Heading to Korea
Well, here we go. Bags are packed (actually stuffed) and the passport is ready. I'm headed to South Korea for two weeks. I've been selected to participate as a fellow with the Korea-United States Journalists Exchange Program. The fellowship is sponsored by the East-West Center and the Korea Press Foundation, and is supported by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation. It sends seven US journalists to Korea and seven Korean journalists to the US. I suppose that's why they call it an exchange. We'll meet with government leaders, academics, etc. The theme of this program is "Threats and Alliances on the Korean Peninsula." In preparation, I've read countless articles on US-Korean relations. And I've been eating as much Gimchi as I can handle. I've got to admit, It is getting better.
South Korea's connection to Portland is pretty obvious. It is a major trade partner. You know all those massive ships lumbering up and down the Columbia River? Well, many are going to and from Korea. South Korea now buys about 5 percent of all Oregon's exports. And Oregon shipped out $1 billion dollars in goods to South Korea last year.
I've come to really appreciate fellowships and what they can do. I was a fellow in Germany three years ago. And KGW has hosted various fellows from around the world, including most recently Pakistan. This type of interaction is something that cannot be duplicated. It's one thing to report on issues based on wire copy. It's another to have first-hand experience.
I also think it helps journalists look at the big picture. So often, we're focused on our daily deadline. The gang shooting. The ATM hold-up. The road construction. It's critical to look at the broader world that we live in.
I also think it's a good chance to challenge myself. I enjoy these debates and discussions about foreign policy. It makes me think. In fact, I'm sure you can already hear the wheels spinning...
We made it! Getting to Korea sounds easy enough. One quick flight to Seattle. Then a direct flight to Seoul. But after 12 grueling hours in the air, I'm dead tired. We met at the airport. At least most of us. There are seven fellows from the US. They're both print and broadcast journalists from New York, Baltimore, Colorado and beyond. It will be fun getting to know all of these folks. Tomorrow is a big day. We're starting at the US Embassy then continue on from there. I'm looking forward to it. The biggest challenge now is figuring out the toilet. There are so many buttons!
Today was like hitting the treadmill at level 10 with no warm-up. We were running! We had meetings from 8:30 am until about 9:30. Don't get me wrong, it was great. The day started at the US Embassy. The building is rather nondescript. Security is crazy tight. And the inside is just as uneventful. I've always had the impression that our Embassies are lavish. Most are not. They're working offices. We met off-the-record with several key staffers and advisers. I can tell you the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement is huge. It's the biggest U.S. free trade pact since NAFTA. The implications for Oregon businesses like wine makers, heavy machinery plants, etc. could be huge. But there is a healthy debate about impact to jobs. The deal still needs ratification from US Congress and politicians here in Seoul. The embassy is keeping very, very close tabs on it.
We also met with one of Hillary Clinton's counterparts. A high ranking official from their version of the Secretary of State's Office. Again, this meeting was off-the-record. But the background information was fascinating. Don't worry, there were no national secrets being revealed. But we did have a lengthy discussion about North-South relations. As you know, things have been tense after last year's hostilities. I think it's going to take some time until both North Korea and South Korea sit at the same table to discuss much of anything.
Don't stop. That's the theme. After a few hours rest, we were up and running again. This time, the meetings started at 8 am and continued non-stop until 9:00 at night. The day was filled with discussion about North-South relations and the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement. We met with former ambassadors from Korea, met with experts from various think tanks and fellow journalists. In fact, we had an interesting meeting at the second largest newspaper in Korea. At all of these meetings, an interesting ritual takes place. First, upon greeting someone you shake hands. Then, you trade business cards. And yes, if there are four speakers, you trade four business cards. I've already put together a collection of business cards that would rival my childhood days of collecting baseball cards.
Our last meeting of the night was probably the most interesting. We spoke with three defectors from North Korea. They risked everything. Their life, their family's life, everything to come to South Korea. One woman explain of the dismal conditions in South Korea. How kids have to buy their own desk and chair at school. And since they don't have enough money to buy a new desk as they grow taller, they tack on blocks on the legs of the desk and chair.
Another defector explained how he's now working to spread anti-regime propaganda in North Korea. He fills helium balloons with thousands of written pamphlets explaining why others should revolt against this oppressive regime. Very interesting. And all had heartbreaking stories to tell.
I think we've all heard about the DMZ. But today, I got a chance to see it. Frankly, it felt a bit like a tourist trap. And in some ways it is. Thousands of visitors come to see the DMZ every year. And yes, there is a gift shop with cheesy T-shirts and postcards.
To get there we first had to stop at a military checkpoint several miles from the DMZ. There we joined a caravan of buses and vans led by a military escort. Upon our arrival, we all were given arm bands that identified us as press. We were given a short presentation (basically the history of the DMZ) then boarded the military bus. On our way to the border, we learned a little bit more about the military presence there. One interesting item: they have a one-hole golf course for the military officers stationed at the DMZ. ESPN did a story on it several years ago. They call it "the world's most dangerous golf course". Upon our arrival at the border, we were given strict orders: no gestures toward the North Korean officers, no pointing, no yelling, etc. We followed a school tour of what appeared to be elementary students from Korea. Once outside, we all scrambled to take photos and video of the North and South Korean guards facing off. It's really an exciting moment. But things moved fast. In fact, I really didn't hear a word that our guide/officer told us. I was too busy trying to photograph the scene. After only about 5 minutes, we moved into the joint meeting room that hosts any and all meetings between the two sides at the DMZ. It is very basic. Tables and chairs. We were told, don't put anything on the tables. Again, we were hurried along. In all, this stop lasted about 15 minutes. After us, another group of students moved in. Like I said, it feels like a tourist stop more than a heated confrontation between two fierce rivals.
