Yin and Yang

Although dramatically different in many ways, Korea and Israel are becoming complementary forces across several disciplines.

A tightrope walker performs at Minsok, a folk village dedicated to recreating traditional Korean day-to-day life. (photo credit: NOA AMOUYAL)
A tightrope walker performs at Minsok, a folk village dedicated to recreating traditional Korean day-to-day life.
(photo credit: NOA AMOUYAL)
It could have been just another intense news day.
Sipping my morning tea, I opened the paper to read, “North fires 46 short-range rockets”; beside it, another headline said, “Doctors’ strike is avoided by pact,” and another mentioned talks of a US-brokered three-way summit slated for later in the week.
The paper in my hands could easily have been a copy of The Jerusalem Post: Shelling from the north, domestic bureaucratic squabbles and fervent diplomatic efforts to bring about peace in a troubled region.
But I wasn’t holding an Israeli daily, and I certainly wasn’t in the Holy Land.
I was reading the Joongang Daily in Seoul, South Korea.
At first glance, the two nations are wildly different in terms of culture, language and geography. One is a Western Jewish state, heavily influenced by its Zionistic principles. The other is far more disciplined and regimented culture, heavily influenced by its tradition and firmly rooted in Buddhism and Christianity.
Yet the two nations are unexpectedly linked in a myriad of ways.
“We can understand each other much better than anybody,” Korean Ambassador Ilsoo Kim tells me in an interview after my return from an eye-opening trip that covered the culinary, cultural and artistic side of Korea.
That commonality, unfortunately, starts with knowing what it’s like to live constantly under a looming security threat. Worse, both Israelis and Koreans are saddled with a reputation that life begins and ends with terror.
“Just like you don’t want Israel to only be associated with bombs and terrorism and rockets, you want the country to be associated with its history, people and nature and so on,” says Kim.
Greg Wonseok Ko, director and senior producer of International Relations at the Korean Broadcasting System, cited a recent poll that coincides with that common preconception. According to the poll, the second-most common thought that comes to mind among European professionals asked about South Korea is its hostile neighbor in the north.
The first, naturally, is Samsung.
Like in Israel – despite terror warnings and newspaper headlines that speak of doom and gloom – the show must (and does) go on.
Which is why the Korea Foundation, an independent organization affiliated with Korea’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, is at the forefront of launching its own hasbara program to convince tourists, companies and students that there’s more to Korea than the unstable, power-hungry third-generation dictator that lives next door.
Exploring the city of Seoul itself (a vast modern metropolis home to nearly 10.5 million people) is much like wandering through any other Western city – with some charming and quirky differences.
For example, while passing by a town square, I came across several empty plastic bottles meticulously arranged in the shape of a heart. Curious, I turned to our tour guide, Carol, and asked her what such a display signified. She glanced at the display in question, shrugged her shoulders nonchalantly and said, “Oh, people just do that sometimes.”
And indeed they do. One need only take a quick trip to the grocery store – where liquid cheese in plastic tubes, spicy red pepper-infused chocolates, and marshmallow-stuffed treats shaped like goldfish are on display – to get a sense of the city’s irreverent and playful nature.
Seoul’s ability to blend the modern (towering skyscrapers) with the traditional (there is a smattering of Korean pagodas throughout the city) is another way in which the city is familiar, yet foreign, to the Western eye.
Tourism-wise, out of the 10 million tourists who visit Korea every year, only 10,000 are Israelis. According to Kim, the government would like that number to at least double within the next two years.
If the Korean-Israeli relationship were a perfectly crafted Venn diagram, the shaded middle region would easily be the top two subjects in the aforementioned poll: North Korea (conflict) and Samsung (hitech).
When it comes to the latter, a tour of Korea’s Digital Media City (DMC) conveys just how advanced and the country is in globalizing its media content. This mammoth, 570,000-square-meter hotbed of cutting-edge technology, which lies northwest of Seoul and is slated for completion in 2015, will be an eco-friendly hi-tech hot spot showcasing the country’s latest innovations in an urban setting.
