Got back to Seoul this week after a nice sojourn in London. On Friday I went down to the offices of the Global Green Growth Institute, originally set up as a South Korean initiative under the presidency of Lee Myung-bak in 2010, before converting to an international institution two years later.
The other international green institution hosted by this country is the Green Climate Fund, launched to great fanfare in Songdo last month. All this is presumably part of South Korea's efforts to boost its international standing, and Park Geun-hye seems to be continuing her predecessor's lip service to "green growth" to some extent - although she has apparently dropped use of the phrase itself, as part of her efforts to differentiate herself from the ancien regime.
When I covered the GCF launch I spoke to senior figures including Christiana Figueres, the UN’s top climate change official, and Hela Cheikhrouhou, head of the GCF – and came away with an ominous feeling that the world’s “developed countries” (still defined, by the way, according to a system drawn up in Rio 22 years ago!) are unlikely to follow through on their promises to contribute $100bn to developing countries’ efforts to fight climate change.
Housed in an airy, light pine tiered office, GGGI doesn’t contribute funding to the (20 or so to date) developing countries that it assists – just advice on green projects. That can be a positive, the GGGI officials I met told me, since there is no ulterior motive for seeking their help. Yet even so, they still need money to do their work – and they are already at the limits of what they can do with their $50m annual budget.
The GGGI executives told me that developing countries were increasingly accepting the idea that economic growth and environmental responsibility need not conflict – for one thing, green energy helps shed the potentially dangerous reliance on fossil fuel imports. But the more I speak to people in this field, the more I fear that everything being done on this front will serve only to slightly mitigate a looming ecological disaster. After all, as Figueres conceded to me, the top target (which most experts seem to view as hopelessly optimistic), the absolute best case scenario, is to limit the temperature increase as of the end of this century to 2 degrees Celsius – something that would have all sorts of dire environmental consequences.
On Saturday I went to the “Animism” exhibition at the Ilmin Museum of Art on Gwanghwamun. It was a stimulating display, full of contradictions. I liked the contrast between one colonial-era discourse talking about primitive religious practices as things that should be stamped out as soon as possible, and another describing them as unique finds that should be recorded while this was still possible – but both taking for granted the idea that these things will be eliminated sooner or later. There was a thought-provoking treatment of shamanic practices in the Korean context – they were co-opted by the Japanese occupiers as a means of exerting control, but condemned as backward by the Park Chung-hee regime.
There was a lot of interesting stuff, too, about the real and representations of the real; the interplay and overlap between them. Notably BP’s beautiful but absurdly nonrepresentative flower logo, and Greenpeace’s attempt to make it more faithful through vandalism (see pic).
And a really cool quotation from Picasso, where he talks about both his art and masks produced by (presumably African) sculptors as enjoying a fundamentally violent quality: “They were against everything against unknown, threatening spirits… I too am against everything. I too think that everything is unknown, is the enemy! … If we give form to the spirits we become independent of them.”
Recently I visited Tokyo, where out of curiosity I visited the famously controversial Yasukuni Shrine (right). It's beautifully built, but of course its fame derives from the fact that it honours convicted war criminals. The visit there in April of top officials including finance minister Taro Aso drew cries of protest from China and South Korea, which suffered atrocities under Japanese occupation.
Japanese officials have been causing outrage with words as well as actions. Tokyo mayor Toru Hashimoto in May made unbelievably callous remarks about the tens of thousands of women who were forced into sex slavery by Japanese authorities during World War II. “To maintain discipline in the military, it must have been necessary at that time. For soldiers who risked their lives in circumstances where bullets are flying around like rain and wind, if you want them to get some rest, a comfort women system was necessary. That's clear to anyone," Hashimoto said, disgracefully. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, for his part, has been repeatedly questioning the view that Japan was an aggressive power during the war. Gen Douglas MacArthur with Emperor Hirohito, 1945
I think the problem can be traced in part to the US occupation of Japan between 1945 and 1952. The Americans were keen to ensure stability, and nervous about the potential spread of communism in Japan. So they decided that the emperor must remain - and moreover, must be absolved of guilt for crimes committed during the war. According to the historian John Dower, one of Hirohito's generals accidentally revealed during his war crimes trial that the emperor had been complicit in a particular act of aggression. The prosecution visited him that evening and advised him to recant; he willingly complied.
