Our second full day in Korea (and I do mean a full day!) has been illuminating in all sorts of ways, but the biggest buzz was entering North Korea (albeit briefly) without even having to produce a passport!
The opening session was a meeting over coffee with a professor of political studies from Chung-ang University, who gave us some fascinating insights into Korea’s post-war economic and political development. (The coffee here, by the way, has been uniformly excellent, even by this coffee-holic’s demanding standards – a pleasant surprise after experiences of some dire brews in other Asian countries!).
Professor Juang spoke of the parallel development of Korea’s economy and its democratic / civil society institutions and practices, and the extent to which each of these ‘streams’ has both facilitated and put constraints on the other. He also reflected on the fact that when seeking to find appropriate responses to present day challenges, Korea has the advantage of an ‘institutional memory’ going back many centuries – he illustrated the point with a story of some decisions about political alliances and strategies dating back to the 14th century that are little different in principle to some of the realities of 21st century international relations.
After responding to a whole raft of questions, he also rather unexpectedly turned the tables and asked for our views on what might constrain Korea’s further development – our cross-party consensus was that a mix of ecological and social consequences of a heavily growth oriented strategy might demand a modified or even quite radically altered approach into the future.
That meeting sequed very nicely into our next port of call, a visit to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and more specifically to the office of the Climate Change Ambassador, which revealed that the government here is acutely aware of the need to respond to climate change, for both economic and reputational reasons.
President Lee announced last year that Korea would aim to cut emissions to 4% below 2005 levels by 2020. Not being an Annex 1 country under Kyoto, Korea has no obligation to set a target, but has chosen to do so anyway, with the initial focus being on transport, increasing the use of renewables, and building more energy efficient homes. The Ambassador made it clear that neither he nor his government is under any illusions about the difficulty of meeting their own target without sacrificing their commitment to continued economic growth, but displayed a wholly pragmatic approach, on the basis that taking on a demanding task and doing something imperfectly is better than doing nothing!
The President has also announced that ‘Low Carbon, Green Growth’ is the Republic’s national vision for the next 60 years. His ‘Green New Deal’ (where have I heard that phrase before?) aims to produce close to a million ‘green’ jobs, and an investment programme over four years amounting to some NZ$55 billion over four years suggests they are serious!
An hour or so driving North of Seoul delivered us to what has been variously described as the last outpost of the cold war; the longest standing military stand off (not a peace treaty) of the modern age; and the site of some strange and sometimes theatrical behaviour, albeit with very serious undertones. Welcome to the DMZ, the demilitarized zone that marks the border between North and South.
The demarcation line, determined by the location of the opposing forces’ front lines when the deal was signed in 1953, is marked by rows of posts, and occasionally painted or concreted strips. The DMZ extends two kilometres either side of that line, along the 240k length of the border. The various observation points on both sides stare endlessly at one another, and things get up close and personal at Conference Row, the epicentre of the negotiated settlement and of the more or less regular face to face contacts that continue to this day.
A row of three buildings, poetically named T1, T2 and T3, provide a venue for meetings between the top level negotiators of the two sides, and their operational counterparts, and have done so for most of the last six decades. Inside T2 there is a long but quite plain wooden table, carefully placed so that it exactly straddles the demarcation line, so that sitting on one side of the table (which as guests we were told we must not do!) you are in North Korea, and on the other side you are in the South.
We of course took up the invitation to step into the North, reassured by the presence of our Kiwi hosts and some very fit and determined looking Korean guards. So a small tick in the ‘have visited’ box for the ‘other’ Korea.
One of the protocols that have kept this agreement intact is a form of ‘no surprises’; so each side can and does literally telephone the other to announce or explain intended movements or actions on any given day. During times when the relationship get fractious, the North may choose to express its displeasure (e.g. when the UN forces conduct military exercises) by refusing to answer the phone. In order to maintain the letter of the agreement, the South will then resort to the low tech expedient of bellowing out their intentions through a loud hailer to ensure the North has no grounds for claiming they have not been kept in the loop.
This engaging example of prescribed silliness might lead one to think there must be a better way, but despite occasional incidents, some of them having had fatal consequences, the deal struck in 1953 has kept a full on shooting war at bay for almost sixty years. Long may it continue, as the estimated casualties that could be inflicted very quickly by both sides if hostilities were to resume is a number too horrible to contemplate.
We were ably hosted and guided at the DMZ by members of the Kiwi contingent, the third largest contingent in the zone (after Korea and the US). They all displayed that endearing quality that seems to characterise our peace keeping forces generally, of taking their jobs and their responsibilities entirely seriously, and doing them well, but never taking themselves too seriously.
Returning to Seoul but seeing the country and its potential through somewhat different eyes, we had time for a quick scrub up before being hosted the Kiwi embassy, where the Ambassador had brought together an eclectic group of politicians, business and community leaders, all of whom were involved or informed about some arena that we as members of the delegation had expressed an interest in.
I spoke with officials from (roughly) the Korean equivalent of MAF, who are working on the small but rapidly growing organics; government and opposition party Representatives, both ‘list’ and electorate (Korea has a form of supplementary representation, so the majority of ‘MPs’ are elected in constituencies with a much smaller number coming from party lists).
The business people seem genuinely interested in New Zealand, and looking for opportunities to do more trade, and guess why? Because we are seen as ‘clean and green’, of course, and with a reputation for providing (in particular) safe and high quality food and fibre, for which the more affluent in Korea are willing and able to pay a premium. The embassy staff also provided a useful reality check, outlining some of the social, political, economic and bureaucratic barriers to increasing trade, but the opportunities are real, and every step we can persuade our government and business sector to take towards making our green brand a green reality will do much to enhance the chances of us capturing those opportunities.