Korea in the raw
One of the first things incoming foreigners learn about this nation is: ``Korean society is one governed by relationships, not laws.”
This is commonly seen in commerce. In, say, the U.S., two perfect strangers can do business based on a paper agreement: What is written on that paper is both binding and enforceable. That is not necessarily the case here, where a long preamble needs to take place as relationships, and trust, are established.
There are reasons for this. Most Koreans are just one or two generations removed from their ancestral villages, where traditional relationships governed society and legalities meant little.
Moreover, today’s legal framework was applied to Korea by Japanese colonists. The Japanese wielded it harshly, and this trend continued during local authoritarian rule. For much of modern Korean history, the law was used as a blunt instrument by those in power.
Since democratization, many Koreans have had little respect for the law or its enforcers: a friend in the legal profession tells me there is a widespread belief among Koreans that if you obey the law, you are a fool. Witness the endless cycle of executive crime and minimal sentence or automatic pardon; witness the unsanctioned shenanigans of opposition politicians, strikers and demonstrators; witness the kid gloves the riot police have adopted in recent years.
The good news? Korea is not a paradise for ambulance chasers like the U.S., nor a mess of petty regulation like the U.K. Moreover, relationships governing behavior are transparent in many situations. These include roles within the family, the hierarchies governing schools and workplaces, and the server-served relationships of the service industry.
The bad news? In one area of daily urban life, established relationships are non-existent. Here, with no hierarchy of age or position to establish precedence, the law of the jungle rules. Moreover, this area is one where modern Koreans’ intensely competitive nature ― Get ahead! At all costs! And to hell with anyone else! ― is ruthlessly unleashed.
Making matters worse, this area is intrinsically dangerous, as it is where the average Kim, Park or Lee ― empowered within individual frameworks of steel and glass ― controls a ton or more of deadly, high-speed machinery.
I write, of course, of the roads.
Here, normally mild-mannered Koreans ― who might be kindergarten teachers, florists or charity workers ― are transformed, behind the wheel, into Formula One drivers, Panzer commanders or highwaymen.
Me? In the UK, I’d never run a red light. In the ROK ... well. As the saying goes: ``When in Rome ― eat spaghetti.”
But it is not funny. In 2010, among the OECD’s 34 member states, Korea had the highest road accident rate per 10,000 cars, and the third-highest number killed on the roads after Turkey and Slovakia.
I constantly see dangerous practices. Overtaking on slopes. (The driver cannot see incoming traffic over the brow of the hill, raising the risk of head-on collisions.) Braking while, not before, cornering. (If you brake before a corner, then accelerate out of it, you improve road control, and prevent the likelihood of skidding). Parking beside crossings. (Drivers can’t see pedestrians when they step into the road).
Some of this can be put down to the local driving test, which is both easy, and which takes place on a practice course, rather than real roads. Still, I think it has more to do with attitude.
There is no respect for the rules of the road: How many vehicles have you seen running red lights today? Likewise the enforcers: How many times have you seen a driver accepting a ticket without an argument?
Moreover, more sinister motivations may be at play. A taxi driver I used to know warned me never to get into a dispute with a bus driver, as my friend alleged that the bus companies pay off all police stations along their routes.
Yet if the roads are un-trammeled by either law or relationships, there is another area where the same could be said, but where local behavior is virtually the opposite.
I speak of the mountains.
This is a corrugated land, and on the countless hiking paths and mountain trails that crisscross it, gentility seems to be the norm. I have lost count of the number of times when, meeting a group of locals on a narrow path, they have grinned and motioned me onward: ``Please, after you!”
What explains the divergence between highway and high country?
On the roads, Kim, Park or Lee is moving from A to B at maximum speed: In the morning, he/she needs to be in the office before the boss. At lunch, he/she simply must grab the free table at the restaurant. And at the end of another stress-heavy day, he/she needs to get home and unwind.
While Korea is one of the world’s great car manufacturers, it is not a car culture. The idea of a leisurely drive simply for pleasure seems alien; the car is a mode of transport, period. The destination, not the journey, is all-important.
Among the mountains, the opposite holds true.
Here there is no rush to be first to the summit, in fact little rush at all. Walking is leisurely, time is to be taken, views enjoyed. There are neither hierarchies nor regulations guiding behavior, but the trails are havens of politeness and good cheer. The destination is irrelevant, the journey is to be savored.
What learning can one draw from this? I am not sure, but if you are a foreign visitor, do not judge Koreans by their gangsterish driving habits. To see locals at their best, escape the roads, slip into your lederhosen and head for the hills.
Andrew Salmon is a Seoul-based reporter and author. His latest work, “Scorched Earth, Black Snow,” was published in London in June. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.