07 Aug
  • By Tim Fijal
  • Cause in

Observing Change in Korea

I first came to Korea fresh out of university in 1995 and worked at the biggest English language school in Jongno, the heart of downtown Seoul. I clearly remember my exhilarating and intense introduction to Asia: the unfamiliar and raw aromas of traditional markets, the clutter of humanity on every street, the electricity in the air at student demonstrations before the tear gas canisters would fly, and being referred to as ‘monkey’ (due to my hairy arms) or ‘American’ (due to my rounder eyes) by giggling little Korean kids on streets and in subways.  

Seoul is a radically different place now. Nobody blinks an eye at seeing a ‘waygook saram’ (foreigner) anymore, nor are Koreans impressed when you attempt to speak their language or demonstrate your competence at using chopsticks. The changes brought on by the entrenchment of globalization and the accumulation of wealth from a rapidly growing economy were inevitable. But a transformation I wouldn’t have anticipated is that despite over two decades of relentless development and economic growth, Seoul appears to be a far greener city than when I left it in 1998.

The sight of the river decades ago. Yes, you can’t see it!

I recall speeding down a freeway in Euljiro in the early days as my taxi driver explained that there was actually a flowing river under the expanse of steel and concrete we were travelling on. With nary a speck of green in sight, it was impossible to imagine! Well, as it turns out, then Seoul mayor, Lee Myung-bak, initiated a restoration project on the Cheonggyecheon river in 2002.  Removal of the deteriorating freeway and restoration of the river ecosystem below it took over 3 years and cost the municipal government a fortune. But the result is priceless.  

The river today! Yay!

On the very same site where my memories were restricted to being stuck in traffic on a drab and dirty overpass, we descended below street level and strolled down the nearly 6 km path that cuts right through the center of the busiest business district in Seoul.While right above us, cars whizzed by and the pedestrian pavement radiated the oppressive mid-summer heat, below we were instantly transported into a cooler greener parallel universe, hearing the chirp of birds, watching carp drift dreamily in the current of a crystal clear river, the fragrance of grass and leaves all around, and only the faintest sound of traffic to remind us of the bustling urban context just 5 meters overhead. The relief of nature’s embrace in the heart of a concrete jungle infuses people with new energy, perspective and positivity. I started noticing smiles on faces immediately. Kids excitedly pointed at schools of fish glittering in the sunlit water, young couples sat side-by-side on the boardwalk soaking their feet in the cool current, and elderly folk gathered in the shade of overpasses to chat, play chess, share their food.

Witnessing this impressive demonstration of the resilience of nature and seeing its capacity to nurture community in the center of the world’s 4th largest metropolis is deeply encouraging. As were the vegetable gardens, steadily maturing Korean firs, vegetation-lined pedestrian paths, and green gathering spaces I stumbled upon in the same district where two decades ago I would only encounter concrete, construction sites, and clouds of grey dust. It’s uplifting to see urban spaces such as these, honoring their greener roots, and providing incidental relief to city-dwellers passing by them. 

Just above the busy centre of Seoul.

As it is one of our journey’s goals to be in forests, we took leave of Korea’s capital and spent a week to walk and be outside in Jeju-do, Korea’s southernmost island. A beautifully developed network of walking paths over 400 km long called ‘Olle Gil’ have been mapped there that attract strollers from all over the world to connect with nature. And that’s what we did. We ventured inland too, climbing up Hallasan, Korea’s highest peak, in the center of Jeju-do where we enjoyed breathing the fresh pine-infused air delivered from the world’s largest intact, but declining, Korean fir forest.  

Walk into the woods on one of the Olle Gil trails.

While I recall trail infrastructure being far less developed compared to the tidy boardwalks, steps, and stream-traversing bridges now expertly installed on huge lengths of Korea’s hiking trails, the crowds of hikers are a fraction of what they were two decades ago. I clearly remember line-ups at trail heads and summits crowded with young and old sharing their food and yelling ‘yaho!’ at the tops of their lungs.  

I can’t help but wonder if the dwindling crowds on these trails are an unintended consequence of a highly competitive and myopic education system. Time to play outside is no longer a given for young people in so many ‘developed’ countries and urbanization is driving literally billions into cities where undiagnosed nature deficit disorders are epidemic. What is the impact of massive urban populations that experience little-to-no connection to the very ecosystems that sustain them? And with the advancement of technology, the prevalence of screens has robbed young humans the world over of precious opportunities to connect with nature. There’s so much essential learning, contentment and transformation to be had in the simple act of being outside. I dream of reformed education systems that place connecting kids with nature near the top of the learning outcome priority list. Something tells me that a change like that would result in more forests standing, oceans teaming with more fish than floating plastic, and intact polar ice caps.  And happier humans too.

Returning to Seoul, we visited the neighborhood we used to live in around Konkuk University campus where I was an English instructor for two years. Observing much change there too, we happened upon a hipster enclave called ‘Common Ground’. An assembly of storage containers have been stacked three high over a couple of city blocks to create an unlikely commercial and community space.  It was here that we stumbled upon a retail outlet peddling only upcycled goods. The founders of two of these businesses, Upcyclist and CueClyp, generously took time out to meet with our family and shared their unique Korean angle on promoting conscious consumption.  

KJ Kim, creator of Upcyclist, was inspired by a year in Europe where he encountered stylish upstart fashion labels creating handbags and trendy consumer goods out of upcycled advertisement banners.  Kim started Upcyclist (instagram: @nukak.kr), initially motivated by realizing an unexplored market niche in Korea, but has since become more driven to promote conscious consumption and reduction of waste. Yoonho Lee, CEO of CueClyp (instagram: @cueclyp) shared how the message of waste reduction doesn’t necessarily resonate with Seoul’s young fashion-conscious market, but that by creating high quality, functional, and beautiful products, their business earns customers and with that, an opportunity to subtly shift their mindset. 

Left to right: Papa TRI, Ben, KJ Kim, Mama TRI, Cueclyp Designer, and Yoonho Lee.

What I found most encouraging about these two young Korean innovators is that they are opting for collaboration over competition. Realizing an opportunity for synergy, Kim reached out to 5 other upstart upcycling entrepreneurs and assembled a collective.  While joining forces has indeed resulted in shared expenses, more media attention, and an increase in sales, these do not appear to be the factors that excite Kim most. Instead, his eyes light up with enthusiasm when he speaks of his intention to play a role in building community, creating co-working space, and opening more avenues for collaboration amongst Seoul upcyclists that will result in the growth of a bona fide movement. With the opening of a new Upcycling Plaza in Seoul this September, it would seem that Kim’s goals will soon be realized.

While the nostalgia of visiting familiar places from one’s distant past has a way of making one pine for days gone by, the change I observed on this return visit to Korea has me instead feeling optimistic about its future.  I suspect I’ll notice an increase of traffic on those hiking trails during our next return visit.

As I am writing this blog, we have already arrived in Japan, the 4th country of our world trip. We’re excited for what’s coming. So, hope to see you again on our next post, or better, see you in Japan!