South Korea Destination Facts

Quick Facts

Full country name: Republic of Korea
Area: 99,373 sq km (38,369 sq mi)
Population: 48 million
Capital City: Seoul (pop 10.6 million)
People: Koreans, expats (mostly American)
Language: Korean
Religion: Christianity, Buddhism, Confucianism, Shamanism
Government: Republic
President: Lee Myung-bak
Prime Minister: Kim Hwang-sik
GDP: US$ 475 billion
GDP per head: US$ 10,550
Annual Growth: 2%
Inflation: 4%
Major Industries: Shipbuilding, cars, machinery, electronics, machinery, chemicals, textiles
Major trading partners: USA, Japan, Germany

Country Facts

Events:
April: The Cherry Blossom Festival.
May: Lantern parades held for Buddha’s Birthday.
June: Processions of shamans and mask dances at the Dano Festival.
September: The National Folk Arts Festival showcasing Korean culture.

Currency:
Korean won (KRW)
US military bases will let you pay in US dollars but everywhere else you’ll need won. Cash US dollars are the easiest to exchange. You’ll get a better rate on travelers cheques than cash – those in US dollars will be more widely accepted. There are ATMs all over Seoul, Busan and other major cities. South Koreans don’t expect you to tip, particularly as a 10% service charge is added to the bill in many mid-range and all top-end hotels. You’ll be wasting your time bargaining in department stores but you could find yourself lucky in small shops and markets.

Beaten Track:
Samcheok Beaches
Samcheok itself, on the northeast coast, hasn’t much to recommend it, but the beaches to its south are little gems set between steep cliffs and rocks. Geundeok Beach is off the main road and consequently a bit more isolated than the other beaches – the scenery here is terrific. Yonghwa Beach has a freshwater stream, lots of minbak (rooms in private houses) to stay in, and plenty of seafood to eat. Imwon Beach is only 200m (218 yards) long, but is dramatically set in a cliff-lined cove, with sea caves to investigate. Other, more developed, beach resorts also line this part of the coast. The easiest way to get to all of these beaches is to drive yourself, but irregular local buses also cruise the coast road.
Dadohae Haesang National Park
Off the southwest corner of the peninsula, this marine national park is made up of over 1700 islands (if you count little bits of rock that occasionally appear above the surf). Hongdo and Heuksando are the most popular with tourists, and all the accommodation on Hongdo is usually booked solid through summer. Even so, it’s worth visiting for its sheer cliffs, bizarre rock formations, spectacular sunsets and wooded hillsides cut by steep ravines. Heuksando (actually a group of islands) is more populous and flatter than Hongdo, which means you can walk around it rather than having to take a boat. If you want to venture off the tourist trail, grab a copy of the national boat timetables and a Korean phrasebook.

