It was 1996 and I was fresh off of my Nuffield Scholarship, and spending 6
months studying agriculture in the European Union, when the Asia Pacific Foundation
found me worthy of one of two journalists awards they handed out in Canada. They other
winner was the automobile writer for the Globe and Mail, Canada’s National Newspaper
and I was a freelance writer selling to about a half dozen agricultural papers across western
The award covered all the expenses for a two week trip to Korea, about half the
time was spent on the recipients topic of interest and the other half getting an overview of
Korea and the political situation. Everything on the agenda was selected by the Korea
Press Center, but they did ask if I any specific interests.
I spent the month before the trip preparing by reading as much as I could about
the country and it’s customs and trying to make contact with people in Manitoba who dealt
with any aspect of agriculture in Korea. I read about 3 travel books to get some history of
the country, and Wally Happychuck put me in contact with Jim Hannah who had been a
classmate of his at the University of Manitoba and was now working for the Canadian
government in Seoul.
The first thing that the trip taught we was that you could actually stop in first class
on an airplane, until that time I thought it was just something you walked through on the
way to your seat. The Korea press center did every thing first class.
I was met at the airport by Miss Oh who would be my interpreter and guide for
the next two weeks and a designated driver, yes I had a car at my disposal and a
professional wheel man.
Flying first class and having room to sleep meant I arrived ready to hit the ground
running. First order of the trip was a supper with the president and vice president of the
Press Center and an overview of my agenda for the next two weeks. Everything looked
great, they had it planned to the hour including rest time. My research had shown that the
Korean World Series was on at this time, and I am a baseball fan to some degree so when
Mr. Park (president) asked what I thought of the agenda prepared I said it looked great and
jokingly added that if we could add a baseball game I would able to die a happy man. That
is how good the program looked, my delivery did not leave the impression of a joke as it
After the meeting Miss Oh, deposited me at my hotel, and asked if I needed
anything. I replied, “No, I was fine.” and headed up to my room. I dropped off my sheaf of
papers and headed out to see the night life of Seoul. I was not going to spend my trip
sleeping when this city had all these lights calling me. I walked a bit and found it to be a
big city like most other, I turned in.
The next morning Miss Oh and my driver arrived right on time and we headed off
into the country to see some rice production at what I considered small scale farms. The
country had invested in rice breeding programs and was self sufficient in rice production.
The most mechanized operation had what I viewed as a large roto-tiller for field work.
Perhaps a 5 hp motor on a two wheel carriage and steered by an operator who was
wrestling with the contraption the entire time. We spent the day visiting farms and
returned to Seoul and had a great meal that Miss Oh selected after which she repeated the
scene at the hotel and I waited a few minutes before heading out. The scenario replayed
itself the third day, but she did not ask if I needed anything, so I asked her why not the
final question of the day.
“I call your room a few minutes after we leave and you are not there. You go out
on your own, so I do not want to make you have to lie.” She did not ask the question for
the remainder of the trip. I had been found out, and was not at all apologetic.
We spent another day out in the country. I had spent part of it asking Miss Oh
about tickets to the baseball game, she said their were none available and after some
thought, “There might be some on the Black Store, but I do not know how you would get
them. I do not know the Black Store.” It took a few moments and I made the translation
Black Store to Black Market, to scalpers. I assured her I knew how that worked, cash is
the universal language of the street, but we had a driver, I had found that if there is
someone who can find something in a city, it is a cabby. We had a professional in our car.
Miss Oh showed no interested but for the promise of a ticket for him the driver was sure he
could get me a pair of tickets. I felt pretty good about myself and was looking forward to a
baseball game when Ms. Oh’s phone rang, this was 1996 and well before I thought of
having a cell phone. She hung up after a minute if high speed Korean chatter.
“That was Mr. Park, our tickets for the baseball game will be ready when we
arrive at the stadium, someone will meet us at the front of the stadium.” The look on her
face was not that of a baseball fan, it was the look of someone who wold be working late
tonight, and had been shown up by a pushy Canadian.
