[Seoul Lounge] Ever-changing SeoulAs I gaze out my office window in Insa-dong, central Seoul, reminiscing on my 15 years of living and working in Seoul, one prevailing thought that continues to arise is how much the city has changed since I arrived in Korea 22 years ago. It is incredible to think that I first arrived at Gimpo Airport on July 1, 1989.
As a young man just out of college, I really didn’t know what to expect and was completely shocked at the vibrant city I saw from the green Hyundai Pony II taxi driving on the 88 Expressway. How wrong was I to stereotype Korea, thinking it would be a country of farmers and rice fields. It was extremely warm and humid as the rainy season had just begun. With no air conditioning in the vehicle and armed with very limited means of communication, I remember thinking, “Why am I here? What have I done?” Just like the Paul Simon’s song “The Boxer,” there have been many times I said “I am leaving,” but for some uncertain reason, I either remained in or returned to Korea.
Over these 20 years, I resided in Korea two different times, from 1989-97 and from 2005-12, and feel very fortunate from both experiences. I was able to benefit from what I call the “Pre Financial Crisis Period” and the “Post Financial Crisis Period.” During the first period, Korea was essentially a closed market, but has since made significant strides in becoming more global. As an American, I am now a co-owner and managing partner of a public relations firm based in Seoul. This was unheard of in Korea prior to the year 1998 and demonstrated how quick and resourceful Korean people were to adapt and learn in new competitive environments.
During my time in Korea, I have noticed many positive changes, and one can only imagine what Korea will look like in 2029, but I expect Korea will be far more dynamic and exciting than it is today. While there are so many interesting areas to discuss, I will instead focus on a few key areas where improvements have been made to this sprawling city.
When you really think about it, Seoul has grown up quickly and become a more cosmopolitan city for Koreans and Westerners alike. When I first arrived in Seoul, there were very few dining options for foreigners, and if you can believe it, only two McDonald’s restaurants existed. Today, there are numerous restaurants offering a wide variety of tasty international cuisines. Foreign chefs are no longer confined to expensive five-star hotels and swank, open-air, nouveau-riche cafes can be easily found at various locations throughout the city. Out for the most part are the old-style OB Hofs, and now, beer connoisseurs can quaff copious amounts of ale from all over the world at stylish pubs. While more improvements can always be made, the city has many more leisure options on offer.
This drive for a higher quality of lifestyle is not just the result of meeting the foreign community’s needs, but primarily because Korean people have demanded these changes themselves. Since travel restrictions were lifted in Korea in 1991, many Korean people have traveled abroad and experienced many of the positive things Western cultures have to offer. Not too long ago, foreigners were once feared, but these days are now approached with offers of help and kindness. Taxi drivers are even more courteous and the days of shared taxis, hapseung, are now long gone. Taxis in Korea are still very reasonable, and other modes of transportation have been further developed and enhanced as well. When I first arrived in Seoul, there were four subway lines, and the fee was a mere 200 won ($0.18). With nine lines now, the subways are still well managed, very clean and perhaps the most efficient form of transportation to and from almost any location in Seoul. It is quite amazing, but the subway fee is still very reasonable at a base fare of 900 won.
On top of being one of the safest cities in the world to take a stroll in, even late at night, many changes have been made to the environmental landscape of the city. Years ago, there were few trees in the city, but through focused green initiatives, green areas can be found throughout the city. There is now a fabulous open area at City Hall Plaza with grass during the summer and an ice skating rink for all to use during the winter months - a significant upgrade from the traffic roundabout that used to be there. There are now numerous parks scattered throughout the city, beautiful Han River settings and the Cheonggyecheon that flows though the city center. Bridges now have artistic water fountains and unique lighting characteristics, and the red and green neon lights that once plagued the city are now mostly a memory.
What will Seoul look like in the future? I will leave this to everyone’s imagination, but personally, I feel it will be breathtaking. To me, Seoul is ever-changing. In fact, if you take your eye off it for a moment, it just might change again.
*The author is a managing partner at EDGE, part of Publicis Consultants, in Seoul.
by Jeffrey Bohn