Rants! Korea is not a Third World CountryThursday, March 31, 2011
Folks, I have to tell you- Korea is not a third world country. As someone that runs a culinary tourism business in Korea, I often encounter people that have never been in Korea before. Or, if they have been in Korea for business or layovers, they have been too scared to venture into the "scary city." When I meet guests, they often seem weary and cautious. Women clutch handbags as if every permed 40-something women holding an umbrella and every pleated-pants-wearing older man is out to rob, rape or mug them. The men often hide their wallets in hidden fanny packs and once I had a guest pay me by taking money out of his shoe.
Folks, Korea is safe (except for North Korea...but that is a remote threat much like the idea of Cuba attacking Disney World), we don't have problems with earthquakes or tsunami's (70% of the country is covered by mountains- I think Korea is a corn on the foot of the earth). I often tell my family and friends the North Korean threat is live on CNN, but barely gets a mention on local news. Also, the Japanese radioactive wind isn't going to be threatening Korea anytime soon unless the Earth starts spinning in the opposite direction.
Furthermore, Korea is not a third world country. It's one of the richest countries in the world. It is ranked 14th in the world according to the GDP and last year it was one of the only economies to grow. The currency is strong- almost as strong as the American dollar (which isn't saying much these days). Sure, you can find remnants of the old guard such as palaces and markets and monuments, but often they have been painstakingly restored costing 100's of millions of dollars. Also, the public transportation system is probably the world's most extensive, modern, efficient, and clean. Most of the people are college educated and - even though they might not seem like it- many of them can understand and read English (the society makes it difficult to gain any speaking practice). It's a country that spends 30% of their salary on education even if they are grown adults.
The cost of rent and property in this city is very high. 3 bedroom apartments in the affluent neighborhoods of Gangnam, Apgujeong, and Hannam can go as high as 2 million dollars. People that are opening little coffee shops and bakeries in the same area may pay up to 10,000 dollars a month in rent (think about that the next time you complain about paying 3 dollars for an Americano, use the cafe's wi-fi, and sit for 1 hour).
Everything is getting more expensive in the city and even though you might still be able to get cheap food, corners are being cut everywhere to get you that 5 dollar bowl of bibimbap to you with numerous side-dishes. The margins that some of these restaurants make on food is criminal- maybe 10%.
Take kimbap. If you are paying 1,500 won for a kimbap roll, you are getting processed vegetables and meat rolled with old rice (newly harvested rice is too expensive). This is the same for many of the other dishes as well. Have you noticed that buying food in the grocery store is more expensive than eating out? That's because the restaurants are suffering in order to be generous to their customers. Food for Koreans is a basic right- I mean that is why they always greet each other by asking, "Have you eaten rice?" Therefore, many regular Korean restaurants feel like they can't charge more for something that the market dictates they should.
Korea is suffering from an identity crisis. We are not North Korea. We are not Japan. We are our own country with our own unique identity. We are a modern country that is one of the safest and most convenient places to live.