul”.