In November 1986, I was sent to Korea together with a colleague for a month-long stint at the Korea Institute of Economics and Technology (KIET). To be precise, our destination was Seoul, the capital city of Republic of Korea or South Korea, as it is more popularly known.
Our job was to observe and study how the Koreans implemented the use of information technology in their efforts to upgrade the Korean economy. Upon our return, we were required to come up with proposals and recommendations with a view to implement the same within our own federal government agency, at the very least.
Our month-long stint was an eye opener. We learned a great deal from our Korean hosts. We had the regulatory field trips, not that we mind, taking us to places outside Seoul eg Taegu, Taejon and several others, where we also observed that the lifestyle was slightly different to that of Seoul. Slightly slow-paced, but then again hey, life is always slow-paced outside the capital city in any country you go to.
When we returned, we forwarded several recommendations and proposals, some of which or elements of which, I was made to understand later, were implemented. If that were to be the case, then the objective of our trip to Seoul has been fulfilled.
However, it need to be remembered that this was in 1986. Korea had just hosted the Asian Games several months earlier and were to host the Summer Olympics two years later, in 1988. The significance, you might ask?
In retrospect, Korea’s hosting of the Asian Games and later the Summer Olympics could be said as the country’s ‘coming of age’ on the international scene and ‘coming out party’, claiming its place on the world stage, saying ‘Here we are. We are Korea’. Something else to remember Korea by, instead of the age-old story of the Korean War.
Even then, the Koreans knew that all eyes will be on them. Their way of life, their chaebols, their fashion industry, and of course, their history and culture – all were to be put forward for international consumption and comment. And they did present themselves quite well, I’d say.
Today, the world has realised that Korea has more than just kimchi to offer, and more than the Korean War to remember it by. Names like Kia, Samsung, LG, Hyundai, amongst others, began to be part of the international industry, marketing and product vocabulary, as it were.
Korea’s success in the international scene was not only in the field of manufacturing. They are now quite big in the international sporting arena notably in football / soccer, field hockey, badminton and taekwando, amongst others. When I was a child, field hockey was dominated by India and Pakistan. Not anymore though.
The current Secretary General of the United Nations is a Korean. Dare I say it, this is no accident. The Koreans planned for it, and executed the plan. And now the UN SG is a Korean, only the second Asian to hold the post after the much admired U Thant.
So, looking at the current fascination with everything Korean, one can only conclude that it is not an accident. But then, it shouldn’t be a surprise. The achievements of the Koreans today are so prominent, that whenever Asia is being mentioned, the international community do not only think of Japan and China but also of Korea.
But how did this came about? The way I look at it, the key to the Koreans’ success is that they have a strong sense of identity. And in their culture, education ranks very high in their lists of wants. They honour it and they respect it.
Discipline, a very focussed mentality and a strong sense of purpose also helps, and these they have in abundance.
Just look at the way they play their football (or soccer). They never know when they are beaten. They run til they literally drop. What they may lack in skill, they make it up with sheer determination. As a result, today you can find most of Korea’s footballers plying their trade in the European football leagues. They are doing quite well, despite being slight in build compared to the Europeans, thank you very much. What does that
Coming from Malaysia, where there is a mixture of many races, languages, cultures and religions, I have been exposed to Malay, Hindi, Cantonese, Mandarin, Indonesian, English and what-have-you movies. We have movies from Hollywood, Bollywood, Kollywood and whatever ‘-wood’ you have, all in their original languages, to which our only aid to understanding these movies are the subtitles normally placed at the bottom of the screen and lately , in the middle of the screen.
Lately, I must admit to being a fan of Korean movies. With titles like ‘My Wife is A Gangster (1, 2 & 3)’, ‘She’s On Duty’ and ‘Marrying the Mafia (1, 2 & 3)’, you can actually say they are bound to attract your attention. Of course, there are also forgettable ones as well as their fair share of ‘Boy meets Girl’ movies but with a twist, one is from the North and the other from the South.
But on the whole, the scripts do include a heavy dose of the Korean way of life, its humour, its insecurities, its relationship with their Northern brethren, and what else have you. It’s about having a laugh at their expense, for Korean society, from my observations, is a very macho society. What better way to show off your new-found confidence then to joke and laugh about issues that the traditional Korean society is so hung up about.
Yes, they have come a long way ever since those days when the peninsular was divided into two. They yearn to have the two Koreas unite as like Germany, but that may not be for a long time. But rest assured, having observed them, that will happen one day for they will have planned for it.
When that happens, good luck to them. Maybe then we will know which kimchi tastes better, the Northern version or the Southern version. Trouble is, knowing the Koreans’ competitiveness, this might lead to what will be then known as the Kimchi Wars.
But better than missiles, don’t you think?