History:
According to Korean folklore the nation’s was born around 2,333 BC. But Korea was first inhabited around 30,000 BC, with it being occupied by tribes from central and northern Asia. In the early 13th century the Mongols reached Korea. When the Mongol Empire collapsed, the local Choson dynasty took over.
In 1592 Japan invaded, followed by China. In the early 17th century, the Chinese Manchu dynasty took over. In the early 20th century, Japan annexed the peninsula. The Japanese, who hung on until the end of WWII, were harsh masters, and anti-Japanese sentiment was strong. After the war, the USA occupied the south of the peninsula, while the USSR took over the north. A war between the two sides lasted until 1953 and claimed two million lives. The country was officially divided into two parts. After a few years of semi-democracy in the South, martial law was declared in 1972. The next 15 years was a roller coaster between democracy and repressive martial law. By the late 1980s the country was at flashpoint with students and workers demanding democratic elections, freedom of the press and the release of political prisoners. The government wasn’t budging and civil war looked imminent until, to everyone’s jaw-dropping surprise, the president suddenly decided that everything the protesters were asking for was alright by him.
In 1988 – the year Seoul hosted the Olympic Games – elections were held and Roh Tae-woo, another military figure, was elected president. He significantly freed up the political system. Relations were re-established with China and the Soviet Union. In 1992, Roh was replaced by Kim Young-sam and his Democratic Liberal Party. The year 1997 was a disaster for South Korea’s economy, with the won taking a tumble and tourism dropping dramatically.
In February 1998, former dissident Kim Dae-jung became president, the first time a non-conservative had headed the country in its 50 years of independence. Kim promised to introduce economic and democratic reforms and improve relations with North Korea. Kim made an historic visit to shake the hand of reclusive North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il, in June 2000. As a sign of good faith he allowed the North Korean government to arrange for his security. In October 2000 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Culture:
Korean society is based on the tenets of Confucianism, a system of ethics developed in China around 500 BC. Confucianism is big on devotion and respect – for parents, family, friends and those in positions of authority. Confucius also emphasized justice, peace, education, reform and humanitarianism. Many Koreans attribute their country’s remarkable success in recent decades to this attitude. In modern Korean society, Confucianism is most noticeable in relations between people. The Five Relationships prescribe behavior between ruler and subject, father and son, husband and wife, old and young, and between friends. If you fall outside any of these relationships, you do not, effectively, exist. Many travelers to Korea find the locals rude: they’re probably not; chances are they just haven’t noticed you. Once you’re introduced to someone, you’ll fall within the rules for friends and things will start looking up.
The South Koreans have turned their hand to just about any art form you can name. Traditional music is similar to that of Japan and China, with an emphasis on strings. The two main forms are the stately chongak and the folksier minsogak. Among the folk dances are drum dances (mugo – a hectic, lively court dance where the participants wear drums around their necks), mask dances (talchum), monk dances (seungmu) and spirit-cleansing dances (salpuri).
The most important work of Korean literature is Samguk Yusa, written in the 12th century by the monk Illyon. Recent literature has had a dissident twist to it, with lots of work being produced by student protesters and Taoist-style ecologists. Koreans also consider their language an art form, and are particularly proud of their script, hangeul.
South Korea is also strong in the visual arts. Traditional painting has strong Chinese and calligraphic elements, with the brush line being the most important feature. Most traditional sculpture is Buddhist, and includes statues and pagodas – one of the best Buddhas is at Sokkuram. Shamanists do a great line in woodcarving. Seoul has several art sculpture parks, where modern sculptors show their works. Seoul is also a showpiece of modern and traditional architecture, including the city gates and the Chosun-era Gyeongbokgung Palace.

Environment:
South Korea has its northern border with (unsurprisingly) North Korea. It faces China to the west across the West Sea/Yellow Sea, and Japan to the east across the East Sea/Sea of Japan. The line dividing the south from the north runs roughly along the 38th parallel. South Korea is a little bit bigger than Portugal, and most of the country, particularly the east coast, is covered in mountains – the highest is Hallasan at 1950m (6396ft).
Korea’s history has been plagued by wars, all of which have taken their toll on the environment. When under the control of the Japanese, it was thoroughly logged and mined to support their war effort. However, South Korea is now reforesting with a vengeance. In the north of the country the environment is alpine, with plenty of beech, fir and pine trees. This is the only part of the country where native animals are hanging on: you might see black bear and deer. Along the south coast, things get a bit more tropical and the vegetation is lush. This is where Korea grows its ginseng supplies. The country is dotted with 20 national parks, including the very popular Soraksan, Hallasan and Chirisan parks.

