South Korea (한국, 韓國 Hanguk) , formally the Republic of Korea (대한민국, 大韓民國 Daehan Minguk) 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.
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.
In the late 16th century, Korea experienced the first invasions by the Japanese, then led by 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.
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.
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 (also known as 한류 hallyu), 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.
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.
Baseball was brought to Korea by American missionaries in 1905 and at one point was the most popular sport in the country. However, this has been surpassed by football (soccer) since the South Korean national team reached the World Cup semi-finals in 2002. Nevertheless, baseball still retains a strong following, with many Korean players becoming famous MLB players in the United States, and the Korean national baseball team is regarded as one of the strongest in the world.
Badminton, table tennis and bowling are also popular and facilities for the public are widely available in cities. Korean martial arts such as taekwondo are also popular. Golf also has a strong following, with membership fees for Korea's top golf clubs being more expensive than those in neighbouring Japan or even the United States. Also, many of the world's top female golfers originate from Korea or are of Korean descent.
As for winter sports, speed skating (especially short track) and figure skating are extremely popular due to the repeated success of Korea in the Winter Olympics.
A long and complicated relationship, contact between the West and Korea have lead to a plethora of books on the Korean experience. Here's a list of books that would be available in the two major book centres in Korea as of June 2008.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 and Asiana 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 has nonstop flights from San Francisco.
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 are available, giving discounts of 30% on KTX services and 9-30% on Busan-Fukuoka ferries as well as Japanese trains.
Busan Port International Passenger Terminal 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 's services to Shimonoseki from cost from $US60 (one-way). A Busan-Osaka ferry is operated by Panstar Line Co., Ltd. .
Incheon's International Ferry Terminal 1 (Yeonan Budu, 연안부두) has services to several cities in China, such as Weihai, Dandong, Qingdao and Tianjin. The largest operator is Jinchon , but Incheon Port has full listings on their website . 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. .
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'.
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.
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 and Asiana was broken in 2005 by the arrival of low-cost competitors Hansung Airlines and Jeju Air , which offers flights not only to Jeju, but also serves the Seoul-Busan sector with lower fares than the KTX express train.
National train operator Korail 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) services between Seoul and Busan via Daegu and Daejeon, which use French TGV technology to zip along at up to 300 km/h. The fastest non-stop trains cover the distance in just over two hours. 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).
Non-KTX trains are poetically ranked as Saemaeul (새마을, "New Village"), Mugunghwa (무궁화, "Rose of Sharon") and Tonggeun (통근), 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.
Pre-booking any train tickets a day prior (be they KTX or mugunghwa) is recommended for weekend trips, as all trains can be booked out for hours on end. On Sunday in particular, all but local trains have begun to completely book out regularly. Failure to reserve tickets in advance when departing busy hubs such as Seoul or Busan may see your options reduced to "unallocated seating" on the slowest local trains (sitting on the floor in the unairconditioned space between carriages, or standing in the toilet for much of the trip).
The KR Pass 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.
Buses (버스 beoseu) 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 (고속버스 gosok beoseu) and inter-city buses (시외버스 si-oe beoseu), 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 (우등 버스) which have just three seats across instead of the usual four; these cost about 50% extra.
No Korean buses have toilets, and rest stops are not standard on trips of less than 2 hours duration, so consider thinking twice about that bottle of tea at the terminal.
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.
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 ₩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.
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.
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.
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, although pure jeju dialect is rarely spoken than before.
Written Korean uses a unique phonetic writing system called hangul (한글 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 (한자,漢字) 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 (장기,將棋) 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 (평양) from Seoul (서울). 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.
The currency of South Korea is the won (￦), written 원 in hangul. As of December 2009, the exchange rate was approximately 1150 won to the US dollar.
Coins come in denominations of ￦10, ￦50, ￦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 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.
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.
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.
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 (싸게 주세요). That means "cheaper, please." Doing this once or twice would suffice. The drawback is you will rarely be discounted more than a few dollars.
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 (반찬). 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 (콩나물 kongnamul), spinach (시금치 shigeumchi), small dried fish, and much more.
