Many people say that there are seven benefits to travel, often citing travel as the best way to broaden the mind, but when travelling to the Republic of Korea (commonly known as South Korea), these benefits are magnified. The reason being that South Korea is one of the richest cultures in East Asia and its people are some of the most exemplary when it comes to dedication and productivity. As a society, they have a collective ambition to develop and enhance technology.
The first thing a visitor notices immediately after arrival is how Koreans love and respect order. No matter where you look, Korea’s massive cities display some of the best qualities in a modern space, incredibly well-organized and well-disciplined. These are a few observations I made during my recent visit to the country.
A LONG HISTORY
Korea’s age as a country cannot be counted on our fingers. It was a witness to the Second World War, the victory of the allied forces in 1945, the fall and end of the rule of the Japanese Empire on the island, the outbreak of a bloody civil war and even the division of the two Koreas (North and South.) South Korea survived all of this turmoil and then faced many challenging years, in which it managed to successfully build a modern society filled with peaceful development destined for glory. Perhaps it is important to mention that the Republic of Korea, until the fifties, lived on foreign aid and international support. In just a matter of a few decades, it successfully transformed itself into a highly developed nation and is now extending help to various countries all over the world.
With the invitation of the Korea Foundation and as a part of its programmes to publicize their country and its successes, I joined dignitaries and parliamentarians from several countries to visit South Korea to gain an insight into their institutions and achievements.
The trip began in the capital Seoul, a city of approximately 10 million people divided into large groups of 25 districts. Seoul is a progressive country that balances green mountains with modern facilities and an outstanding, well-organized public transport system for buses and trains.
Resident in the Lotte Hotel, located in the city centre amidst skyscrapers and business centres and surrounded by luxurious and high class shops, my room on the 34th floor allowed me to enjoy panoramic views of the city from above with the mountains as a backdrop and gave me the impression that I was watching a painting by a creative artist. Perhaps it was fate itself that allowed it, but my visit coincided with cherry blossom season, a colourful sign of the beginning of spring and the moment the weather bids farewell to the coldness of winter.
THE KOREA FOUNDATION
Koreans are very efficient when it comes to time management. Our work started quickly wherein we had an introductory meeting with Dr Gwan Lee, the head of the Korea Foundation. Prior to his promotion as the head of the Korea Foundation, established in 1991, he worked as a university professor at the prestigious Seoul National University.
The meeting provided a brief overview of what the foundation does which includes providing diplomatic activities that work to bring people together, organizing programmes for foreign delegates’ visits and supports and publishes Korean arts and culture. What they do is tap into ‘soft powers’ to add a positive presence on the global scene.
Dr Gwan Lee elaborated on the importance of building bridges of cooperation and partnership between the Republic of Korea and the Arab world and pointed out the various elements that Korea and the Arab world have, which help to strengthen cooperation and move it forward towards broader horizons.
The following day’s schedule was filled with interviews and discussions. We visited the Korean Parliament, which has about 300 members, representing different regions and states in Korea and is responsible for legislation and control of the government and various state institutions. What I observed is that Koreans are very proud of their language. There are only a few English speakers, and this is perhaps one of the secrets of South Korea’s distinction, maintaining its original identity, being the fastest way towards uniqueness.
The Korea Foundation assigned a translator to us, (I named her Hyam) and she helped us a lot in conducting extensive and enriching discussions with the Korean people. I met with the National Association member, Mrs. Jung Choun-Sook, who is responsible for several important subjects; including the issue of equality between men and women, and most importantly, she is the chairperson of the Omani-Korean Relations Development Committee. This great interest in strengthening parliamentary diplomacy and establishing a specialised committee to strengthen bridges of cooperation with other countries really caught my attention.
Mrs. Jung spoke extensively about the Korean parliamentary system and elections and also highlighted several challenges facing Korean society and the importance of finding legislative solutions to them. The parliamentarian did not neglect to talk about the importance of developing Omani-Korean relations, expressing her desire to visit the Sultanate of Oman at the earliest opportunity, and she praised a lot of what she knew about Oman and its good reputation as a friendly and peace-loving country.