Getting There:
A number of international carriers fly to South Korea. The international airport is in Incheon, 60km (37mi) from the capital; Gimpo airport in Seoul now operates domestic services only. The international airports in Busan and Jeju have flights to and from China and Japan. If you’re flying from Japan, Tokyo is the best place for cheap fares. During the World Cup, look out for deals with Korean Air for flights to and from Japan. For flights plus accommodation, World Cup travel brochures offer special (if a bit pricey) packages. Departure tax on international flights is to be paid in won and costs in the vicinity of US$10.
Courier companies offer discounted airfares to passengers willing to accompany packages through customs; you may have to surrender all your baggage allowance and only be able to take hand luggage. If you want to extend your trip, you could consider a round-the-world ticket; this is a good-value way of seeing several countries, as long as you don’t mind booking your stops in advance.
If you have the time, the Trans-Mongolian railway via Ulan Baatar to Beijing, with onward connections to Shanghai, is one of the world’s acclaimed rail trips. From Shanghai, there are boats to Incheon; book this in advance. Ferries also run from Busan to Shimonoseki and Hakata in Japan, and from Incheon to Shanghai, Dalian, Dandong, Weihai, Yantai City, Qingdao, and Tianjin in China. You can get some great combined ferry-train tickets, eg, express train from Seoul to Busan, jetfoil to Hakata, plus a rail ticket to Osaka. Other combinations include: Seoul-Tokyo, Daegu-Kobe, Daejeon-Hiroshima, etc. To get to/from Russia there are ferries between Sokcho in Korea and Jarubino in Russia. The seafaring adventurer could hitch a ride on a cargo freighter; it’s not the quickest way to go, but you’ll see a fair few ports on the way and it’s a low-cost option.
You can forget about entering South Korea by land.

Getting Around:
All South Korea’s main cities are linked by air, but the distances are small so it’s usually not worth the extra cost. During the World Cup, however, Korean Air has plans to charge a flat fee of US$35 per single domestic flight. Land travel may still prove a better bet: buses are fast, safe and on time; the train network is extensive and services are frequent. There are two types of bus, express and intercity – the former go direct and the latter stop. Seats are reserved on the express buses (if you miss your bus, you must buy a new ticket), and unreserved on the intercity services.
The trains are also efficient: a high-speed service runs the length of the country and there are several local trains. The quickest trains are the saemaeul, with the mugunghwa not far behind. Tongil trains are cheap but lack air-con, and the 4th-class bidulgi and kkachi go at a snail’s pace. Rail passes (KR Pass) can be a good bet if you’re planning on traveling around for a few days. Allowing three, five, seven or 10 days unlimited travel on Korean trains, at the moment they can only be purchased in Japan or America, but there are plans to widen their availability. For more details on the rail pass see www.korail.go.kr.
Driving in South Korea can be difficult: it’s expensive and traffic jams are a common problem. If that doesn’t put you off, make sure you take an International Driving Permit. Long-distance share taxis, known as bullet taxis, go between big cities and major tourist sights. They’re not metered so you’ll need to negotiate a price before you set off. Cycling in Seoul is a bit of an extreme sport, but it can be a pleasant way of exploring the rural areas.
Water-babies can take ferries from the mainland to offshore islands and several lakes. Most cities have buses, but the stop names are not in English. Seoul, Busan, and several other cities have subways, which are convenient, cheap and comprehensible (all the signs are in Korean and English). Taxis cost more than the subway, but if you fancy treating yourself, deluxe taxis are comfortable, and the driver is smartly dressed and speaks English.

When To Go

Korea has four distinct seasons, with a wet monsoon/summer in the middle of the year, and a very cold winter from November to March. Jeju-do off the south coast is the warmest and wettest place in the country.

If you possibly can, time your visit to South Korea for autumn (September to November). It’s sunny, the skies are blue, and Korea’s spectacular autumn foliage is a real draw. Winter is cold but dry, and a good time to visit if you like skiing, snow-draped temples, a dearth of tourists and crisp (i.e. below freezing) weather. Spring (April to May) can be beautiful, but it’s also the most popular time with Japanese tourists and you’ll have trouble getting mid to top-end accommodation. Summer is hot, muggy, crowded, wet, typhoon-prone and expensive.

Explore Attraction

Seoul
Seoul is dotted with 12-lane freeways and high-rises but it still retains centuries-old temples, palaces, pagodas and pleasure gardens. It has luxury accommodation, excellent public transport and plenty of cultural experiences. The Han River bisects the city. Seoul attracted widespread international attention by hosting the 1988 Olympic Games, and later, the 2002 Football World Cup. In 2000, all eyes were on the Seoul Convention and Exhibition Center when a busload of North Koreans saw their families for the first time in 50 years in a tearful reunion.
Population: 10.6 million
Area: 606 sq km (233 sq mi)
Time Zone: GMT/UTC +9
Telephone Area Code: 02
Events:
February: Traditional dances, wedding services in the Korean Folk Village near Suwon.
April: Buddha’s Birthday, celebrated with a huge evening lantern parade that winds up at Chogyesa Temple.
September: Harvest Moon Festival, with offerings made at ancestral tombs.