The ubiquitous kimchi (김치 gimchi), 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 (깍두기 ggakdugi), cucumbers (오이 소박이 oi-sobagi), chives (부추 김치 buchu gimchi) 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 (된장), a fermented soybean paste akin to Japanese miso, and gochujang (고추장), 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 (닭갈비) 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.
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:
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:
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 (보신탕 bosintang or 영양탕 yeongyangtang) 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 (수육), 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 (불고기), which uses cuts of marinated meat, and galbi (갈비), 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 (파무침 pa-muchim), raw (or cooked) garlic, shredded pickled radish (무채 muchae) and some chili-soya paste (쌈장 ssamjang) 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 (삼겹살 samgyeopsal) and chicken stir-fried with veggies and spicy sauce (닭갈비 dakgalbi). Unmarinated meats tend to be higher quality, but in cheaper joints it's best to stick with the marinated stuff.
Bibimbap (비빔밥) 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 (고추장 chili sauce), and then devour. Particularly tasty is dolsot bibimbap (돌솥비빔밥), 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 (김밥), 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 (떡볶이), which resembles a pile of steaming intestines at first sight, but is actually rice cakes (tteok, 떡) in a sweet chili sauce that's much milder than it looks.
Soups are known as guk (국) or tang (탕), while jjigae (찌개) 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 (된장찌개), made with doenjang (Korean miso), vegetables and shellfish, and gimchi jjigae (김치찌개), made with — you guessed it — kimchi. Sundubu jjigae (순두부찌개) uses soft tofu as the main ingredient, usually with minced pork added, but there's also a seafood version called haemul sundubu jjigae(해물 순두부찌개) where the meat is replaced by shrimp, squid and the like.
Budae jjigae (부대찌개) 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 (라면 사리) in the stew, which is optional.
Popular tang soups include seolleongtang (설렁탕), a milky white broth from ox bones and meat, gamjatang (감자탕), a stew of potatoes with pork spine and chillies and doganitang (도가니탕), made from cow knees. One soup worth a special mention is samgyetang (삼계탕, pron. saam-gae-taang), 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 (미역국) and the dumpling soup manduguk (만두국), but a few like the scary-looking pork spine and ox blood soup haejangguk (해장국), a popular hangover remedy, are substantial enough to be a meal.
Koreans are great noodle lovers too, and the terms kuksu (국수) and myeon (면) 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 (냉면) 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 (육수 yuksu) and the recipes of well known restaurants are usually closely guarded secrets.
Japchae (잡채) is made from yam noodles, which are fried along with some vegetables (commonly cabbage, carrots, onions) and sometimes beef or odeng (fishcake). Mandu (만두) 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 (라면) is Korea's variant of ramen, often served with kimchi (what else?). Korean ramyeon is well known for its overall spiciness, at least when compared to Japanese ones. Try shin ramyeon (신라면) for example.
Jajangmyeon (자장면) 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 (우동) are thick wheat noodles, similar to the Japanese udon.
Since Korea is a peninsula, you can find every type of seafood (해물 haemul), 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 (회), 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 (초밥) 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 (매운탕).
Another cooked specialty is haemultang (해물탕), a spicy red hotpot stew filled crab, shrimp, fish, squid, vegetables and noodles.
Jeon (전), jijimi (지짐이), jijim (지짐), bindaetteok (빈대떡) and buchimgae (부침개) are all general terms for Korean-style pan-fried pancakes, which can be made of virtually anything. Pajeon (파전) is a Korean-style pan-fried pancake laden with spring onions (파 pa). Haemul pajeon (해물파전), which has seafood added, is particularly popular. Saengseonjeon (생선전) is made of small fillets of fish covered with egg and flour and then pan fried, and nokdu bindaetteok (녹두빈대떡) is made from ground mung bean and various vegetables and meat combined.
If barbequed meat is not to your taste, then try Korean-style beef tartar, known as yukhoe (육회). Raw beef is finely shredded and then some sesame oil, sesame, pine nuts and egg yolk are added, plus soy and sometimes gochujang to taste. It's also occasionally prepared with raw tuna or even chicken instead.
