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South Korea Overview

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South Korea, a country of approximately 48 million people, is widely recognized by its historic attempts to gain independence, which was finally gained in 1945. The country is a fully functioning democracy with a president, prime minister, and a National Assembly.

A popular destination to visit during a South Korea cruise is the capital city, Seoul. This city, the third largest metropolitan area in the world, is home to nearly one-half of South Korea’s people.

The Republic of South Korea is on the southern half of the Korean Peninsula surrounded by the Sea of Japan and the Yellow Sea. Its total land size is 99,617 sq. km or 38,462.49 sq. miles. Over 70% of the country is mountainous; the remainder consists of lowlands, mostly around the coasts in the west and southeast. Within this small country there are diverse terrains to explore during a South Korea cruise including distinguishable areas of plains, river basins, rolling hills, high mountains, and valleys. There are approximately 3,000 islands off the mainland, most of which are small and uninhabited. Halla-san, the highest point in the country, is on Jeju Island, located about 60 miles (100 kilometers) off mainland.

The country boasts over 400 species of birds, 78 species of mammals, and over 4,000 types of vascular plants. Mammal species include the leopard, bear, tiger, deer, and wolf. Other wildlife found in South Korea consists of 25 species of reptiles, 14 amphibians, and 130 types of freshwater fish.

The best time to plan a cruise to South Korea and explore this amazing culture is either in the fall or spring when temperatures are mild and more temperate. If you are interested in playing in the snow though, winter might be the time for you to visit since the Siberian winds bring snow to the mountains of South Korea.

The Cultural Experience of a South Korea Tour

South Korea’s population is mostly homogenous, except for about 20,000 Chinese. The majority (46%) claim no religious affiliations, 26% are Christian, 26% Buddhist, 1% Confucianist and 1% are other. The country’s main language is Korean although English is widely taught in junior high and high schools.

The capital city of Seoul, the third largest metropolitan area in the world, is where nearly one-half of South Korea’s population lives. This bustling city is a popular tour destination for travelers within the country.

South Korea is one of the most digitally connected and technologically advanced countries in the world. The country boasts the highest number of broadband Internet connections per capita and is the leader in computer games, digital displays and mobile phones globally. During a South Korea tour you can also spend time exploring the entertainment industry, which has also taken off in South Korea with the success of the local music, television, and film industries.

The traditional music that is heard in South Korea is very similar to music from Japan or China – characterized by the emphasis of stringed instruments. The two main forms are the court chongak and the folksy minogak. A-ak, a form of chongak, is performed during the spring and autumn Confucian rituals. Hyang-ak is of purely Korean origin consisting of ceremonial music, lyrical songs, narrative songs and military band music. Traditional Korean music has been endangered twice, once during Japan’s reign and the second with the introduction of Westernized music. The country has taken great strives in reviving the traditional music with the development of the National Korean Traditional Music Institute in 1952.

Some interesting cultural highlights to know before beginning your tour of South Korea: Don’t write a Korean name in red ink, because that means they are dead. Leaving the chopsticks sticking out of rice bowls is another rite reserved for the dead and very disrespectful. Blowing one’s nose at the dinner table is also another no-no; if your nose is running, simply wipe it or excuse yourself and blow it in the bathroom. The old traditions of tea ceremonies and ancestor worship are still extremely important to the culture.

South Korea’s Environment

Because of its complex geography, South Korea has major differences in both temperature and rainfall, which allows for a wider selection of plants and terrain. The country has four very distinctive seasons, but because of the latitude, the country experiences long, cold and dry winters where summers are short, hot and humid. Depending on your prerogative, you should carefully consider the seasons when planning your South Korea tour. Unpredictable and frequent rains along with gusty winds are typical of spring in South Korea.

Lee Wootchul’s Lineaments Florae Korea (1997) found over 4,000 types of vascular plants growing in Korea. By comparison, there are 1,500 species in Denmark and around 2,000 in England. If you are on a tour in the north and high mountain areas, alpine plants can be found. The western lowlands are home to broad-leaved deciduous trees.

