Saturday, 27 July 2013

Korea - a Tale of Two Nations

Taking on Korea is quite a challenge - with a combined population of around 74 million and a land area slightly smaller than that of the UK, both the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) and the Republic of Korea (South Korea) offer a rich tapestry of culture, music, movies and literature, which will be hard to capture in a small number of blog posts.  I see this as my starting point with the Koreas and I may come back to either country in more detail at a later date.

I also feel that it's important to look at both Koreas, in this first virtual journey around Korean culture.  Perhaps South Korea is much more familiar to us, because of links with the US and the West?  North Korea seems distant and remote - an experience which lies outside the realms of Western imagination - but a place that is fascinating, nonetheless.

Koreans in Uzbekistan and Ireland

My experience of Korea comes mostly through the many Uzbeks and Tajik families, who saw their fathers and older brothers heading off to Seoul and Pusan, to earn money which they would send back home to Uzbekistan.  Their experience of Korea sounded pretty harsh to me - uncomfortable living conditions and relentless work in a society where they are, on the whole, regarded with suspicion.

In an ironic reversal of history, I also met my first Koreans in Uzbekistan, Russian-speaking descendants of Korean peasants who were moved away from the Russian border with Korea, so it could be populated by white Europeans.  I also briefly taught two Korean students during a summer I spent in Dublin - they were incredibly polite, deferential and diligent.

Korea in the shadows

I find Korea interesting as a place that has lived in the shadow of its two, more powerful, neighbours - Japan and China.  As I've started researching Korean history, I can see that it is dominated by Korea's relationship with these two neighbours and, more recently, with other big countries, such as Russia and the United States.  Through it all, the Koreans have remained independent, proud of their language, culture and heritage although, sadly, still divided by the political manoeuvring which took place at the end of World War 2.

A tale of two nations?

Korean reunification flag
I also want to blog about both Koreas, as it feels natural to think of Korea as a whole or single nation.  Of course, the reality of 60 years of separation means that the two Koreas which were created in 1948 have followed different paths and really started developing their own distinct histories and cultures.

It's hard to undo the sense of 'difference' which is created when a country splits in two and I wonder if, one day, Korea will reunite, like Vietnam, Yemen and Germany - or whether the years of separation will reinforce the countries' distinct identities, as it has done in my own country, Ireland?

However you feel about Korea, I hope you'll join me over the next few weeks, as I read books about Korea, listen to Korean music, cook Korean food and watch Korean movies!

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