Sunday, October 09, 2011

Painful Past, Better Present

South Korea is well under the radar of public consciousness when it comes to anything other than its hugely successful industrial behemoths, or chaebols, such as Samsung, LG and Hyundai. They are household names the world over and exert tremendous influence at home with a finger in every proverbial pie. As for history, people may be able to cite the Korean War (though not that many, given its nickname of The Forgotten War), Korea's colonisation by the Japanese and a handful of sporting events, such as the '88 Olympics and 2002 World Cup. That's as far as my knowledge went anyway before I arrived. So it came as quite a surprise to learn that South Korea was under consecutive military dictatorships right up until the early 90's - the first peaceful transition of power was in '92. The fact that little is known about this period of South Korea's history is probably due to the Cold War mentality of the West supporting any despotic regime as long as they were anti-Communist - "he may be a son of a bitch, but at least he's our son of a bitch" - that also helped keep various Latin American juntas in power.

Rows of graves of the victims of 518 in Gwangju.

There were many abuses during the almost 50 years of military rule, but two incidents are notorious. The first happened in the run up to the Korean War when the citizens of Jeju island protested against former Japanese collaborators who managed to end up in positions of power after WWII. The violent crackdown on farmers that the government suspected of having Communist sympathies led to an insurrection that led to the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians, the gang-raping of countless local women (who afterwards were sometimes executed or even forced into marriages with their agressors who were then able to inherit their land), and the devastation of much of the island. The individual stories are truly shocking. The second episode of particular infamy was the Gwangju Massacre of 1980 (locally called 518 in reference to the 18th of May when the incident started). Students in the southwest started protesting against the latest military coup and closing of their university. Within days the movement had escalated into a city-wide revolt followed by the heavy-handed, indiscriminate use of special forces which led to the deaths of large numbers of civilians. And these were supposed to be the good guys that the West was supporting against the Evil Commies.

Although the protests had been violently quashed and democracy didn't come to South Korea for another 12 years, it is recognised as being one of the seeds of the democratic movement and is now widely commemorated. What has made me glad though, is that these events are talked about and remembered via the country's Turth and Reconciliation Comission and that many of the perpetrators were later brought to justice.

One of the reasons the uprisings occured in the southwest is that it has been poorer and more rural than other regions, especially the southeast, which has benefited from lavish attention from successive governments. The main reason being that the various cliques in power have been from the southeast and have favoured their home region whilst conversely neglecting their traditional rivals to the west. But at least this leads to some beautiful countryside scenes, such as harvested rice which is left out to dry along many roads, and farmers on their small power tillers pootering along narrow country lanes.

A typical autumnal sight in South Korea: rice put out to dry on long tarpaulin sheets taking up a lane of the highway.

Apart from regional wealth disparities South Korea is a very homogeneous country, ethnically, culturally and linguisitcally. Everyone in Korea is Korean, except for a small contingent of expats who can be divided into three very distinct groups: the 40,000 American GIs who are based in South Korea and who are generally disliked for their attitudes and drunken and disorderly behaviour when they are let loose in town; the foreign professionals who help organise Korean multinationals by providing expertise and business acumen (their numbers are few and I never meet them); and the army of English language teachers here to help Koreans pass their English exams. This is perhaps the facet of South Korean life that I have seen the most as the majority of my hosts have been such English teachers (although Koreans are generally very friendly and generous, inviting strangers into their homes is often a step too far into the unknown and uncomfortable for them). So at least I have a good understanding of the life of an expat here, which, as everyone has told me, is pretty good: the work isn't too stressful, the pay is decent, the cost of living is cheap, accommodation is provided, and they even pay for your airfare there and back again. A good option for graduates who are finding it hard to find work at home perhaps? They are often a young and friendly crowd and I've spent a fair number of evenings in bars drinking makgeolli and soju, competing in a pub quiz, and even, a few days ago, being invited to a Canadian Thanksgiving dinner (aka "Real Thanksgiving").

Although couchsurfing hasn't worked out with locals as much as I had hoped, I have had much better luck hitchhiking. It's not at all in the local custom for people to hitch in South Korea, but I've never had to stick my thumb out for too long before a friendly, and usually concerned, person stops to give me a ride. Since crime of any sort (except perhaps corporate fraud and embezzlement) is rare here people are trusting and unafraid, so that I've even had a housewife stop for me. In fact travelling in South Korea is very easy: buses and trains (and even taxis) are pretty cheap, there is plenty of tourist information everywhere, and public amenities are plentiful (free toilets, water fountains and even free internet in post offices). In a way slightly disappointing as travelling here really isn't a challenge at all!

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