December 03, 2023

Strategic patience, critical engagement, and boredom: My Korean saga

After watching 40 years, I no longer see much of a reason to be hopeful for a break in the deadlock

Come September this year, it will be 40 years since I visited South Korea for the first time. It was a tense time, just a few weeks before two American officers had been attacked and killed at Panmunjom, while President Park Chung-hee’s government was becoming more and more repressive. I had little idea then the role that Korea would play in my future.

My involvement with the peninsula began around 1975. When an older colleague in the diplomatic service who covered Korean issues was posted to Seoul, coverage of Korean matters, which were not seen as very important, was added to my portfolio for a couple of years. I became moderately interested, read a bit, joined the Anglo-Korean Society (now the British-Korean Society) and met interesting people. They included Park Kwon-sang, a South Korean journalist in exile in London from the Park government who would suffer again under Chun Doo-hwan. Under President Kim Dae-jung, he became prominent but remained a friend until his death in 2014. Others included Aidan Foster-Carter, then a Kim Il Sung groupie but about to start a more nuanced trajectory.