Thursday, November 6, 2014

South Korea and the Politics of Patience

South Korea and the Politics of Patience

south-korea-pimatgol-seoul
Seouls’ Pimatgol, an ancient thoroughfare once used by commoners to avoid having to bow to aristocrats on the main boulevard. (Photo: riNux / Flickr)
Horse Avoiding Alley is almost gone.
For more than half a millennium, this narrow alleyway in the heart of Seoul stretched for several kilometers parallel to and just half block north of the major thoroughfare of Jongno Street. Its name, Pimatgol in Korean, refers to the route that commoners took to avoid constantly bowing to the aristocrats on horses on the main boulevard. When I first visited Seoul in the late 1990s, it was truly breathtaking to walk through the hypermodern city and then duck, suddenly, into this Chosun-era back alley of pungent restaurants and teashops.
Today, only a tiny stretch of Pimatgol remains, along with a commemorative placard and a wooden gate that leads into a half-block of modern storefronts.
The fate of Pimatgol reflects the forward-looking trajectory of South Korea. It is constantly leapfrogging over itself, with barely a backward glance, in an effort to keep pace with early adopter Japan and latecomer China. This is a country not of narrow back alleys but of global firsts: cellphones with the first curved touchscreen, the world’s largest rooftop solar power plant, the world’s biggest tidal power plant, and what will likely be the first 5G wireless system.

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