Seeing a big ship moving down the Columbia River is one thing. But seeing them up close and personal is another. Today, we got a tour of Hyundai Heavy Industries. It's an incredible sight. The only thing I can compare it to is an ant colony. This ship building complex in Ulsan is huge. It has to be. They construct huge ships that are used to carry thousands of cars, natural gas, etc. As part of the construction process workers use what are called "Goliath cranes". Each can lift at least 900 tons. It takes about seven months to complete a ship. Then, they have a lifespan of about 40 years at sea.
I'd say we got the chamber of commerce tour today. In fact, we had lunch with the president of the chamber of commerce in Busan. It's a beautiful town on the far south end of the Korean peninsula. We learned about the Free Economic Zone. Basically, an area created to attract foreign investment through tax breaks, incentives and sparkling new buildings. We also saw a Buddhist Temple and UN Memorial Cemetery. But, the big highlight came late in the day. We went to the Jagalchi fish market. Okay, first we're not talking fish on ice or sitting in a grocery store cooler. These babies are just sitting on trays (or on the ground.) And many are alive. They've got huge tanks of live fish, squid, shellfish etc. We saw some crazy seafood! Often, the vendors (typically women that appear to be in their 60's and 70's) pull out a live eel and then cut it open in the market. The eel, then sliced into pieces and bleeding, continues to squirm around on a plate. I didn't see anyone eating them raw. But I suppose you could. Speaking of raw, we went to a restaurant near the market that serves raw seafood. It was actually a nice meal of raw fish, raw shellfish and of course several versions of Gimchi. But the most interesting plate was still moving. Live octopus! The small pieces (about the size of a small worm) were cut up and squirming. I was a little hesitant since I'd heard that sometimes they'll suck to the inside of your mouth of throat. Luckily, they didn't. And when topped with a little butter and garlic, raw (moving) octopus is actually pretty tasty.
We rode the rails today. We started out by riding the KTX or high speed train from Busan (in the south) to Seoul (in the north). The train is super smooth, comfortable and races at a top speed of 190 mph. Later in the day, I took the subway in Seoul. It's very slick and even for someone who doesn't speak Korean, it was pretty easy to get around.
At night we had the chance to visit a Korean journalist's home for dinner. What a treat! I don't think you can really understand a culture by just touring museums and other points of interest. But going into someones home gives you tremendous insight. The dinner was nice. We sat on the ground, which is typical, and ate a huge dinner. Most Korean's live in high rise apartments. Even in the communities outside of Seoul high rises fill the horizon. Basically, there isn't enough room in this country for all the people to have their own home. Korea is roughly the size of Indiana with a population greater than Oregon, Washington and California combined.
There is a fun tradition in Korea when dining with friends. When serving beer or wine, it is tradition that you pour for your guest. They are expected to lift their glass while you pour. When finished, they return the favor by pouring for you. Then, "Cheers" or "Gom Bae!!!"
Baseball in Korea is part sport and part pep rally. Honestly, I've never seen anything like it. We had great seats for a match-up between the Lotte Giants and the LG Twins. Yes, these are corporate names. Like Nike versus Safeway. The stadium in Seoul is much smaller than a major league park in the US, but larger than a minor league ball park. The fans are evenly divided by their teams. Seriously, it's like someone drew a line down the middle. LG fans sat on one side. And Lotte sat on the other. The fans sang and chanted all day long. I suppose it is similar to European soccer matches. Each side has cheerleaders and they shout in unison, often flashing matching signs or inflatable objects. And these fans even heckle one another. At one point, all the fans for one team yelled, "Shut up" to the opposing crowd. It wasn't mean. It was like a choir singing. The best was late in the game. The Lotte fans broke out plastic shopping bags and put them on their head. Apparently, this was designed as a insult to LG fans by suggesting they are garbage. Wild game. And yes, in addition to watching the fans I enjoyed the game too. LG won 6-4.
We headed back down south today. Luckily, it only takes about 3 hours by high speed train to go from Seoul to the far corners of this country. We got the royal treatment from Gwangju city hall. As part of a visit with the mayor, we were seated in over-sized chairs with name plates next to us. Seriously, it looked like a scene from some high powered negotiation between rival nations. The formalities just continued on from there. We used a microphone to ask questions about the economy in Gwangju, plans for "green" development and the city's photonics industry. At the end of our meeting we shared gifts. This is an interesting tradition similar to what I've seen in Japan. Basically, we shared a small gift with our hosts. I brought smoked salmon and chocolate that was made in Oregon. In exchange, they provided us with a gift. In this case, it was a small ceramic plate. Korea is famous for its beautiful ceramics.
You could call today the extreme adventure tour. We started by visiting a Buddhist temple high in the mountains. We met with a monk and saw the historic buildings. It was very peaceful. From there we made a 180 degree turn by visit the Kunsan Air Base. They put on quite a show with a military display involving fake enemy soldiers attacking the base. In response, the airmen fired back (obviously blanks). After the demonstration we had a chance to fire some of these weapons. It was a unique experience. Kunsan Air Base is always on stand-by to help protect South Korea from their neighbors to the North. They can have a jet in the air and above North Korea in less than 20 minutes. They also have Patriot Air Defense Missiles up and running in case of attack. It's an eerie sight to see the Patriots lined up, all pointed North. It's a good illustration of how South Koreans and the US military stationed on the peninsula face a constant threat.