Off Piste - Heart and Seoul

Scholarly links introduced R.C. Richardson to the Republic of Korea. His sole regret, in an ensuing 30-year love affair with its land, culture and people, is that so few of his fellow Britons choose it as a travel destination

June 21, 2012

The Republic of Korea tends to be largely invisible and unknown to those in the UK. Its history and culture are little studied in this country; there are few specialist centres in universities, and those that do exist are small. Only occasionally does it forcibly claim our attention when border tensions threaten to escalate or, more positively, when its high achievements in literacy and numeracy are held up as models. It surfaces in the culture pages when outstandingly good Korean musicians and opera singers perform in London, and recently a visiting South Korean production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Shakespeare’s Globe received rapturous reviews for its fresh approach to the play. It is, however, a sure indicator of the state of things that the Korean War is often described as one of the UK’s forgotten military encounters. Certainly, South Korea scarcely features at all on today’s regular tourist map and is invariably absent from the travel pages of British newspapers, a sad fact for which the Korean Tourist Board must surely accept some responsibility. You search in vain in those pages even for airfares to Seoul.

Be that as it may, it is the UK’s loss. The country boasts some stunningly beautiful landscapes, heritage sites and prestigious, well-cared for museums staffed by enthusiastic and knowledgeable curators. In Seoul, in the company of Korean friends, I have enjoyed exploring Gyeongbokgung, the impressively restored palace of the Joseon dynasty, the nearby National, Royal and Folk Museums and - south of the Han river - the royal tombs in Samneung Park. Elsewhere I have learned much at the Hahoe Folk Village in Andong, where a large number of traditional houses of different types were reassembled and brought together to save them from the flooding produced by the construction of a nearby dam in 1976. (It is a similar concept to the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum in Sussex - without the watery prelude.) Two years ago, Korean friends took me to Palgongsan Provincial Park, high up in the hills outside Daegu, one of the country’s largest cities. Pride of place in my South Korean list of favourites, however, is held by Gyeongju, the Silla dynasty capital. Here, in an area stretching many miles, is a stunningly imposing concentration of tombs, Buddhist temples - the Bulguksa temple chief among them - and ruined palaces. The site is near the magnificent National Museum of Gyeongju with its enormous Emille Bell, and the unique Sea Tomb of the 7th-century King Munmu is not far away. Such places naturally bring out the historian in me, and the time I have spent in the country has presented new perspectives and facilitated historical, cultural and social comparisons. By extension, it has also opened up a whole new world in entertainment. Korean traditional dance - with its thrilling music and energetic male performers in distinctive costume and headgear with those long, swirling tassels - is positively mesmerising.

The country also displays many striking juxtapositions of old and new. Cities such as Busan, Daegu and above all Seoul - home to such a startlingly high proportion of the country’s inhabitants - bear witness to its hurtling rush into economic change and growth; I have seen enormous changes in the years I have been going there. Incheon International Airport puts to shame major hubs in the UK, and the high-speed rail link between Seoul and Daegu is impressive by any standards for its technology, sleek efficiency and cheap tickets. But move outside the main urban conglomerations and much traditional life and economic practice remain in evidence in the countryside. Observing small-scale, labour-intensive agriculture, with farmers intensively using every inch of available land, hemmed in by the mountainous terrain, is to step back into the past.

South Korean people instinctively seem to hold on to their personal and collective pasts. This is no doubt a reflex response to both the destabilising pace of present-day urbanisation and economic growth, and to a deeply troubled national history dislocated by external domination and internal civil war. Pent-up resentment, suspicion and distrust still often feature in South Korea’s relations with Japan and China. Nervousness about their unpredictable and irrational neighbour immediately to the north heightens national pride in South Korea and fuels hopes for eventual reunification.

At the cultural level, formalities are characteristic of the spoken and body languages of familial and social interactions; the country must be a fascinating laboratory for cultural anthropologists. Unmistakably, it is a gerontocratic society; age matters profoundly and commands respect and obligation. The Korean tea ceremony, far from being an empty ritual, expresses deeply held cultural values of stability and intergenerational and interpersonal bonding. To witness it in action a number of times (under the leadership of one of the country’s acknowledged experts in Gyeongju) and to participate in it is to recognise its importance as a refuge from the stress, anxieties and competing claims of modern life. My meetings with the Gyeongju tea professor, in fact, have made for some of my most memorable encounters in South Korea. Even though we had the services of an excellent interpreter to hand, our conversations in our respective languages and the eye contact between us seemed to impart an almost surreal, instinctive understanding of what we were saying to each other.