There is a striking contrast with Germany, where Hitler killed himself and the Nazi regime was totally dismantled (although many former Nazis remained in the West German civil service) - indeed the country itself ceased to exist as an integrated whole for nearly half a century. While Germans can totally reject the regime that took them to war as an isolated, odious period of their history, it is harder for the Japanese to dismiss the imperial state - because Japan is still, nominally, an imperial state, with Hirohito's son on the throne and widely revered.
So this is the background to the absurd remarks of people like Hashimoto, but it can never excuse them. And it certainly cannot excuse the deliberate distortions of history undertaken at the official level. One former South Korean minister told me that he viewed Hashimoto as "a badly educated young man". I knew what he meant when I went to the museum at Yasukuni, and saw this account (right) of the infamous "Rape of Nanking", in which Japanese soldiers committed one of the most obscene massacres of the 20th century, killing up to 300,000 people - mostly civilians.
As long as Japan's authorities continue to propagate such a shamefully misleading official account of its history, it will struggle to achieve good relations with its neighbours.
North Korea’s demand that the US recognise it as a nuclear state is not as silly as it sounds. For all Washington’s insistence that it will never accept a nuclear-armed North Korea, it is absolutely unclear what it will do to prevent it.
Amid an erratically evolving mix of foreign sanctions and economic assistance packages, Pyongyang has made slow, crablike but - seen over the long term - pretty steady progress towards nuclear arms capability. The US may hold out the prospect of talks and promise that the latest sanctions are biting, but there’s no evidence that any of this will seriously impede the North Korean regime’s goal of getting a working nuclear weapon in the medium-term future. John Kerry is reduced to pleading for China to apply pressure.
Yesterday I spoke to a prominent South Korean academic who raised the question of why there has been no talk of a military strike to stop North Korea getting the bomb, as there has been with Iran. The probable furious response from China, and the equally probable huge loss of life and economic devastation in South Korea, are two good reasons.
But the academic argued that the costs could be even greater if North Korea gets the bomb. Its achievement would totally alter the power dynamic in the region, and Japan and South Korea would probably feel obliged to respond by obtaining their own nuclear weapons, he added.
The prospect of a nuclear-armed North Korea is so unnerving that it is easier not to think about it. And Pyongyang has helped everyone to do this recently by issuing sensational statements, tailored for the foreign media, to make us think of this as an acute crisis. And we in the media duly lapped it up - just look at all the hype about the threat of imminent war on the Korean peninsula.
I think that short-term threat is pretty minimal because North Korea has no incentive to start a war at this point, when it lacks a fully developed nuclear capability and its conventional forces are so comprehensively outgunned. That’s exactly why it has every reason to seek a nuclear weapon - Kim Jong Un’s regime could finally shed its (apparently genuine) fear of US invasion, because it could hold its neighbours to ransom.
The widespread Western image of the North Korean state as a black comedy is probably part of the reason why we don’t take its nuclear programme seriously enough. But the country has been putting huge amounts of resources into it, and that is yielding results.
Over two years ago, the top nuclear scientist Sig Hecker said he was “stunned” by the scale and sophistication of a uranium enrichment facility that he visited in North Korea. I’m told that Hecker recently drew a parallel between North Korea’s energetic pursuit of nuclear weapons, and the determined assault on the manufacturing industry by South Korean companies such as Samsung and Hyundai, which were also once ridiculed in the West. This is a chronic problem, and one that shows no sign of abating.
