1 day for the DMZ and 1 day for Suwon (both day trips)
Turns out it was exactly the right amount of time. Ok, we could have used a 3rd day in Jeju, but I felt that for Seoul we had seen all the highlights, so close enough :)
What I learned about Korean History
So now comes the part of what I learned and what I think of South Korea in general. First, I'll say that I was generally impressed. Keeping in mind that South Korea had to recover from years of Japanese occupation and then the Korea war just 60 years ago, it's doing extremely well today (not unlike Singapore which also had an impressive growth despite little land and few resources). The country is of course very modern, public transport is good, food was good, the only issue is that too much piping needs to be replaced to be entirely safe and as a result, tap water is generally not considered super safe to drink (the water sources are fine, but the old piping in many buildings is not).
While I knew about Korean war, I did not in details because the Asian side of WWII and its downfall for Korea, isn't really taught in France. The war museum in Seoul does a very good job giving a blow by blow of what happened. For one, I didn't know that North Korea had taken over almost all of Korea before the UN stepped in to help and retook almost all of Korea almost all the way to the Chinese border, until they got pushed back by the Chinese to almost where the original line was around the 38th parallel. Sad that they weren't able to retake all of Korea from the communists and that all those lives were lost when in the end things ended more or less where they had started.
To this day, North and South Korea are still technically at war, and only have a cease fire that according to the South Korean side, North Korea has violated a few times already (from what I read, they are correct). Obviously, I did get to learn history from the South Korean side, and while I found that they twisted things just a bit to entice the population to join their military and defend the country from the north koreans, I can't really blame them for doing so.
I also learned that the US still has a few army bases on standby there as a show of force against the North Koreans and China, should they get wrong ideas.
In turn, South Korea is very thankful of the help they got from other nations to defend themselves from the communists, and they do a very good job crediting the countries that helped them having repaid with their own help in later conflicts where the UN got involved. This may be part of the reason that they allow tourists to visit the DMZ and JSA, so that they can learn more about the situation.
Now, it's hard to talk about Korean History without talking about Japan. While it was very interesting to learn about the different dynasties they had and the unification from the Silla dynasty that lasted almost 1000 years, I'd say that Koreans were probably not warriors at heart like the Japanese, and while they were able to push the Japanese back a few times (including the battle of Jinpo where they had superior boats with canons and sunk all the boats of a superior Japanese raiding party), ultimately the Japanese came back until they won. Considering Japan wanted to expand, Korea was obviously the first target on the way, so this was inevitable. 2009: Lost Memories gives an interesting twist on history where Japan didn't lose the 2nd world war and wher eKorea was part of Japan with only a few people still resisting them and trying to bring back Korean culture and history. Reading up on this, Japan has thankfully apologized for its actions to Korea (and other countries) a few times, including June 23, 1996: Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto said in a press conference: "Hashimoto mentioned the aspects of Japan's colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula such as the forced Japanization of Korean people's name and commented "It is beyond imagination how this injured the hearts of Korean people" Hashimoto also touched on the issue of Korean comfort women and said "Nothing injured the honor and dignity of women more than this and I would like to extend words of deep remorse and the heartfelt apology" (Joint press conference at summit meeting with President Kim Young Sam in South Korea)
Interestingly the same page also states As of 2010, 24% of South Koreans still feel that Japan has never apologized for its colonial rule, while another 58% believe Japan has not apologized sufficiently. One thing I'd be interested in learning more is whether Japan teaches to its own citizens some of its troubled history, and I'm not sure how much they do. When I went to the peace museum in Osaka, I didn't find a single sentence along the lines of "yes, we got bombed to hell, but we kind of had done things to trigger that".
On a related note, South Koreans don't seem to dislike Japanese people (which I was thinking they might considering the repeated invasions of Korea by Japan), but they all told me they do dislike the Japanese government. One also told me he found while travelling in Japan that Japanese people are quite ignorant of their own history and what their country has done, unlike let's say Germany. That's indeed regrettable. We all need to embrace our own histories and faults, so that we can vouch not to repeat them.
Getting around in South Korea
While people working at train stations, airports and hotels all spoke enough English to get around, the general population doesn't speak English too much, just like Japan (except that I speak some Japanese and failed to learn much Korean despite trying before the trip).
Dealing with taxis was however much harder than I anticipated (and I've used taxis in Japan). First, I need to state that taxis are quite cheap, typically $2.50 for short hops, so it makes more sense to take a door to door taxi than bother with the subway when you're trying to save time (and the subway is good, just like in Singapore, or Taipei). The problem is that korean taxi drivers seem to be unable to drive anywhere unless they can enter your destination in their GPS and follow the magic magenta line. One driver was unable to even get us to the War Museum because he couldn't find a way to enter it in his GPS (we had the name and address already written on a piece of paper by our hotel). This is about as bad as a Parisian taxi driver telling me he can't get us to the eiffel tower because after entering the phone number, his GPS can't find it.
