Korea is a country that you can fall in love with, but it is also a country that can frustrate you immensely. When foreigners think of Korea they will immediately think of Seoul, which is the major city where most foreigners are located.
The population of Korea is 47 Million. Just over 20 million people live in Seoul (11 million) and the surrounding province of Gyonggi do and Incheon (9 million). After the war in the 1950's new city plans were drawn up that located many of the new residential areas out of Seoul city. Some of these newer satellite cities such as Pyyonchon, Bundang, Ilsan and Songnam have grown to around 1 million in less than 10 years. Older cities such as Ansan, Guri, Suwon and Bucheon and Pyongtaek have seen enormous growth and economic development in the last 10 years as well.
The inner city of Seoul is made up of 22 smaller cities or Gu's that encompass half a million people. This means that each Gu within Seoul is in reality a self-governing city of half a million people. Seoul is separated along its middle by the Han River.
Most of the recent major developments and new housing areas have spread out to the southern areas rather than the northern areas. Seoul is only 64 km from the North Korean Border. The northern areas of Seoul and Gyonggi do province are also more mountainous and include many army bases.
There are 38,000 US military personnel based permanently in Korea. The US bases are in the process of being moved (in the next few years) to the southern side of Seoul, with major bases in Pyongtaek and Osan. The US military bases are self-contained and the Americans involved in the military mainly stay on base. These bases are like small self-sufficient American towns. There are a number of other American bases in the southern areas of Busan, Jinhae and Gunsan.
Seoul and the sprawling smaller cities of Gyonggi do are all networked with subway systems, but getting around above ground can be enormously time consuming. Pollution can also be extremely bad at certain times of the year. To get to the mountains and parks you will have to drive for some considerable distance.
Foreign communities do exist in the smaller cities around Seoul, but there is no one area for socialising. In fact the subway trains in Seoul all stop operating at midnight, making visiting friends and attending social parties extremely difficult at times. In smaller cities without subway systems you may very easily find the hub of the city is more vibrant and your social life is more relaxed and you can get away out of the major industrialised areas much quicker.
The success of your placement location will depend totally on your own self confidence, the personal support structures, friends and family you have around you now, the ease of your assimilation into the local environment and the new friendships you form with the locals. Some cities will be ugly and unfriendly to some, and beautiful and vibrant to others.
There are no instant answers, and just because you may have had a friend who went to Gangseo in Seoul and said it was a great place, there is no guarantee you will find this area great as well. Foreigners change jobs frequently so the 'great social scene' your friend talked about may not exist when you arrive.
Please have an open heart and an open mind regarding all cities and areas in Korea as suitable locations to work.
Some basic facts about Korea to think about when considering a location to work:
- 82% of Koreans live in heavily urbanized cities from 100,000-10 million population. Very few live rural lifestyles.
- Korea is extremely small compared to the USA. Compared to New Zealand it is the size of half of the South Island!
- It takes only 5 hours to go from coast to coast and 6 hours from top to bottom (by car). Your location is measured by your ability to travel to many other places. It is easy and cheap to travel with an extensive railway and express bus service that operates reliably and frequently.
- In Korea many of the coastal or port areas are not what we expect as 'coastal towns'.
Koreans do not go to the beach as we know it, and when they do the coast from Sokcho down to Yeongdok are the preferred places. This large area of coastline has some smaller cities and very few language schools. Also, the coast line in Korea is mostly highly fortified because of the North Korean factor, thus barbed wire pleasantly surrounds the few nice beaches. All people must be off coastal areas by 7pm at night as patrols start then.
The famous Busan area of Haeundae beach is closely packed umbrella to umbrella and not a beach resort, as we know them. Koreans love it, foreigners usually think 'oh my goodness.' In the USA, NZ, Australia and South Africa we are spoilt for beautiful sandy beaches, coast and scenery.
Korean's best-loved and treasured places are the national parks and mountain areas, which are plentiful and easily accessed. Many ski fields exist and there are numerous places you can go hiking or enjoy water and outdoor leisure sports.