A trip to the Asian Tiger country of South Korea unfurls a thrilling and enduring experience for Nduka Nwosu
It all began when the jumbo size Emirates bird glided into the clouds, away from the glittering world of Lagos from the heights. The journey to the South Korean capital, Seoul, was on course. The pampering was all the more evident in the Business Class apartment where the Korean Cultural Centre felt was more appropriate for THISDAY nation's capital editor.
The slim airhostesses flashed smiles at their guest. Pillows and bedcovers to fight the cold of the long night of an eight hour flight to Dubai were gladly offered with a toiletry kit. Ditto choice wine ranging from the ordinary to the sophisticated brews of France and Italy.
The wines, you were reminded, were selected to offer a diverse range of styles from the world's top vineyards, aimed at blending delicately with "our chef's creations and perfectly complement your dining experience."
Equally enchanting were the choice meals. You were either asked to make your choice for lunch or reminded with the menu list that dinner was just around the corner and the choice of dishes yours for the asking.
Heading for Seoul? Real but the fun was more enchanting watching the huge monuments in the sky silhouetted in rainbow paints. Al Mentino's British hit single of the 1950s Here in my Heart, drawn nearer to my ears with the earphones, massaged the emotions of an expectant traveller.
"Here in my heart where I belong, I am so lonely. Here in my heart I just yearn for you only; here in my arm, I long to hold you; here is my heart, my life , and my whole dear; please be mine and stay here in my heart."
As the giant bird began to descend Dubai, I cried for my country. The Dubai skyline shone alive with a thousand stars of lit fluorescents and bulbs. The beauty was simply heavenly and the music that guided the aircraft down the tarmac seemed to be calling the angels of light to carry its bird gently down the ground.
Its landing was hardly felt and the noise of the engines barely roaring before it was killed as the bird danced along the tarmac in celebration of a successful outing.
Incheon International Airport was no less majestic. Like Dub, Incheon made Murtala Mohammed, a liliput, among the greats and a non-issue even when compared with Korea's railway stations such as Ulsan Railway Station.
The beauty of Seoul's skyline was clearly defined by its skyscrapers that adorn the city in well defined geometric patterns. Architecture like the modern art forms of Isamu Nogushi in Japan, articulated the modernism of Seoul as a city of international business comparable with London, Paris or New York.
Seoul makes the Federal Capital Territory here look drab and ordinary. Is it part of the master plan of the FCT that there shall be no skyscrapers such as are seen in Seoul, in particular in the business district?
The roads of Seoul appear like landscapes ready to be unfolded for athletics long after the automobiles would have left the scene. The greyhound like luxury buses dominate the routes and give added colour to the symmetries of a global capital city.
My tour guide Stella who like many young Koreans of the next generation, prefer diluting their heavily accented native names with English or Christian names, religion notwithstanding, informed me the proactive nature of Korean intellectuals with other Western and local exposure in highly-acclaimed Korean universities, has earned the capital city the renown of a real global city of business and commerce.
Take a case study of Hwang doo-Jin's rainbow Rice Cake' Architecture, which according to Professor Robert Fouser of Seoul National University, is one of Korea's foremost contemporary works by a creative mind engrossed in redesigning the former city centre for future generations.
Doo-Jin's architectural projects, we are told, are focused on ways to revitalise the dormant old neighbourhoods at the very heart of the bustling metropolis so that they can be reborn as vibrant cultural spaces where tradition and modernity coexist.
My driver, Hyun Jin Han, 33, who was on the pedal of the Equus saloon car, a Korean product in the mould of Citoen737, was the nice guy persona, accommodating and for the next one week would be part of the guide taking charge of the wheels.
Driver Han drove into the exotic Lotte Hotel, which by all standards justifies its five-star status, where the high and mighty rulers of this world are quartered as guests of Korean presidents. At the roof top of Lotte, every weekend, Korea's most famous chef threats his guests with unique native cuisines, choice wines and jazzy concerts. Dining in Lotte's exquisite two restaurants every morning was part of the fun of this visit.
Among the places of interest in this enchanting city are:
World Cup Stadium
Dreams come true; following the successful hosting of the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan, the Seoul World Cup Stadium has become the place of leisure activities where various soccer games and cultural events are held, and has been linked to surrounding parks, including the World Cup Park, creating a truly enjoyable space for citizens.
Here you learn that 1882 was the beginning of Korean football when sailors of a British warship docked at the Incheon Port and introduced the round leather game to Korean workers and natives.
Now, football classes hold in Korean schools where the exploits of the pride of Korea, JS Park of Manchester United, have become legendary. According to stadium volunteer -SK Kims, Korea made the list of the greats in international competitions when it appeared with its football team in the 1945 Olympics; and the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland, while becoming the Asian Champions in 1956 and1960.
In Korea's war museums are legendary stories of great Korean soldiers and their exploits in the many wars the country waged against intruders including Japan, China and North Korea. Major Lee Sang-Su, an F-51 Mustang fighter pilot, flew numerous missions against the enemy early during the Korean War, and was shot down October 3, 1950 while attacking the North Korea military installation headquarters in the vicinity of Ryong Yang. He was decorated with the Ulchi medal, the second highest in the land.