Travelers interested in sustainable tourism might be interested to know that South Korea has made it a main goal to reduce pollution and maintain the country’s natural beauty. The country has promised to bring carbon emission levels down by 3% per year until 2020 and encourage the consumption of more environmentally friendly energy. The country is aligning to develop a greener infrastructure utilizing photovoltaic power and fuel cells. The government, in order to attempt to reduce petroleum dependency, has encouraged the import of liquefied natural gas.

South Korean Cuisine

The Korean collection of cuisine varies from complicated Korean royal court cuisine to regional specialties to modern combinations of varied cultural food. Meals are based around rice, vegetables, meats and tofu. The meals are typically well balanced and low in calories. There have been claims that visitors on a cruise of South Korea can eat as much as they like and not gain weight!

Traditionally, Korean meals are named for the number of side dishes or banchan, accompanying the rest of the meal. Common banchan include steamed-cooked short-grained rice and soups; every meal is complemented with up to twelve banchan. Kujolpan is an appetizer of cooked meat strips and vegetables arranged around Korean pancakes.

The dishes that you are likely to enjoy while on a South Korea tour are seasoned with soy sauce, salt, garlic, ginger, red chili paste, sesame oil, and doenjang, a fermented soybean paste. Passing Italy and Southeast Asia, Korea is the largest consumer of garlic in the world.

A typical meal is composed of steamed or stir-fried vegetables, thinly sliced meats, grilled fish and bean-paste soup. Kimchi a popular banchan, is a fermented spiced mix of radishes or cabbage with hot pepper powder, green onion, garlic and salt.

Dishes vary according to the season and rely on pickled vegetables (especially in the winter) stored in large ceramic containers housed underground in outdoor courtyards. A popular summer dish is Naengmyon: thin buckwheat noodles served in cold beef broth, shredded radishes, cucumbers, sesame seeds, chopped scallions, and beef slices. "Korean barbecue" or Pulgogi are thin, tender slices of beef marinated with soy sauce, sesame oil, and other spices. Another favorite dish to enjoy while on a South Korea cruise is Pibimpap, a cooked rice mixed with seasoned vegetables, egg, and meat pieces. It is often served with koch'ujang, which is a red pepper sauce. The creation of Korean dishes is very labor intensive but very tasty!

Taking days to prepare, the Korean royal cuisine was only intended for the palates of the royal court and the yangban aristocrats of the Joseon period. What makes it so special is the balancing of hot and cold, rough and soft, solid and liquid, spicy and mild, as well as harmonizing presentation colors. The tableware is often hand-forged bronzeware and the arrangement of the dishes is important to highlight the shape and color of the ingredients.

Korean restaurants are typically communal with tables, although there are places with private rooms where diners can sit on the floor. Koreans usually use a spoon to eat their rice and chopsticks for noodles and side dishes. While on your cruise of South Korea, an item of cultural interest to keep in mind is that only the right hand is used to hold one’s spoon or chopsticks. Unlike the Chinese, South Koreans do not hold their bowls or plates while eating.

The Geography of South Korea

Only slightly larger than the state of Indiana, South Korea is on the southern half of the Korean Peninsula and borders the Sea of Japan and the Yellow Sea. To the north lies North Korea, to the west, across the Yellow Sea lies China. And to the southeast, across the Sea of Japan is the country of same name. The Republic of South Korea is a total of 99,617 sq. km or 38,462.49 sq. miles. Its geography, which includes its accessibility to various waterways, makes South Korea a great destination for an adventure cruise.

Most of South Korea’s land is mountainous; only about 30% of the total land is lowlands located mostly in the west and southeast. From the mountains, the country is able to extract coals, tungsten, graphite, molybdenum and lead. The country can be divided into four general areas: the wide coastal plains, river basins and rolling hills of the western region, high mountain ranges and narrow coastal plains of the eastern region, the southwestern region is mountain and valley filled and the southeastern region is marked by the large basin of the Nakdong River.

There are approximately 3,000 islands off the western and southern coasts, most of which are small and uninhabited. The country’s largest island, Jeju Island, is located about 60 miles (100 kilometers) off the southern coast. This South Korean island is easily accessible by an adventure cruise. The island has an area of about 712 sq. miles (1,845 sq. kilometers) and is the home to South Korea’s high point, Halla-san a 6,398 feet. Halla-san is a dormant volcano.

