19 September 2008

One more day in Seoul (Costco edition)

In my post yesterday, I mentioned that I was striking the War Memorial off of my list of places to see. However, taking a wrong bus this morning took me right in front of that place - and I got a good look at its very moving statue, named Statue of Brothers. I discussed that statue yesterday over at Christy's Art Blog. The gist of the story, which actually took place: during the Korean War, a South Korean Army officer faced his younger brother, a North Korean private, on the battlefield, and instead of killing each other as ordered, the two ran up, embraced each other, and asked for forgiveness. The moral: blood and family ties trump ideology - something well forgotten by the governments of both Koreas.

Later on, I decided to visit a Costco location in northeastern Seoul - my first visit to a Costco location outside the US.

A subway train inbound for Yongsan Station comes into my local station. As evidenced in this photo, in South Korea, trains on Korail (Korean National Railroad) tracks run on the left, following the Japanese colonial-era convention. On the other hand, trains on Seoul city-owned and private tracks run on the right. Similar confusion also exists elsewhere; cars drive on the right, but pedestrians walk on the left.

This station lies on the Gyeongwon line. In Korea, the naming convention for rail lines tends to use the first character of the terminus cities (Seoul uses "Gyeong" (δΊ¬), which means capital). The "won" in this case stands for Wonsan, a port city on the east coast of North Korea. From Wonsan, the line continues northeast to Vladivostok, connecting to the Trans-Siberian Railroad, leading to Moscow and points further west in Europe. While running trains through North Korea to China, Russia, and Europe is a big dream for South Korea, in reality this line was cut at the inter-Korean border at the end of the war. I am waiting for the outbound train, which takes this line to eastern downtown, then switches to the Jungang (Central) line to go further east.

A five-story Costco? Yes. Given the lack of land in Seoul, sprawling parking lots and one-story warehouses of American Costco are not possible. The ground floor sells non-food items, the basement sells food and houses the food court and checkout stands, and the upper floors are parking.

As seen here, Costco Korea observes only three holidays: Solar New Year's Day, Lunar New Year's Day (known as Chinese New Year in America), and Chuseok (lunar August 15th).

All signs inside and out are completely bilingual, in Korean and English. Employees here seem to understand some English - and quite a few foreigners shop here. The selection of goods are similar to US Costco stores, though the electronics tend to be heavy on Samsung products. There are lots of Kirkland-branded products, just like in the US, but there also are many products sourced within South Korea. Although American beef is sold here, the selection is small, and most beef is domestic Korean or Australian. All beef at the food court, located in the basement, is Australian. The food court also has photos of selected Costco warehouses from throughout Korea and around the world.

Membership is only 35,000 won ($35 US), cheaper than the US. Prices are similar to American levels. In addition, there were help wanted posters inside for part-time positions, with hourly pay of 7,900 won ($8 US).

Exiting the store from the basement checkout counters involves a ride on a smallish elevator, which can only carry 3 carts at a time. It can be frustrating.

In any case, I enjoyed seeing a Korean twist on something familiar - Costco. There are six locations in South Korea, four of them in Seoul. South Korea is Costco's only outpost on the Eurasian landmass; while locations also exist in Japan, Taiwan, and the UK, they are islands.

A boutique for traditional Korean dresses, located near Costco. I took this photo due to its sign, which uses archaic Korean script for emphasis (and a more historical aura).