[Seoul Lounge] Korea as ‘a land of contrasts’

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[Seoul Lounge] Korea as ‘a land of contrasts’

When I first moved to Seoul in 2000, I really had no image of Korea in my mind. It was purely a business decision. In fact before moving to Korea, I had not even visited the country once. Perhaps that is why I was so touched by the incredible energy, dynamism and scale of modern Korea.

I have found since that most foreign people (we really need to stop using the term “aliens”) - even those who have made fleeting visits - have an impression of Korea that is very “urban centric”.

Many think of fully armed riot police, missiles zipping over from North Korea, huge factories, industrial complexes, and dog meat and bear bile consumption. Sadly, this is the reality of the view of many people around the world, and while there is some truth to it, these ideas do not reflect the real Korea.

Indeed early in my time in Korea, I was blinded by industrial and city life. However, the wonderful secret of Korea, and particularly of its capital city Seoul, is that there is a richness and diversity in just about every walk of life, whether it be business, the arts, religion, philosophy or the natural environment. This secret, which really needs to be exposed to the world, defines Korea for me. It is made all the more intriguing, through, by the fact that great contrasts exist.

These contrasts have a number of manifestations. Korea is devoutly Christian but also devoutly Buddhist; the Gangnam nightlife is very robust, but families are quite Confucian; women make all the key household and investment decisions but have not achieved true equality in the work force.

However, one of the most interesting examples for me is the contrast between the dynamic, buzzing city of Seoul and the surrounding countryside, and the way that one blends into the other.

Far from the international myth of Korea basically being one huge city, the stark truth is that it is mostly made up of beautiful countryside, dominated by impressive mountains.

Korea has an amazing natural environment. What makes it even more amazing is access to that environment and all its flora and fauna. It is very hard to imagine any other city in the world where I could leave my desk in the city and within 15 minutes begin hiking on a very serious mountain such as Bhukahn Mountain. To drive out of the center of Sydney, for example, to find real countryside or even a very small mountain takes at least one and a half hours. Of course, in Los Angeles or New York, one has to drive many hours.

This is the incredible feature of Seoul. It is a sparkling, bustling city of more than 10 million people, but it exists in the heart of mountains with city life and mountain life being totally compatible.

I published two children’s books, “Ura’s World” and “Ura’s Dream,” which tell the tale of the first moon bear and his two friends, Gaachi and Doc Suri, where this contrast is one of the themes. Moon bears are Korea’s bears, and they should have the same status the giant panda has in China.

The essential co-existence of man and nature in modern Korea is shown through Ura’s adventures, as is the proximity of the natural world and the city. Ura and his two friends have a number of adventures in the Korean mountains but are very close to a city.

In the first adventure, a young boy is saved from drowning by an old bear, and in a later adventure, the boy, now grown to be a man, helps the animals rescue Ura from a deep cave into which he has stumbled.

The stories are fun and designed for young children to enjoy. The proceeds of the books, which have been published in English and Korean, are to be donated to a number of environmental groups in Korea, including those involved with the rescue and preservation of the moon bear.

Thinking about my life in Korea and the inspiration for my book, I like the brand, “Dynamic Korea,” but we also need to find room for “A Land of Contrasts” as another brand name.

*The writer is chairman of Macquarie Group of Companies, Korea.

By John Walker
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