Luxury Seoul and the Kia by Alan Douglas
Viewed from the west, South Korea would seem to be a far from relaxing place to be. As its northern neighbour continues to rattle its sabres and regularly fling long-distance missiles into the atmosphere, you might think that the South Koreans would be living on their nerves dreading a major escalation. But after spending the best part of a week in the region, as I traveled to luxury Seoul and visited the Kia corporation, I can tell you that life in the south is very normal, incredibly lively and business is booming.
I was there to look at the operations of the massive Kia Corporation, one of the biggest employers in South Korea, which has enjoyed remarkable growth, doubling production to more than three million vehicles a year in the past nine years to become the 8th largest car company in world, ahead of Mercedes and Renault. I also got the chance to meet many “ordinary” Koreans going about their daily life in the bustling high-rise capital Seoul – a complete contrast to what we understand life is like in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea less than a hundred miles to the north, where only the privileged are allowed luxuries like a bicycle.
Everyone I met was charming and polite and I soon became accustomed to being bowed to on every occasion, whether entering a shop, a restaurant or just walking down the street. My time was pretty well filled with car things, the highlight being a tour of the huge Namyang Research and Development Centre on the outskirts of Seoul, where more than 10,000 engineers are working on the design, prototyping and full-scale aerodynamic and crash testing of new models for both Kia and sister company Hyundai.
We weren’t allowed to take cameras into the highly-secure complex and even the camera lens of our mobile phones was taped over to block any photographs of the sensitive work going on there. The most secret of that is the development of their fuel cell vehicle which they plan to launch onto the global market around 2020. We were given an exclusive chance to drive one of their prototype fuel cell vehicles, converting the chemical energy from hydrogen into electricity through an electrochemical reaction with oxygen to provide electric power and emit only clean water at the back end.
But as well as not being able to provide pictures, I’m also sworn to secrecy in revealing any more about it – except to say that it is mightily impressive.
We took a brand-new more conventional diesel-powered Kia Sorento SUV about 50 miles north of the city to Imjingak which is the closest the public can get to the border and the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) which separates north and south. That four-kilometre stretch of land is the most heavily armed region in the world with pillboxes, land mines, razor wire and tank barriers, because although the truce that ended hostilities was signed in 1953, peace was never agreed and the two sides are still officially at war.
On safe ground, there’s a large park built to console those who are unable to return to their hometowns, friends and families because of the division of north and south. Here, there’s the “Bridge of Freedom”, a former railway bridge which was used by repatriated POWs and soldiers returning from the north and among the exhibits is a rusting locomotive peppered with thousands of shell holes, a stark reminder of the conflict here in the 1950s. The only detailed view of the north comes on a screen from a webcam and there are many memorials to the casualties of the war.
Going back further into Korea’s history, the following day we had a guided tour of the vast 14th century Royal Palaces and 40-hectacre gardens in the heart of Seoul. After all the Palaces in the capital were razed by the Japanese during invasions in the 16th century, around 500 buildings were rebuilt over hundreds of years and work is still going on. A wonderful spectacle was to watch the ceremonial changing of the guard before a crowd of thousands of Koreans, many of whom wore traditional dress for the occasion.
From my room on the 11th floor of the splendid Westin Chosun Hotel I had a grandstand view of the regular light and music celebrations in the park below in advance of the upcoming 2018 Winter Olympics, scheduled to take place in South Korea in February 2018. We also got the chance to experience some of the nightlife attractions of the city which is crammed with lively bars, clubs and restaurants.
While there’s a huge choice of splendidly fresh seafood available in everything from top-class restaurants to street stalls, one of the best evenings we had was at one of the host of classic chicken and beer bars which can be found on almost every street. The one we went to was the Chimek restaurant, part of the BBQ chain alongside the Cheonggye-chon stream in the Jongro part of the city. Over three – or it might have been four – floors, the place was buzzing with a great atmosphere and crowds of locals tucking into a vast range of chicken dishes – spicy, sticky, breaded, roasted – and washed down with five-litre flagons of beer.
The best night out was rounded off at one of the hundreds of LP bars which have huge collections of vinyl albums and played by the barman doubling as a disc jockey. Without a website and not listed in any of the guides, our one was something of a secret hideaway in the area Hannam-dong close to the UN Village and we had a fabulous evening with the bar staff dealing with record requests written on post-it notes.
Without any obvious index, they thumbed through the thousands of albums lining the walls and managed to meet every challenge without hesitation….and acknowledging every request with a smile and a bow.