I suggested to Mrs. Jung the importance of increasing scholarships for Omani students to study at the advanced Korean universities in the fields of technology and other sciences. This could involve establishing training programmes for students from Omani universities to train, qualify and improve their skills in major Korean companies such as Samsung and Hyundai, perhaps during the summer period to gain experience, acquire a dedicated work ethic, and other skills in communication, task performance and job commitment.
On the third day, a meeting was arranged with the speaker of the National Association, Mr. Jang Seong. I was amazed at the beauty of the exterior and interior architectural design of the National Association building, with its multiple sections and a large hall that hosts parliamentary sessions. The President of the National Association explained the importance of Parliament’s work in providing great services in the field of research, studies on public opinion polls, and supporting members of Parliament with all the extensive studies they need to help them take the necessary decisions. He mentioned to me that about 15 researchers who are PhD holders work in the National Association, along with a large number of competent assistants.
This was followed by a meeting with His Excellency Chung Jong-Kun, Korean Foreign Ministry Under-Secretary, who spoke about the various political challenges facing the world, including wars, tensions and conflicts that represent a threat to international peace and security. He clearly and frankly referred to the wisdom of Oman’s politics and its clear approach to establishing peace around the world. He also spoke about the remarkable development in Omani-Korean relations, especially as they approach the completion of almost 50 years of bilateral relations between the Sultanate of Oman and the Republic of Korea which was established in 1974.
Discussions about politics and diplomacy did not prevent us from clearly pointing out the promising investment, economic and cultural opportunities that both Oman and Korea have, which would raise the relations between the two countries to higher levels in a number of ways. The Republic of Korea excels in employing its ‘soft power,’ taking advantage of its physical and technological capabilities. I was introduced to the International Cooperation Organization ‘Koika,’ which is part of the Korean Foreign Ministry, and it represents the development arm which works to establish projects in many countries of the world to fight poverty, disease and ignorance, building strategic partnerships with many countries in various fields of development and organizing humanitarian aid.
The interest of East Asian countries to strengthen ties of cooperation with the countries of the world, on purely humanitarian grounds, always astonished me. Although they are aware of the extent of their ‘soft power’ and its impact, they are very keen to enforce these ‘soft powers’ to achieve development goals that promote the human being, without interfering in the internal affairs of another country or talking about political aspects related to local conditions of these countries and this is what should be paid attention to and maintained to achieve a future that is based on solid cooperation with various countries.
The trip schedule, as I mentioned earlier, was full of meetings and visits to several sites and institutions, and our trip included a visit to the smart city ‘Anyang’, which is located outside of the capital Seoul. It is called a smart city because, within the last 15 years, it has been able to manifest the ideals and theories of what makes a smart city, where everything is interconnected and well-coordinated including the police.
From this visit, we learned that smart city is equipped with about 6,500 surveillance cameras throughout the city that worked overtime monitoring traffic and controlling violators or monitoring and limiting suspicious actions, all of which are aimed to keep the city safe, secure, and stable. This system has helped to reduce crime and traffic accidents through a highly accurate monitoring system.
There is no doubt that a visit to Korea will not be complete without visiting its industrial fortresses, and on top of these forts comes the giant Hyundai factory, which despite intense competition from European and American technology, has been able to excel globally in the field of the automobile industry. From the date of its establishment, in just 10 years, it became an advanced auto-industry giant setting foot on the global auto market stage which has ensured that Hyundai cars are found in almost every street in the world.
What astonished me is that this large company developed its manufacturing systems not solely dependent on manual labour but rather a reliance on robotics. A quick browse through their assembly process reveals how the machines are in-charge of installing parts of the cars with minimal supervision from factory workers who are then supervised by a select group of engineers.
Hyundai has evolved to an exceptional level, so much so that we were shown its first car powered by environmentally friendly green hydrogen energy. The car is planned to be revealed this year, and it is expected to conquer the world in the next few years.
