Issue 234: 2020 05 21: Hermit Kingdom

21 May 2020

Hermit Kingdom

An emerging force.

By Dan Moondance

For one thing, Koreans love to play soccer.  Shaw Sheet readers in north London probably have divided opinions as to the qualities of one of Korea’s best-known players, Son Heung-Min.  He had a good season at Tottenham in 2016/17, his second with the club, but his world was shattered when Spurs played Chelsea in the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley.  He was trying to play wing-back, marking Victor Moses, and making a hard job of it.  Then, two minutes before half-time, with his side leading by one goal, he chose his own penalty area to make a tackle of biblical crudity on Moses, who duly went down for a penalty.  Chelsea scored and went on to win the game.  Son was a picture of shame and misery.  He had let down his club, but most of all he had let down his country.

Korea itself has also been in the news more recently.  After China, it was one of the first countries to become victim to the COVID virus.  At the time, the situation looked ominous.  Korea is one of the most densely populated countries in the world, with many large cities.  Korean people are gregarious.  The prospects did not seem good.  Yet, three months later, and without any mandatory lockdown, Korea has survived the first onslaught of the virus with a lower death rate than any other country and a miniscule rate of new infections.  The experts attribute this to a rapid, coordinated response, through three things – contact tracing, mass testing and where necessary strict isolation.  Meanwhile, the rest of us are struggling to catch up.

For most of us, Korea is still something of a hermit kingdom.  Very few people visit it other than for business, even though it is a country of raw beauty.  I certainly knew nothing about it when I was asked to go and work there for three years, back in 1981.  I had heard that there had been a brutal war there when I was still a child, and I knew that a Korean team (albeit from the North) had won the affection of the football world when they had humiliated Italy in the 1966 World Cup.  But little else.  So I would soon be on a steep learning curve, and what I discovered was not what I had expected.

I went to live in Seoul, a city which had rapidly rebuilt itself, but in a somewhat primitive fashion, after the devastation of the Korean war.  I was expecting the people to be smaller than me, which mostly they were, and well-regimented, which was also the case, that is until you got to know them, when you discovered that they could be as eccentric and animated as any March hare.  They would attempt anything.  A sales assistant climbed a rope fire-escape on the outside wall of our 10th floor building to help out a colleague who had locked himself out of his office.  Sometimes their enthusiasm might get the better of them: once we took on a driver to navigate the crowded streets of the city, only to discover that he had never driven a car before.  These are the little things that you always remember.

On a grander scale there was also the resilience of a country that had always been up against it, a country that had endured many years of ruthless colonisation by the Japanese.  Following that, the Korean War had split families in two.  And even then there was a constant threat of invasion by North Korea, only thirty-five miles from Seoul.  Things happened very quickly here.  President Park Chung-Hee, himself not a scrupulous man, had recently been assassinated in his palace, the Blue House, by his own security chief.  A huge network of narrow tunnels had been discovered underneath the de-militarised zone which divided North from South Korea, the means apparently whereby the North would achieve its long-expected invasion of the South.  There were ugly riots in Kwang-ju, leading eventually to the new leader, Chun Doo-Hwan, ordering his troops to open fire and kill many students; the troops also managed to fire on themselves, causing even more casualties.  A flight from New York to Seoul carrying more than 200 civilians was shot down by Russian fighters.  Had the plane been spying?  If so, who for?  Then, five weeks later, on a trip to Burma, several of President Chun’s cabinet were assassinated, by the North it was presumed: conveniently, Chun himself had decided not to accompany his colleagues on that trip, so avoided the carnage.  More unanswered questions.

No Korean was excused the constant state of emergency that followed in the wake of such events.  Every night, there was a curfew from eleven o’clock until six in the morning, although foreigners might be excused if they followed the correct protocol.  Guards wandered around the streets from five o’clock in the morning, blowing whistles to one another: there was no such thing as a peaceful lie-in.  A civil defence day was held on the fifteenth of every month so that everyone could practice air-raid drill to the company of loud sirens.  Overseas travel was only permitted for business purposes, and even then the prospective traveller would need to attend a two day indoctrination course as protection against the perceived threat of being abducted by North Korean spies.

And yet, and yet.  We had thirty Koreans working for us, not all of them spoke English but all of them had a wonderful attitude towards whatever cropped up.  The government was backed by a strong military and the restrictions were many.  But you soon learned that freedom is not a finite thing and the limited freedom that these people had was infinitely better than being overrun by the unseen enemy – something which we would all do well to remember as we consider the current restrictions.

Labour was cheap and people worked long hours so most of the other foreign companies operating in Korea were there to manufacture things – shoes, textiles, tyres, motor cars.  But our company was an odd-ball: back in England we made products for industrial heating systems, but the sharp knife of Thatcherism was sawing its way through British manufacturing industry and the factories that had always used our products were all being closed down.  So we needed to be in places, like Korea, where people were still building factories, for these were the future customers of our good but expensive British products.  Success did not come overnight.  The viability of our little operation in Korea was under constant scrutiny.  But in the end it was our team in Seoul that saw us through those rough patches.  A mistake was always a chance to learn.  A success was a challenge to do even better next time.

And now, forty years later, the rest of the world looks to Korea, still known as the Hermit Kingdom, not for its cheap labour but for its technology, its electronic products, its films and its literature, and today its ability to beat the virus.  Seoul is no longer a crude pot-pourri of shacks and office tenements with flimsy rope fire escapes but one of the most modern cities in the world.  Our own little sales operation has now grown to more than 200 people and has improved the efficiency of many Korean factories.  And we can even say that the most dangerous person in the world is, following the miraculous emergence of President Trump, no longer a Korean.

Meanwhile, in north London, Son Heung-Min was until recently enjoying his best season ever.  He learned from his big mistake and made himself a better player.  No longer just the striker who stands in when Harry is injured, just before Christmas he weaved his way past seven Burnley players before scoring one of the best goals of this or any other season.  Not that he will have let that go to his head.



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