Buy Korean? No Way!

When I moved to Korea five years ago, I was impressed not only with how convenient everything was, I was also struck by how inexpensive everything – from food to transportation to medical expenses and the postal service were. What I didn’t realize at the time was that the cost of living in Busan is actually higher than in many other cities in Korea, and that prices in Korea are among the highest in Asia. For example, a bus ticket that cost 1,600 won when I moved to Busan in 2007 cost a mere 1,100 won in Daejeon in 2010, and the service in Daejeon is safer and more reliable. I say safer, because during the three years I lived in Busan, I was involved in two traffic accidents as a passenger, both of them the bus drivers’ fault. And bus drivers in Busan run red lights all the time. Drivers in Daejeon are much more courteous, seldom honk their horns unless absolutely necessary, and I’ve yet to witness a bus run a red light here. Internet cafes charge 1,000 won per hour in Busan, while they charge only 500 won in Daejeon. Even so, many of my students from Vietnam and China complain about the exorbitant prices in Daejeon. At the Jeonju Film Festival last month, I met a fellow from Michigan who insisted that these days it is as cheap to eat a meal in a restaurant back home as it is here, and that fruits and vegetables are much more costly in Korea. But the real shocker for me was the tab for electronic goods. If you can even find foreign brands like Sony, Canon and Panasonic, they are likely to be marked up double what they sell for in the States. For example, I paid 580,000 won for my Canon Powershot S95 while it sold for less than $300 in the States. You might think that Korean goods would be cheaper here, but you’d be mistaken. Koreans actually pay more for locally manufactured goods – cars, smartphones, flatscreen television sets and laptop computers – than they sell for abroad. And now that the Korean won is plummeting, a savvy Korean traveler could probably recoup his airfare in savings buying Korean products abroad. Today I was considering purchasing the sleek Samsung 1TB portable M2 hard drive, until I discovered that it was selling for 215,000 won – or double the $100 it goes for in the States.

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