Orientation:
The border with North Korea is only about 40 km from the city center of Seoul. The central area is the most important for both sightseeing and accommodation. Tourists and shoppers are well at home in Itaewon. The Gangnam-gu area on the south bank is Seoul’s most exclusive neighborhood. Locating a place from an address given to you can be a major headache. Addresses are not given according to consecutive numbers along a road, but as random numbers within an arbitrary block of land. There are no street signs and street names. Most business cards have maps printed on the back.

When to go:
Seoul is beautiful at all times of the year but Autumn (September-November) is the most popular. This is the time when there is fine weather and amazingly colorful forests. Winter is also magnificent, provided you can stand the cold. During spring (March to May) Seoul has mild temperatures and flowers, including the magnificent cherry blossom in bloom everywhere.

Beaten Track:
Panmunjeom
Panmunjeom was just a small farming community before it became the focus of continuing peace negotiations between North and South. The attractions include a conference room with the demarcation line running down the center of the table, the Freedom Bridge and the Bridge of No Return. There are also a few touristy sights like Freedom House. You can only reach Panmunjeom by joining a tour group. Your Korean guide will take you to Camp Bonifas. The tours are popular, so you’ll probably have to book ahead in Seoul.
Bongwonsa
The Buddhist temple of Bongwonsa dates back to the late 9th century. It was destroyed during the Korean War and has been subsequently rebuilt. It is now the headquarters of the Taego sect of Korean Buddhism. The temple can be reached by taxi from Sinchon subway station on Line 2, or Dongnimmun station on Line 3.
Walking is the best way to get a feel for the town and see some of the sights. Cycling is another great way to do a bit of sightseeing. There are two golf courses within the city and another 46 outside. Health clubs often offer day membership. Traditional Korean-style archery is also practiced in Seoul. Skiing is popular here as are indoor ice skating and water sports such as windsurfing and water skiing.

History:
If you talk to the locals Korea came into being around 2,333 BC. But according to historians, Korea was first inhabited around 30,000 BC, with it being occupied by tribes from central and northern Asia. In the early 13th century the Mongols reached Korea. When the Mongol Empire collapsed, the local Choson dynasty took over.
In 1592 Japan invaded and this resulted in a partial destruction of Seoul. In the north a combined Korean-Chinese force defeated the Japanese and on the water Korea, led by Yi Sun-shin, also inflicted damages on the Japanese. In their retreat, the Japanese took with them many of Korea’s top artisans and most temples and palaces were burnt to the ground. Seoul was again ransacked in 1636 by the invading Manchus. The Korean king signed over control to the Manchus and assisted them in their victorious campaign in China 30 years later.
In the early 20th century, Japan annexed the peninsula. The Japanese, who hung on until the end of WWII, were harsh masters, and anti-Japanese sentiment was strong. After the war, the USA occupied the south of the peninsula, while the USSR took over the north. A war between the two sides lasted until 1953 and claimed two million lives.
After World War II the Koreans expected independence. Instead they were subject to dual ‘trusteeship’; The US controlled the country below the 38th parallel, the USSR controlled the rest. As the cold war began to crisp up, an institutionalized split developed. In June 1950, 100,000 North Korean troops swept south. They took Seoul in three days. A UN force headed by US general MacArthur quickly cut off the northern force’s supply lines and recaptured Seoul. Victory celebrations were short-lived. China’s Mao Zedong sent one million ‘volunteers’ to help North Korea. When a truce was finally signed two years later, Korea lay in ruins. Seoul had changed hands four times in the conflict and much of the city was once again devastated.
After a few years of semi-democracy in the South, martial law was declared in 1972. The next 15 years was a roller coaster between democracy and repressive martial law. By the late 1980s the country was at flashpoint with students and workers demanding democratic elections, freedom of the press and the release of political prisoners. The government wasn’t budging and civil war looked imminent until, to everyone’s jaw-dropping surprise, the president suddenly decided that everything the protesters were asking for was alright by him.
In 1988 – the year Seoul hosted the Olympic Games – elections were held and Roh Tae-woo, another military figure, was elected president. He significantly freed up the political system. Relations were re-established with China and the Soviet Union. In 1992, Roh was replaced by Kim Young-sam and his Democratic Liberal Party. The year 1997 was a disaster for South Korea’s economy, with the won taking a tumble and tourism dropping dramatically.
In February 1998, former dissident Kim Dae-jung became president, the first time a non-conservative had headed the country in its 50 years of independence. Kim promised to introduce economic and democratic reforms and improve relations with North Korea. Kim made an historic visit to shake the hand of reclusive North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il, in June 2000. As a sign of good faith he allowed the North Korean government to arrange for his security. In October 2000 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Under Kim’s leadership, Seoul led Korea to a solid recovery from the crisis, even as traditionally bitter relations with North Korea thawed considerably. On August 15, 2000, the 55th anniversary of Korea’s independence from Japan, dozens of North Koreans were reunited with their southern families in Seoul. Though the event lasted only four days, it offers some hope that the 38th parallel may one day be used only for navigation.

