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Korea

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As I have written many times, I am uninterested in politics. However, today there are things happening in regards to Korea that involve political matters that are very complicated. I fear that the politicians who have to deal with these things do not have the understanding of the culture and history of Korea to handle things effectively. For what it’s worth, I would like to explain what I know about the country.

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First, I urge all concerned with this situation to read "The Tide at Sunrise," by Denis and Peggy Warner, which is a history of the 1904-5 Russo-Japanese War. That war was fought to a great extent on the Korean peninsula and the authors detail the events leading up to the conflict, including an extensive recap of the history of contemporary Korea.

What is unfortunate in that retelling is a failure to go back to the roots of the country. Please bear with me as I try to explain.

Koreans have never fought with anyone outside of their country. They have been remarkably pacifist in that regard, over thousands of years.

But they love to kill each other. Koreans make the Hatfields and McCoys look like school kids in a scuffle when it comes to fraternal battling. It is amazing how bitter the conflict among Koreans can become.

As with all animosity, it begins with anarchy. There is a deep strain of anarchy in the Korean spirit. Koreans cherish the right to act anyway they like, at any time. And they are prepared to fight at the drop of a hat to ensure that right.

Naturally, conflicts easily arise in that environment. But in the case of Korea, it is exacerbated by the history of the country.

What is the origin of the name, "Korea"? It goes back to Koryo, which is the name the West used to adopt it to conventional nomenclature in assigning the word "Korea" to the nation. When the West first came to the country, they said, "Take us to your leader," and inevitably the natives they encountered passed the buck again and again, farther north every step of the way.

So that is how the West first came to know the country. But that is not how the country is made up.

Koryo was surely the dominant presence in Korea. But only in the north! The southerners had their own ideas, including the desire to control their own land. And they were ready to fight for it. Centuries later, the Korean War was tailor-made for them.

But it is even more complicated than that. South Korea is not a single entity. It is also divided in half. In fact, Korea was originally known as the "Three Kingdoms." So there is Kwangju in the west of South Korea and a separate clan system to the east. In order to display a united front to the West, the factions joined forces in a way that endures to this day, but that division continues.

That, in a nutshell, is where things stand. Anyone going to Korea will be able to see that reality. However, it might take some careful thinking about it to understand the implications.

I toured the Korean peninsula in 1992 with a professional go player and was startled several times. First, on the train from the airport into the center of Seoul, where I had reservations at a first class hotel. As I looked out the window, we passed by an army tank with a grim-faced soldier vigilantly surveying the scene from the gunner’s hatch on the top. He was ready for action at any second. "What is this about?!" I asked myself. "Soldiers ready for military action?"

In the days ahead, I experienced more surprises. In Chonju, I woke up and got ready for the day. I went to the bathroom, showered and prepared to shave with my electric shaver. But when I tried to plug it in, there was no outlet there! So I went to look for an outlet in the room, anywhere just so I could shave. But there were no outlets to be found! Lamps were connected right into the walls with wires. I went down to the front desk of the hotel to ask about it.

"You can plug your shaver in here," I was told, the clerk pointing to a wall socket behind the desk. So that is what I did, shaving quickly while the staff stood around.

Is this how business is done in Korea?! I still wonder about that.

The tour group also visited Pusan at the south of the peninsula. I was happy to go there. It is close to Japan, so there are Japanese television broadcasts that I could watch, and also many residents of the city can speak Japanese, so I could communicate effortlessly with them. (I speak Korean and can read Hangul, but only on an elementary level.)

On the other hand, the day after we arrived was Saturday. I decided to take a stroll to the harbor and went down the main street of the city. To my surprise there were thousands of people on the street doing the same thing! Please do not think that I am exaggerating. Imagine the widest street in your city. Then imagine it packed with people, side by side, from one side of the pavement to the other. That is how it was on that day.

I was practically crushed by the people as they walked, at a leisurely pace. But what really startled me was when I saw the US Consulate Building that we passed by. It was surrounded by Korean soldiers, side by side, elbows practically touching, ready in defense, with rifles in hand. Were they prepared for an uprising? That is something I still think about.

However, the most bizarre experience for me was yet to come. I was invited to the home of an elite family for dinner. Naturally, I attended, along with a friend and the evening stretched on until we left late in the night. Then we shared a taxi to return to the center of Seoul where my hotel was located. Since we were splitting the fare, the driver did not go right to my hotel, but dropped me at the head of the street. Fine. I could walk the couple of blocks down. No problem.

But when I started to walk, I noticed that there were dozens, and then hundreds of young people around me! Where did they come from? Remember: this was the very center of Seoul, in the heart of the city.

At first I was startled, but then as I continued to walk I saw that the young people paid no attention to me. They did not address me, they did not touch me, they did nothing. So I just walked on. It was a football field-size area filled with young people. Were they looking for partners? I don’t know.

Please understand. This was not a slight stroll. I walked for five minutes past dozens of young people crowded close to me. There were even vendors plying the crowd with their wares! Selling bananas! Who eats bananas at 2 o’clock in the morning?! I guess that’s Korea.

The fact is that Korea is still a third world country. Its world class electronic status, automobiles and video subculture notwithstanding. Anyone deciding on policy issues in regards to Korea should be aware of these things.

Another day I walked around that same section of the city. At one point I came to a curb made of concrete that had apparently recently been installed. But it was already crumbling away. Such shoddy workmanship in the capital?

Everyone knows that if you see a satellite photograph of the country at night, the north will be almost totally dark. The south is always lighted up brightly, but that belies some of its rustic aspects. I was at the Lotte Hotel in that same part of the city one day. It is a luxury hotel of the highest standards. I had lunch there, and then walked around afterward only to find, just a couple of blocks away, a store selling farming tools and equipment that were spread out over the sidewalk in front! There was even a complete tractor engine sitting there! Can the reader imagine a similar sight in New York or Tokyo or any other major city in the word?

I tell these stories in an effort to explain the perceptions of an American to this alien culture. We must all learn to deal with many unexpected things respectfully, in a charitable way. Even if that means eating bananas at 2 am!

Those who wish to comment on the opinions expressed here may send their thoughts to info@GoWizardry.com. The most interesting responses will be addressed in future postings.

Robert J. Terry

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