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The Wonder of South Korea

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I've embarked on a world journey, perhaps my tenth, to learn more about Planet Earth and humanity. My first stop is Seoul, South Korea. I've been here at least annually for the past quarter century, and sometimes twice or thrice a year. I would like to share some current insights and gain the views of the HuffPost readership through your comments.

With regard to the region's economy, it has recovered remarkably well. While we are stuck at 10% unemployment, similar to that of Europe, the unemployment rate of Singapore is 3.4%, South Korea 3.6%, China 4.3% and Japan 5.2%. Exports for Singapore, for example, jumped 26% last month from the previous December.

However, all is not necessarily well. A November article in The Economist about China getting old before it gets rich was reinforced by the Korea Times' graying report of China published today. The developed countries in this region are now beginning to experience a decline in their populations. The governments of South Korea and Japan have initiated steps to provide incentives for families to have more children.

The suicide rate in South Korea, now at 26 per 100,000, is the highest of developed nations, even though those of the former Soviet countries are worse. The U.S. is at 11.1, while Mexico is at 2.3. I asked why? People in Korea are now more successful, but are not happy, they say. The stress begins in their educational system and worsens when they begin to work, leading to family problems. The relative reality, though, is that, with a score of 54 on the Happiness Index, the country ranks in the upper middle range, compared to Costa Rica at 79 and Tanzania at 19.

Mind you, students in the Orient are at the top of their international class on achievement, part of the reason why their homelands are so successful. But in Singapore, they have lost that certain humanitarian quality.

More specific to Korea, there is a North and a South. Click on Planet Earth and Humanity for a more detailed summary, but the North is somewhat larger than the South, with slightly less than half the population and about one-fifteenth the GDP/capita.

President Lee Myung-bak, is said to show "Makgeolli" leadership, that drink being a once popular cheaper option for Korea University (his alma mater) students than the pricier beer drunk by archrival private school Yonsei University. But more positively, his demeanor is down to earth and personal.

Kim Jong Il, the less than great leader of the North, shows symptoms of an ailing trapped mouse in critical transition. He could well take irrational action, not unlike a junkie mugger in need of a fix or those 9/11 terrorists driven by religious fanaticism. They are are all metastable, not really crazy and dangerous. Yet, this is not a particularly worrisome factor to a Southerner, for the latest threat of sacred retaliatory battle a few days ago only made page three of the local newspaper.

Anyway, it is clear that South Korea does not today want to take on the financial burden of the North, unlike what West Germany seemed to have embraced with East Germany. The South will continue to tolerate regular, and mostly, empty, threats, with prudence and patience, plus as much complementary aid and involvement from other countries, too. A sensible plan awaiting the inevitable.

The key sore point facing relations has to do with nuclear energy and proliferation. The North is ready to cave in and the South is surging, for, against all odds, they beat the world to a $20 billion contract with Abu Dhabi to build 4 large nuclear powerplants. I discussed the prospects of thorium being introduced, and found high interest.

Korea will for the first time host the G20 finance ministers gathering next month focusing on the world economy and maybe even a bit about the environment. I discussed the prospects with planners about something like the Green Enertopia concept, but did not get too far. The ministers will meet in Incheon, the location of the "new" international airport, rated the best of 2009, with Hong Kong #2 and Singapore #3.

Japan Airlines filed for bankruptcy this week. Part of the reason is that Japan, about the physical size of California, has nearly a 100 airports, and most of these domestic routes are highly unprofitable. Landing/usage fees in Japan average 9%, while Korea is at 3%. Thus, Incheon Airport has become the gateway to Japan.

So South Korea, while too cold for me in January, is doing exceedingly well. What about their future? In light of their still strong, but declining, shipbuilding capability, as they have no resource base, I suggested that they re-invent themselves by taking advantage of the unique fact that, unlike the USA and Japan, they actually have the equivalent of the Department of the Ocean, and build the platforms for the Blue Revolution.

What also about leapfrogging over everyone else by designing the next generation hydrogen aircraft? Maybe a swift dirigible like the Hawaiian Hydrogen Clipper.

About their happiness? I have no clue.