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Monday, 1 October 2012

XI South Korea: Ban Ki Moonraker


   On Friday 1st July, the solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, we landed safely at Incheon airport, Republic of Korea. After routine passport and customs formalities, in the arrivals lounge there was a slightly tacky, giant photographic portrait of Pierce Brosnan, in his tux, advertising a casino. The man whose last, product-placement saturated outing as James Bond, Buy Another Item, managed to cause offence to the people of both North and South Korea.[1] “The wrong film at the wrong time”, as an official of the South Korean Ministry of Culture and Tourism put it. 
Myeongdong Catholic Cathedral, Seoul
   A bit jet-lagged, after getting some cash from a machine i spent more of it than expected on a cup of coffee, intending that it might help me walk into Seoul. Outside however, an airport employee gestured that the highway was off-limits to pedestrians, so i made enquiries at an information desk about buses, and happily took one to Seoul’s Myeongdong Catholic Cathedral, dedicated to the Immaculate Conception[2]. On the journey i was quietly impressed by a television advert on a screen at the front, in which the applicable commodity ‘zipped’ into view, before slowing down, amusingly, and slotting into centre stage – ‘product placement’ at its un-subliminal best. It was 4.30 when we arrived at the cathedral, where i learnt that Mass would be at 6pm, so i called into an information place where a very helpful English-speaking lady told me about the national shrine of Our Lady in Korea, Namyang, and booked me into a nearby backpackers’ hostel. I practised a couple of basic words of Korean (ie ‘please’ and ‘thank you’), and from this time slowly learnt about the custom of ‘bowing’ that is so important in both Korea and Japan. These acknowledgments/greetings should be tailored carefully in their degree of inclination and duration, depending on the seniority of the person to whom they are addressed, and/or the depth of feeling in a ‘thank you’ or apology that one wishes to convey. After Mass (where bows take the place of handshakes for the sign of peace) i had a picnic supper, and chipped in with a mention of the name ‘Ban Ki-moon’ to a trio of young guys sitting on the next bench, which prompted smiles. Then i found my way to the hostel, with a mind to doing some laundry and spending some time on the internet, but crashed into a deep sleep on my bed and didn’t wake until past midnight. I went back to sleep until morning, then onto the internet and then back to the cathedral for a very well-attended Mass, in honour of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, whose feast it was that day. I was reminded that Koreans are outstanding singers; something i knew from having attended a Korean language Mass at Lourdes some years before. In contrast to the often bleak picture at home (at least in Catholic churches, though obviously things are better in Wales), Koreans really enjoy singing, and i scarcely heard a duff note in the fortnight i was there. I then checked out of the hostel and set off in the direction of Namyang.

Seoul
   Seoul gave the impression of pretty phenomenal material prosperity. North Korea, aka the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, with its communist ideology, i supposed, must serve to ‘concentrate the mind’ of South Korea’s capitalism, in a similar way perhaps to the type established in Hong Kong, propelled by proximity to China. I visited a tourist information place to get a proper map, and was warned about the prospect of heavy rain overnight and next day. For the time being it was dry but very humid, a factor which limited the amount of ground i could cover, though a free cup of iced coffee from a cafe where i stopped was a help in coping with this. Also though, my map didn’t feature two major US military camps/ installations, which had to be circum-ambulated on the way south, and i got a bit lost, asking directions of an English-speaking German fellow, to whom i mentioned the stark parallel which had only just occurred to me, between the division of his country and that of Korea.[3]
   With the various checks on my progress, when i finally reached the Korean National Museum at about 7pm it was a relief to discover that it was open until 9.00, though ideally one should set aside even more time. An outstanding treasure trove with a huge amount of English translation, amazingly you don’t have to pay. And it is no exaggeration to account Korean civilisation as one of the most dazzling in human history. Legend/myth dates its origins to around 2000BC, but Chinese chronicles indicate that a safer claim would be for the 12th century BC. Moving into the first centuries AD, geographically the smallest of three kingdoms on the peninsula was the Silla in the south east, but it absorbed a neighbouring confederacy of small kingdoms called Gaya in the 6th century, possessed of valuable deposits of iron. Military and diplomatic supremacy followed, brought about chiefly by an alliance with China’s Tang dynasty; unification was then completed with the expulsion of Tang forces in 674-6AD. ‘Unified Silla’, in which Buddhism was adopted and prospered as the national religion, is a high watermark, arguably not only of Korean but of human civilisation. As Persian geographer and intelligence chief Ibn Khordadbeh put it, in his Book of Roads and Kingdoms, around 870AD:

“Beyond China, across Qansu, there is a country with many mountains and an abundance of gold, called Silla. Muslims who happen to go there are fascinated by the good environment and tend to settle there for good and do not think of leaving the place.”



[1] Additionally, to many people in South Korea the numerals 007 have a more sombre connotation than that conjured up by the Bond franchise. In one of the most tragic occurrences of the Cold War, Korean Air Lines Flight 007 was shot down by a soviet interceptor on 1st September 1983, after straying into soviet airspace at around the time of a US reconnaissance mission. All 269 passengers and crew were lost, well over a third of whom were South Koreans, and nearly a quarter from the US.[2]  The Blessed Virgin Mary under her title of the Immaculate Conception has been the principal patroness of Korea and the Korean people since the mid 19th century. That this title is associated with the shrine of Lourdes, France, is not coincidental, since many of the missionaries who guided the Church in Korea in the 19th century (at enormous personal risk) were French.
'Swastika'; Bulguksa temple complex, Gyeongju.
[3] It might be added that this parallel has about it a faintly disconcerting tenor, owing to the prevalence of the swastika in Korea, though of course in Asia it is ‘hooked’ in the opposite direction and is an ancient Buddhist symbol.

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