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Addresses and Directions

Addresses and Directions

Figuring how to get to where you want to go can be somewhat challenging for long-time residents of Korea, not to mention new-comers.  The Korea way of giving directions or even of organizing their address system is often different from what one might find in the West or even in some other Asian countries.  Following are some of the elements that can make navigation in Korea a little challenging:

Korea introduced a new Romanization system in the late 1990’s (replacing the McCune-Reischauer system), in part as a response to what was perceived as incorrect pronunciation of Korean words. The new romanisation transformed the spelling/pronunciation in English of the following letters in particular, from: 
  (was P now B)   Example: the city of Pusan became Busan
ㄷ  (was T now D)     Example: Tongdaemun Market became Dongdaemun Market
ㅈ  (was CH now J)   Example:  Cheju Island became Jeju Island
ㄱ  (was K now G).   Example: Kimpo Airport became Gimpo Airport

However, some information sources still refer to the old spelling for places because it was not possible to go back and change everything (i.e. Internet sources), because Korean-only speakers never thought of making the change (as can be seen on letterhead and business cards) or refused to implement the new system. For example you’ll still find Pusan, Tongdaemun, etc. as well as both Choseon/Joseon Dynasty, Kangnam/Gangnam, Yongsan-gu/ku, etc.

The Romanization used varies from one government or government agency to the next. For example, most government sites give one of the country’s provinces (경상도) Gyeongsang-do, while KoRail (Korean Railroad) spells it Kyoungsang-do. Koreans and most long-time foreign residents (especially those living in the Daegu/Taegu and Busan/Pusan areas) know that both designations refer to the same place, but new arrivals and visitors often think they are two different places.

The spelling variations are not always connected to the new Romanisation. For example, Myeong-dong is spelled this way on some subway maps for example, but Myongdong  or Myundong on others. On the Jung-gu (city ward) official website, it’s shown as Myundong. There’s also, the area designated as Solleung on subway and other maps, but which is actually pronounced Sonneung.

Since 1910, building numbers (addresses) in Korea have been assigned chronologically, based on land lot numbers, as the structure was built, so that unless they were built one after the other and next door, there would be no sequential numbering. Therefore, you might find house number 17 next door to house number 92.  Moreover, although officially there were street names, few people every used them; streets are often referred to by the kinds of stores one finds there or by some other known (to locals) landmark. This system was introduced by the Japanese in 1910.

In recent years, cities have introduced consecutive numbering for buildings with odd numbers on one side of the street and even numbers of the opposite side. Many have also begun to put up street signs with street names on them. Implementation of the new system in Seoul began back in the late 1990's. However, no one really paid attention to it. In Seoul, the city affixed the new addresses to appartment (and other) building but owners wrote the original number (in paint or marker) somewhere on the building. The original address was the one most consistently recognised by postal workers, etc.

As of 29 July 2011, all buildings and streets in Korea are required to begin using the new address system. However, the old addresses will continue to be recognised until 31 December 2013. In other words, the two systems will be used concurrently. (2014 Update - the old address is still recognised, for mail delivery for example, but increasingly the new system is being implemented. As of 01 January 2014, any documents or civil applications sumitted to public institutions must be filled out with the new address.)

To find out your new address, see the Public Administration Ministry's website. There is information in English, but for the system to work you have to use Internet Explorer. The categories (new address, lot number, building name, etc.) refer to the information you are entering and not the information you are seeking. The English system is somewhat slow and there are still a number of issues to resolve in the system. For example, the English street names for the new addresses are too long for the box size provided. 

The Korean address system has been based on  the following: 시 (shi, or city), (gu, or ward/district), and 동 (dong, or neighborhood) and in the provinces, (goon, or county) and (ree, or village). The 'dong' () level is supposed to be replaced by street names in the new address system. There has been strong negative public reaction to the disappearance of the `dong`designation and as of 2014 it continues to be used by many. However, official documents and government addresses have become using street names instead. 

Sometimes in Korea, the ‘basement’ floor is counted as the 1st floor with the ‘ground’ counting as the 2nd floor; while occasionally, the ‘ground’ floor is called just that and the floor above it is the 1st floor.

