I SPENT my first night in Korea staring out the hotel window.
After midnight, muffled voices drew me to our parted curtain. Across the road people were sorting rubbish in front of darkened shops. Empty foam boxes were washed out. Cardboard was flattened or burnt. Random piles of plastic bags, filled with detritus, grew. Old tyres marked a mechanic’s workshop.
Around 3am a truck dropped off a load of fish. A team set to work scaling them. A couple of grills were set up under a marquee and the cooking commenced. More trucks arrived.
As the sun rose, dried foam boxes were stacked beside shop doors. The footpath was a neat collection of food stalls and household items. At one end of the street stacks of bloated plastic bags awaited transport to the local waste depot.
An old man loaded an ancient trolley with cardboard then pushed off toward the depot. There he could exchange his cardboard for some money to put food on the table. He was one of several elderly people on similar treks, unnoticed amidst the waves of morning commuters. (I later learned that most of the rubbish sorters have only a meagre pension and no family to support them.)
Back in the 1980s the South Korean Government needed a smarter alternative to landfill. They enacted laws to reduce waste and maximise recycling. Now they are focusing on “sustainable circulation” that will result in ZERO waste in a few years.
I couldn't help contrasting this with our own recycling mess. The Chinese stopped buying Korean comingled rubbish at the same time they stopped buying ours, but that alarm bell was more audible in Seoul than Canberra.
In Korea everything is sorted by the user. Public spaces have multiple, clear receptacles so that everyone is shamed into doing the right thing.
Food waste, which used to be treated at sewage plants and dumped in the sea, is now mostly recycled as animal feed or compost. Paper, cans, bottles, plastic and iron are also recycled, contributing to an overall recycling rate of more than 80 per cent. Most of the rest is incinerated to produce power and an ever decreasing amount is buried.
A high tech, polluter-pays system is being rolled out in the apartment complexes that constitute the majority of Korean homes. Smart waste bins calculate the weight of each deposit and charge users via an individual access card. Illegal dumping is controlled by vigilant neighbours and building supervisors.
These bins are large and in summer stench can be an issue. One solution under investigation is adding ginkgo leaves which have a neutralising effect.
There’s an extensive subway network as well as trains, buses and taxies. Public art abounds to distract commuters from their concerns. Subway platforms are encaged with glass barriers that only open when a train is a ready to receive more commuters. These barriers were installed to eliminate suicides.
Korea has one of the highest rates of suicide in the world. Pressure to succeed and the remorseless nature of business is cited as the catalyst. Living within artillery range of North Korea might be a factor, but quiet stoicism appears inherent in the national demeanour.
In the subway and public spaces people stare into their phones, well connected though socially distant. The few voices are soft and the listeners polite. Across two weeks we only spotted two angry people and one of them was our bus driver.
High speed trains link the major cities. On the KTX (Korea Train Express) to Busan the numbers at the top left of the TV screen mark the increasing pace of the train. Most of the passengers don’t care that we are doing 250km/h. A few people are looking out the window though most of us are staring at our phones. I’m concentrating on emails back to Bass Coast. I just happen to look up as we pass through the 300 barrier.
Not sure what is more surprising – the smoothness of the train or that my emails have a connective alacrity unknown in Krowera.
The Korean alphabet, Hangeul, was created in the 15th century by Sejong the Great. Some linguists consider it the most logical writing system in the world as the shapes of its consonants mimic the shapes of the speaker's mouth when pronouncing them. It’s a democratic alphabet that can be mastered in a day. Well, that’s what the museum curator told us.
In the hills beyond Seoul there’s a small museum outside the House of Sharing. A series of busts of women and a simple sequence of small rooms tell the story of the handful of women who are in their nineties. They are the surviving Korean victims of Japanese war crimes.
"When I was 17 years old, the Japanese soldiers came along in a truck, beat us and then dragged us into the back … the rapes never stopped … Why should I feel ashamed? I don't have to feel ashamed."
In the Second World War more than 300,000 women were imprisoned as sex slaves for the Japanese Army. A doctor later testified that these women were seen as “literally just things to be used and abused”. Most of them were murdered as that empire of toxic masculinity receded. Japan refuses to issue a sincere, meaningful apology for these crimes.
I didn’t hesitate: “Connection.”