Seoul Searching, Cllr Jack Tudor
As one of the UK’s youngest elected representatives, juggling the commitments of serving your hometown alongside studying at university is a prospect which some would find daunting. Since being elected to Wombourne Parish Council in 2015 however, this is something I have managed to balance well during my time at university, even when attending university took me on a slight diversion from my usual morning commute to the University of Birmingham, in Edgbaston.
A 5,500-mile diversion across to Seoul, South Korea, to be precise.
This is where for the last 12 months, I have completed the third year of my Politics degree, having been offered the chance to complete a year’s study at Korea University, one of South Korea’s most prestigious institutions. Having arrived back in Wombourne only as recently as June, I’m keen to not only share my personal experiences from the Korean peninsula, but to paint a portrait of an entire lifestyle far removed from what we’re used to, and a place unfamiliar to the vast majority.
I first departed for Seoul back in August 2017, not quite knowing what to expect, what I’d find and quite frankly whether I’d be able to adapt to something so far removed from our way of life here in Wombourne. To a certain extent, I’d deliberately avoided doing too much research into the matter in the weeks leading up to my departure because I’d wanted to keep so much a surprise for myself; fortunately upon my arrival I was greeted with a friendliness and welcome I’d not expected, as Western stereotypes, intentionally or not, tend to perceive Asian societies (wrongly) as somewhat exclusive to outsiders. While I was certainly in a tiny minority in terms of ethnicity however (South Korea is one of the world’s most homogenous nations, with 98% of the population being Korean), I was very much made to feel welcome, and spent the first couple of weeks prior to the start of term being introduced to a wide range of people, food, drink, music and culture.
In particular, I recall my first visit to Gyeongbokgung Palace; one of the main homes of the old Joseon dynasty that ruled Korea before its occupation by the Japanese in 1910 and being transfixed at the grandiosity of the buildings and structures that have been preserved since then. This is a place that I visited several times during my time in Seoul, as the sheer size of the grounds means that it’s nearly impossible to view the whole place in one day, and a place I would strongly recommend visiting should anyone consider going to South Korea in the future.
Term-time itself in Korea proved arduous, and a marked difference to what I’m used to at Birmingham; particularly when it came to assignments and exams. Whereas I’m accustomed to being examined on my ability to analyse and think critically at Birmingham, Korea proved to be a lot more fact-based, and this meant a much higher workload. In Korea, it is considered standard to read between 15 and 20 articles per week; roughly 2 articles per class where each class teaches in one and a half hour periods twice a week, and then to be expected to be able to memorise entire chunks of these articles for twice-termly exams.
Fortunately, the evenings in Korea appear to be where people let their hair down. Virtually all of the buildings in Seoul are high-rises and skyscrapers; not surprising as Seoul has 1.5 million more people than London with around only half of the city space. This means that in many of the basement floors, it is easy to come across a Soju bar.
For those not aware, Soju is the Korean national drink, and is a spirit manufactured in a similar way to vodka, albeit nowhere near as strong. The popularity of Soju across Asia is slowly making it’s way into Europe, and is why South Korea is the world’s largest exporter of hard liquor. Needless to say, the intensity of the days on the campus led to more than one visit to a Soju bar!
Seoul’s nightlife did initially come as somewhat of a surprise and is one of only two places I’ve ever been (the other is New York) where nothing seems to stop or close; virtually everywhere is on the go between 18 and 24 hours a day; in busy areas of the city such as Itaewon, Hongdae and Gangnam, Korea’s famous street food vendors can often be seen working until 3 and 4 in the morning. Given how rigourous the Korean work ethic appears in the day, it most certainly is a case of ‘work hard, play hard’.
What perhaps surprised me most during my time in Seoul was the response of the locals I spoke to towards the North Korea issue. Seoul is only around 35 miles away from the de-militarised zone that separates the North from the South, and despite there being several instances of aggression from the North, particularly in October last year when North Korea fired ballistic missiles close to the coast of Japan, there appears considerably less hostility to the North than one might expect. There is an opinion not uncommon among Koreans that suggests that there is almost a sympathy from the South for the North, and the conditions that North Koreans are subjected to – this is somewhat related to the fact that when Korea was divided along the 38th Parallel at the end of the Korean War in 1953, many families were separated by the border, and this is an issue that remains prominent in Korean politics today. As a result, many Koreans were overjoyed at the summits between South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-In, and North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un that took place in April and May of this year, and hopefully this marks a start of an inter-Korean dialogue that de-escalates tensions on the peninsula.
In all, my experiences in Korea are something that will stay with me for the rest of my life, I took part in, saw and did many things that are too long to list or talk about here, but I would definitely jump on the chance to go back to Seoul should the opportunity arise. Should any of this readership be considering going to Asia for holidays or to travel, Seoul and South Korea more generally are two of the places I would certainly recommend for those interested in learning about a history, culture, people and language much different to our own. British people in particular get a very big welcome in Korea as Britain’s film industry has been one of the most successful imports to Asia in recent years, and franchises such as the James Bond and Kingsman films are favourites of the Korean people. To have visited a part of the world that we perhaps don’t hear much about here in Wombourne has been a real eye-opener for not just myself, but for those around me here in my family and friends (my parents were quite shocked when I brought home some duty-free Soju at Christmas for us all to try…), who one way or another have learned more about a new place at the same time and in the same manner as I have.
I start back at Birmingham to complete my final year at the end of September, and have definitely learned a thing or two to take forward with me into this next 12 months as I finish my degree; just as I remain in post as Parish Councillor for Wombourne for the foreseeable future, and look forward to taking on the challenge of both once again over the coming months.
With thanks to Cllr Jack Tudor for sharing his experience for all to read.