KOREAN DRAMA AND MUSIC
The impact of Korean culture on drama and music can be found everywhere. Some of their best television series are not only viewed all over the world they matured to include different subtitles including Arabic. Even in Arabian Gulf countries, Korean series are easily found on different satellite channels. Ironically, Turkish series are adapted from many Korean dramas, and for this reason, we find Korean shows finding TV lovers everywhere. Perhaps the most well-known example of Korean ‘soft power’ dominating the consciousness of the world was the introduction of the song ‘Gangnam Style.’ It has achieved international fame, and to date, boasts more than 4 billion views on YouTube so far. Gangnam is one of the modern districts in Seoul which is known for its restaurants and cafes. Korean cuisine is characterized by healthy food and is highly reliant on vegetables. ‘Kimchi’ or Korean pickles are an essential dish on every table in Korean homes.
One of the most beautiful things I noticed about the Korean people is that they sanctify work; indeed, one of the most important reasons for their advancement is their total commitment to work; where work is the most important priority in the life of a Korean person. They apply the rule of ‘work is worship’. Koreans work long hours without tiring; because they turned work into a means of both self-realization and dream of life realization. Koreans love discipline, respect and appreciation. When they meet, they bow down to greet or thank someone, saying ‘Kamsa Hamnida,’ which means ‘Thank You.’
Korea represents an advanced model of modern civilization, which is based on technological innovation and provides an elegant way of life.
OMANI DIPLOMACY IN KOREA
When I reflect on the Omani diplomatic presence in Korea, I see our embassy in Seoul as an inspiration for activity and continuous work. The Oman Embassy in Korea is located in one of the finest Korean districts in a high-rise building. The Embassy embraced the original and unique forms of Omani architecture and any visitor will immediately see that the design is based on the foundations of the ancient Omani heritage, derived in essence from Islamic architecture with a mixture of different cultures until it crystallized in an Omani crucible flourish with originality and uniqueness.
It was there that I met His Excellency Zakaria bin Hamad al Saadi, the Ambassador of the Sultanate of Oman to the Republic of Korea, and I found him to be a wonderful example of the Omani Ambassador abroad.
The Ambassador represents the spirit of youth, full of enthusiasm towards work, with all energy and activity. From the first moment of the meeting until its end, a smile never left his face and he maintains the wonderful Omani nature, with his calmness and strong charisma, at the same time totally modest. His Excellency the Ambassador possesses extensive knowledge which totally captivates his listeners, in addition to his diligent follow-up of events and developments in various fields; he is working to utilize all of this in evolving Omani-Korean relations. Here I point to the serious discussions between the Republic of Korea and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries to conclude a free trade agreement, which is a step that would support the improvement of Gulf-Korean relations.
I had a walking tour with His Excellency, on which we enjoyed a night’s walk in the safe streets of Seoul; where we walked through the town in the charming springtime.
One of the most beautiful things that I learned during my visit to Korea is that the most famous, the finest and most delicious grape is called ‘The Bright Muscat Grape’, a fruit which represents for the Koreans a strategic crop. It is used in many ways and is sold at a high price; the price of a kilogram may reach the equivalent of 10 Omani Rials. This type of grape is characterized by its wonderful sugary taste with little acidity and its large round shape without seeds.
The history of ‘Muscat grapes’ goes back to the period of the Portuguese presence; The Portuguese took the seeds of Omani grapes from Jebel Akhdar to grow in Europe, and it was a great success due to the nature of the weather there. Then 30 years ago, the Japanese conducted successful experiments to develop this grape through genetic engineering, and when it arrived in Korea, it achieved great success. The truth is that when I saw this Omani grape flourishing in the Far East and East Asia, I wished that it would return to our beloved country and we would grow it in high mountains of Jabal Akhdar.
In conclusion, I don’t recall being happier when visiting another country than when I visited the Republic of Korea. It is a country that captivates you from the first glimpse, catches your eyes, steals your mind, and ignites your heart with joy, happiness and enthusiasm.
The Koreans have impressed me with their culture of love for work, fondness for excellence and distinction, and at the same time not neglecting to enjoy the pleasures of life. That is why I say a heartfelt “Kamsa Hamnida”.