In December my family spent 13 days in South Korea, a place we’ve visited before—though it’s been nearly 25 years. Family matters enjoyably took up much of our time, but there was also ample opportunity to catch up with Korean friends who used to live in Washington state, and with them, ponder the similarities and differences between there and here.
Of course they are vastly different places—and yet in intriguing ways they are converging and becoming more alike.
If you can’t picture South Korea’s setting, here are the salient things: gargantuan China looms over one border, with foreboding North Korea in between. In the other direction across a narrow sea, is powerful Japan.
You can understand why Korea long had an insular diplomacy and was known as the Hermit Kingdom. But no more. In recent decades, South Korea’s orientation has become confident and global. Its cities are cosmopolitan, its infrastructure modern and its life incredibly fast-paced. The changes since my last visit are striking.
One change is the advent of 180 mph bullet trains. In fact it was during a trip on one of these marvels that I began to think about the necessarily very different development priorities of Korea versus my home state.
Imagine: Korea’s land area is around half the size of Washington, while its population is 48 million, versus our 7 million. Considering that only 40 percent of the Korean land base is usable, and that as a consequence the country is intensely urbanized, it makes sense that for its long-term sustainability, that urban infrastructure has been an investment focus, with public transportation as a leading example.
In Washington, meanwhile, public transportation has, until recently, been less of a concern. We’ve had the opportunity to instead invest in things like landscape conservation and ecosystem services (like water filtration and wildlife habitat) to help support our long-term sustainability.
Interestingly, our two approaches may now be arcing toward each other. South Koreans have a near reverence for open space and nature experiences, with the “day-lighting” of Seoul’s Cheonggyecheon River as a thrilling example of bold action. There is a growing recognition of the value of ecosystem services to its long-term sustainability.
Meantime, increasingly populous Washington state is ever more serious about regional rail, light rail and Bus Rapid Transit—hopefully while continuing to uphold the urban growth boundary and take even more action to preserve important undeveloped landscapes (for which the future will thank us).
A post script
I spent several wonderful days visiting and conversing with my old friend Professor Lee Shi-Chul now of Kyungpook National University, who invited me to make a presentation there. He is one of Korea’s leading thinkers on green urbanism. With Professor Lee as host, I also reconnected with Park Seoung Hyo, a past mayor of Daejon and National Assembly member. I first met Mayor Park when he was a visiting scholar for a year in the early 1990’s at the UW College of Built Environments. It was a fascinating and wide-ranging discussion over a lunch at a great local spot in Daejon. The conversation veered from support for the disabled to land banking for community building and ecosystem purposes.
My 13 days in Korea highlighted many intriguing similarities and contrasts between our two cultures, with a strong commitment of progressive thinking by people deeply committed to resolving problems happily prevalent in both.
The only downside of my whole trip was learning that Shi-Chul sadly has forsaken the Seattle Seahawks for the New England Patriots, out of loyalty to his daughter residing on the east coast of the USA. I laughingly told him that his switch in allegiance was misplaced, unwarranted and a blemish on his otherwise spotless character. That said, I am fortunate indeed to have such remarkable friends in such a remarkable country.