Monday, 1 October 2012

A magnificent golden crown with ‘antlers’ is perhaps the most extraordinary exhibit in the museum dating from this time, and there is coverage of the Silla capital, Gyeongju, which i realised i ought to try to visit if possible. After Silla, in the 10th century there came the Goryeo period, from which we derive the English word Korea, marked by a continued flourishing of Buddhism, and scientific advances like the invention of the metal moveable type printing press in the 1300s, but also a need, as in Poland, Ukraine, Russia and elsewhere, to make an accommodation with the Mongols. At the end of the 14th century, amid discord between Buddhist and Confucian scholars, Goryeo was superseded by the Joseon dynasty, which survived until 1897 (though North Korea styles itself ‘Joseon’ to this day). The museum presented a fascinating picture of many of these things; but to my chagrin there was nothing whatever relating to the 20th century, and nor in fact anything much after 1700. Such ‘recent’ history is deemed too hot a political potato, especially perhaps because there are sometimes exchanges of artefacts with museums in North Korea; all bones of contention are avoided. One might speculate that this situation could persist until the Holy Grail, as it were, of Korean archaeology is discovered; a legendary flute called Manpasikjeok, from the age of Silla, said to be endowed with a power to heal all the worries and cares of the country and its people. My suggestion though, which i put in a designated comment box (in English of course), was that the museum should stage a special exhibition looking at the experience of 20th century Germany.[1]

Saenamteo Catholic Church, Seoul
   Making my way from the museum into a residential area, terrifically loud fireworks went off all around, as if to simulate the opening salvos of a renewed outbreak of the Korean War (which God forbid). I went to investigate a church whose large neon cross was visible from several blocks away, supposing it might be Catholic, but discovered it was of a Protestant denomination. Then i decided to visit a noodle bar and had a very tasty bowl of said dish, served by a Korean American guy, who gave me a free bottle of beer to take away. I left him one of several little Orthodox pictures of St George and the dragon, which i’d picked up from the church in Irkutsk. Then with help from another US fellow of whom i asked directions i came to a remarkable Catholic church, Saenamteo, built in traditional Korean style, on the spot where St Andrew Kim Tae-gon, Korea’s first native born priest, and numerous other Martyrs perished at the hands of the Joseon regime in the 19th century. Thankfully i found a place round the side of this church to put down my sleeping bag, in just enough shelter to keep off the torrential rain, with occasional thunder and lightning, that fell without ceasing through the night.
   To my surprise on Sunday 2nd July though, at 5.20am a light came on in the room outside which i was lying; i would be visible if anyone looked out of the window. I decided to pack up and leave, but noticed as i came out of the main gate that 6am Mass was just starting, so i took a pew just before the readings. Telling the priest afterwards in a few words of English that i was on my way to Namyang, he gave me a blessing, and a member of the congregation presented me with an umbrella. Then under a big road bridge next to a railway line, within sight of the church, i caught up with some missing sleep and took a couple of photos. I was then after a bite to eat, but learnt that the coins i had on me, equivalent to $5, were insufficient to buy even quite a modest cake i saw in a nearby boulangerie. Noticing my dismay however, the baker not only let me have it for a reduced price, but added another one, and took me to a machine outside to buy me a can of iced coffee.

[1] The potential relevance of Ostpolitik, adopted by West Germany in 1969 and developed over the next 20 years, heralding an era of rapprochement in place of confrontation towards East Germany, is of course not lost on South Koreans, who trumpeted a broadly similar Nordpolitik in the 1980s. Its updated version however, the Sunshine Policy, adopted in 1998, failed utterly. Taking its name from one of Aesop’s fables, The North Wind and the Sun, in which broadly speaking the ‘Sun’ corresponds to a ‘carrot’, and the ‘North Wind’ to a ‘stick’, it emphasised incentives, rather than threats, to bring about better relations with the North. But this seems to have been taken as a licence to try to buy a quick fix. If the ‘cash-for-summits’ allegations are to be believed, the meetings between North and South Korean leaders in Pyongyang in 2000 involved secret payments to the North worth hundreds of millions of dollars; money which may have been channelled into a programme to develop a nuclear missile. Not quite the reprise of the historic meeting of German leaders in Erfurt in 1970 that the South Koreans may have had in mind. But there again, in the 1970s and 80s, Germans could at least expect that the makers of James Bond films would not be so crass or stupid as to risk aggravating tensions between East and West for the sake of bigger box office. On its release in 2002, Stir Another Hornets' Nest appears to have had precisely this effect on relations between North and South Korea.

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