John Kerry, US secretary of state, has sought to calm tensions on the Korean Peninsula in the past few days by stressing that the US is open to talks with Pyongyang. But does this risk giving North Korea an incentive to stoke fears of war again in the future?
I discussed this question on Monday with Jonathan Pollack, director of the John L Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution, and author of No Exit - one of the most authoritative recent studies the Korean security question. In that 2011 book, Pollack describes the aftermath of Pyongyang’s first nuclear device test in October 2006:"Within weeks of the nuclear test, the US and North Korea initiated bilateral talks in Beijing, followed by deeper discussions in Berlin in January 2007. Pyongyang had finally secured the bilateral channel it had sought unsuccessfully during President G.W. Bush's first term. To Pyongyang, the US willingness to undertake direct negotiations vindicated its decision to test."
Does Washington now risk continuing the same pattern? The last bilateral deal between the countries came on February 29 last year, when the US agreed to provide food aid in exchange for a North Korean moratorium on missile and nuclear device tests. That agreement collapsed over a (failed) North Korean satellite launch less than two months later, and Washington has since shown little desire to push for a resumption of talks.
If Kerry - an established proponent of “engagement”
- does so now, after a rocket launch, a nuclear test and weeks of intimidating rhetoric, that could look like rewarding bad behaviour, Pollack worries. Washington would proceed very cautiously after its experience last year, Pollack says, but he adds: "I was quite stunned that this is [Kerry's] first trip to Korea, despite having travelled across Asia for decades. What I would find a bit worrisome about that is that if he feels very new to this issue, there's always the possibility that we would replicate past efforts that President Obama has said we will not repeat."
Pollack argues that a major reason for North Korea's high-profile warnings of imminent war - which have abated in the past few days - was the desire to burnish supreme leader Kim Jong Un's image at home
. If the US-South Korea joint exercises finish at the end of this month without conflict having arisen, the young leader will be able to say he has "stood firm" in the face of imperialist aggression, Pollack notes. "This is a crisis that has basically been manufactured by North Korea for their own primarily domestic purposes... there is no observable evidence of any kind of a [military] mobilisation in the North."
Pollack says he has noted a hankering in Washington for the days of Kim's father. "There seems to be this wistful nostalgia for Kim Jong Il - the sense that he understood the way out of these situations," he says, noting concerns that the new leader's inexperience raises the risk of rash actions. But policymakers appear calm, he adds.
With the limited repertoire the North Koreans do have to influence sentiment in the US, the threat to start a war generates a lot of conversation among the chattering class, but my own strong impression is that it has not agitated those in the US government who are responsible [for this area] . Policymakers have sen this movie before. It's true this is a more extreme version, but what's required in the circumstances is to stay calm. The assumption is that maybe this is what North Korea does to validate its young ruler."
A hackneyed saying has it that Marx was wrong on everything he said about communism, but right on everything he said about capitalism. Having finally got round to reading Das Kapital, I'm reminded that Marx would find plenty in today's industrialising nations to back up his claim that capitalist enterprises inherently tend to drain the maximum possible amount of labour from their workers.
Specifically, I was struck by the comparison between Marx's description of factories in nineteenth-century England, and a recent China Labor Watch report
on illegal practices at Chinese factories producing goods and components for Samsung Electronics.
Now, it would be absurd to suggest that the problems highlighted by CLW are of the same order of magnitude as those recorded by Marx in Victorian England, where children as young as six worked for astonishingly long periods without sleep. Imperfect and imperfectly observed as Chinese labour laws are, they are more stringent than those in Marx's England, and conditions in modern Chinese factories are broadly better as a result.
But reading the CLW report alongside pertinent elements of Das Kapital is interesting because it illustrates in detail one of the book's central arguments. Capitalist profit, writes Marx, is only possible to the extent that the value added by the worker exceeds the market value of his labour, which corresponds to his wages.