Before you Travel, Brush Up on Your South Korea History

South Korea Ancient History
The Koreans claim their ancestors were born around 2,333 BC but scientists believe the actual date was closer to 30,000 BC when tribes from central and northern Asia found the peninsula. The tribes banded together to relieve pressure from China and formed Korea’s first kingdom, Goguryeo, sometime in the first century AD. The Three Kingdoms Period is composed of Goguryeo (north), Baekje (southwest) and Silla (southeast) and is a four hundred year long period that produced remarkable arts, architecture, literature, and statecraft. You can still see their influence on the region when traveling in South Korea today. Also during this time of “enlightenment,” Buddhism influence was established in Goguryeo and Baekje in the late 4th century – Buddhism later appeared in Silla in the early 6th century. Around 700 AD, the Silla Kingdom was at its height of cultural awareness and developed a variety of palaces, pagodas and pleasure gardens influencing the up-and-coming Japanese culture. The Mongols destroyed the Korean culture around the 13th century and after the Mongol Empire fell, the Choson Dynasty was built and a Korean script was formed. In 1592, the Japanese invaded, followed later by China and created the Chinese Manchu Dynasty.

South Korea Modern History
In 1904 the Japanese invaded the peninsula once again and officially gained full control in 1910, maintaining rule until the end of WWII. Their control over the Koreans was harsh and there was a strong sense of anti-Japanese throughout the country. After WWII, the US occupied the southern part of the peninsula while the USSR was in the north. To decide the fate of the county, an election was held, but only those in the south decided to declare their independence. The north invaded, lasting until 1953. The final death count was over two million and the country was now divided into North and South Korea.

The South Koreans were ruled under semi-democracy and martial law was in place in 1972. The next 15 years were a mix of democracy and martial law and in 1980, there were 200 student protesters killed in the Gwangju massacre. By the late 1980’s, the country was in utter turmoil filled with student protesters and workers walking away from their jobs to join the protests. The protesters were demanding democratic elections, freedom of the press and release of political prisoners. The outlook was bleak, pointing to a civil war until President Chun decided to give the protesters what they wanted.

In 1988 elections were held and Roh Tae-woo (another military figure) was elected president and political turmoil started once again. But contrary to expectations, Roh freed the political system even more. Relations were re-created with China and the Soviet Union.

Kim Young-sam was elected into office in 1992 bringing with him corruption and system abuse. During this time, ex-presidents Chun and Roh were sentenced for their role in the Gwangju massacre. Roh was sentenced to 22 years and Chun to death. But in December 1997, Kim pardoned them and they were released from prison. Also in this year, the local currency dropped and tourism had slowed drastically – the South Korea travel industry looked unpromising.

February 1998 brought the election of Kim Dae-jung, who became the first non-conservative president in the country’s 50 years of independence. Dae-jung’s platform was to introduce economic and democratic reforms and also to improve relations with North Korea. In the middle of 1998, the South Korean economy was shrinking, something that hadn’t occurred in nearly twenty years. There was a rise in bankruptcies and unemployment was out of control, which led to large-scale labor unrest. Dae-jung was able to improve the outlook of the economy. He also was able to follow through on his promise to better the North Korean relations. In June 2000, he went to North Korea to shake hands with the reclusive North Korean leader, Kim Jong II. Dae-jung was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2000 and continued to build relations with North Korean as a partnership with Japan and the US.

The following year was a step backwards for the peacekeeping efforts with North Korea, primarily because of a naval battle that left an estimated 30 North Koreans dead. In December 2002, Roh Moo-hyun became president but in early 2004, his power was waning. Parliament voted to impeach him but the Constitutional Court reversed the vote. If you travel to South Korea today, it will be a country currently lead by Roh Moo-hyun.

What Weather to Expect while on a South Korea Tour

The weather of South Korea is temperate with four definite seasons. The winters are cold, long and dry and summers are hot and humid. Unpredictable rain showers and gusty winds mark spring. If you are planning a South Korea tour in the summer months note that there is usually heavy precipitation but is typically not stormy.

Winter temperatures tend to be warmer around the southern coast and colder in the mountains. In Seoul, the average January temperature is -7 °C to 1 °C (19 °F to 33 °F). Korean winters bring beautiful, clear blue skies along with the cold temperatures perfect for skiing.