In the Seoul Museum you learn how 19th century Korea resisted Western culture with the invasion of foreign powers between 1866 and 1871. This was followed by a Treaty of Friendship between the government of Korea and Japan signed in 1876. Two schools of thought emerged - Confucianism and Buddhism creating a divide in Korean politics with the East adopting the Confucian philosophy led by Yi Hwang(1801-1570) and Seong Hone(1535-1598) leading in the West. The Japanese invasion of Joseon in 1592 preferred Confucianism to Buddhism.
The curator educates you on the document referred to as the Uigwe, which is the kingly authority of statecraft in the old Korean government in the days of kings and queens. The return of the Oegyujanggak Uigwe taken hostage in France has been a point of celebration in the Korean art and cultural circle for over 12 months running. Some of the Uigwe, you are told, were destroyed by fire and looted by the French army when the French withdrew from Joseon during the so called Western Disturbance of 1866.
Korean and French representatives reached an agreement on the return at the G20 Summit held in Korea in 2010. According to the agreement, the Oegy were returned to Korea after a 145-year absence. The return of the Oegyujanggak Uigwe from France National Museum of Korea, the curator added, opened a special exhibition "The Return of the Uigwe" from France.
This special exhibition has been organised to inform the public on the importance and the content of the Oegwe materials that had been kept in the National Library of France and recently returned to Korea. Above all, this event brings Koreans together to celebrate the repatriation.
The Joseon dynasty Uigwe texts were inducted into UNESCO's memory of the World programme in 2007. Thus the historical and cultural values of Joseon's record keeping tradition have already been recognised globally.
Part of the pride of modern Korea was its rise from a Third World to a First World status, a highly developed export economy powered by modern technological advancement that has remained consistent, elevating the quality of life of the average South Korean. Korean GDP which was $1.3 billion in 1953 had risen to $928.7 billion in 2008. Actual exports in 1953 stood at $80,039 billion while direct exports were $419 billion in 2008.
Exports have been the key to South Korea's industrial expansion. Until 1986 the value of imports was greater than exports. This situation was reversed, however, in 1986 when South Korea registered a favourable balance of trade of US$4.2 billion. By 1988 this favourable balance had grown to US$11.4 billion. Financing this persistent, although not unexpected gap, between domestic and imported resources, was a principal concern for Korea's economic planners.
It is interesting to have a strong feel of Christianity in a country where Buddhism and Confucianism reign supreme. Sunday, Stella and her husband worshipped at the Presbyterian Church while the Pentecostals rented the land with loud shouts of halleluiah jah. Indeed Korea left that impression of secularity where people tolerate and respect each other's religious background notwithstanding.
A visit to two Buddhist temples was most exhilarating with sweet scents of incense and huge monument of the great Buddha in solemn and supernal meditation as worshippers and tourists struggle to pay their respect as if the philosophical impression of Nirvana was still a human and same as the founder of the movement.
The Island of Jeju
When day breaks in Jeju the wind and light live together, as the black mountain ridges writhe. On a day thick with fog, the melancholy melody of a shaman songs drifts plaintively on the Jeju seas and its most precious ornaments called oreum, the rolling hills that bulge out of flat lands. From its top is the vast open sea and Mount Halla. The poet Heo Yeong -seon has written so much on Jeju and his rhythmic lines lead you into the beauty of nature which many visitors rush to see just as the mountains of Seoul from where you can survey the beauty of the capital in 60 seconds
Kim, Kyung-Hee, Executive Director/International Relations, was on hand to receive the visitor conducting him round the huge studios of Korea's major television broadcasting network, largely owned by government but commercialised and founded on a platform of unbiased reportage while representing the interest of government. Among its broadcasting outlets are the Munhwa
Broadcasting Corporation (MBC), the Seoul Broadcasting Service (SBS), and the Education Broadcasting Service (EBS); KBS happens to be the licensing authority of other privately owned TV stations in Korea and grosses 40 percent of its revenue from there while advertorials gives it 50 percent revenue and other unspecified revenue base, with a revenue return of $10billion. Its terrestrial channels include KBS World and KBS TV2; with seven radio channels.
-Jason Hwang, deputy general manager at Hyundai's massive factory at Ulsan. Hyundai is the showpiece of Korean arrival in the world of aerodynamics and driven by the spirit of free enterprise with Daewoo which is sold a long time ago coming behind General affairs/Protocol
Clean & Green Energy Programme and Nuclear Power
Koreans are proud of the turnaround in clean environment brought about by its clan and green energy policy, which has turned the environment green and rich with fresh air. Its nuclear plant is another source of pride supplying its energy needs as well as showcasing the great technological evolution the country attained in recent years
A hug from Stella and tears of missing the company of a visitor, whose presence offered her a part-time job enough for a holiday in Europe with her darling husband, concluded the thrilling Korean experience. Back to the Emirate, Al Mentino's song Here in my Heart, was all that held me and my dear country Nigeria, reminding to Please be mine and stay here in my heart...."