This is the final entry of three about our trip last weekend to Seoraksan National Park. It would be more aptly entitled, "Sokcho and the Drive Home," because last Monday (Labor Day) we didn’t spend much time in the park. In the morning, after we checked out of the Kensington Stars Hotel, we immediately drove back to Sokcho, a city on the coast. I had tried to convince my wife to take an extra two hours to drive north along the coast to the end of the road, where we could visit the Unification Center and the Unification Tower overlooking North Korea. Sokcho is about an hour south of the border. Although I’ve already been to the DMZ and Panmunjom truce village, I wanted to see North Korea from the eastern side of the country. It was a clear day, and I’d heard you can see into North Korea as far as Goseong, a town south of Wonson. My wife argued that North Korea does look much different than the south, a point well taken. No one else wanted to go, so I lost. Instead, we drove into Sokcho and stopped by a couple of waterfront areas in town. The first was Sokcho Park, a rocky waterfront south of town. There wasn’t much to see other than a few interesting statues. Sokcho has its own version of "The Little Mermaid," the famous bronze statue dedicated to Hans Christian Andersen in Copenhagen, Denmark. Entitled "Asian Mermaid Lovers by the Sea," the statue depicts a male and female mermaid sitting on a rock, holding a dolphin. I was unaware that male mermaids exist, but the statue was quite nice.
We drove a bit further to the outer harbor of Sokcho. The city has two harbors; one flows into the city and forms a cove; the second is a cove surrounded by rock barriers. The town is still a major fishing town in Korea, but in recent years Sokcho’s tourist industry has become even more important. Sokcho annually draws thousands of visitors, primarily Koreans who come to visit Seoraksan National Park or eat at Sokcho’s famous waterfront seafood market. We didn’t stop at the market. It appears to be much livelier in the evening, and our kids are not big seafood eaters yet. Instead, we went to Lotteria, the Korean fast food bulgogi burger joint. After lunch we drove home. This time I took the southern route, driving along Highway 7 to Highway 44, which runs along the southern boundary of Seoraksan National Park. The highway outside Yangyang on Highway 44 is very windy with many hairpin turns, but there are far fewer turns than we encountered on our way to the park last Saturday. The area near Osaek Hot Springs is especially windy, but the view is amazing as your car winds between sharp granite peaks. My nephew still got car sick, but the drive was decidably much better. About 50 kilometers of the highway are being upgraded to freeway and still resemble a goat trial, but otherwise the drive home was short and sweet. We pull in at home a little less than four hours after we leave Sokcho. The day was gorgeous and Labor Day is not a holiday in Korea, so traffic was light. I’ve heard horror stories that it can take up to 11 hours to get home from Seoraksan when the traffic is congested. I definitely recommend visiting Seoraksan during the Korean off-season. The best times seem to be in late April, early May, or in September. In October, the leaves turn color, and Seoraksan turns into the Korean equivalent of a New England fall. At that time the park is unbearably crowded.
On our way home, I found a place where I would live if I were to live permanently in Seoul–Wabu, a suburb situated on Highway 6 along the Han River to the east of the city. The area around Wabu is very beautiful, mountainous, with a much cleaner-looking Han River than what you find closer to Seoul. Best of all, you can own a house. After the high-rise apartment, concrete jungle of Seoul, the houses I saw near Yangpyong were a welcome sight. I don’t think I would want to retire in Seoul, but if I did, I would live there. Most Koreans I talk to prefer living in apartments, but not me. I’ll take a house or a townhouse over a condominium or apartment any day. Koreans tend to believe that apartments are easier to manage than a house and that owning an apartment is more prestigious than own a home (unless you own a very expensive home in an elite part of town). Many basic homes available in the greater Seoul area are older, because most new housing being built is apartment-style. Most homes still available in Seoul are further out of town, because as homes are torn down, apartment buildings rise in their stead.
Owning a home is more work than renting or owning an apartment, but as an American who values space, nothing beats having a yard and no neighbors living above or below you. Owning the piece of ground underneath your domicile is also valuable in a high-price real estate market like Seoul. I would much rather own the land under my home than live in a homogenous, high-rise apartment built and owned by a Korean chaebol (conglomerate) on land parceled out by the government at a subsidized rate, enriching the chaebol, which then build even more apartment buildings. It is a vicious cycle that reinforces concentration of real estate wealth in the hands of the chaebol. The structure of the Korean housing market actually works to the disadvantage of individual investors. Individual investors who try to profit from speculation can face criminal charges if they try to turn a quick profit on buying and selling apartments in overpriced areas. What often happens in the U.S. real estate market (flipping homes) can be criminal in Korea. No, thank you. I’d rather own my own home.