Tuesday, August 18, 2009
...and there is more.
Left Image: The train bridge in the demilitarised zone between South-North Korea.
Right image: Hopes for re-unification.
Seoul, South Korea: N: 37º 01' E: 126º 36'
More than just geography!
In previous entries I have outlined areas with direct potential for geography classes to study. However there are other aspects of the Korean experience which are worthy of note for study. They are foreign relations, ancient history, military history and democratic studies. Whilst not wanting to go into great detail in relation to these areas of study it is warranted in this entry to provide some useful case study links.
Korea has played a strategic geographical role over the centuries between China, Japan and Russia. Purely because of its geographic position at the centre of this area, Korea in the modern era has had a pivotal role in the Russo-Japanese War, World War 2 , Korean War and the so-called Cold War. Interestingly this disputed geographical role is still being played out on the issue of the Korean Islands called Dokdo. The study of this present day contentious issue on the ownership of the Dokdo Islands provides a fascinating case study.
Korea has a rich ancient history involving the stories of dynasties, Kings and invasion. One of the most interesting talks we had on the study tour was by Moonjong Choi from the Ewha Womans University in Seoul who traced Korean history from the earliest times through the study of Korean art and pottery. The background to Korean art and pottery provided by this talk was supported by visits to the Seoul Museum and other cultural visits on the field trip. The approach was a very engaging way to learn about the history of Korea by linking the preservation of art with history. One of the highlights for me was the visit to the burial mounds of the Silla Kingdom at Gyeongju . These burial hills had all the mystery, wealth and intrigue of the Egyptian Pyramids. I had never even heard of them before this visit! With the added wonder of the Buddhist religion and relics as evidenced at the beautiful Seokguram Grotto, the study of Korean history is indeed a rich one, comparable with those we are so familiar with from Europe.
Naturally the Korean War of 1950-53 plays a key role in understanding modern day South Korea. The trip to the 38th parallel demilitarised Zone gives a great insight into the tension between North and South that still exists today. Only the week before our visit the North Korean launched missiles into the Sea of Japan, causing considerable news coverage and restrictions on the areas we could visit. The American teachers on a similar study tour were not even allowed to visit the zone (we could but they couldn’t- much to their disquiet!). The North Korean tunnels, the Freedom Bridge, and lookouts over North Korea are amazing living relicts of the Cold War. Equally eerie was the visit to the massive Dorasan Station which was opened in 2002 for rail traffic between the North and South. With only a few trains a day, this station is an amazing edifice to the hopes of re-unification. The study of the Korean War opens the door to examine related issues of nuclear disarmament, US-Korea relations, China-North Korea relations, the nature of communism in North Korea and the attitude of the South Korean Government to the North Korean regime.
South Korea has a rich modern history in relation to liberalism and democracy. The 1960 'People Power' democracy riots which resulted in the April Democratic Revolution (which started at Korean University where our lectures were) and the 1987 Democratization Movement are interesting case studies for the students of revolution in sociology and history.
Despite the comprehensiveness of the program, one of the puzzling factors for the geographers on the trip was the lack of geography as a component of learning. At no time were we introduced to the internal geography of Korea as a topic and there seemed to be a total lack of spatial discussion of the Korean Peninsula, spatial representations used or discussion on environmental sustainability. For a country going through such enormous economic development and cultural change many of us thought that a study of Korea through the lens of geography would have been a necessity. Was this lack of geography and sustainability discussion just an oversight or is it way down the list of priorities for modern South Korea? As an aside to this discussion is the fact that in the Korean countryside postal numbers are based on the year the house was built rather than its location! Does this fact further support the view that history is more important in the Korean psychie that the location of place and their apparent dis-regard of geography? Just a thought!
Again, more questions than answers requiring another visit to Korea in the future. In the meantime I have found the book by Jennifer Barclay: "Meeting Mr Kim, or how I went to Korea and learned to love Kimchi" as an excellent read. As well as being inspiring and amusing the book also gave a great account of the history and culture of Korea and answered many questions I had after my visit. A well worthwhile and enjoyable read!