Korea has friends, too
There are tsunamis and there are tsunamis. Having seen the terrible effect of a real one, I experienced, last week, its conversational equivalent.
I and fellow Korea Times columnist Mike Breen were discussing the Japanese reaction to their ongoing crisis ― the people’s stoic dignity; the lack of looting or social disorder; the selfless actions of the nuclear plant workers struggling to control their monster ― when a Korean friend butted in.
“Why is the world taking such an adoring view toward Japan?” she asked.
Koreans would behave just as well as Japanese were a similar tragedy to visit this nation, she claimed. Her voice rose. And why are Westerners so enamored of the land of samurai and sushi anyway? Sushi, dammit, is Korean anyway, she corrected herself.
Warming to her theme, she began lambasting the two of us for the frequent criticism of Korea she overhears in our conversations. Foreign journalists don’t like Korea, she spat, but they love Japan: This explains why Japan’s profile is so high, but Korea’s is not. It’s unreasonable, she seethed ― it’s unfair!
Her monologue lasted several minutes. Then the storm receded.
Mildly shocked, Mike and I took a moment to gather our thoughts. In any tragedy, sympathy and empathy are natural human urges, we said ― and the Japanese reaction had been, by any standard, admirable.
Moreover, we assured her that we are not Korea bashers ― it is the job of media to be critical. Were we covering any other land, we would be dissecting politics, the economy and society in similar manner, we assured her.
Still, she had a point. As someone who writes on the Koreas, I often get the impression that this nation does not win the attention due. Ask any Western member of the Seoul Foreign Correspondents Club how difficult it can be to get non-North Korea related Korea stories into his/her newspaper, and you may get a sense.
Among Koreans is heard a constant refrain: “Westerners know Japan and China, but they don’t know us.” For several years, the nation has been debating endlessly about how to upgrade national brand visibility. And so it goes.
Yet while Japan’s crisis reaction wins respect and affection globally, Korea can also boast a multinational group of friends ― very good friends.
Last year, one of them, an Englishman, flew the Taegukgi, not the Cross of St. George, in his front garden during the World Cup. His neighbors laughed, but he told them that Korea would deliver. He was right: Korea proved a far more entertaining team than a dire England.
Another wrote in his diary of Korea’s late summer landscapes: “This is a strange, fey country … the sun, the blueness of the skies and the golden glory of these fields among the mountains is suddenly so unbelievably beautiful as to bring tears of longing … this is unexpectedly a Shangri-la where past days are forgotten.”
A third, invited to visit this nation last year, had tears in his eyes as he told an audience of foreign reporters and Korean military cadets, how thankful he was for the opportunity to be here. The gent in question, incidentally, is no “new man” or wilting flower: he holds his nation’s highest award for courage.
These men all experienced Korea in the grip of a truly demonic tragedy ― one that devastated this land far more savagely and comprehensively than the tsunami that has laid waste northeast Japan. It was an episode that killed around 2 million people, though some estimates are as high as 4 million: The Korean War.
Having been writing about it for the last four years, it has been humbling to hear veterans’ reminiscences. While all acknowledge the horror of the war, they praise the character of the Korean civilians of the 1950s: “The bravest of the brave” one man ― who is today an adoptive Korean grandfather ― called them for their stoic dignity. And of the veterans who return to see what became of the land they defended, all acknowledge ― to a man ― that the war was worthwhile.
Inevitably, though, this generation is dying out. Does Korea have friends to replace them?
The businessmen and expatriates who interacted with Korea from the 1960s to 1990s, did not, I think, have generally positive experiences of a rough, fierce and nationalistic nation.
Today, however, thousands of young graduates from across the Anglosphere flock here to teach English. They find 21st century Korea friendly, open, vibrant and exciting. Meanwhile, Korean films, games and television win increasing aficionados as hallyu, or the Korea Wave, washes onto ever-more distant shores.
While the affection thus generated nay not prove as enduring as the war veterans ― a relationship forged in terrible adversity ― this is a good way to create a new corps of Korea fans.
During her verbal savaging of Mike and I, our friend gave the impression that she would like something “big” to happen in Korea ― a news event that would let the world know the true caliber of Koreans.
The disaster most likely to strike this peninsula is not natural, but manmade. Should North Korea begin to crumble, or should military provocations reignite war, the peninsula would find itself the epicenter of a paradigm shift with the potential for far greater slaughter and devastation than even the worst tsunami.
Andrew Salmon, a Seoul-based journalist and author, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His new Korean War history, “Scorched Earth, Black Snow,” will be published in London in late April.