Thoughts from travel around Baltic Sea [The Korea Times] 10-25-2011

I recently visited seven countries around the Baltic Sea over 13 days. This trip is an annual event of the United States Association of Former Members of Congress. I traveled on a big cruise ship, the Holland America Line, which consists of three lower-decks and nine upper-decks. They say that it can hold 2,000 passengers, and I have never seen such a big ship in my life.

On Sept. 7, I arrived in Amsterdam, the capital of the Netherlands, whose population is 770,000. The population of the Netherlands is 13 million, and its per capita gross national income (GNI) is $36,000, which is much higher than Korea’s $20,000. I felt close to this country, perhaps because it is the native land of Guus Hiddink, manager of the Korean national soccer team that reached the semifinals of the 2002 World Cup.

I boarded the ship there and headed to Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark. The population of Denmark is 5.6 million, and the population of Copenhagen is 540,000. Denmark’s per capita GNI is $53,000, which is a little higher than Germany’s. Its government provides many services free through its welfare system. One-third of the workforce of Denmark is employed by the government, and the residents pay the highest tax in the world, but they don’t seem mind.

The next day, I visited Warnemunde, a port city in Germany. It takes two and a half hours by car to get to Berlin from there. The population of Germany is 83 million, and 3.4 million live in Berlin. Per capita GNI of Germany is $41,000, and it is known as the most affluent and influential country in Europe. As Germany continues to pour money into Greece, its citizens have begun to talk about a breakaway from the EU.

The Germans took part in a terrible history; they killed 6 million Jews, as well as homosexuals and the mentally challenged, during the Holocaust. The Berlin Wall was erected to divide the East and the West portions of Germany in 1961. As the number of people who defected to West Germany increased, East Germany finally gave up; in 1989, the wall was taken down and Germany was unified. Germany has a close relationship with the U.S. After a census report that about one-fourth of Americans have direct or indirect German ancestors, Oct. 6 was proclaimed as an annual German-American Day.

On my way to Berlin, the car that I was in was running at 200 kilometers per hour on the Autobahn (a highway with no speed limit). I was scared, as even at that fast speed there were many cars that passed us. I was surprised to learn that the accident rates are very low.

As I was looking at the beautiful German Parliament building with its glass doors, renovated after their unification, my heart hurt from a sudden thought about my deceased mother. She was from Gangye, North Korea, and she wished that she could have visited Pyongyang as a city of unified Korea before her death.

On Sept. 12, I arrived in the capital of Estonia, Tallinn. Estonia became independent from Russia on Sept. 6, 1991. Maybe that is the reason why it still does not seem settled. Its population is just 1.3 million, and 400,000 people live in Tallinn.

It is a poor country in European standard whose per capita GNI is just $13,000, much lower than Korea. I was surprised to hear that the average male life expectancy is 69 years, just four years more the retirement age of 65. Retired at 65 and died at 69. It is believed that perhaps too much vodka causes that short lifespan.

The next day, we went to St. Petersburg, a famous city in Russia. During the time of the Soviet Union, it was called Leningrad. According to the U.S. Consulate in St. Petersburg, over 100,000 American tourists visit there every year. There were warning posters about pickpockets all over the city. Hearing that they often work as teams of three and how fast they are, I checked my pockets again. This city is a famous tourist site in the world. It is called the Venice of the North, as there are small canals everywhere and over 300 bridges crossing over them. With its grand palace, cathedrals, and museums, it is as beautiful as they say.

The population of Sweden is about 9 million, and about 810,000, 10 percent of the population, live in Stockholm. I could not find any beggars or homeless people in the street, maybe because Sweden is a rich country, with per capita GNI standing at $39,000. Sweden was once a powerful country that had Norway as its subordinate country. However, it is a neutral country now. It has strong agriculture and foresting industries, and is a rich country whose annual economic growth rate is expected to exceed 8 percent from 2018 on.

Stockholm is the capital of the famous Nobel Prize, and the city itself looked like a living embodiment of that prize. Sweden has close ties with the U.S. Over 1,100 American companies do business here, and they employ 120,000 Swedes. There are also 14 million people in America who have Swedish heritages.

Hyundai and Kia cars can be easily found in the streets of Stockholm. When I went to a Korean restaurant in the central district of the city, I was very surprised to see customers filling not only the inside tables, but also the tables outside on the sidewalk, during lunchtime. We felt rather out of place, since we were the only Asian customers. I did not know that Swedes liked Korean food that much.

During my travels, I was once again envious of the countries that make money from tourism. They fixed up the palaces and cathedrals their ancestors built 700 years ago to get such high admission fees from tourists, and make a fortune without spending too much for operation and maintenance costs.

Koreans don’t seem to have that many cultural assets built 700 years ago from which they can make money. However, we were really happy to see the Korean cars on the lands of these far-away foreign countries, and still happier to see the big Korean restaurant filled with Swedes.

Even though Koreans lost the brilliant cultural palaces that their ancestors carefully built thanks to so many wars, Korea still have the future. U.S also doesn’t have any old cathedrals to attract tourists, but U.S. attracts the most tourists from all over the world. It is because Koreans and Americans are helping shape the future, while others are dependent on and attached to the past to make money. Once I thought about this, I wasn’t so envious anymore.

Jay Kim is a former U.S. congressman. He serves as chairman of the KimChangJoon US-Korea Foundation. For more information, visit Kim’s website (