There is something special about inviting a group of foreign journalists to your country, and showing them the key challenges of the national agenda.
Last month, Arirang TV ― the BBC-like global news network of South Korea ― invited 18 foreign journalists to the country to explore wide-ranging issues such as Korean unification, the threat of North Korea and South Korea’s economic development.
If Arirang TV had hoped that the journalists from countries such as Peru, Russia and Singapore would provide a varnished account of South Korea, it was mistaken. The network is a unit of South Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Sports.
One inquisitive journalist can be a nuisance and even trouble for government officials. But 18 of them together could well spell bedlam.
It was apparent that in the soju (Korean vodka) stakes, the Singaporean representative (yours truly) was thoroughly out-sojued by colleagues from Peru, Russia and South Korea.
Mexican journalist Vania Guerrero, an incurable shopaholic and party animal, had packed a stash of tequila and chocolates for her journalist colleagues in Seoul, only to have them confiscated at the Los Angeles Customs (yes, Ms. Guerrero, the tequila is for all your friends, eh?).
Marc Epstein, a French journalist, regaled us with his escapades in North Korea, one of which involved his thighs being plastered with white paint from the wash closet of his Pyongyang hotel room.
The paint could have been used to track his movements in the communist state, he had fretted.
What took the cake, however, was Rajesh Kalra’s “ferry tale.” We were exploring a massive man-made waterway that connected Seoul to the international airport at Incheon, 48km to the west.
During the hour-long ferry trip, the Times of India senior editor ― a good-looking and hirsute man in his 40s ― found himself being hugged and fondled by a group of inebriated Korean grannies.
A male staff member from Arirang TV who tried to “rescue” Rajesh was pushed away by the determined group of grannies.
“I could only hope that it would be over soon,” a straight-faced Rajesh told us afterwards, to howls of laughter.
Beyond the antics, however, journalists put in some serious work on top of the official program, which involved visits to the Ministry of Unification, the heavily fortified Demilitarised Zone and the Korean Development Institute, a think tank.
Marc went to interview some North Korean specialists, while Paulo Pinto, a Brazilian journalist, went to talk to some senior Hyundai executives about the chaebol’s (Korean business conglomerate) operations in his country. I interviewed a senior official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade about South Korea’s policies towards North Korea and Japan.
At the end of our week-long trip, we came to some conclusions, some of which would not go down well with the South Korean government that had hosted us.
An Egyptian colleague had suggested to Ministry of Unification officials that the 18 of us form a global association advocating the unification of the two Koreas. We were not merely on a school tour, Abdel-Mohssen Abudaldoum said.
Many of us, however, were not convinced. After all, forming such a group would blur the distinction between journalism and activism.
Jaime Cordero, a Peruvian journalist, echoed the collective sentiment when he said that he did not believe in activist journalism. “I’m going home to report the news from this trip. That alone is a big responsibility.”
On the issue of Korean unification, many of us also did not quite buy the grand plans mapped out by South Korean officials.
This involved raising funds for such a grand project, taking care of North Korean refugees and garnering support among South Koreans for such an endeavor.
To its credit, South Korea wears its heart on its sleeve when it comes to taking care of North Korean refugees.
More than 24,000 refugees are now integrated into capitalist South Korea. Seoul thinks that this will serve as a model for other North Koreans as and when unification occurs.
At Hanawon, a resettlement camp for such refugees an hour away from Seoul, I witnessed first-hand the care that the Seoul government had put into educating North Koreans and integrating them into South Korea.
Up close, I even held a three-year-old North Korean boy in my arms at the nursery (thanks to the Angry Bird app on my iPhone).
But the project is daunting, to say the least. Estimates for the cost of unification range from $60 billion to $2 trillion. And according to a Seoul National University poll, two-thirds of South Koreans in their 20s see “absolutely no need” for unification.
Kim Jeong-won, an Arirang TV executive in her 20s, is one of them.
“We remember the pain of the Korean War, but we have also forgotten it a little,” she said. “We do want unification, but not now.”
Therein lies the dilemma for Seoul ― North Korea is so messed up that drastic action, even unification, needs to be carried out as soon as possible.
That being said, the sheer challenge of the task compels many South Koreans to take a rain check.
In the end, the burden of North Korea could well keep South Korea from progressing in the race for global prestige and talent.
It is true that South Korea has transformed itself from a largely agricultural society into a technology powerhouse, exporting LG white goods, Hyundai cars and Samsung thingamajigs to the rest of the world.
And soft power is very much a part of Seoul’s arsenal. Arirang TV now trumpets the South Korean brand in 188 countries around the world.
And “Gangnam Style,” the runaway YouTube hit, has boosted global awareness of an eclectic South Korean mix of creativity and style.
According to Scott Snyder, a senior fellow at the United States-based Council on Foreign Relations, Seoul has now emerged to become a producer of international security rather than being a mere consumer.
South Korea’s budget for international security operations has more than tripled between 2007 and 2010, and the number of South Korean soldiers deployed for overseas missions has increased from 387 to 808 in the same period.
This includes U.N. peacekeeping operations to Haiti and Lebanon, contributions of a destroyer crew and Navy Seals to a multilateral anti-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden, and the dispatching of troops to protect stabilisation projects in Afghanistan.
But whether South Korea can catch up in the global stakes vis-a-vis other Asian economies remains to be seen.
South Korea is ranked 31st in the Heritage Foundation’s 2012 Index of Economic Freedom, way below Hong Kong, which is ranked first, Singapore (second) and Australia (third).
Arirang TV chief executive officer Sohn Jie-ae, a former CNN journalist, told us that the dominant global perception of Korea largely centers on North Korea and its nuclear arms cache.
Moreover, foreigners are generally not welcome in South Korea, which as of 2008 hosted 854,000 registered foreigners out of a total population of nearly 50 million.
Incheon International Airport is the country’s pride and joy, a showcase of South Korea’s arrival on the world stage.
The facility was built from scratch on reclaimed land (and located near the site of U.S. General Douglas MacArthur’s famed amphibious landing during the Korean War), and is one of the world’s busiest airports.
But the English proficiency of many of the airport staff was visibly not up to scratch, highlighting the sad fact that South Korea needs to play catch-up in the ability to use English, the language of global trade.
In the end, it makes a lot of sense for governments to invite foreign journalists to showcase their countries.
But one has to be cognizant that one might not get the positive public relations that is so desired.
At the least, governments can only increase understanding in a bid to put their countries on the global map.
And in this, there is a bonus ― giving foreign journalists a blast of a time in fraternization and news gathering.
By William Choong
William Choong is a serior writer at the Straits Times in Singapore. ― Ed.
(The Straits Times/Asia News Network)