By: Peter M. Beck, International Crisis Group

Leaving Seoul
Korea Herald/Weekly Chosun
Submitted 11 July 2007

I find myself writing on this topic a bit sooner than I expected, but faced with the prospects of becoming a “goose daddy” (the father living in Korea, the mother and kids living abroad, I decided that Korea has enough voluntary and involuntary separated families, so I had to seize a job opportunity that came up in Washington, DC. I could have continued to happily live here for several more years, or at least until my daughter’s school day became longer than my workday (I never cease to be amazed when I see children getting off of cram school buses at midnight). Leaving Seoul before I was quite ready has led me to reflect on what I will miss most and to realize how little I really knew about both Koreas and Koreans when I arrived here three years ago.

Like most Koreans, I have spent my time living in Korea in a small, ugly apartment. To make matters worse, the apartment was south of the Han River, an area that looks and feels only marginally more Korean than my hometown in California. When I look out my window, I see signs for Burger King, 7-Eleven, Baskin-Robins and Dunkin’ Donuts. I may have physically resided in one of the more desirable areas of Seoul, but my spirit resided in Bukchon, the last bastion of traditional Seoul. You might ask, so what is there to miss living in apartment hell? If I can avert my eyes from these four pillars of American healthy eating, just below our window and in the distance is Seongnae Stream and the Olympic Park. The poor stream had been almost completely paved over, but like Cheonggye Stream, over the past few years it has been spectacularly restored. The past two months I have witnessed the restoration of the next section of the stream, with crews often working day and night to finish key portions before the rainy season set in. An eyesore has been transformed into an oasis, where we also happened to find my daughter’s first pet, a tiny turtle. The stream also doubles as a landing strip for cranes, great white egrets and night herons. I will never forget my daughter saying, “Look Daddy, here comes another beautiful bird!”

I cannot say that I am thrilled by the modern sculptures of the Olympic Park (“Let’s meet at the giant red fingernail clipping!”), but the earthen fortress is one of the best walking/fitness trails in the world. It was also the park where my daughter made many friends and learned to ride a bike and throw a Frisbee. On the weekends, there was almost always something interesting going on, from free concerts and festivals for migrant workers, science and the arts, to an opera featuring the wife of my oldest Korean friend and political rallies. Recently, I could introduce my daughter to another old friend, presidential candidate Sohn Hak-kyu. The Children’s Grand Park has been another source of countless hours of enjoyment. My daughter’s favorite spot is Baduk’s Place, a dog park with at some 30 different breeds of dogs she can play with. The owner and his staff redefined Korean hospitality. My daughter could learn that “older sister” is not only used with immediate family members.

I will miss reading Chosun Ilbo on the subway in the morning. I especially love “The Eight Page Stick”, the tiny little box near the bottom of the front page that contains three pithy one or two-sentence editorials. I sometimes have to ask the person sitting next to me to read the Chinese characters for me. The problem is often that those with good eyes never learned to read Chinese characters and those who learned them no longer have good enough eyes to see them! When someone asks, “Can you read a Korean newspaper?” I usually respond, “No, I’m just pretending.”. Yes, I know I can read the paper on-line. Call me a dinosaur, but there is something inescapably satisfying about holding a newspaper in one’s hands.

I will especially miss Korean saunas and the family steam rooms near my mother-in-law’s apartment where I could sweat and relax with three generations of Lees. I will miss pork ribs and soju (soju is $20/bottle in the U.S.!). I will miss the street venders selling my favorite rice cakes and roasted chestnuts. In 17 years of visiting and living in Korea, I had never been on the lovely road next to Doksu Palace. I will miss being able to hike in nearby mountains and stop at a temple to make a prayer and have some cool water. I do regret not getting out of Seoul more often, but I will miss Jeju Island, where my daughter could ride a Mongolian horse and we could talk to one of the famed female divers while watching my wife eat the leg of an octopus that was still moving. Thanks to conferences and “research,” I was most fortunate to be able to hike some of Korea’s most beautiful mountains, from Halla-san to Baekdu-san as well as Kumgang-san and Ullung Island’s highest peak in between. The North Koreans were pleased when I told them, “The proverb is true, Kumgang-san should be viewed after eating.” Actually, the specially-fed cows and squash rice wine of Ullung-do are not to be missed.

More than places or food, I will miss my wife’s family, friends, students and the colleagues I have worked with. They, more than anything else, have made Seoul an irresistible place for me. I have been able to learn about that truly amazing work being done by NGOs like Good Friends and Citizen’s Alliance for North Korean Human Rights to help North Koreans and raise awareness about North Korea. My biggest regret is that I was always too busy running around to see my old friends as much as I should have. I will also miss the guards for my apartment and office. They have been kind enough to fill in for my father-in-law as my biggest fans after he passed away several years ago. “I heard you on the radio this morning. I can’t believe you said Bush and Koizumi are like testicle friends!” Or, “I saved an extra copy of the article you appeared in so I could brag to the other guards!” I will also miss the countless discussions I have had with taxi drivers. I learned about growing up in North Korea, the horrors of serving in Vietnam and remarrying with a Korean-Chinese. Short of walking around the country for 100 days and trying dozens of different jobs, I can think of no better way of getting a sense of public sentiment. I usually pay a bit extra and say that it is to cover my lesson fee.

By the time you read this, it will be a matter of days before my family and I will trade the elegant white cranes of Seongnae Stream for the bright red cardinals of Virginia. I will be the executive director for the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. The good news is that for the first time in my life, I will not have a boss working above me. The bad news is that I will not have anyone working below me! One recent evening, I was talking with my taxi driver and learned that he was two months younger than me. We talked for a while and as I got out of the taxi, the driver said to me, “Older brother, go in peace. I will try my best to do just that. I feel so fortunate to have so many brothers in Korea as I continue my journey to better understand this wonderful place.

***The author is the International Crisis Group’s Northeast Asia Director and an adjunct professor at Ewha Womans University.