It’s been nearly 20 years since I last visited my native Korea.
At that time, embattled President Chun Doo-hwan was in office, Hyundai Motor Co. was driving the economy and the nation was busily preparing to host the 1988 Olympic Games.
In the past two decades, Korea has changed and developed more than I ever imagined. Samsung Electronics Co. has emerged as the new corporate powerhouse, high-rise towers have transformed Seoul’s skyline, everyone seems glued to their wireless phones and there seems to be a strong sense of optimism for the future.
I spent 10 days in Korea in November as a U.S. delegate representing the Society of Professional Journalists at the 2005 Asia Journalists Forum. It was an unforgettable experience, both professionally and personally.
I had the privilege to meet with journalists from two-dozen countries, from South Africa to Sri Lanka. I was humbled and inspired by their fearless dedication to journalism.
It was clear that reporting the news wasn’t just a job for them — it was a duty.
With no First Amendment rights, journalists in various parts of the world often face threats, fines, torture, censorship, imprisonment, government control, wrongful termination, physical harm or even death.
The Federation of Nepalese Journalists even spoke about armed soldiers being stationed in newsrooms.
“Media, democracy and human rights have been taken hostage,” the group said during its presentation.
The delegation from Bangladesh reported that from May 2004 to April 2005, six journalists were killed, 675 received death threats and 421 were tortured.
It was also interesting to learn that in some nations, such as Cambodia, the government focused more on controlling broadcast companies because of the low literacy rate and poor access to newspapers.
Their stories demonstrated the importance of journalist associations in their respective nations. The associations are often at the forefront in fighting for the freedom of press and speech while defending the rights of journalists, whether it’s a radio broadcaster at a small station or an editor of a major newspaper.
Between the sessions and lectures, we also took a pilgrimage around the peninsula.
We sampled the sweet tangerines and witnessed the legendary female divers of Jeju Island, took in the vibrant autumn colors at Seoraksan National Park, watched a colorful mask performance in Gangneung, chanted before dawn with monks in a Buddhist temple in Seoul and marveled at the 7th-century cheomseongdae astronomy tower in Gyeongju.
We also had the opportunity to listen to cloning scientist Dr. Hwang Woo-suk, just before his internationally publicized demise. He told us he did not believe in human cloning.
Perhaps the most unusual, or enlightening, experience was the night we spent at the Buddhist temple, living the disciplined life of a monk and learning customs, practices and philosophies from a Zen master.
No television. No iPod. No e-mails. No cell phones. No distractions.
The silence was almost eerie during meditation sessions, but was a pleasant experience, except for the cramping in my legs.
Meals were interesting. They consisted of rice, vegetables and a soup. You won’t find meat, potato chips or ice cream on the menu. But the food wasn’t as interesting as the tradition of setting up your bowls and not being allowed to speak during the meal. Also, every grain of rice is consumed. You waste nothing.
After the forum, I spent a couple days with family members I haven’t seen since my last visit.
I toured the orphanage in Anyang that my father’s family founded 60 years ago. I visited the peaceful countryside village of Gongseri in Asan where my mother was raised, giving me a rare glimpse into her humble beginnings, including the church she attended as a child.
I also visited my grandfather’s grave for the first time. I was the only grandchild out of 13 he was able to hold before dying of cancer.
Experiencing and learning about Korea’s and my own history and culture was an emotional and educational journey.
It is a unique place where ancient customs and architecture are woven together with the modern surroundings of the 21st century.
While the nation has transformed into an economic and technological force, I found that the people and values haven’t changed at all. Everyone was kind, gracious and hard working, just as I remembered 20 years ago.
I’m hoping to visit Korea again some day, but I’m not sure when that will be.
But I promise, it won’t be 20 years from now.