Therefore, every additional minute worked by the labourer, without an increase in his wage, goes straight into the factory owner's bottom line. And even if the worker is paid for the overtime, the extra hours worked still enable the company to extract extra profit from the labourer without having to incur the costs of hiring extra staff.
So companies, according to Marx, have an obvious incentive to pursue “the unnatural extension of the working day, that capital necessarily strives after in its unmeasured passion for self-expansion”. Samsung’s massive breaches of Chinese working-time law - which it admitted in November, saying it expected this situation to continue until as late as the end of 2014 - back up this theory.
Samsung did not dispute CLW’s allegations of overtime violations, although it said all the other allegations were “not in line with our knowledge”. Of eight factories in Samsung’s supply chain investigated by CLW (six owned by Samsung), all but one maintained overtime “for at least half the year that reaches or exceeds 100 hours per month, sometimes with only one day of rest during the entire month”. One company owned by Samsung had workers putting in 186 hours of overtime a month - more than five times the legal limit of 36 hours.
Other parts of the report had initially struck me as less shocking, by comparison - for example, the requirement at some of the factories for workers to turn up 20 minutes early for a meeting, without being paid for their time. But if the company considers these meetings to aid the productivity of the plant, as presumably it does, then that represents an extortion of free labour power. It all seems rather chilling in light of Marx’s warnings about “‘small thefts’ of capital from the labourer’s meal and recreation time”, and of the following passage:“‘If you allow me,’ said a highly respectable master to me, ‘to work [the factory] only ten minutes in the day over-time, you put one thousand a year in my pocket.’”
Incredibly, when Samsung admitted its illegal practices, it used its statement to cock a snook at Apple, which has had its own PR crisis over conditions at the factories of its supplier, Foxconn. “Unlike companies that rely predominantly on the outsourcing of manufacturing, Samsung can maintain its own high standards throughout its in-house manufacturing network to offer world-class working conditions,” Samsung bragged.
“World-class working conditions” is a phrase open to interpretation, but my definition wouldn’t include being made to work standing for an overtime shift of 12 hours; or having to maintain a pace of installing two screws every nine seconds for hours at a time; or being worked so hard that I don’t even have a chance to grab a glass of water; or having to pay an admin fee of half a month’s wages for the privilege of taking my job; or being docked wages if I fall ill; or facing physical or verbal abuse from guards and managers - all violations for which CLW claimed to have found extensive evidence at one or more Chinese factory owned by Samsung (as stated above, the company has said that “except the overtime issue, violations covered in the report are not in line with our knowledge”).
The fact is that conditions at Samsung’s factories are good enough for young Chinese people in need of work to keep turning up; good enough for the government not to feel the need to intervene; good enough that media reports on the violations won’t prompt a mass boycott of Samsung’s goods - but absolutely no better than that, and no better than they have to be for the plants to keep making something approaching their maximum possible contribution to the company’s annual profits.
But of course, much the same could be said of thousands of other factories, dating back to the dawn of the industrial revolution. While the twentieth century has made plain the limits of Marxist doctrine as a political model, it strikes me that the man was on to something in passages like this:“The capitalist is [careful] that his workmen are not idle for a single moment. He has bought the use of the labour-power for a definite period, and he insists upon his rights. He has no intention of being robbed.”
Judging by its statement in November, it seems logical to conclude Samsung will continue to break Chinese labour law for up to two years because the government has given it no pressing reason to act faster. That is a function of the fundamental dynamics between capital, labour and regulation which have remained the same throughout the globe, since Marx’s time and earlier. In that sense alone, the phrase “world-class” seems rather apt.
Writing this on the way back from a fleeting visit to the bustling port of Busan, South Korea’s second city. This morning I headed up to Bŏmŏ-sa, an ancient Buddhist temple complex in the mountains overlooking the city.
It was a beautiful setting, especially in the snow, but I was more interested in the ceremonies going on in a couple of the buildings. Each had a monk, shaven-headed and in grey robes, singing ceaselessly while a dozen or so worshippers knelt on cushions to the side.