Less exciting, perhaps, have been those occasions when I have given lectures to university audiences in South Korea. It is an obvious but painful fact for listeners that a lecture delivered twice over in sections, first in English and then in Korean, can take an exceedingly long time. Amusing faux pas can sometimes happen too. I was once introduced to the astonished audience at a lecture I was about to give as “King Alfred” by a Korean chairman who had got me confused with the name of the college where I then worked.

What of the cuisine? Traditional Korean food, to be perfectly honest, can be challenging as well as satisfying. Bulgogi (barbecued marinated beef), mandu (dumplings), noodles of all kinds, especially jajangmyeon (egg noodles in black bean sauce), yakgwa (large, round rice cookies) and maesil (green plum juice) have become firm favourites of mine. Periodically, enormous supplies of some of these goodies descend on me as gifts from South Korean friends. It is no doubt my loss, however, that kimchi, the hot and spicy Korean favourite (pickled Chinese cabbage, fermented for long periods to heighten its flavour), remains for me a kind of Asian secret weapon. Almost fire-inducing in its intensity, I find it is best avoided. I well remember the minor agonies of my first encounter with a traditional Korean meal in a high-class Seoul restaurant when the explosive effects of kimchi became combined with the excruciating cramp caused by prolonged cross-legged sitting on the floor.

My own links with the country extend back for almost 30 years and came about in the first place through a number of fortunate accidents. The first, in the 1980s, was my introduction through a mutual friend at the University of Oxford to a Korean historian then on sabbatical leave in this country. He visited me in Winchester a number of times and we corresponded regularly after he went back to South Korea. (I contributed a chapter to a published Festschrift to mark his retirement.) In due course, I acted as caretaker supervisor to a succession of his PhD students who spent periods of a year working on early modern English history in this country in the 1990s collecting material for their dissertations. After graduating, they took positions in other universities in their home country and thus widened my Korean network.

Then there was an unexpected encounter on a flight from London to Boston with an American academic who had just been offered a position in Korean studies in London. We struck up a friendship that has continued after he moved on with his Korean wife to take up a new post in Canada.

My first visit to Korea was in 1999 when I represented my university at a British Council higher education fair in Seoul. That produced another chance meeting, this time with the president of South Korea’s only Anglican university foundation, which in due course led to an affiliation with my institution in England. It was a university partnership that from the outset had strong and natural foundations that were reinforced by a series of academic staff year-long sabbatical visits. I was closely involved in making the necessary arrangements and in hosting the visiting academics and their families once they arrived. Firm, lasting friendships resulted and were strengthened by my various return trips to Korea between 2002 and 2011. Although I am now retired, those friendships still flourish and have come to possess an added dimension in the second generation. I have become a mentor to a few of the sons and daughters of Korean former students and friends. When the son of my first Korean PhD student started his undergraduate course in this country, I was the natural choice to become the legal guardian required by the British government for his visa to be granted. I try to reciprocate here in England something of the warm reception I have unfailingly received when I visit his home country.

The generosity of South Korean hospitality and the sincerity, kindness and dependability of Korean people are features that have helped me to become strongly attached to that nation. And my South Korean “networks” have led to mutual benefits. I have gained enormously, for example, from the computer skills of Dongyoung Kim, my Korean ward; technical problems that baffle me, a mere pre-industrial historian (in every sense), are child’s play to him. On the other hand, I have lost count of all those chicken casseroles, roast lamb dinners, trifles, Bakewell tarts, fruit crumbles, steamed jam sponges with custard, scones, cakes and tealoaf I have prepared for curious and hungry Korean guests. I have even given lessons in English cookery and once - as a mark of respect - I gave a framed certificate of merit to a Korean professor of English (a man who had previously made a point of keeping out of kitchens in his own country) for his success in mastering my recipe for scones. But you can’t win them all: the thoughtful verdict on my Christmas pudding from this same man’s younger daughter was that it tasted like cough medicine.

So South Korea has a special place in my affections, one based on appreciation of some breathtakingly beautiful places, distinctive cultural traits, museums, entertainment and cuisine. Above all, however, it is the many friendships gathered over a period stretching back almost three decades that I value most and the position in which this has placed me to assist, in a very modest way, the development of Anglo-Korean relations. It means that I now share in, and understand, South Korean anxieties about their country’s relations with China and Japan and with the northern part of this uncomfortably divided peninsula. I experienced something at least of the pain felt by Dongyoung, my South Korean ward who was staying with me in the summer of 2010, when news arrived that appeared to suggest that three of his old high-school friends doing military service had been killed when the naval vessel carrying them was torpedoed.

Emphatically for me, South Korea is far from invisible and unknown; it is a country to which I feel repeatedly drawn and one I find fascinating, absorbing and fulfilling. I always recommend it to others who enjoy surprises and who are seeking somewhere distinctively different and welcoming.

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