Businesses of all kinds are found on different floors of a building, but there isn’t always any indication on the ground level to let you now what businesses/companies can be found on the levels above. Looking up is necessary to ensure you don’t miss the service/business/place for which you are looking.

Directions given are often based on the subway system. The name of a subway stop and the subway line are often given, but generally not the number of the stop, so those unfamiliar with the area end up having to try to reach all the stations on a given line to find the one in question. (Note: each station stop has 3 numbers, the first refers to the line and the other to the stop). Apart from the obvious problems of wasting time, etc.,  there is the little matter in Seoul, for example, of two stations with the same sounding name on the same line: Sinchon (stop 240) and Sincheon (stop 217).

These days, the exit number from the subway station is usually given, but that’s about it. Rarely is mention made of whether one should walk straight or go right/left when going out exit #3. Nor does one get any further directions than go out exit #3 – if one must walk straight for 100 meters, then turn right and walk another 200 meters, etc. is included in most directions.

Korean maps are sometimes a little difficult to figure out since they’re not always set up Top/North, Bottom/South, Left/West and Right/East. Instead they are usually presented from the point of view of a landmark or some such reference point. Moreover, small ‘unimportant’ streets are usually not given, just the larger or main ones. One gets the impression that they are intended primarily to trigger one’s memory, as opposed to guiding strangers.

Although more and more street signs are in English (and sometimes Chinese and/or Japanese), some are still in Korea only. Those that are in English often have their own unique spelling.

Sometimes the information on the sign is unclear or incorrect. For example, when driving, you may see a sign above the road indicating that you can go left or right, but when you get to the corner, that sign says ‘No Left’.

The wording in Korean doesn’t always correspond to English version as with “Euljiro yipgu” which in English become Euljiro-1 (il) ga.

Directions, even in large cities such as Seoul or Busan, are often given using the landmarks that matter to local residents and in way that is reminiscent of small town directions.

While you may be used to getting directions like this: From the corner of Main and Pine, walk east (right) on Pine to 306 Pine. Our office is in that building, Suite 201.
In Korea,  it’s likely to be more like this:  Go out the Burger King exit of Itaewon Subway Station and walk straight until you come to the Fire hall, turn right and the shop is on the 3rd Floor of the red brick building on your right.  Or, if there’s no subway: At the Starbucks, turn right and go about 20 meters until you come to Hyundai Apt, then walk until you see a bank. The restaurant is across the street.

It’s not that people want to misdirect you or that directions are bad, it’s more a case of, on top of not having street addresses (which also confuses Koreans)  having different points of reference.

The best way to find your way around is to adapt and try to understand the system. Here are some suggestions on how to do that:

1. If you can’t find someplace with one spelling, try another.
2. Remember that the following letters may be interchangeable: b/p, k/g, t/d,  ll/n, and  l/r.
3. Ask for the stop number of the subway station or the name of the station on either side of where you get off.
4. Ask what you should do when you come out the subway exit – “ Do I go straight when I come out Exit 3?” (note: try to avoid phrasing the questions like this “should I go left or straight”- because of language factors, you may just get “yes” for an answer.
5. If taking a bus, ask for a description of various building just before your stop (asking for the number of stops may not work as the bus is likely to go past some stops if there’s no one getting on or off there).
6. Ask for points of reference or landmarks like bank names, restaurants and ground level businesses that you will recognize and notice.
7. If a chain coffee shop, for example, is giving as a point of reference, ask if there’s another (i.e. Starbucks) on the same street.
8. Ask questions where you’ll get specific descriptions. Find out what is ‘next to’ or ‘across from’ the building you want.
9. Get the phone number (cell number and/or land line) of someone you can talk to at the location to which you are going (this is a good idea also when taking a taxi – that person can explain exactly where they are located once you’ve gotten the taxi headed in the general direction you want – i.e. Namdaemun). If you’re meeting someone, make sure to have her/his number with you. Also helps to also have that of the person who gave you the directions.
10. Be as flexible as possible. Give yourself plenty of time and be prepared for the occasional sightseeing tour.

K4E Note: We try to be as accurate as possible. However, should you note that something is missing from the information above, please let us know at info@korea4expats.com.

Last Updated on 2014-03-13

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