By about mid-March, the worst of the cold, dry winter season is over giving way to warmer and milder weather. Lightweight clothing is ideal but warmer layers are recommended for travel. The wind can be cool and temperatures can get chilly at night.

The southern coast is known to have summer typhoons bringing heavy rainfall and strong winds. When heavy precipitation is mixed with warm temperatures, 20°C (78-85°F), things tend to get a bit sticky and muggy. The average July temperature in Seoul is from 22 °C to 29 °C (71 °F to 83 °F). When packing for your South Korea tour be sure to include lightweight clothes. And an umbrella is useful for the frequent downpours!

Korea’s autumn (September through November) or in the late spring (April or May) is the perfect time to visit since there is little rain. These months also offers travelers mild temperatures. Just pack lightweight clothing and a couple of warmer, layering clothes for the cooler days and nights.

South Korea Travel and Its Wildlife Discovery

South Korea’s diverse landscape invites a large variety of wildlife. There are over 400 species of birds recorded on the peninsula and 78 species of indigenous mammals living in the country. Some of the large mammals to keep an eye out for during your travel of South Korea include the leopard, lynx, leopard cat, wolf, badger, bear, tiger, marten, weasel, wild boar, roe deer, and Amur goral. Found only in North Korea are various species of bat, shrew, striped hamster and muskrat. Other wildlife found in South Korea includes 25 reptiles, 14 amphibians and 130 freshwater fish.

There have been over 400 species of birds recorded in the South Korean peninsula. It is estimated that 265 are migrants and 52 are permanent residents, the others are nomadic species. If you are planning a tour to the peninsula, take note of the seasons. Of the visiting birds, 112 species will visit during the winter season, 63 come through during the summer and the remaining 90 travel to South Korea during the spring and autumn seasons.

In the highlands of the Myohyangsan and T'aebaeksan mountains there are deer, roe deer, Amur goral, sable, water shrew, muskrat, brown bear, tiger, lynx, northern pika black grouse, Manchurian ring-necked pheasant, pine grosbeak and the three-toed woodpecker.

Down in the lowlands with the milder climate, river deer, black bear, mandarin vole, white-bellied black woodpecker, faiy pitta and ring-necked peasant call this place home.

Chejudo Island just south of the Korean peninsula has seventeen types of terrestrial mammals but the wild bear, deer and wild cats are extinct. The current inhabitants are roe deer, weasel, hamster, field mouse, house rat, and two bat species. Travel to this South Korean island also offers the opportunity to view some of the 283 species of birds and eight types of amphibians and reptilians.

South Korea Politics

South Korea’s nine providences and seven metropolitan cities are ruled under a democratic republic. The country gained its independence from Japan on August 15, 1945 and a constitution was implemented on July 17, 1948. The legal system is a combination of European civil law systems, Anglo-American law, and the Chinese classical thought. Overall, the country’s political powers are shared among the president, legislature and judiciary.

The constitution has been through five major revisions since 1948, each signifying a new republic. The last major revision occurred in 1988 – if you travel to South Korea today you would be visiting under the Sixth Republic.

The current President is Roh Moo-hyun who has been in office since February 2003. The Prime Minister is Han Myeong-sook and the country also has two Deputy Prime Ministers to assist. The president is elected by popular vote for a singular five-year term. The president appoints the Prime Minister after the consent of the National Assembly, and the Deputy Prime Ministers are appointed by the president. The president also appoints the State Council.

The country also has a unicameral National Assembly comprised of 299 seats with its members elected into four-year terms. The president, with the consent of the National Assembly, appoints the Supreme Court justices. The National Assembly and Chief Justice of the Court nominate the Constitutional Court justices and the president selects the justices based off the nominations.

An interesting political note for those who travel to the region; South Korea has five different political parties. These include the Democratic Labor Party (DLP), Democratic Party (DP), Grand National Party (GNP), People-Centered Party (PCP) and the Uri Party. The Uri Party was formed in late 2003 when a liberal section of the DP split off to form their own party. The DLP is considered progressive, holding the interests of labor unions and farmers’ groups.

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