Sundae (순대, pron. "soon-deh") are Korean sausages made from a wide variety of ingredients, often including barley, potato noodles and pig blood.
A squirmy delicacy is raw octopus (산낙지 sannakji) — it's sliced to order, but keeps wiggling for another half hour as you try to remove its suction cups from your plate with your chopsticks. Sea squirts (meongge) are at least usually killed before eating, but you might be hard-pressed to tell the difference as the taste been memorably described as "rubber dipped in ammonia".
Vegetarians will have a tough time in Korea. As in most of East Asia, meat is understood to be the flesh of land animals, so seafood is not considered meat. If you ask for "no gogi" (고기) they will probably just cook as usual and pick out the big chunks of meat. One good phrase is to say you are chaesikjuwija (채식주의자), a person who only eats vegetables. This may prompt questions from the server, so be prepared!
Most stews will not use beef stock, but fish stock, especially myeol-chi (멸치, anchovy). This will be your bane, and outside of reputable vegetarian restaurants, you should ask if you are ordering any stews/hotpots or casseroles.
Spicy (red) kimchi will almost certainly have seafood, such as salted tiny shrimp, as an ingredient. Since it disappears into the brine, you will not be able to visually identify it. Another type of kimchi, called mulgimchi (물김치, "water kimchi") is vegan, as it is simply salted in a clear, white broth with many different vegetables.
On the bright side, vegans and vegetarians are perfectly safe at Korean monastery cuisine restaurants, which uses no dairy, egg, or animal products, except perhaps honey. There has been a recent vogue for this type of cuisine, but it can be rather expensive.
There is an increasing number of vegetarian restaurants in Korea - most are in the larger or medium-sized places. Some of these are run by Seventh-Day Adventists or Hindus.
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.
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 (originally German, but 호프 hopeu in Korean) 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 (노래방). In addition to Korean songs, larger establishments may include some Chinese, Japanese and English songs.
There are a few etiquette rules to observe when drinking with Koreans. You're not supposed to fill your own glass; instead, keep an eye on others' glasses, fill them up when they become empty (but not before), and they'll return the favor. It's considered polite to use both hands when pouring for somebody and when receiving a drink, and to turn your head away from seniors when drinking.
Younger people often have a difficult time refusing a drink from an older person, so be aware when asking someone younger than you if they want to drink more as they will often feel unable to say no to you. Of course, this works both ways. Often times, if an older person feels you are not keeping up with the party, he may offer you his glass, which he will then fill and expect you to drink. It is considered polite to promptly return the empty glass and refill it.
The national drink of South Korea is soju (소주), 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 (안동 소주) — named after the town of Andong — and munbaeju (문배주). 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 진로, Gyeongwol 경월, Bohae 보해, Bobae 보배, Sunyang 선양, 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.
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" (paekse 백세), 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 (탁주), literally "cloudy alcoholic beverage". In the most basic and traditional form, these are made by fermenting rice with nuruk (누룩), 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 (막걸리) is the simplest takju, fermented once and then strained, while in dongdongju (동동주) 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 (약주) or cheongju (청주) 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 (백세주) and 'Dugyeonju (두견주).
Those with an interest in the wine production process and its history will want to visit the Traditional Korean Wine Museum in Jeonju.
One expensive but tasty type of alcohol you can find in Korea is Korean ginseng wine (인삼주 insamju), 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.
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 (호프 hopeu), 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.
Like their neighbors, Koreans drink a lot of tea (차 cha), most of it green (녹차 nokcha). However, the label cha is applied to a number of other tealike drinks as well:
Coffee (커피 keopi) 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.
Some other traditional drinks worth keeping an eye out for:
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 (온돌), 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.
Some of the cheapest accommodation in South Korea are in what are locally termed motels (모텔 motel) or yeogwan (여관), 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 symbol "♨" and 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 (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" (휴식 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 (숙박, "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!
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.
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.
In rural areas in and near national parks, you can find a minbak (민박). 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.
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 or LABO .
For the budget traveller public bath houses known as jjimjilbang (찜질방) 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.