Something about it reminded me of Catholic masses in Latin America – the dim lighting, the sombre atmosphere, the gloomy (though beautiful) tone to the singing. But more reminiscent of England was the dearth of young people in the congregation.
The main reason I went to Busan was to see one of the presidential candidates in action ahead of this month’s election. Busan is a traditional conservative stronghold but Moon Jae-in, the liberal candidate who spent much of his early life there, is hoping to win it this year. Political analysts say the result in Busan could swing the election.
Moon got a rousing reception at his rally last night in the city centre. He’s a pretty fiery speaker – his voice was noticeably hoarse from weeks of campaigning – and the crowd was chanting his name by the end.
But he still faces a tough struggle to defeat Park Geun-hye, candidate of the ruling Saenuri party, and daughter of the late military dictator Park Chung-hee. She commands a lot of support in Busan, particularly from older people. I notice that Park’s opponents and supporters alike define her primarily in terms of her father. The former say that they can’t stand to vote for someone whose father victimised innocent people; the latter that she’s bound to pick up where he left off in stimulating the economy.
It’s perhaps concerning that Park’s ancestry, rather than her policies, is the main focus for many voters. But history is very present in South Korea, which got rid of its military regime only 25 years ago. On Thursday I got talking to a taxi driver in Seoul who told me that he had studied journalism and broadcasting. As I wondered what happened to his media ambitions, he told me that he had taken part in the Gwangju uprising of 1980, the bloodiest event of military rule, in which more than 200 people, mostly students, were killed in pitched battles against the army. Many of those who survived were tracked down and prosecuted – and clearly would have had fat chance of starting a career in a press tightly controlled by the state.
Most people in Gwangju – where I went a few weeks ago – still strongly oppose the conservative party that evolved from the military administration. And many have a good deal of sympathy for the North Korean regime, according to Brian Myers, a Busan-based American professor who I had lunch with yesterday.
Myers – who has specialised on North Korea for several years – stands out from mainstream thought on the country because he says it should not be thought of as communist but as an extreme nationalist state like Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan, with a focus on racial pride rather than economic justice and progress.
Myers sees no way that Pyongyang can be induced to abandon its nuclear programme – even with the most generous financial incentives – because it's at the heart of the “military first” ideology that is so central to the regime’s legitimacy. “Economic growth wouldn’t bring Kim Jong-eun anything in terms of political capital,” he told me. “They could get huge growth for years and still not get near South Korea.”
This means that Moon’s plan to reintroduce the “Sunshine Policy”, involving generous aid donations in the hope of putting inter-Korean relations on a more peaceful footing, will only encourage Pyongyang by making the South look weak, according to Myers. Kim has no incentive to change tack because his position is “totally secure”, he adds. “Is there anyway to get [Kim’s ruling clique] to commit political suicide? I don’t think so.”
Personally I'd choose to live in Seoul over an island city state any time, but it seems foreign executives still need persuading. I met up this week with the local head of an international executive search firm, who told me that Korean companies still have to offer a wage premium over and above what's on offer in Hong Kong or Singapore, to convince foreign talent to move to Seoul.
In part that's because Korea remains a mysterious unknown quantity to most Westerners (perhaps Gangnam Style will help provide a reference point!). And there's not a huge, reassuring existing community of fellow high-flying middle-aged Westerners to plug into.
But perhaps there's also an element of nervousness about professional life for foreigners in South Korean offices, who are typically in a tiny minority. There are only five foreigners among the 600,000 employees of the national government, the Korea Herald reported on Monday
. And I've spoken to some foreigners with experience at Korean companies who feel they were there as window dressing, never having their ideas listened to, but always wheeled out for cocktail parties and promotional videos.
Some might also fear a heavier workload than they're used to - a request for three or four weeks' holiday a year would draw an astonished response at most companies in South Korea, which ran on a six-day working week until 2003. I spoke last week to an adviser to one of the presidential candidates, who said that it would be career suicide for any politician to be pictured on a beach holiday, even for a couple of days.
