Hooked on a feel­ing

A 2002 World Cup ex­pe­ri­ence left this english jour­nal­ist en­am­oured with South Korea. He shares that love in writ­ing.

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GROW­ING up in Manch­ester, Daniel Tu­dor thought he knew all about foot­ball ma­nia ... un­til he ex­pe­ri­enced Red Devils fever in South Korea.

This was in the sum­mer of 2002, when South Korea co-hosted the World Cup with Ja­pan and Tu­dor, who was then a stu­dent at Ox­ford Univer­sity, got the chance of a life­time to at­tend the matches.

“My Korean friend’s fa­ther got tick­ets and they in­vited me and some other friends over for the games.”

When he got to the “ex­otic” land, it was love at first cheer, and his life changed for­ever, the Seoul­based jour­nal­ist rem­i­nisces.

“There was a Brazil-like car­ni­val on the streets at that time be­cause no one ex­pected Korea to get that far in the tour­na­ment. Ev­ery­one was in high spir­its; on the streets ev­ery­one was your friend, your brother or sis­ter.”

As you might have al­ready guessed, the Red Devils here does not re­fer to Manch­ester United (al­though pas­sion for the English foot­ball club is high in the repub­lic, thanks to their for­mer na­tional team cap­tain Park Ji-sung’s sev­enyear stint at United).

Rather, this “Red Devils” is the of­fi­cial fan club of South Korea’s na­tional foot­ball team, which ral­lied thou­sands onto the streets to show sup­port for their team dur­ing the tour­na­ment.

In­fected with their fiery pas­sion, Tu­dor re­lo­cated to South Korea as soon as he grad­u­ated from univer­sity the fol­low­ing year.

“Of course, now people are caught up in their work and ev­ery­day re­al­i­ties, but for that mo­ment in time, it was pure hu­man­ity and pure love for ev­ery­one, and in a way it was what led me back to Korea. I wanted to find out more what this coun­try is like,” he says.

Tu­dor, who was in Kuala Lumpur to pro­mote his book Korea: The Im­pos­si­ble Coun­try re­cently, claims he did not have an in­ter­est in or any in­kling of what South Korea was like be­fore his trip.

“It wasn’t as if I grew up with a big in­ter­est in Asia. When I came over the first time, I knew noth­ing about the penin­sula other than Kim Jong-il in North Korea.”

Tu­dor has been in South Korea – give or take a few years when he re­turned to Eng­land to do his Masters at Manch­ester Univer­sity – for al­most a decade now, but the 32-year-old’s love af­fair with the “Land of the Morn­ing Calm” has yet to fade.

“Some­thing about Korea just fits with my per­son­al­ity,” muses the for­mer Korea cor­re­spon­dent with The Econ­o­mist.

It is an in­trigu­ing coun­try that is “a bit hard to ex­plain and has a lot of strange things hap­pen­ing but there is an un­der­ly­ing warmth about the people,” he opines.

Yet what amazes him most is how South Korea had re­mained an un­known en­tity for so long.

“It is one of the most im­pres­sive sto­ries of na­tion-build­ing of the last century. Fifty years ago, South Korea was an im­pov­er­ished, wartorn coun­try with no demo­cratic tra­di­tion. Now it is an eco­nomic pow­er­house and model democ­racy with im­pres­sive achieve­ments in pop­u­lar cul­ture to boot. Why was it not get­ting any recog­ni­tion from the world?”

This won­der is what pushed him to write The Im­pos­si­ble Coun­try. But why “Im­pos­si­ble”? He rea­sons in his open­ing chap­ter: “Few ex­pected South Korea to sur­vive as a state, let alone grad­u­ate to be­com­ing a pros­per­ous and sta­ble model for de­vel­op­ing coun­tries the world over.”

South Korea is also im­pos­si­ble in the way that it im­poses unattain­able tar­gets on its people, he adds. “This is a coun­try that puts too much pres­sure on its cit­i­zens to con­form to im­pos­si­ble stan­dards of ed­u­ca­tion, rep­u­ta­tion, phys­i­cal ap­pear­ance and ca­reer progress.”

And cru­cially, it is a coun­try of para­doxes – where shamans meet Sam­sung and Western in­di­vid­u­al­ism clashes with Con­fu­cian col­lec­tivism.

“Kore­ans went through many dic­ta­tor­ships, but their protest cul­ture is strong. They have a very feu­dal­is­tic hi­er­ar­chi­cal tra­di­tion, yet there is also an in­nate egal­i­tar­i­an­ism among the people. You can see it in the way they share food with all the dishes served in the mid­dle of the ta­ble dur­ing meals.”

It sounds silly, he laugh­ingly adds, but “Korea is very Korean.”

This makes it dif­fi­cult for out­siders, es­pe­cially Western­ers, to un­der­stand it, even more so with the lack of books on con­tem­po­rary South Korea avail­able.

“Most books are on Korea’s an­cient his­tory, the Korean War or North Korea,” he notes.

For many in the West, adds Tu­dor, their idea of the coun­try is still stuck in the M*A*S*H realm which de­picted it as a poor Third World coun­try on telly.

South Korean foot­ball fans urg­ing on their coun­try’s 2002 World Cup team while watch­ing a match on a large pub­lic TV screen in cen­tral Seoul ... ‘It was pure hu­man­ity and pure love for ev­ery­one,’ Tu­dor re­calls. — Filepic

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