I’m a Seoul Man

JW Marriott Hotel, Seoul: Over the last 30 years, I have watched from afar the transformation of South Korea from a military dictatorship to a parliamentary democracy, and from an emerging market to a card-carrying OECD member developed economy.

This week I am getting a chance to see the country for myself, thanks to a programme for international journalists sponsored by a local television station. There are a lot of heavyweight hacks along for the ride, including a Pulitzer prize winner, who turns out to be a surprisingly down-to-earth guy with which to have a beer.

Obviously, the scheme is in place for ideological reasons. This is a place where the Cold War lives on, and tomorrow’s visit to the demilitarized zone is likely to prove the highlight of the trip. But all of this remains by way of obvious subtext and – so far, anyway – our hosts are not hammering home the point.

Then again, they don’t have to. We all know that on the other side of the DMZ lies a country that officially advocates Juche, or  self-reliance, and yet cannot feed its population, even with a considerable amount of foreign food aid. Ironically, much of the assistance was provided by the US, at least until it was withdrawn recently following Pyongyang’s unsuccessful long-range missile launch.

This peninsula highlights a number of questions of socialist theory: are property relations in North Korea in any sense ‘post capitalist’, and therefore some sort of gain that should be defended by the left? Does the recent history of South Korea put paid to the idea that countries can no longer undergo bourgeois revolutions in the classic sense? But common sense alone gives some idea of the answers.

There is a danger that the undeniably lavish hospitality we are enjoying here will compromise the judgement of participants, including me. But I’d like to think I can withstand the bribery element and remain objective in my assessments, of which I hope to provide a few more in the days ahead.