Now, they have very fancy GPSes, I was impressed, but damn, they lost all ability to drive without one, or if I gave them a clear point on my phone on a map, they could see where it was, but they were unable to route to a point on the map without an address or phone number (sadly the address on my phone was korean written in English, which they couldn't read):
because getting the rental car GPS to work was hard, I had 2 of my own with openstreetmaps in Jeju :)
So sorry, but I have to say it: South Korean taxi drivers are with few exceptions, the most clueless I have ever seen. Sure, there is a language barrier, but out of about 15 cabs, most of them were unable to drive to a clear point shown on a map with street names they can read in Korean. They can see the street, they can see where it is on a map they can zoom in and out, but if they cannot enter a location that their GPS understands, they tell you they cannot drive there. To their defense, Korean street addresses are not super simple, so sometimes their GPS cannot process one. Sometimes they try a phone number for the business, which may or may not work, but if none of that works, then they seem unable to drive. At the end I gave up with a few and just gave them the directions by telling them to drive straight or turn left/right until we got to where we needed.
South Koreans are said to be aggressive drivers. I did find that they indeed tend to run red lights, which is bad, but for the rest, it was nothing that scared me. Driving in Jeju was totally a non event, except for the very many speed cameras everywhere trying to nail us with very slow speed limits :( (I did learn to drive in Paris, so I'm used to worse than what we saw in Korea).
However, one thing to note is that Google Maps sadly is not allowed to give driving directions in Korea, but OSMand with openstreetmaps on android did the job. But while we're on the topic, while transit directions (subways/busses) work on google maps, most station names are not translated in English at this moment, so reading the station names was tough (I reported the bug to my coworkers at Google, and they are working on fixing this thankfully).
Another low light is that they require a useless international drivers license to let you even rent a car. I say useless because there is no korean on it, they have to read the English. By then I might as well be using my US one to start with. My drivers license lasts 10 years and this scam international one needs to be replaced every year, what a waste of time. I'm making special mention of this though because after making one, it got stolen with my passport and wallet, so without the help of a nice coworker in the US who went to AAA, made me a new international drivers license and fedexed it to Korea, I wouldn't even have been able to drive in Jeju. Now to be fair, Japan has the same exact problem, but at least the international license had Japanese on it, but no Korean.
Food in South Korea
We ate quite well almost every day, but neither Jennifer who grew up with chopsticks, nor me, were bit fans of their metal chopsticks with very small and slippery tips (not the best way to grab stuff, the Chinese or Japanese chopsticks are easier to use).
We knew and like kimchi, and what's not to love about korean BBQ?
I'll give a thumbs down to all the octopus eating though. As a diver, I love octopus, they are super smart and interesting creatures. I've seen some act up for me, making colors and shapes, and even "taste" my arm by touching me with their suckers. I wish they were treated more like dolphins, even if they aren't mammals. Then, when you get to the topic of eating live baby octopus, I just find that both unnecessary and barbaric (never mind that with the amounts I've seen in tanks around South Korea, they are going to empty what's left of the ocean soon):
So, I'm a carnivore, not an animals activist, but eating that much octopus, especially live baby ones, really doesn't seem necessary. Now to be fair, Korea isn't nearly as much a threat of what's left of ocean life, as China, or even Japan that hasn't really given up on killing whales yet, and seems to be intent on finding the last big tunas left in the ocean, even if they go extinct.
The food in street markets was a bit more questionable at times, it felt a bit more like Taiwan where it was a bit of Russian roulette ;) Even Jennifer who felt comfortable in Taiwan, was a bit more worried in South Korea street markets :)
(but to be fair, the US sells deep fried sticks of butter, except I guess you at least know what you're getting)
Interestingly, South Korea is the only place in the world so far where I've seen multiple elevators that weren't synchronized. By that I mean that they each that their own button and would come separately. Each button would only call one elevator. If you were in a hurry, you could push all 3 buttons and take the first, but that's also a bit a-social since it needlessly ties up 2 other elevators you aren't going to use.
The Internet super fast everywhere, it's quite embarrassing for the US how bad the internet we have compared to South Korea.
Korean Airlines was second best airline we flew after Singapore Airlines :)
We getting around Seoul with just English worked well enough as long as you could either figure out transit navigation from google maps, or manage to get a taxi driver to go where you were trying to go. For the rest of Korea, I chickened out (also due to lack of time), but I figured getting around might have been a bit more "interesting", but because we used a bus tour, we didn't have to worry about it, it all worked out.
South Koreans were all very nice, welcoming, and helpful.
The architecture and temples were quite nice, but I have to say that I was a bit more impressed with some of the ones I saw in Japan (sorry). Sadly, I think once you've been to Nikko and Kyoto, it's hard to impressed by temples again. But Nikko is way over the top.
To be fair, some of Korea's national treasures were destroyed during the Japanese occupations, but it was great to be able to see at least the Silla Dynasty's tombs, as very big mounds of stones now covered with grass. They don't quite rival egyptian tombs, but they're still very impressive to see.
We however quite enjoyed the visit of Korean Folk Villages, and seeing the colorful clothing from the different eras, that Korea has had. They're very distinct from Japan's and definitely worth seeing too.
So yes, we had a great time in South Korea, I actually feel we learned a lot from that trip, and I'm very happy we had the time to do it.