More articles by Leonid A.Petrov


by Leonid A.Petrov

Korea Foundation Newsletter Vol.8, No.2 (March/April 1999)

It has been ten years since I began studying the Korean language, working with Koreans, and visiting this country. This year, with the kind assistance of the Korea Foundation and the Institute for Far Eastern Studies at Kyungnam University, I once again have the opportunity to visit Korea, this time for my PhD research.

What I have seen and experienced in Korea this visit is so different from my earlier experiences that I have been prompted to record some of my thoughts to share with others. Because I lived through the unforgettable perestroika years in the Soviet Union in the late 1980's, I cannot help from referring to the recent changes in this country as "Korean Perestroika".

First I visited Seoul in 1991, soon after the long-waited normalisation of diplomatic relations between the ROK and the USSR. At that time, albeit traditionally friendly and hospitable, Koreans appeared to be still quite cautious about dealing with foreigners. Even before being able to obtain a student visa for travel to Korea, I was required to sign a "Promise to Return" to my "Northern Communist Country" (ironically, the list of such countries included Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia). On arrival at Kimpo International Airport, I witnessed confusion on the faces of immigration staff and heard the characteristic vibration of their voices calling for a supervisor: "Soryonimnida..." During this and other early visits, covert surveillance by the National Security Planning Agency surprised my Korean friends but I always believed it to be a lingering legacy of the Cold War for which my country was partly responsible. Such measures were somewhat perturbing but no more so than the colourful subway posters which offered large sums of money for reports of spies and Communist instructors. I am grateful that everyone around me understood the absurdity of these measures.

Of course, the proximity to and the hostile atmosphere around North Korea demanded special - sometimes excessive - vigilance which would easily scare and perhaps repel foreign visitors. Indeed, until late 1991, security precautions made Kimpo International Airport appear rather like a sieged fortress. Many foreigners were not permitted to travel outside of the South Korean capital without permission of a certain government agency. A flashing light in the window facing the Presidential palace hotel room would be misinterpreted as a secret signal. Even now, one of the foreign embassies in Korea is still guarded by fully armed troops, but I am afraid that this country has deserved such care. Nevertheless, compared to other Asian countries where Cold War legacies still dominate, Korea is well positioned to become a more attractive place for foreigners. For example, both Japan and China stubbornly put themselves in confrontation with many Euro-Asian nations. Russian passport holders still have difficulties visiting Japan, while China is very sensitive towards the issue of Taiwan, and so on. This blind adherence to, or prejudice against, outdated ideological doctrines continues to poison many aspects of international relations in the region. Missed opportunities lead to deep frustration for many individuals and generate new conflicts.

Throughout the 1990's the situation in Korea has changed dramatically. What can we see today? Korea is striving to attract every possible foreign visitor. Visa regulations have eased significantly. The list of Northern Communist Countries has been curtailed, leaving only one country - North Korea. But even this country enjoys certain privileges as a result of the recently proclaimed Sunshine Policy which now makes many previously inconceivable things possible: foreigners can now fly to Seoul via North Korean air space; South Korean business people and cultural groups now travel regularly to Pyongyang; the American ambassador to South Korea plans to travel to North Korean Kumgang mountains for recreation; Koreans and Japanese have now managed to overcome the burdens of the past and prepare to co-host the 2002 Soccer World Cup! Are not these remarkable signs of "Korean Perestroika" turning Korea into a more attractive place for we foreigners?

Certainly, South Korea is looking for a way out of its own economic problems and its recent dependence on the IMF. In this sense, the Sunshine Policy, instrumental in easing the previous tense atmosphere of suspicion, is also building a new system of relations with every foreign nation. Business regulations, immigration rules, academic opportunities, etc., are changing in favour of foreign investors, travellers, students and scholars. Indeed, life in this country is stable, safe, and reasonably inexpensive. The Korean market is active and industry is advanced. The Koreans desire and are encouraged to learn more about the world; they also happy to help foreign scholars learn about their country.

By proclaiming a policy of toleration, South Korea has taken a huge step forward towards peace and prosperity in East Asia. Divided by the Cold War, this Asian country provides a beautiful pattern for international relations in the 21st century. It stipulates that such relations must not be based on the sentiments of the past but must instead be built on the principles of genuine globalisation. Therefore, I believe that the real fruit of the perestroika of the South Korea of the 1990's is yet to be seen.

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