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South Korea General information

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South Korea General information

Korea, "Land of the Morning Calm," is a land of opposites existing in conjunction with each other. It combines ancient Oriental tradition with modern technology. In downtown Seoul, one can find traces of its 5,000 year history in its palaces, city gates, and temples, yet the country is also a rapidly developing nation in terms of industry, trade, and commerce.

Calendar

As in many Asian countries, Korea uses both the solar and lunar calendars, and celebrates holidays based on both. The country uses one time zone and is 9 hours ahead of GMT, the same as Japan. Most Koreans work Monday through Friday and then a half day on Saturday mornings. Usual business hours are 9:00-6:00 during the week and 9:00-1:00 on Saturday. During national holidays, government offices and most businesses are closed, although many private store keepers and large department stores may remain open. The major exceptions occur during the 3-day holidays for the Lunar New Year (Seol-nal) and Harvest Moon Festival (Chuseok) when just about everything shuts down except public transportation. (See the Events Calendar section for upcoming holidays and events.)

Clothes

Although most people prefer Western clothes like suits and jeans, the national costume, hanbok, is worn by many during national holidays. Traditionally, people wore white clothes, reserving colors for the upper class or during festive occassions. Rubber shoes and sandals have been replaced by designer shoes and sneakers; however, even these are removed when entering a house or other area where shoes are not permitted. The Cultural Spotlight area has an in-depth section on Traditional Clothing.

Education

In Korean culture, education is the key to success in life. The school one graduates from can determine whether one will be a success or failure. To many Korean parents, the education of their children outweighs all other considerations, and they will make tremendous sacrifices to let their children get the best education possible.
The Korean education system consists of six years of primary school, three years of middle school, then three years of high school. Those who pass the national exam go on to 4-year colleges or universities. Others go to 2-year junior colleges, while the rest enter the work force. Until recently, most middle and high schools were segregated by sex. However, because of complaints about differences in education levels between the boys and girls schools and socialization problems later in life, most schools have gone co-ed.

Flag

After an incident with a Japanese boat in 1872 and increased contact with other countries, the Korean government realized the need for a national symbol. The first flag was created in 1882 and over the years the design has varied. Banned during the Japanese occupation (1910-45), the present flag was created in 1948 for use by the South Korean government. The T'aegukki depicts the balancing philosophies of Yin/Yang and the concept of Ohaengsol (five directions). In the central circle, the red portion represents positive Yang, while the blue portion represents negative Yin. It is an ancient symbol representing balance and harmony. The combination of bars in each corner also symbolizes opposites and balance. The set in the upper left corner symbolizes heaven, spring, east, and gentility. The lower right corner symbolizes the earth, summer, west, and justice. The upper right corner symbolizes the moon, winter, north, and wisdom. The lower left corner symbolizes the sun, autumn, south, and courtesy.
 

Food and Drink

Rice is the staple of the Korean diet and appears at almost all meals. A typical meal includes rice, some type of soup, sometimes a main dish of meat or pork or poultry, and various side dishes. Kimchi, the most common group of side dishes, includes various vegetables (cabbage, radishes, and various roots) fermented with spices (garlic, red pepper, and ginger). Korea produces several types of grain alcohol, most notably soju. Nowadays, many people eat more and more Western, Japanese, and Chinese food, with pizza becoming more popular than kimchi among the younger generation


Geography
Over 70% of the land is mountainous with the eastern regions consisting of mainly rugged mountain ranges and deep valleys. Many people enjoy hiking in the foothills and mountains. Most of the larger rivers and forests are located in the west. The coastline is dotted with bays and it has some of the highest tides in the world. The eastern coastline has many sandy beaches, while the western side consists mainly of mud flats and rocky shores.

Housing

Korea's characteristic traditional straw- or tile-roofed houses are quickly being replaced by boxy houses and high-rise apartment buildings that all look alike. In the past, the norm was to have several generations of one family living under one roof. However, the modern generation favors a nuclear family, and the demand for new housing far exceeds the supply, driving up housing prices in the cities. Modern housing still uses the traditional ondol method (flat stones underneath floors that retain heat for long periods after being heated) for keeping warm during the winter, although nowadays water pipes are used instead of stones.

Language

The Korean language belongs to the Ural-Altic family of languages which also includes Turkish and Mongolian. Although the language contains many words derived from Chinese and printed media still use Chinese ideographs to represent many of those words, structurally the two languages are very different. Korean is closer to the Japanese language linguistically. Visit Life in Korea's language section to learn some useful Korean vocabulary and phrases.

Money and the Economy
Korea's currency is the won (W). In some tourist areas, merchants may be willing to accept U.S. dollars or Japanese yen, but the exchange rate will be worse than the official rate. Most banks and hotels can exchange money, and most will also take travelers checks. Cash advances on non-Korean credit cards can be made in most subway stations and banks. Many international banks have offices in Seoul, and a few have branches in Pusan.

People

Population: over 46.9 million (1999 est.)
Koreans descended from the Mongolian race in prehistoric times. Periods of occupation have also added Chinese and Japanese blood to the gene pool. Although they have borrowed from other cultures, especially Chinese and Japanese, Koreans have maintained their own distinctive language, culture, and customs. It is a family-orientated society, heavily based on Confucianism, which even in modern times retains the basic patterns and manners of family-centered life.

Religion

Korea has been influenced by four major religions: Buddhism, Confucianism, Christianity, and Shamanism. Additionally, a very large mosque in It'aewon-dong holds services for those of the Islamic faith. Many Koreans follow more than one religion as many new Christian converts continue to practice ancestor worship and perform Buddhist rites.

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