This former land-fill in the Sangram area is expected to house 30,000 people and serve as the country’s epicenter of trade with its other Asian neighbors in the Far East.
As I meandered the hallways with Israel Hayom’s Boaz Bismuth – the other Israeli journalist in our 14-member delegation – he made the astute observation that Koreans are already known for their content (one need only look to pop sensation Psy and his K-pop counterparts to realize that this Korean wave is a global phenomenon), but with the success of the DMC, Koreans will be able to combine content with innovative platforms in a way that would make them virtually unstoppable.
I believe Bismuth was only partially kidding when he turned to our tour guide and said, “The next time I come to Korea, you won’t even acknowledge my existence because I’ll be so insignificant to you.”
It is interesting, then, that Israel has plans to create a similar project in Beersheba.
In an effort to bolster revenues in the South, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu announced last January at a cyber-security conference at Tel Aviv University that plans were under way to establish an $80 million complex dubbed Cyber-Spark.
IBM and Lockheed Martin are some major investors already tapped to get this project off the ground.
“It is the area where both Korea and Israel excel, and also it’s where they are a draw as a nation,” says Kim when asked if he envisions Korea taking part in Israel’s cyber-hub endeavor. “In that sense, we are going in the same direction, but we are not competitors; rather, we are collaborators.”
The two countries, he asserts, can function as missing pieces of this elaborate hi-tech puzzle. Since Korea is known for massive technological companies such as Samsung and LG (which Israel lacks) and Israel is known for its small-scale ambitious start-ups (of which Korea is in short supply), Kim sees the collaboration of the two nations as an inevitable – and wise – occurrence.
“Our idea is to combine these two areas, production and a global network in hitech, and learn from Israeli enthusiasm,” he says. “I look at Israelis as an example.
They go to the market, and then the product is known the world over.”
To that end, the Foreign Affairs Ministry has encouraged student exchange programs to entice young Koreans to come to Israel not just to enroll in Bible study (as many Koreans do), but to enroll in institutions like the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa and hone their entrepreneurial start-up skills.
Still, the deep cultural rift between the two countries can’t be ignored. While in Korea, I spoke with a former IDF officer who often travels to Seoul for business.
“It can be frustrating, because Koreans are taught from day one to fear failure,” he said. “Israelis, on the other hand, are taught to try, and that ‘hakol yihiyeh beseder’ [everything will be all right].”
Here, too, the ambassador sees an opportunity to learn from Israel. He supports a South Korean government initiative to promote start-ups based on government investment, rather than loans from a bank. His reasoning – derived from the Israeli way of doing things – is, “If you fail, then you are ruined.
Can you really ask young people to do this without a safety belt?” Common interests aside, the true factor binding these two countries is an appreciation for hospitality.
Our delegation was an eclectic and fascinating collection of people. Cultural attaches hailing from Iran, Bangladesh, Kuwait, Nigeria, Oman and the United Arab Emirates rounded out our melting pot of cultural representatives. Our group even included a Mayan king from Guatemala who was accompanied by four interpreters. Hearing his words translated from his ancient Mayan language to Spanish, then to Korean and finally to English, only to discover that he was simply sending his regards and blessings, could have been an outtake from a Sacha Baron Cohen film.
However, my experience ended up being an enlightening forum where people from wildly disparate backgrounds were able to interact without fear of political biases intervening.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t attribute the fostering of that dynamic to the Korea Foundation.
On our last night together, we were encouraged to say a few words. When it was Bismuth’s turn to speak – a diplomatic force of nature if ever there was one – he managed to verbalize what everyone in the room was thinking when he addressed the members of the Iranian delegation and said, “If I learned anything from this trip, it’s that we’re all the same, regardless of politics. I hope one day we’ll be welcomed in Tehran and you’ll be welcomed in Jerusalem. In the meantime, we’ll always have Seoul.”