By Jennifer Nicholson-Breen

Seoul is all about the struggle.

Like so many young North Americans with a sense of adventure (student loans), I went to Japan to work in the mid-1990s. And, like so many, once there, I started to look west—to Korea, Asia’s Wild West. On my first trip to Seoul I saw businessmen spit while striding down the street and ladies on their haunches haggling over the price of ginseng in the markets. It was not as aesthetically pleasing as Japan, but it was where the action was. I packed my bags and moved.

But by 1997, I thought I’d had enough of Seoul. After a year, its gritty materialism had gotten to me. I went as far as I could get from its ten million worker bees, to British Columbia’s Salt Spring Island, with just 10,000 or so lazy souls. I wanted to chop wood and watch the sea, but was interrupted by news of the financial crisis across the Pacific and Seoul’s face-losing $57 billion IMF bailout. I worried for my South Korean comrades. Were they despondent, dejected—had they lost their furious drive? I realized I had become one of them; I could no longer do the quiet life. I came back in 1998 to work at one of the local English dailies.

Seoul was on fire. Some of it was scary; there were forced layoffs and former salarymen-for-life sleeping in subway stations. Scribbled cardboard placards (ironically in English) said: “IMF—I Am Fired” or the more vulgar “I Am F*ed.” Less visible were the laid-off gentlemen who hung up their suits in lockers at the bases of mountains in and around the city and went hiking all day, their families unaware they were jobless.

But Korea’s dissident hero, Kim Dae-jung, had just been elected president, and change was in the air. These were heady days in Seoul, the oft-mocked “can do” attitude, once eerily Dear Leader-ish, took on an air of altruism. My then-boyfriend, pummeled by tear gas as a student in the 1980s and saving every last of his (rapidly devaluing) won to study law at Columbia, queued up with thousands of other Koreans to donate his jewelry. His signet ring was melted down with 225 tons of gold, raising $1.8 billion, which was mostly used to pay off foreign debt. With Seoul as its engine, Korea was back on the “nation-building” track it knew so well.

On Friday nights we crowded into the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, on the 18th floor of the Korea Press Center in downtown Seoul. A lot of reporters were in town; this was where the story was. We drank weak OB lager to support the cause; the vets chatted me up with war stories from Vietnam and Afghanistan. I had fallen into a modern-day Graham Greene novel. Granted, I was still something of a country mouse, but looking out at the lights of the city, down at that iconic CNN Asia image of Korea—a red stream of traffic light flowing around Namdaemun (South Gate)—I felt what was to become a familiar feeling, a kind of protective pride for a city whose wonders are often so maddeningly hidden.

When friends from Europe plan an overnight layover in Seoul, usually on some package deal to the Antipodes, inevitably they come to me. This is frustrating, not just because they’ve reduced my former home to stopover status, but also because I can’t in good conscience recommend such a stay. I know what they’ll see as a tourist—celadon pottery stacked in souvenir shops around the U.S. Army base, fawning, fan-wielding dancers in glossy hanbok dresses at Korea House, even the grandly reconstructed Gyeongbok Palace—won’t give them a glimpse of the Seoul I knew from working in the trenches of the “economic miracle” for over a decade.

This is, of course, the general case against sightseeing, but with Seoul, it’s more pronounced. Its tourist offerings are so earnest, so far removed from its armies of fashionistas and citizen reporters, from the thrusting investment bankers in their pink Ferragamo ties, from the students who fill the tiny bars in the alleys of artsy Samcheong-dong, from the foreign-trained “fusion” restaurateurs that serve up street-stall standbys with ironic flair. Seoul promotes the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) for Western tourists, but actually hides away some of the fascinating stuff, like the shamans who work at midnight in the hills above the presidential Blue House.

From the window of the press club, I can look out to the president’s house, which stands at the northern end of perhaps the most historic avenue in the country. Actually two streets, Taepyongno and Sejong-ro, which stretch down from the Blue House to Gyeongbok Palace, where Joseon Dynasty kings held court, past City Hall to the now-famously torched Namdaemun. This is where North Korean troops took the city in June 1950, and where Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s UN troops took it back a few months later. This is where the middle class finally came out en masse alongside the student protestors in 1987, the tipping point that finally brought about democratization.

Fifteen years on, these streets saw a different kind of struggle. Koreans had recovered, and in 2002, they were the theater of the new Korea—where first thousands, then millions, of “Red Devils” football supporters gathered to watch Korea’s team on huge outdoor screens in the 2002 World Cup.

A spell came over the city. Lured by the chanting and drums heard from City Hall hours before every match, I’d prepare to go to battle. I’d put on a Korean flag (Taegeukgi) as a skirt, another Taegukgi as a bandana, and paint a red and blue taeguk (the Korean yin-yang symbol) on each cheek. A kind of benevolent nationalism prevailed; nobody questioned it. Even my husband, a Brit who said he wouldn’t be caught dead wrapped in a Union Jack, wore a Taegukgi as a cape. We kissed strangers cheering next to us when Korea, unbelievably, beat Italy.

This was not about soccer, or even pride in co-hosting the event. No, this was the euphoria of seeing the “Miracle on the Han” played out on an oversized LG TV. Going into the cup, nobody would have dreamed that Korea would be up against Germany in the semi-finals, but then, in 1960, when South Korea’s GDP was on par with Ethiopia’s, nobody would have guessed it would become the 12th-largest economy. Korea was playing with the big guys. The struggle had paid off. And it was quite a party.

For the month of June, nobody did anything else. Korea declared a national holiday to let the fans recuperate, and, after it was all over, offered the team’s coach, Gus Hiddink, the first-ever honorary Korean citizenship. Even MacArthur didn’t get that.

JENNIFER NICHOLSON-BREEN worked as a magazine journalist in Canada before moving to Asia in the mid-1990s. She worked mainly at investment banks in Seoul before becoming senior editor of Korean Air’s Morning Calm magazine. She is now based in Prague but travels across the continent, writing a book on her search for a home, entitled 100m2 of Europe.


About Seoul and South Korea

  • <p>Photo: Lotus Lantern Festival</p>


    Get travel tips, see photos, take a quiz and more with National Geographic's Ultimate Guide to Seoul.

  • <p>Photo: Crowd with lanterns</p>

    South Korea

    Explore South Korea through facts and photos, related features, a country map, and more.

Take a Nat Geo Trip

Select a destination or trip type to find a trip:

See All Trips »

Join Nat Geo Travel's Communities

2016 National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year Contest

  • Picture of a volcano on Reunion Island

    Who Will Win?

    Browse photos of nature, cities, and people and share your favorite photos.

Take a Nat Geo Trip

Select a destination or trip type to find a trip:

See All Trips »

Get Social With Nat Geo Travel