An Ode to Seoul – 17 Years After


Moving from one post to the next has become part of my life. Mobility across borders is a new normal for many. My family and I have become part of the flow. We left Korea in late 2001 after five eventful and rewarding years.

When in hindsight, I write the years spent in Korea were eventful and rewarding, this holds true both in a private and professional sense. It was here that my wife and I decided to tie the knot. And it was here that our wonderful son first saw the light of day. As we moved on, it was always understood that one day we would return to the place of origin of our family’s happiness – not at least to show our boy the great country he was born in.

This was the motivation of our visit that took us back to Seoul for one week in late March. Now back at my desk in New Delhi, I wish to share some thoughts.

As the Representative of my Foundation at the turn of the millennium, I was in charge of a project aimed at promoting local autonomy. Back then, decentralization and devolution were in a nascent state. Together with the fine scholars at the Centre for Local Autonomy (CLA) of Hanyang University we spearheaded the efforts to bring democratic governance to the people on the lowest level. For me, it is very pleasing that today the results of good urban governance are visible at every corner in Metropolitan Seoul.

Hardly have I seen a city as organized and seemingly well administered as Seoul. What has happened here the past twenty years may well be termed a revolution in urban governance.

One shining example and a marvel of citizens’ friendly local governance is the restoration of the Cheonggye Stream in the heart of the city. Another jewel is Seoul’s public transport system. Equipped with digital T-Money we explored the vast city using the subway and buses getting assistance online via the nearly ubiquitous free (and strong) wifi.

Seoul has morphed into a truly global metropolis – and with the openness people also have changed. Myriad foreign eateries cater to foreigners and locals alike. A pleasant surprise I found that many, mainly young Koreans were open and ready to converse in English.

During our short stay, we found time for only a few encounters with old friends and partners. I was humbled by the generosity of our hosts. In our discussions, it soon became clear Korea’s society is in rapid transition. Inevitability, the many changes also create tension and friction.

Still, not all are happy

Not everybody is happy with everything: The collective push to move ahead is driven by personal ambitions to excel in life. I am not a friend of stereotypes. But rarely have I seen a people as determined as the Koreans to reach the best in education for their offspring – the best careers and the best opportunities. This determination is nothing new and has been a driver of Korea’s impressive journey from tags to riches.

Another concern Koreans shared with me was a sense of overwhelming materialism, the greediness of not a few, and – related to this – the mention of growing inequality. As in other parts of the world, many Koreans perceive that the fruits of their labor are not distributed fairly. Take this, troubling youth unemployment of ten percent and one of the lowest fertility rates in the world and you see that grey clouds are endangering South Korea’s shining success story today.

My thoughts would not be complete without a word or two on what Koreans (both up North and in the South) and the world at large are talking about the most these days: the prospects of historic developments in light of the upcoming summits.

Korea has been and will remain for considerable time a paradise for political pundits – all the more if you add some expertise on unification issues. Hailing from Germany with a background in political journalism, hardly ever have I published more often than as a writer for Korea news outlets. And yes, I miss this.

Today, no doubt, Korea is once again approaching historical moments. The culmination of diplomatic interactions at highest levels is indeed special. On all fronts, the individuals in the driver seats have changed over the past years, so has the level of the military threat from North Korea. What has not changed however is that, once again and as so many times in history, the fate of this grand nation seems to be determined by outside forces.

My little family and I left Seoul on the day before Easter. We vowed to be back sooner or later.


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