Saturday 30 April 2016

South Korea is a triumph of the human spirit


I was in South Korea for less than three days, as a holiday within my holiday in China. Since I was a little boy I have wanted to see Portuguese churches under a Chinese sun in Macao but am told it is like Las Vegas now. Instead of Macao it therefore seemed a good idea to get out of China and the flight to Seoul took only ninety minutes, though the queue at passport control took slightly longer. 

South Korea is not my kind of place but I liked it. It is a great triumph of the human spirit.

Utterly ruined and impoverished in 1953 it is now one of the richest countries in the world, not because of mineral resources but because of human resources.

The Gyeongbokgung palace
Seoul is a wonderful argument for capitalism, especially useful against people who worry that the state has too little power and multinational companies too much. South Korea has very little welfare safety net and not too many poets or painters, but there are more and
more of them. Three of the country's greatest achievements are multinationals: Samsung, Hyundai and LG. Daewoo was another before it collapsed.

I visited the DMZ (dee-em-zee), the demilitarised zone on the frontier with the Communist north. 'D
emilitarised zone' is a misnomer and it is the most heavily militarised zone in the world. Dear reader, if you make the trip specify that you want the tour which lets you enter the room where sentries from each Korea eyeball each other. I only got a tunnel dug by the North Koreans (one of four the South has detected but there may be ten or twenty undetected), a glimpse of the North (empty) where the river forms the boundary and a look at the Northern side of the DMZ through telescopes.

My guide told me that until the 1970s North Korea was richer than the South. A Big Four tax partner with whom I drank later confirmed that this was the case until 1971.

In 1968 students demonstrated in Seoul for North Korean-style Communism, at the same time as students demonstrated for Communism in West Berlin. Remember this when you read how young people like Bernie Sanders. Young people are very uninformed and very foolish. Their views are not very interesting and very rarely right.

The tragedy, of course, is that, thanks partly to the student left, the Americans did not continue to prop up South Vietnam, which might now be another Asian tiger and certainly a free country. (By free I do not necessarily mean democratic, but one which allows property rights and individual freedoms.) Ho Chi Minh's regime was just as evil as Kim Il-sung's and there were infinitely better reasons for the Americans to fight in Vietnam than in 2003 and onwards in Iraq.

Seoul has a wonderful vibe. Its sights are rather few, pretty, but rarely turn out to be old.
The Gyeongbokgung palace dates, it is said, from the fourteenth century but in fact was rebuilt in the 1990s - nevertheless it is interesting and more beautiful than the Forbidden City. The Forbidden City, like most Chinese architecture, reminds you of a Chinese restaurant. 

The centre of Seoul is new and impressive, even beautiful, a sort of New York. And Itaewon, where I stayed, is an amazing party town which never sleeps, as it has been since it was a red light district serving GIs. Koreans have a vast capacity for drinking.

I did not see prostitutes but I did see churches everywhere. 31% of Koreans are Christians and they are real ones not nominal ones. it's a real Christian country unlike England where 3% of the population go to church (and many of them are immigrants). And Koreans have converted themselves. This may be the future of China too and surely, I imagine, of North Korea.

About one third are Catholics and the rest mostly evangelical Protestants, who often have an Old Testament belief that riches as a sign of God's blessing.

While I was in Peking I picked up and read Civilisation: The West and the Rest by the historian Niall Ferguson, whose career I greatly envy. He quotes an anonymous Chinese academician who said
We were asked to look into what accounted for the pre-eminence of the West all over the world. At first, we thought it was because you had more powerful guns than we had. Then we thought it was because you had the best political system. Next we focused on your economic system. But in the past twenty years, we have realised that the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity. That is why the West has been so powerful. The Christian moral foundation of the social and cultural life was what made possible the emergence of capitalism and then the successful transition to democratic politics. We don’t have any doubt about this.

I don't either. Religion is at the bottom of everything, in countries where people are religious (think Romania, the Philippines) or where they are not (Norway is very Lutheran however few people believe in God). 

Korean Christianity is an important contributory reason for South Korea's worldly triumph but a reason why the Philippines does not do so well in worldly terms. Things are very complicated. As well as Christianity, the Buddhist refusal to accept ones lot and the Confucianism work ethic have contributed to the Korean economic miracle.

I have other things to do than blog all day but I commend this very fine piece of writing about Seoul by Jennifer Cox if you want to read more.

1 comment:

  1. Cannot disagree (on the locus of religion), however, I do not know what makes it work that way, when, idiosyncratically, it does...