A smiling man in a suit handed Miss Oh an envelope with the tickets as we
arrived at the stadium which had been build for the Seoul Olympics in 1988, we were
seated in row 6 behind home plate. In the area where where the seats have a ledge that
serves as a table and the attendants bring you snacks and wear white gloves. During the
warm ups I asked Miss Oh why the press was coming over and shooting pictures of our
“That is the vice president of Korea, and a very famous movie star two rows
behind us,” she said matter of factually. I wondered who had died to make these seats
available but settled in to watch the game. Korean baseball at the time was what we would
consider small ball, singles with the occasional double and lots of running, lots of plays.
The one difference is that players are allowed to argue balls and strikes which is verboten
in America. Here it was a common matter and on one occasion the manager came to get
involved, the crowd was booing, and I forgot my self, and stood up and yelled, “Throw the
BUM.” I felt a tug on my sleeve, I looked down and Ms Oh politely pointed out, “No one
else in our section is standing” I sat down.
The Haitai Tigers beat the Hyundi Unicorns and went on to win the series. I
bought a Unicorn hat because it was green and gold and like the Oakland A’s The logo
was a unicorn batting.
We alternated between agriculture and political/cultural visits, and I became
aware of the absolute disdain Koreans had for the Japanese. It traced back to WW11 and
the occupation of Korea by Japanese troops and the complete destruction of anything
historical or cultural significant was the first to be destroyed.
I spent a half day with the man in charge of reunification of North and South
Korea which at the time seemed like a insurmountable obstacle. (More on that in the
chapter on North Korea)
In the time designated for relaxation or writing I connected with Jim Hannah who
was in Seoul as a trade commissioner. He had some great stories about trade deals
successful and other wise. The one that stuck in my mind was a story about Korean buyers
going to Manitoba and Saskatchewan to buy race horses. The plan was to by 78 horses
because that is what fit on a plane and then when they arrived in Korea ownership would
be determined by lot matching horse and owner.
Hannah said that when the time the buyers went to the prairies horses had gone
south to other tracks and buyers moved on to other regions. It showed the fragility of
international trade, 78 horses would have been a significant sale, but the buyers just moved
on to where they found the number they were looking for.
Jim also invited me to an event that the Canadian delegation was hosting to
showcase Canadian pork to the Korean hotel industry. It did raise a few eyebrows when
the Manitoba delegates arrived and I was waiting to meet them in the ballroom. Surpized?
I should say so.
Everything is done to perfection, feeding a nation of millions but presentation is
everything in the most rudimentary market. I was impressed with the presentation at any
stop, but the one thing that I could not figure out was the auction system. I am an auction
nut, and that may come through in a few of these stores, but this was one a could not
The buyers of the fruit, bid with hand signals, shielded by a pieces of corrugated
cardboard. I thought auctions were about price discovery and I believe they should have
some noise but here it was a low volume event with buyers signallng by hand. I did not
understand it but it seemed to get the job done.
One of our visits was to a feed mill and while we toured the warehouse facility I
noticed a stack of bags with a dog on it and asked the manager if he had expanded into the
pet food industry.
“What do you mean?” I explained about the expansion in North America to the
pet food industry because of the higher return.
“No, that is for the broiler dog industry.” he said. I was surprised because earlier
when I asked about the practice Miss Oh had explained that Koreans no longer ate canine
because it was so offensive to North Americans and the reaction during the Olympics in
‘88 meant the practice was all but gone.
“There is a farm just down the road, would you like to visit it?” he asked, Miss
Oh was not happy with my reporter skills, “of course I would.” Now lets be clear it is not
that dogs on the street are at risk, it is a very specif breed that is raised for human
consumption and under very controlled conditions. It is thought that dog meat is the
closest to human in composition and therefor easily digested. It is used for the sick and
elderly who might have trouble digesting other meats. (or at least that is my
We visited the farm, I got my pictures and a story, Ms Oh was unusually quiet on
the ride back into the city. There is no word for Sorry in the Korean language and when
you are caught on a mistrust or similar tactic there is no way to recover. She had been
exposed as telling an untruth and felt hurt, she was devastated, I was happy with a story.
I learned a lot about Korea on the excursion but I also learned a lot about
international travel. Do your home work, your preparation time will return value in spades
when you travel. Do your homework and them do some more.
Pay attention to and respect the traditions of the country you visit, you can only
play the ‘dumb tourist card’ so often and it just gets you tolerance not open doors.