Still, the executive headhunter I spoke to said highly qualified foreigners are becoming more open to the idea of moving over here, as South Korea's image improves. And they're being pursued increasingly enthusiastically, she added, by Korean companies convinced that "now they're successful outside Korea, they need more global talent".
Floating 2,000 pairs of socks over a heavily fortified border might sound like an eccentric form of humanitarian relief – but it could save lives, according to a North Korean defector I met yesterday at one of his regular balloon launches.
Lee Ju-sung came from North Korea to Seoul, via China, Myanmar and Thailand, in 2006, and soon after started using enormous helium balloons to send pamphlets over the border telling North Koreans about the better lives they could find outside their impoverished country. His own escape was partly inspired by a leaflet that he found in the woods, sent by the same means.
But last year he decided to start sending socks instead. These are a precious commodity in North Korea – particularly in the winter, when inadequate footwear can mean the loss of toes or feet to frostbite. Mr Lee often saw victims of this hobbling around on crutches, he said. And the relatively high quality of South Korean socks means they command a high price on the North Korean black market, where they can be exchanged for enough corn to feed a person for a month.
He’s now won the support of NGOs including a group of other defectors and people with relatives in the North, who are helping to fund his campaign. They were among about 50 people who turned out to assist yesterday’s launch at the Demilitarised Zone that divides the peninsula.
Mr Lee says interventions like his are the only way to get assistance to struggling North Koreans in the countryside: the millions of dollars’ worth of aid provided over the years by South Korea, the US and others has been almost entirely diverted by the Kim regime to reward party loyalists and help ensure its own survival, he argues.
I was struck by the seriousness with which he went about getting the balloons and packages together – and by the thought that much of the humanitarian work done by North Korean defectors is motivated by feelings of guilt for the ones left behind. Families of defectors are often sent to brutal prison camps, sometimes for three entire generations, as Blaine Harden’s book Escape from Camp 14 explains. It’s a powerful means of discouraging thoughts of escape.
On the bus back from the DMZ, someone asked Mr Lee if any of his family members had been punished for his defection in 2006. He said that yes, bad things had happened to his extended family, and also to his friends. He didn’t elaborate. I was chilled to think of the anguish and sleepless nights those consequences of his escape must have caused him, as with so many other defectors, but he gave no outward sign of it at all.
I'm all for encouraging creativity in schools, but a responsible teacher would probably draw the line at telling the class to produce violent, xenophobic art aimed at a neighbouring country.
That seems to be what's happened at one Korean school, judging by this Japanese website that I stumbled upon
. It shows photos of a huge display of childish depictions of violence and hatred towards Japan. One shows three Koreans beating up a weeping Japanese person; others have the Japanese flag being burned, or given funeral rites, or about to be hit by a nuclear missile.
The reason for the recent outbreak of anti-Japanese sentiment in South Korea seems absurd to many foreigners: the countries' competing claims to two tiny, rocky islets, uninhabited save for a fisherman, his wife and a small South Korean police detachment. But for Koreans the symbolism of the Dokdo islands (Takeshima to the Japanese) is enormous.
Japan formally incorporated the islands in 1905, five years before it annexed Korea: the beginning of a 35-year occupation that involved terrible human rights violations, including the sexual enslavement of thousands of Korean "comfort women". Japan lost control of Korea when it was defeated in World War II, but it never relinquished its claim to Dokdo.
For Koreans, this seems needlessly stubborn, adding insult to the injuries suffered under Japanese occupation. A senior government official told me last month that Koreans are infuriated by Japan's perceived refusal to show proper remorse for what happened in those years - the comparison with Germany is often made.