Jogye (조계사), 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 or via Korea Travel Phone, tel. +82-2-1330
Education is taken very seriously in South Korea, and the country is home to several world class universities, many of which have exchange agreements with various foreign universities, and are a good way for foreigners to experience life in the country. The most prestigious comprehensive universities are Seoul National University, Yonsei University and Korea University.
Work as an English teacher is available through various companies, with the desired minimum level of education being a Bachelor's degree. Schools prefer native English speakers, and some prefer North American accents. In most instances, native English speakers from the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Ireland, and the UK are the only applicants that can be considered because the South Korean government usually (information has been inconsistent) just accepts those from the aforementioned pre-approved English-speaking countries.
Native speakers of English who have four-year university degrees may find it easy to obtain employment in one of Korea's many private academies (hagwon). These schools have proliferated in response to perceived failings of the public education system, although there are also hagwons aimed at adult instruction. Often, people interested in these teaching positions find them via professional recruiters. There are pros and cons to teaching ESL in the hagwon system. On the plus side, the money can be quite good. As of late 2005, the average monthly salary is approximately 2 million KRW, and housing is usually provided. It's possible to live comfortably on half of one's salary, and to save the rest. However, it is important to evaluate each prospective employer before accepting an offer; tales of unscrupulous academy owners and incompetent directors abound.
University employment is also possible. Those who have a graduate-level degree, preferably in TESOL (Teaching English as a Second or Other Language) may find professional opportunities at the postsecondary level preferable to teaching in private academies.
Caution: Korean employers tend to be more discriminatory towards people of color, especially Blacks and Indians. Korean job applications usually require you to attach a photo of yourself, along with other information usually considered private in the Western world, such as height, weight and marital status; if you are a person of color, your application will be more likely to be denied. Discrimination based on race, unfortunately, is still legal in Korea. Please be advised when looking for jobs. However, the public schools typically are more colorblind in regards to accepting applicants compared to hagwons.
Dave's ESL Cafe , WorknPlay , and ESL Jobs World have general Korean job ads. Korea-specific sites include a blog called The Daily Kimchi , a job ads site called HI Teacher and the Hagwon Blacklist . A web search will turn up many more.
See also Teaching English.
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.
South Korea is a very homogeneous country, and for many Koreans, this is a point of pride. Discrimination against non-Koreans is systematic and occasionally even has the force of law: for example, children of mixed descent were barred by law until 2005 from military service, and will likely be picked on and discriminated against in local schools. If you are applying for work in Korea, especially in teaching positions, many employers prefer Caucasians over other races. (This may be one of the reasons they ask for a picture on your application.) Unfortunately, racial discrimination is still legal in Korea.
While the average visitor to Korea is extremely unlikely to encounter any problems at all, the odds of trouble go up if you are dark-skinned; male and seen together with Korean women; or taken as an American in areas near military bases (a major bone of contention). Harassment is usually only verbal and can be ignored, but there are occasional cases of violence, usually fueled by alcohol. Don't let any confrontations escalate, since if it turns into a fight, bystanders are likely to jump in and you will lose.
With one of the highest rates of traffic deaths, Korean motorists will speed through pedestrian crossings, jump red lights and come within a hair-width distance to pedestrians and other cars alike. Even when the light turns, drivers will not stop. So, beware. Motorcyclists are particularly reckless weaving in and out on crowded sidewalks. It is up to you to avoid them.
Pedestrian crosswalks stay green for a very short period of time. When the walk signal is yellow and you are still at the curb do not cross. Instead, you should wait and be ready for the light to turn green. The moment it turns green, wait for about 3 to 5 seconds and see if other pedestrians start to cross, and if all the traffic has indeed stopped, then walk briskly to cross safely. It is safer to take underground passageways at busy intersections.
Don't expect the cars to stop for you at the zebra crossings and it is important for you to stay alert while crossing the roads.
In the heart of the political centre of Seoul, near Gwanghamun and City Hall, you will see daily processions. As a reaction to the militant policies against public protests of the mid-80s, groups will routinely gather at the foot of the 'Blue House', the administrative centre of the country to demonstrate against one cause or another. It is advisable to keep away from the protests since they have the tendency to turn violent.