Getting There:
Most major international airlines fly into Incheon International Airport, 60km from Seoul. Two Korean airlines, Asiana Airlines and Korean Air (KAL), fly both domestic and international routes. There is no shortage of long-distance buses to get you across the country. The main station is the express bus terminal, on the southern side of the Han River. The Dong Seoul (east) bus terminal is useful for reaching destinations on South Korea’s east coast. The first-class coaches are luxurious, with cushy seats and plenty of leg room. There are no international trains to Seoul, but South Korea has an extensive rail network operated by the Korea National Railroad (KNR).

Getting Around:
The international airport is located at Incheon, 52 km away from the capital. Only domestic services operate at the Gimpo airport. There is an extensive network of buses running in the city from 5.30 am until midnight. Minibuses are privately owned and operate illegally, but the government tolerates them because they provide services to isolated areas not reached by the public network. The eight-line subway is probably the best way to get around town as all signs and announcements are in English as well as Korean. Seoul’s subway has eight lines.
Driving in Seoul can be a challenge, and during rush hours the traffic can be grid locked. Taxi operators solved the chronic shortage of taxis in Seoul by creating an unofficial and complicated system of ‘share taxis’ – as long as there’s a spare seat in the cab the driver will be looking for another paying passenger. If you would like to drive on your own, there are several car-rental agencies in the city.

Korean Folk Village:
It sounds cheesy, but the Korean Folk Village is actually a very tasteful way to immerse yourself in rural Korean life. The village has examples of traditional peasants’, farmers’ and civil officials’ housing styles from all over the country, as well as artisans’ workshops, a brewery, a Confucian school, a Buddhist temple and a market place. This is a real village, not just a tourist show – the people you see working here live here all the time. There are regular dance performances and parades held every day. Buses go here every 20 minutes from Seoul.

Seoraksan National Park:
Top of the charts in the Korean national park scene, Seoraksan is spectacular. Near the DMZ on the east coast, this is a land of high craggy peaks, lush forests, tremendous waterfalls, boulder-strewn white water rivers, beaches and ancient temples. Autumn is the best time to visit, when the changing leaves make the mountains a riot of color.
Being so gorgeous, the park is, of course, outrageously popular – don’t expect a solitary wilderness experience. The best way to escape the crush is to carry a tent and hike for a few days into Inner Seorak, in the west of the park. For those who prefer a quick fix of nature with a dash of luxury, try the Osaek Hot Springs in South Seorak. Those with oversized lungs and stretchy hamstrings will doubtless enjoy a hike up Daecheonbong, the park’s highest mountain, while the more sedentary can catch a cable car to the top of Gwongeumsong: all the views, none of the pain.
Most of the park’s accommodation, including camping, is at Osaek Springs and Seorak-dong (in Outer Seorak), and this is where the crowds accumulate. If you want to stay in quieter Inner Seorak you’ll probably need to carry a tent, but if you don’t have one you can rough it in the park’s few shelters. Direct buses run between Seoul and Seorak-dong.

