Visit Korea, experience the Cold War

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Coming to the Travel Channel this autumn is a new travel documentary on Korea. At the Korea Tourism evening at the KCC last week we were given a preview. It was refreshing: a Korean tourism documentary, but from a Westerner’s perspective. Yes, we were told that the KTO assisted in the film’s production, but the editorial content was assuredly not censored. The documentary set out to fill the knowledge gap that exists in the West about the country which has one of the world’s largest economies.

I should have been taking better notes, because a lot of the detail of the programme has now slipped my memory. What I don’t remember is any footage of b-boys, kayageum players, taekwondo displays or Confucian scholars sitting in the KTX. What I do remember is a fresh and carefree presentation approach.

A quiet day at Bulguksa Temple
A quiet day at Bulguksa Temple

In passing, the programme was a good argument against the official Romanization scheme. Because he did not know any better, the presenter pronounced “Joseon” with three syllables – a natural mistake for anyone to make. He also, less understandably, consistently mispronounced the name of one of Korea’s world heritage temples: Bulguska rather than Bulguksa.

So how did the presenter spend the half hour allotted to his documentary by the schedulers? The presenter enjoyed the tumuli park at Kyongju, highlighting the city’s historical importance, though in the museum he missed the Silla dynasty gold crown (National Treasure NUmber 188), pausing instead in front of an object so unremarkable that I can’t remember what it was. He found nearby Bulguska (sic) rather overcrowded with school tour groups, so instead went hiking in the hills around Kyongju – energetic but rewarding.

Yongduam - do you see the dragon?
Yongduam (Dragon Head Rock) - do you see the dragon?

He spent some time in Chejudo. And he echoed the heinous suggestion that Dragon Head rock doesn’t look much like a dragon’s head. Part of the film focused on the haenyo diving women. His explanation for why the divers were exclusively female was that the divers used to be men, but under the prevailing tax system women were not taxed – so it was more profitable for women to do the diving. We had some nice footage of Hallasan and some cute shots of identically dressed honeymoon couples.

For the presenter, the highlight of the visit was a trip to the DMZ and Panmunjom: real life history. The story, told to him by one of the south Korean troops, that North Korean soldiers had in the past kidnapped unwary tourists, brought home to him the reality of a war that has still not ended.

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The low-spot of the visit? The presenter had to be honest: he didn’t like kimchi much. I guess it’s like marmite: you either love it or you hate it. I know which camp I fall in to.

Overall, the documentary (entitled Essential Korea) gave a lively, balanced account. We got a bit of history, and some background stories. We got wide-ranging footage, from the tombs of dead kings in Korea’s ancient capital to lively youths in Hongdae, the beating heart of the modern capital’s night life. Based on the response of the audience afterwards, it will encourage people to think again about Korea as a tourist destination. There is a companion documentary called Essential Seoul which I’m sure we’ll get to see in due course.

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