A General Upheaval in the Land of the Morning Calm - The most intriguing tidbits about modern Korea When in 1897 the first modern Korean bank issued its first loan, the loan had to be secured against the only property the borrower had in his disposal, his donkey. The loan was repaid at time, but for few days bank managers had to take care of the animal. In the 1930s the Western restaurants were almost absent in Seoul, so if somebody wanted to eat a decent Western-style meal, the only solution would be to go to a Seoul station restaurant, The Grill.
More or less all Korean industrialists or politicians, including all president of the 1948-1980 period, visited the place a number of times. When in the 1920s the taxi service began to spread in Korea, most cabs had no meters, so the fixed rate was introduced. It would cost one won to travel to any location within the city limits. In those days this roughly equaled daily earnings of an unskilled laborer.
In the 1890s, some mountain pass near Seoul were considered dangerous because of frequent tiger attacks. In 1915 alone, hunters killed 11 tigers nationwide. The last tiger in South Korea was killed as recently as 1921 in Northern Kyongsang, and the last confirmed sighting occurred in 1946. In 1955 a small workshop bearing the proud name of the International Car Company began to manually assemble US Jeeps. Thus inauspiciously began the history of the Korean automobile industry, now one of the worlds largest.
In the 1960s the Korean government believed that excessive growth of population would undermine the economic growth. So, they waged one of the worlds most successful family planning campaigns. In the 1990s, it was the low fertility rate and population aging which came to be seen as major demographic problems in Korea. These and many other facts about changes of the Korean life over the last 150 years can be found in the new book by Andrei Lankov, titled Dawn of Modern Korea. The book is based on the widely read columns Andrei Lankov writes for the Korea Times since 2002.
Dawn of Modern Korea deals with those parts of history which are often seen as too mundane to be taken seriously. This is the book about daily life of Korea in the 130 years which followed the opening of the country to foreign exchanges. It treats changes in the food, dress, good and bad habits, it pays attention to how Korean traveled to work, what they did in their leisure time, how did they interact with their friends and relatives. There are many countries which are more successful than Korea.
However in most cases their current prominence is a result of long centuries of economic growth. The list of the most wealthy nations has not changed much since the early 1900s and in most cases the word developing in the expression developing countries is scarcely more than a polite euphemism to describe a state of backwardness and hopeless poverty.
Only a handful of developing countries have managed to break away from poverty and repression and almost none of them have made this break with anything approaching Koreas speed and efficiency. In the early 1960s Korea was a developing country and even by the unenviable standards of this group it was not doing particularly well.
Its per capita GNP was equivalent to that of Papua New Guinea and Nigeria. Nowadays it can compare itself with some of the less successful members of the European Community. Automobiles are everywhere in Korea. But the mass production of the cars in Korea only began in the 1970s. Korea is the worlds leader in Internet access, but as late as 1980 it had no color TV broadcasts.
Korea is one of the worlds most university-oriented societies, but in 1945 less than a quarter of its population had any formal schooling.