So South Korean president Lee Myung-bak's visit to the islands last month set off a huge row between the countries, threatening hoped-for economic and military cooperation deals between them. Both governments seem to be taking ostentatiously tough stances on the subject to shore up support from nationalists at home. The Japanese government is under extra pressure given the simultaneous flare-up of a tussle with China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.
The fight even overflowed into the Olympics - the South Korean footballer Park Jong-woo was denied a bronze medal after waving a placard inscribed with a Dokdo related slogan. (I noticed in Seoul's main square that people are collecting money to buy him a substitute one - see pic right.)
It's important for foreign observers to be sensitive to the problematic relationship between these two countries. Nonetheless, it is an enormous shame that relations seem to have taken such a turn for the worse at a time when the rise of China means it's in both nations' interest to forge closer ties. And they have far more in common - centuries of cultural osmosis have continued to the present day, with Japanese restaurants doing a booming trade in Seoul and Korean singers commanding huge followings in Tokyo.
Perhaps we should expect politicians on both sides to whip up nationalistic sentiments when it serves their purposes. But those children's drawings show the lasting, corrosive effects that can result.
Over chilli prawns in a wood-panelled Chinese restaurant, a new acquaintance mentioned in passing today that he'd been tortured as a youth, during two and a half years in prison for activism against the military regime that used to run South Korea.
It was the latest reminder for me of how far this country has come politically since it became a democracy in 1987. Last week an Australian newspaper (see pic) got some chuckles by referring to South and North Korea as "nice" and "naughty" Korea respectively (Pyongyang responded by calling the tabloid a "naughty paper"
). But calling South Korea "nice" would have seemed grotesque as recently as the 1980s.
For the first 20 years or so after World War II, South Korea's dysfunctional government left it lagging behind the North's rapidly industrialising economy. Park Chung-hee is largely credited with turning the country around - he seized power in a military coup in 1961, and made sweeping economic reforms that allowed South Korea's manufacturing sector to take on the world - from shoes and wigs, to cars and ships, and now smartphones and semiconductors.
But there were terrible human rights violations. The historian Bruce Cumings tells the story of a friend who wrote a dissertation on Korean politics at a foreign university: "When he returned to Seoul in the mid-1970s, he was taken to the South Mountain headquarters of the [Korean Central Intelligence Agency], where interrogators hooked him up to electrical torture machines and began reading passages from his thesis... The torturers also dialled up his wife, an artist, and left the phone off the hook so that she could hear her husband screaming."
There were thousands of similar cases, continuing well after Park's death in 1979 - and the atrocities were not always behind closed doors. In 1980 hundreds of people were killed by soldiers in the town of Kwangju in the deprived south-west - some with flamethrowers - after they took to the streets to demonstrate against martial law. The US government, which viewed South Korea as a vital bulwark against communism, turned a blind eye to such events - Reagan invited President Chun Doo-hwan to the White House less than a year after Kwangju - and this is a major reason behind the lingering anti-Americanism in Korea today.
Even after the arrival of democracy in 1987, South Korea hardly became "nice" overnight. The government took another seven years to release Kim Son-myong – a self-confessed admirer of Kim Il-sung, who was thrown into solitary confinement at the age of 29, and stayed there until he was 73. More recently, it was alleged that state officials had been spying on journalists and activists suspected of opposing the government. The political influence of the big corporations continues to cause concern.
But civil liberties here have undoubtedly improved beyond all recognition - and certainly far beyond the standards north of the border. I've lost count of the number of noisy street protests I've seen in my first month in Seoul, with many protesters openly condemning the government (although there are often large groups of police looking on). There's a vocal press that frequently criticises the authorities, and the stage is set for an exciting presidential election in December.
Despite all this, I asked my friend at lunch, is South Korea in 2012 everything you hoped it would be as a young activist? Unquestionably yes, he replied, describing his pride in the drive of the new generation of Koreans, and his excitement about the country's opportunity to build on the global success of brands like Samsung and Hyundai. In fact, he said, if he'd known it would turn out like this, he wouldn't have been so worried.