Korea calls itself the Land of Morning Calm. I don’t really remember any big storms occurring there in the morning, so none of my experiences in 16 months living there disprove their moniker.
One interesting question I used to get asked when I told people back in the States that I was stationed in Korea was "Oh, really? Korea? North or South?" Back then I was still relatively happy-go-lucky, so I used to simply say "South Korea." I think now I might be a little more acidic. I found it hard to believe that people didn’t know the United States does not have troops stationed in North Korea.
I found the Koreans to be generally very friendly, more so in the rural areas than in the cities; that seems to be the case almost everywhere. The older folks who were alive during the Korean War in 1950-1953 almost always treated my friends and I extremely well, sometimes going out of their way to do something nice. In one case a friend and I got a personal tour through a nature museum in one of the national parks. In another instance, a nice old lady sitting next to me on the train just handed me an orange for no particular reason. She couldn’t speak or understand any English, she just handed me the fruit and smiled when I said gamsa hamnida ("Thank you").
I was stationed at Kunsan Air Base near the city of the same name from October 2002 until February of 2004. Most people have a 12-month tour at Kunsan, but in my least-brilliant-ever career move, I elected to extend my tour for four months. The reasons are the subject of other discussions and the intelligence of the move had absolutely nothing to do with Korea itself. All I wanted to say was that I was stationed at Kunsan a little longer than a lot of folks. Additionally, I started a masters’ degree in engineering, so between that and my "routine" duties in the flying world, I had next to no time to get out and enjoy the local culture.
I made several Korean friends while I was stationed in Korea. As is true of nearly everyone in the Air Force, it became next to impossible to keep in touch with nearly all of them. I do still keep in touch with one, a remarkable woman who now lives in the States and is studying for nursing school. She used to help me (and a lot of my other friends) by translating at parties and showed us where the best places to shop around Kunsan and Osan were.
The weather where I was stationed in Korea was not really like anywhere else I’ve ever lived. We were right on the west coast of the Yellow Sea back then. There was a land reclamation project going on and at the time the dikes for it were not finished. I understand they were finished recently (as of this writing in late 2007), and they’re continuing to pump water out. In any case, we used to get fog once in awhile, that will probably not cease at Kunsan, but will simply occur farther west. The entire west coast was subject to "Lake-effect snow" like they get in Buffalo. I remember one night we all taxied out expecting to get snow, but not as heavy as what we actually encountered. It got so bad that the only time we could see anything was when we taxied behind a KC-135 with it’s engines running which melted the snow for about 500′ behind it. That was the slowest back-taxi I’ve ever made, and the most radio calls during taxiing, to boot! The other sea-induced weather hazard was the potential for tropical cyclones to make their way north to us. They weren’t full-scale cyclones if they made it that far north and west, but they usually still packed a lot of rain. Busan and parts of Korea’s east coast got hit pretty hard by the one that made landfall the year I was there.
The most distinguishing weather features in Korea though was the constant haze and the "Yellow Wind" in the Spring. During the "Yellow Wind," the haze really turns yellowish, apparently due to miniscule sand particles picked up from the Gobi Desert in China/Mongolia into the jet stream and deposited all the way into the Korean sky. Apparently according to this Stars & Stripes article, metal particles get picked up, too. Click here for the Yellow Sand information card and here for the Yellow Sand monitoring system. Even when there was no "Yellow Wind," it was rarely clear. I think in the 16 months I was there, there were only about seven days that I could see from horizon to horizon. Sometimes the haze was so bad you could only see about a mile. In the fall, the visibility was lowered and the haze worsened by rice farmers burning the chaff from their harvest. One of the pilots remarked that finding your way back to the pattern under visual flight rules was a lot like reading Braille (at 345 mph, I might add).
My Dad had been stationed in Korea a long time ago, but then only briefly. Back then it was a third-world country. By the time I was stationed there, there were modern high-rise buildings in every city, the train system was decent, the express bus system was awesome, Seoul had a good subway, and there were modern superhighways (although I found these to be not quite right) with tunnels and bridges built to expedite traffic flow. There were dams along the rivers and causeways across bays. Incheon was a fully modern international airport, not as big as LAX or Frankfurt, probably about the same size as Sea-Tac. That said, there were still a few third-world features. Benjo ditches (open sewers) cris-crossed the land right out to the sea; I stayed in at least one hotel where the toilet paper had to be left in a cardboard box to the side of the toilet and could not be flushed (possibly because the toilet and the plumbing emptied into a benjo ditch).
The food was surprisingly good. I never really developed a love for kimchee, but I at least got to the point where I could eat it as a matter of course. One difficulty I had was having to excuse myself from the table more often than I cared to. In Korea, it’s impolite to blow your nose at the table; my sinuses rarely support long stretches without attention, especially when I’m eating food so spicy it makes my nose run. I remember getting over a head cold; but it turned out my immune system had bottled the infection up in my nugget, because when I went out that night and ate spicy beef bulgogi and kimchee, it released the infection and I got sick again the next day. I cannot be 100% certain, but I have a high degree of confidence that I never ate dog meat, octopus, or squid. During one of Christina’s visits we went to visit the island Cheju-do (Korea’s Hawaii). We got there very late, but hadn’t eaten dinner. The only place that was open was the hotel’s Korean Village food kiosk. The only thing we even attempted to order were "Chicken feet." We figured they meant drumsticks but didn’t know how to write that in English. Wrong! We were served a plate of chicken’s feet. Christina actually tried to eat a couple of them, but stopped after the second one. I didn’t even try to nibble. I couldn’t see any nutritional value to it, and I wasn’t going to eat something just because I felt hungry! To this day I’m not sorry I didn’t try them.
One of the most remarkable things I discovered nearly instantly about Korea were the ubiquitous red neon crosses. I had arrived fairly late one night at Incheon and my then-new buddies Rip and Chris C. drove up from Kunsan to pick me up. We drove back in the dark, and everywhere, every city and village had at least one (usually more) churches with little red neon crosses atop them. I had heard there were a lot of Christians in Korea, but I was truly amazed and gladdened to see all of the symbols of my faith visible everywhere. To this day I wish I’d bought one of them to carry with me everywhere.
Another feature of Korea were the graves. Many hilltops had one, two, or more (usually many more) graves on them. These were nearly always a small mound, often decorated with some sort of stonework carved with Hangul characters. One of my friends explained that Koreans like to be buried facing east toward the sunrise at the highest possible point overlooking some sort of water. As I recall, the higher the hill and larger the body of water, the more honorable the burial position. I seem to remember thinking there would be a large number of graves on the hillsides on the East Sea (Sea of Japan) Coast, but I never travelled there on the ground, and every time I flew over there I was too busy or too high to see the hilltops.
I’ll continue to write additions to this post over time. I’ll talk a little about flying there. I might discuss the economy, too.