Ignorance of the law here is no excuse for breaking them and can even be seen as a reason for harsher punishment. Penalties concerning drug offenses may seem particularly harsh to westerners. They include heavy fines, lengthy jail sentences and immediate deportation. Submitting fraudulent documentation for obtaining visas can result in the same and detainment as well. Even giving somebody an English lesson can get you deported (you have to get a special visa to be allowed to teach English, and then only at your place of employment).
South Korea is considerably less prone to natural disasters than its neighbours. Earthquakes are rare occurences, though minor ones occasionally occur in southwest of the country. While typhoons do not occur as often as in Japan, Taiwan or the Philippines, they are nevertheless an almost yearly occurance, and are occasionally known to be deadly and cause major property damage.
Though an armistice was established between the two Koreas in the 1950's, the two countries are still, officially, at war. Recent events have made the tension between the two countries very high. A re-ignition of the war between the North and South is potentially calamitous and would result in many casualties, military and civilian alike. Be aware of current events in the region before traveling.
Emergency-service English interpreters are available 24 hours a day.
The quality of health care will vary depending on where you are. However the sheer number of hospitals and specialized clinics in the country will also offer you a greater amount of choice. In general the quality is very good and on par with Western countries.
Korea is a land of strict Confucian hierarchy and etiquette. As a visitor, you will not be expected to know every nuance, but making an effort will certainly be appreciated. Following these rules will impress the locals:
Homosexuality is a mixed bag in South Korea. While there are no laws against homosexuality in South Korea, same-sex relationships are not recognised by the government. Gay clubs and bars exist in the larger cities, though openly displaying your sexual orientation in public is still likely to be met with disapproval.
International dialling prefixes in South Korea vary by operator, and there is no standard prefix. Check with your operator for the respective prefixes. For calls to South Korea, the country code is 82.
Mobile phone coverage is generally excellent, with the exception of some remote mountainous areas. The country has three service providers: KT , SK Telecom and LG Telecom . They offer prepaid mobile phone services (pre-paid service, PPS) in South Korea. Incoming calls are free. Phones and prepaid services can be acquired at any retail location found on any street. Second-hand phones are also available at selected stores in Seoul, also you can rent korean phones at the international airports.
South Korea uses the CDMA standard and does not have a GSM network, so most 2G mobile phones from elsewhere will not work. Even quad-band GSM phones are useless. However, if you have a 3G phone with a 3G SIM card, you can probably roam onto the UMTS/W-CDMA networks of KT or SK Telecom; check with your home operator before you leave to be sure.
All the carriers offer mobile phone rental services, and some handsets also support GSM SIM roaming. They have outlets at the international airports in Incheon, Seoul (Kimpo) and Busan (Kimhae). You can find service centers for KT SHOW and SK Telecom at Jeju airport as well. Charges start from W2000/day if you reserve in advance via the visitkorea website for a discount and guaranteed availability.
The 1330 Korea Travel Phone service is a very useful service provided by the Korea Tourism organization. It is a 24 hour service and offered in four different languages (Korean, English, Japanese, Chinese). The operator will answer questions on bus schedules, accommodation, museum hours, etc.
South Korea is the world's most wired country and Internet cafes, known as PC bang (PC 방, pron. BAH-ng), are ubiquitous through the country. Many customers are there for gaming but you're free to sit and type e-mails as well, typical charges are about W1000 to W2000/hour. Like anything, it may be more expensive in more "luxurious" places. Also, snacks and drinks are available for purchase in most PC bangs. PC bangs are often divided into smoking and non-smoking areas.
Korea Post is fast, reliable and reasonably priced. Postage for a postcard anywhere in the world is W350, while letters and packages start from W480. If you want actual traditional stamps, be sure to ask for them, or else you will just get a printed label. On request, fancy "tourist" cancellations (Gwangwang Tongsin Ilbuin) for your stamps are available at selected post offices without additional charge. Korea Post accepts Visa and MasterCard for purchases over W1000.
Most post offices are open weekdays only from 9 AM to 6 PM. Larger post offices also open Saturday mornings, and central offices in the main cities stay open late and are open on Sundays as well.
Korea has several English language media sources for daily news and other information.