Songnisan National Park:
Central Korea’s top scenic spot, Songnisan means ‘remote from the mundane world mountains’, and indeed it is. The place is a magnet for hikers, with heaps of excellent walks. The thing that really drags them in by the busload, though, is Beopjusa, one of the largest and most magnificent temple sites in Korea. This Buddhist temple was built in AD 553. The invading Japanese, as was their wont, burnt it to the ground in 1592, and the current temple dates from 1624. Even more impressive than the five-storey pagoda is the temple’s 33m (108ft) high Buddha, a one-piece bronze monstrosity and the largest standing figure in the Orient. Songnisan has plenty of places to stay, including two campsites and a few hotels (budget and luxury). Direct buses go to Cheongju, Daejeon and Seoul.

Activities

South Korea is very much a get-out-in-the-open-air-and-exert-yourself destination. The mountains, national parks and rugged islands all lend themselves to hiking and mountain biking, although wherever you go there will be plenty of other people with the same idea. There are also a few good mountains for skiing – try Yongpyong on the east coast or the Alps Ski Resort near Seoraksan National Park. The season is from December to March. If golf is your game, South Korea has what you’re after. There are over 60 courses throughout the country, but keep in mind that some of them have been created at the expense of beautiful natural landscapes. Indoor activities are also popular in South Korea – try your hand at billiards, hot spring soaking or taekwondo, the national martial art.

During Seokcheonje (held in March and September), crowds gather at Confucian shrines to hear traditional court orchestras and watch costumed rituals. The best place to see this ceremony is at Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul. Lantern parades are held for Buddha’s Birthday, celebrated in late April or early May. The most important of Korea’s lunar holidays is the Harvest Moon Festival, which falls in early September. Cities throughout the country empty as people return to their family homes to pay homage to their ancestors. Around September the National Folk Arts Festival showcases Korean culture.

Visa

With an onward ticket visitors from almost anywhere – except countries not recognized by South Korea (Cuba, Laos & Cambodia) – can stay in the country for 30 days without a visa. If you’re from Western Europe or Canada, you can get up to 90 days visa-free.
South Korea Tourist Visa Requirements for WFT/ KH / DIYH Documents Required –
Visa Application form duly filled and singed as per passport. (Note – If thumb impression is there on the passport of child then on visa form along with thumb impression signature of both parents is required)
Valid passport with minimum 6 months validity from date of exit from South Korea after the tour.
2 photo (Note – Size 35 mm X 45 mm, Matt finished, pure whit background, 80 %portion of snap should be covered by face)
Covering letter from passenger on his / her letterhead addressed to Visa Officer, South Korea Consulate, Mumbai
Covering letter from SOTC/KH / DIYH letterhead addressed to Visa Officer, South Korea Consulate, Mumbai
IT Returns for last 3 years
Personal bank statements for last 6 months
If passenger is employed – Leave Letter
If passenger is retired – Retirement proof
If passenger is student – School / College ID
If honeymoon couple – Weeding card from both the sides and NOC from bride’s parent along with parents’ signature proof such as PAN Card copy, driving licenses or passport copies
Original Hotel Confirmation from the supplier
Confirmed Return air tickets
Travel Itinerary on letterhead
FOREX USD 1000 or copy of valid international credit card
South Korea Consulate, Mumbai’s Jurisdiction – States of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Lakshadweep Address of South Korea Consulate, Mumbai –
9th Floor, Kanchanjunga Building,
72 Deshmukh Marg,
Mumbai – 400 026
– Telephone: (91-22)2388 6743-5
– Fax: (91-22) 2388 6765
Visa Fees – INR 1440 + INR 100 dd charges = Total Amount – INR 1540 per passenger and INR 250 extra for KH/DIYH
Processing Time – 3 to 5 Working days
Time: South Korea is 3 1/2 hrs. ahead of India
Electricity: 110/220V, 60 Hz

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