|The irony of looking for a steak restaurant in the frenzied height of a protest about beef did not escape me. The citizens of South Korea were out in force, vocalizing their discontent at their government's decision to allow US beef to be imported into the country, after being banned for fear of importing Mad Cow disease along with it. If cows were being infected in the fields of the United States, you can bet Americans would be dropping like the flies feasting on their corpses. Thousands of people on the streets, riot police, water canons, blockades - you can also bet this is a more complex issue than bovines going bonkers. And I had a window seat, since the action was taking place below my hotel window at the Somerset Palace in downtown Seoul.
Reputations are funny things. You hear something about somebody, read something about some place, and instantly you form an opinion that creates a mountain on the landscape of your opinions. "I heard it's dangerous" or "she's a slut" and the only way you'll ever know for sure is if you go there yourself, and get to know her. All I knew about Korea was from what I saw on M*A*S*H as a kid, heard from a family friend about doing business here, and the odd story from fellow travellers who taught English in the country. M*A*S*H taught me there was once a war in Korea, that suicide is stupid, that it's possible to hook up a martini-machine in a tent, that nurses are naughty, and that life is a bittersweet comedy. Did you know the actor who played Radar only tiny fingers on his left hand? Anyway, my family friend told me Korea was grey and industrially bleak. It's quite possible he was doing business in a gray and industrially bleak area. The various ex-English teachers who have come my way have mostly been folks looking to escape, save some cash, and defer making any serious life-changing decisions. In other words, people I can relate to. Teaching English in a foreign country is a deposit that has sat in my travel bank for some time now. All you need is a degree, some enthusiasm, no criminal record (a recently instated measure), and off you go to nurture the minds of another nation's youth. I really had no idea where the real beef was with South Korea, and although I only had a week to find it, I was determined to try.
The crew bade farewell to director Jordan in Taipei, and in Seoul we would meet our director Michael for the next eight episodes. Having directed multiple seasons of the popular travel show The Thirsty Traveller, I was eager to gleam from his ample well-trampled travel show experience. Certainly they're designed so that everyone who watches them automatically thinks: I wish I could be there! Michael reckons every travel show needs its "holy crap" moment, when the viewer sees something that inspires them to explete in their respective manner. What you don't see are the 16-hour days, the frenetic schedule, the enormous amount of work being put in by the guys back in the office, the barrage of emails and phone calls, equipment issues, editing, paperwork, permits, post-production hermits, editorial quagmires, shlepping, shlooping and shipping tapes, disks, deal making, breaking, back aching, faking, reputation staking superhuman effort to produce a life of seemingly endless leisure. Not that anyone is complaining mind you, just that Einstein's Theory of Relativity applies to travel shows too.
As with dating, first impressions count on the road, and my first impression of Seoul was that it reminded me very much of Tokyo. Clean, busy, civil, modern, extreme, I love Tokyo. However, the Japanese brutally occupied Korea between 1910 and 1945, denying Koreans basic rights, while squeezing its resources and technical know-how. I wonder if the similarities I see today between Japan and Korea are a result, and if so, who absorbed what from whom? Massive LCD screens project advertising onto the streets, while high-rise residential buildings line the highway, large numbers marking them like inmates in a prison. You've heard of Korean motor brands Hyundai, Daiwoo, Kia and Ssangyyong - but never have you seen so many in one place, with such a diversity of models. Given the history, good luck finding a Japanese car in Korea. Then there's Samsung and LG, multinational electronic firms that sharpen the country's cutting edge. And the other edge, the 38th parallel, the line that separates the prosperous south from the destitute north, the line that has cost millions of lives.
I just taught my first class of 11-year-olds, and I've got a major case of teacher buzz. So here's a brief paragraph on Korea's modern history: After the Japanese were defeated in World War II, the Russian-backed communists established a government in the north, the US-backed government in the South. The UN recognized the South, not the North, and the North, flush with Russian arms, invaded. At first the South were losing, then UN forces (comprising mostly US troops) were sent in, along with Hawkeye, Hunnicut, Hot Lips and a laugh track with mobile army surgical hospitals (ie. MASH). The UN forces pushed the communists all the way home and beyond, until China decided to support its communist neighbours with 1.2 million troops. By the time an armistice was declared along military lines in 1953, some 4 million people were dead, including 900,000 Chinese troops, two million civilians split equally between the North and South, and some 37,000 US troops. One third of the country's homes were destroyed, along with about half of Korea's industry. As a pawn on the Cold War chessboard, the peninsular of Korea developed quickly with the aid of its respective kings, the US in the South, the Russians in the North. Kim Il-Sung, the father of North Korea's current Elvis-loving-2000-pairs-of-shoes-owning lunatic, rolled the progress-o-meter back in his country. Today North Korea is a world apart separated by the 2km Demilitarized Zone (where video cameras are not permitted). In flourishing South Korea, people are not protesting for food. They're protesting because they can.
Continue reading Robin's South Korea report at his website moderngonzo.com
< back to the episode
< back to the list of articles