This is done with the help of Karl Lee Stratos...thanks so much for the great info!! Hope you don't mind me re-publishing your words :)
Seoul in 1950
Modern Korea is an amazing place. Look at the first picture above. That's how Seoul looked in the early 1950s, when the Korean War broke out. Now, look at the second picture. That's how Seoul looks at this point. If you think about it, jumping from one of the poorest countries to one of the richest (GDP ranking 15th, 2010 August) in sixty years is not a natural phenomenon. People in Korea literally worked to death in order to climb out of poverty. For instance, when they were building factories for the Pohang Steel Company (POSCO - now one of the largest steel companies on earth), construction workers vowed that they would "bury themselves at the spot" unless they finish the task several times faster than what was "possible" (fortunately, they made it). Korea has exited the status of a developing country long ago, and today is one of the leaders in the electoronics (Samsung, LG) and car industry (Hyundai, Kia, Samsung), with cultural products ('dramas', movies, music, food) that are becoming ever more popular. It has successfully held the Olympics (1988), the World Cup (2002), and has just hosted a G-20 Summit.
It should be clear that I very much admire these feats. However, in order to truly understand the context of modern Korea, one must understand the dark as well as the bright sides, to the ultimate purpose of overcoming them.
The Group Mentality
In schools in the United States, one can easily find a group of Korean students moving about themselves, talking among themselves, and gossiping within themselves. Even in Korea, the boundary between 'our team' and 'your team' is as clear as the DMZ.
At the very top level of abstraction, one finds that Korean people are simply extreme. Since Christianity (which happens to support a strict distinction between good and evil) was introduced in Korea, churches have overwhelmed all corners of the society, including village communities, social activities, and even politics. South Korea is one of the most fervent followers of capitalism, whereas North Korea is one of the few remaining countries still sticking to communism. Korean immigrants have a reputation for working their ass off and managing to become rich and prosperous. The congressmen in Korea are famous for their fist-fighting in the National Assembly.
The reason for such extreme-ness is complicated. First, one might consider the geographic position of the Korean peninsula; it is surrounded by countries whose size is much bigger. Historically, the dynasties in Korea have defended themselves against those in China, and imparted cultural influences oversea to Japan. While doing so, it had to keep an extreme stance towards its neighbors, because otherwise it would have been swept by other cultures and lost its identity. It is nearly a miracle that this small peninsula has succeeded in not only developing its own culture, but played a major role in balancing the forces of East Asia for millenia.
The biggest reason for the extreme-ness (though this geographic analysis is still closely relevant), however, is that there is simply no room in the society to afford not to be extreme.
A Society with No Room
It is not hard to see why everything in Korea is so 'urgent'. The nation has raced breathlessly to develop itself economically (often by sacrificing human rights and the low tiers of the social hierarchy). It is still divided in two halves, each of which is spending a lot of energy to stay alert on a potential conflict. Finally, it is a small land (more so because it's divided) with a lot of population, which is concentrated in even smaller areas.
Consequently, this feeling of 'no room' is pervasive in the society, which you can experience immediately in the streets, subways, and department stores. Every service is ever so quick, everyone is rushing to wherever he is heading, and the only thing a person can care to defend is himself and his family. All middle school students are competing fiercely for high school, all high school students are competing fiercely for college, all college students are competing fiercely for jobs, but few of them know why they do what they do.
What to Do
It takes time for a society to become truly advanced, because some aspects of a wealthy society (creativity, generosity, curiosity) cannot be obtained without a little 'laziness'. Korea has managed to develop itself incredibly fast economically, and now it's time for it to develop itself in other ways. In fact, this is already happening. As there is more wealth, people are starting to look at 'optional' areas such as the world peace, environment, and academic advancement. But there are several obstacles to overcome.
First of all, unification of the two Koreas is the most urgent issue. There are some people who think South and North Korea are two quite separate countries, so we need some clarification. There is only one Korea. Just as Germany was considered (more or less) one country when it was split in East and West, Korea should be regarded one country that is waiting to be reunited. There are many political forces involved to prevent this re-unification, but it must be done for Korea to go anywhere beyond the present state. Then the energy and money spent on defense can be redirected to more productive causes; the army conscription, which as seen is a major reason for many ailments of the society, can be reduced or even removed; and the relatives and families who are split across the peninsula can be united again. Rather than trying to prevent this from happening for national interests, other countries must support and collaborate with Korea to make it happen for humanitarian and, in a long run, economic reasons.
Given more time, we will observe that Korea will slowly morph into a truly advanced nation which is solid not just in economic and military power, but in humanitarian and cosmopolitan efforts.
Thanks again Mr Stratos for that great insight. Now my 2 cents :)
What has been said above is evident today even from my own limited, "Foreign" and therefore "outside" view of Korea.
Everyone is in a hurry, everyone feels, and therefore acts like they are in a race for something bigger and better, but always just out of reach. When I was chatting with one of my co-workers about her life's dream she said to me that she doesn't have one. She is a teacher now, and that means she has to be a Teacher for the rest of her life. She has no idea what other opportunities lie out there for her. I was chatting to her about what I wanted to be when I left Korea, and I said to her that I had no idea but that there are many options for me, even if I haven't studied in that particular field. I also chatted to her about the new trend of young people "Inventing their own jobs". I was telling her that many of the most successful people today didn't even go to University. This amazed her, she told me that before she could even consider a job in her field of interest (facial massage) she feels like she needs to study extensively at Fancy Universities etc. I realized that when I get an idea of what I want to do with my life, it never even occurs to me that I need to study a whole degree for it. I just think that I will pick up the skills along the way, and do short courses to help me get there.
What different mindsets...This goes back to Mr Stratos' point about the high school and University students here in South Korea. Most of them study loooonnnggg hours, and Im not just talking about cramming the night before a test. High School students here got to school from 08:30 until around 3pm. Then they head to Hagwons (Private Acadmies) to continue studying in subjects such as English, Maths, Music, etc. Most of them only get home at around 11pm, and thats 6 days a week. They are all gearing up for the Final Year exams, which determine who will get into the best Universities. So what happens to the students who don't get in? There aren't many options. Unless they can speak perfect English (unlikely as who wants to learn English anyway hey?) then options to go and work abroad are scarce. This means more and more jobs in Middle Management positions. BUT there are only so many of these jobs available. I have also heard rumors of tension existing between young, male Koreans and the young, male Foreigners who come over here to work as English Teachers. The Korean men feel that the Foreigners have it 'easy'. Coming over to Korea, getting paid a whole lotta money for doing very little. I don't blame them. There are also highly qualified Koreans who are battling to find jobs that pay as well as being a Native English Teacher. I'm just just surprised this animosity hasn't appeared sooner. And with more rumors that they will be phasing out us Native English teachers out, the Korean youth won't have to worry for much longer....
Anyway, thats my 2 cents about life here in Korea :) I thought it would be cool to mention one or two things that shape the lifestyle of your average middle class Korean person. It really helps to have a vague understanding of this in order to help one come to grips with the everyday frustrations we have as a Foreigner (and to give my Granny and Gramps a little glimpse into the culture of Korea).
*the above is just mine and Mr Stratos' opinions, if you feel differently please leave a comment below, I'd love to hear from you*