13 November 2005

First Post from Seoul

After a whopping 13-hour flight, I arrived in Seoul. I am now writing from an apartment next to the former US Army Base in Yongsan, with a picturesque view of the Han River to the south, and the stunning lights of Namsan Tower to the north. Beyond Namsan Tower would be downtown.

Asiana Airlines was impressive, even more so than when I last flew with them 3 years ago. It appears that its service level has gone up since joining Star Alliance, with printed menus and shrimp sushis even in economy class, not to mention super-attentive flight attendants. The 747 I flew on today was the exact same example I flew on for my very first Asiana experience 3 years ago, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that it had been completely refurbished during that time. (Upon arrival at Incheon Airport, it parked between two other Asiana planes I flew 3 years ago - the 747 that took me back to Los Angeles, and the 777 that took me to Beijing.) With such great service and attention to detail, Asiana is worth the $200-300 premium over the inferior service provided by United and Northwest, with their underpaid flight attendants and crummy infrastructure. Instead of cutting corners and digging themselves deeper into their graves, the US airlines should consider some well-placed investments in service quality. And yes, since Asiana is part of Star Alliance, I still get United miles for my flight today.

Tonight was also my first arrival into Seoul at night - at least the first one in at least a decade. The city lighting is very impressive outside; now, the bridges of the Han River are spectacularly lit too. Seoul keeps getting more and more modern and impressive with each return visit I make here. The economy is supposedly stagnant, with serious unemployment problem, but it's still showing solid growth, thanks to all the high-tech products the major corporations and small businesses here now crank out - and I am here to acquaint myself with these technologies. How things have changed over a generation! A generation ago, Koreans had to travel to America for the state of the art, and now, it's the other way. The US is still socially more progressive, but I wouldn't count on it a generation from now, given the religious fundamentalist movement in the US and increasing liberalization here in Korea. For now though, the customs asked me to declare any obscene materials, which I didn't carry anyway.

The bureaucracy got the better part of me tonight though. Because of the national ID number requirement (which I obviously can't meet as a foreigner), I can't just roam through Korea Telecom (KT)'s WiFi network using my T-Mobile account; I must set up a KT account, which normally requires a national ID number. My only solution without a national ID number is to get prepaid cards, and the only place I know of that sells them - KT Plaza at Incheon Airport - was closed by the time I was able to get there. As a result, this message is composed offline, and by the time it is posted, it'll be Monday midday at the earliest. If I can't get prepaid cards, I may have to use the ubiquitous PC rooms, which won't be as fun. (And the national ID number requirement creeps me out, because one's birthdate and sex are plainly embedded in it.)

It will be a wonderful week here in Korea. I will see what happens.