This past week I was involved with the 6th annual Alumni Youth Leadership Program, where the Embassy Public Affairs office brings 30 Korean high school students from outside of Seoul, along with five Fulbright English Teaching Assistants and five Korean counterparts, to the capital in order to broaden their horizons, develop future leaders, and provide them with a favorable impression of the U.S. I gave them an inspirational speech the first night at the impressive youth hostel where they stayed, and the next day brought them to the U.S. Embassy, where the Deputy Chief of Mission (the person just below the Ambassador) talked to them about diplomacy, and an economist spoke about U.S.-Korean economic relations. They visited the Bank of Korea, a GM manufacturing plant, the KBS TV station, the National Assembly, and the Korean War Memorial. They learned about human rights, and performed public service.
Yesterday we took them up to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Unfortunately, it rained all day and the visibility was terrible, so when it came time to look across to North Korea from an observation post, all they could see was white fog. It reminded me of the day I went to the Great Wall of China during bad weather, and all I saw was white fog…But they did see a panorama of the area, watched informative videos, and walked through the third tunnel out of four (so far known) that N. Korea secretly dug under the DMZ. And they got to enter the Joint Security Area on a guided tour hosted by the U.S. military, stand in a blue building that was half in North Korea and half in South Korea, and see a North Korean guard from afar. It was surreal.
These students are whip-smart, speak English well, and ask great questions. Some adults who interacted with them thought they were in college. They’re on a school break right now and will start their next year this coming week. They loved their vision-broadening experiences and were grateful to the U.S. for this exceptional opportunity, but in a sense they made a sacrifice by participating. They didn’t sacrifice a week at the beach or a week skiing, but rather a week that fellow students used to prepare for college entrance exams. Koreans take education VERY seriously.
The value they place on education is a big reason why they’re kicking other countries’ butts when it comes to business competition. It’s absolutely incredible the lightning speed with which South Korea changed from a dirt-poor country in the 1950s, to a full-fledged democracy complete with student protests by 1987, to the world’s eleventh largest economy. Contributing factors: a homogenous population; the chaebol system of government-supported, family-controlled business conglomerates (Hyundai, Samsung, LG, SK); the desire to show up Japan, its former colonizer; and the desire to show up North Korea.
In celebration of the lunar new year, the nearby National Museum of Korea invited U.S. Embassy families over for a free cultural program. Families got to try on the Korean national dress, hanbok, and have their pictures taken (or at least attempt to; one friend has a nonstop preschooler who reminds me a lot of Andrea at that age). They served us traditional rice cakes, gave us a tour, and showed us videos.
We learned about a national treasure called the Tripitaka Koreana, a collection of 80,000 2-foot-long woodblocks engraved with over 52 million characters that contain the teachings of Buddha, completed in 1251 A.D. The wood boards used to make them were kept in sea water for three years to remove all resin, then boiled in salt water to prevent insects and mold, and then dried for three years in a well-ventilated location. They were engraved with NO mistakes by monks, preserved with lacquer, fitted with copper corners to prevent warping, and eventually deposited in a temple that was perfectly designed to ensure proper ventilation, humidity, and temperature. Amazing!
We also learned about the Korean shipbuilding industry, which now dominates the world with a 51 percent market share. There was NO shipbuilding industry in Korea in 1970, when Hyundai Group founder Chung Ju-yung, with the government’s backing, decided to create one. He needed to borrow money, and to get money, he needed a contract to build a ship…although he had no shipyard. So he traveled the world with a 500-won banknote which displayed a Korean turtle ship built during the 1590s (and now on display at the Korean War Memorial), to symbolize Korea’s historic supremacy in shipbuilding, plus a photo of the beach where he wished to build the shipyard. A Greek owner finally placed an order, but the ship had to be built in three years. Chung and myriad employees worked long hours, seven days a week, to complete the modern yard and ship, ahead of schedule. Amazing! You can watch English-language videos about the Tripitaka, Korean shipbuilding, and many more at www.kscpp.net/Multimedia/tabid/136/Default.aspx.
At the health club where we work out, each shower has a wall dispenser filled with shampoo, etc. The dispensers are labeled with stick-on letters. One smart aleck has taken to peeling off and repositioning the letters, so “shampoo” has become “a poo”; “body wash” is now “boy wash”; “conditioner” is “on her”; and “shave cream” is “have me”…