SEOUL—From a chat with a former president to a tour of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and meditation with a Buddhist grand master, here are highlights from the past week in Korea. In all, the trip was well-planned and well-executed and gave a comprehensive look at Korean society and government. Big props to the Harvard Kennedy School Korea Caucus organizers.
Monday, March 23: We met with leaders of SK Telecom, who talked about how despite intense market domination domestically and substantial growth regionally, the company has struggled to penetrate Western markets. While I’m no expert on telecommunications issues, I wonder if President Barack Obama’s expressed support for net neutrality and the policy makers he’s brought on board could open up new, fertile markets for places like SK Telecom.
During a visit to Hyundai Asan, we heard about development of the Kaesong industrial region, which company executives see as a growing economic and cultural link between the two Koreas, paving the way for unification. At Kaesong, more than 100 South Korean factories employ about 38,000 North Korean workers. Hyundai Asan leaders have created both industrial and tourism facilities geared toward North Korea, however, the tourist area has been shuttered by the South government after a South Korean tourist was accidentally shot and killed by a North Korean guard.
Tuesday: We held a joint meeting with students from Seoul University, talking about international commerce and comparing U.S. and South Korean approaches to market regulation. I chatted with a doctoral student about opportunities for women in Korean society, which still places heavy emphasis on traditional gender roles. She said opportunities are increasing and that there are actually more women doctoral candidates than men these days.
Guards dressed in traditional clothing for a special occasion stand at attention outside the Blue House.
After touring the grounds of the Blue House, home to South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak, we sat in on a discussion with former president Kim Dae-jung, 83, who gave his thoughts on a wide range of topics, everything from President Obama’s historic election to Kim’s disdain for the policies of George W. Bush (including U.S. actions in Iraq, which Kim called “arrogant.”). We also met with congressman Park Jin, who represents Seoul as a member of the conservative, governing Grand National Party (and also happens to be facing allegations of bribery). Both men spoke of unification and compared Korea to Germany after the Cold War, saying the peninsula would do well to follow the Deutsch model for coalescence.
Wednesday: At the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, we heard from Oh Joon, a deputy minister, about the geopolitical position of South Korea, whose major concerns include dismantling the North Korean nuclear program (more on that later), expanding global influence (South Korea hopes for a non-permanent seat on the U.N. security council) and helping fight global climate change.
Thursday: We met with an official from Jeju Island, a small volcanic-induced landmass 130 kilometers (80 miles) south of the mainland. Its leaders have an ambitious vision for the island, hoping to turn it into a business and educational haven by offering tax incentives and even free land to foreign companies and schools, a la Dubai.
A mountain carving of Buddha sits above Golgulsa Temple.
Friday: During an overnight visit to the Golgulsa Temple, we learned about the growing temple stay industry attracting some 28,000 visitors (about 2,000 foreigners, we were told) annually to South Korea. With tax exemption from the Korean government, Buddhist temples are able to house and teach patrons everything from marshal arts to meditation and chanting. For an increasingly secular societies like the United States and Europe, it will be interesting to see whether these types of treks will become more popular with Western visitors seeking alternatives to their Christian heritage.
A South Korean soldier stands guard along the DMZ.
Saturday: A visit to the dramatic setup surrounding the DMZ and the Joint Security Area (JSA), we received a tour from a young U.S. military man who provoked chuckles by repeatedly telling us that “North Koreans are weird,” whenever he was asked an unanswerable question about the mysterious inhabitants just over the border. At the DMZ, I perhaps saw more Americans and Europeans in one afternoon than this entire week, a testament to the curiosity this region engenders for the Westerners who intervened to create this unique area.
I’ll be writing more in-depth articles and videos to be posted soon. In sum, Korea is a fascinating and enjoyable place to explore. If you can handle the ubiquitous presence of pungent kimchi, it’s well worth the visit.