South Korea: An Iraqi Perspective

by Wafaa’ Al-Natheema

Wafaa’ Al-Natheema, the founder of INEAS, filed the following report after her visit to South Korea in late August (2005).

© Copyright Wafaa' Al-Natheema, 2005
The National Police University Orchestra in Concert on August 27, 2005

It was indeed an interesting coincidence to be in a shuttle heading to the airport with a Chinese couple, a Japanese man and a Korean woman. I was determined to learn some Korean expressions before my arrival in S. Korea, so having a Korean woman with me in the shuttle allowed me to ask her about some expressions in her native language. She was so helpful in transliterating more than ten Korean terms into English (to enable me to say them) before reaching the airport.

I will not report about the atrocities committed by the American employees at the airport. Many know their discrimination and rudeness. I experienced it first hand. But my experience at the Korean flight was positive and noteworthy. The flight attendants deserve a medal for their service, superb PR and charming presence. The food was excellent and the flight’s entertainment was very good in that it enabled me not to feel the length of the 14-hour flight. At one point, I asked a flight attendant how many hours were left before arrival. When she informed me that there were only four hours left, I wide opened my eyes and was very surprised, “That is it?” I said. She smiled and was pleased by my comment and nodded, “It means you’ve enjoyed yourself.” Indeed I did.

Around the end of the flight, we watched a Korean comedy movie about a father’s unwillingness to sell his land and divide it between his sons and daughter until he witnessed the unification of North and South Korea. Although it was a comedy, it reflected seriously on the bitterness and pain experienced by divided families who were not allowed to see each other for decades. There were very emotional scenes.

I was so eager to meet with North Koreans at the PEACE Festival. I was eager to interview them and report on their stories and those of S. Koreans, but was very disappointed to learn that North Koreans were not invited! Artists from around the world were invited to the PEACE festival except their own, the northerners.

The three cities that I visited in S. Korea were beautiful, but I felt as if I were in some of the European cities. The western/American culture is very vivid. Had it not been for the Korean faces, language and food, one would feel like he/she is in some parts of the USA. One distinct difference, however, between the Korean and American cities is that the Korean cities are clean. The city streets’ and especially the subway’s cleanliness put to shame those in the USA.

Politically, however, South Korea seems to have headed in the direction of the USA. Its reluctance to unite with North Korea, its capitalism being felt all around, its adoption of American culture and its pathetic involvement in the war on IRAQ are all a reminder of these unfortunate policies. Hundreds of South Korean soldiers have been deployed in IRAQ with no plans to leave. Two of the volunteers who helped us while in S. Korea tried to convince me, the way they have been brainwashed by the government and media, that the S. Korean soldiers are in IRAQ to rebuild and help the sick! I told them that if the Koreans wanted to help rebuild IRAQ, why didn’t they send engineers? If the intention was to help the sick, they should have sent doctors, not soldiers in uniforms carrying guns ready to kill and be killed. When silence was their only reply, I too didn’t dwell on it! Also they were very helpful and nice, so ending the subject right there was appropriate. However I decided to mention the presence of the Korean soldiers in IRAQ in my short speech before my performance at the PEACE festival.

Two of the volunteers helped me write a one-and-a-half-minute speech in Korean that I transliterated into English. Indeed the audience understood my very broken Korean and applauded too. In my short speech before I performed songs and poetry, I urged for the Korean soldiers to leave IRAQ and return home. It is very disappointing that Asian countries such as S. Korea and Japan have been involved in this shameful war on IRAQ!

Both my speech and performance took about fifteen minutes. I sang in Arabic and English and read poetry in English. The audience received the translation of my poetry on a handout. An activist from a peace organization, who attended my performance, informed me later that she read my poem (about the USA and its lust for wars) in front of the Yongsan Garrison Gate on August 29 at a press conference hosted by SPARK and other NGOs. The subject of the press conference and the protest was the killing of Myong-Ja Kim, who was run over by an American truck on June 10.

Rehearsal -- National Police University Orchestra of Seoul on August 26, 2005
© Copyright
Wafaa' Al-Natheema, 2005

At the August 29 press conference, Koreans urged the United States Forces in Korea (USFK) to yield the right of jurisdiction in the Myong-Ja Kim case. Although I was in S. Korea on that date, I was unaware of this press conference. Otherwise I would have attended and reported it as well. As I was reading about the story of Kim (emailed to me by this woman activist that I met) after my arrival in Boston, Rachel Corrie, who was run over by an Israeli tank in Palestine, flashed in my mind.

The two Iraqi soloists, whom our Institute* promoted and recommended to participate in the festival, gave an Iraqi music concert on August 26 and joined the National Police University Orchestra (see images top and above left) on August 27 to perform two pieces by Bach and Beethoven. Following my performance and the two concerts, I was able to do two days of sight seeing.

The Changdeokgung Palace
© Copyright Wafaa' Al-Natheema, 2005

Twice, I visited the Insadong, the popular and traditional market in Seoul. I took a tour at Changdeokgung Palace (see images), which was constructed in 1405 as a secondary palace of the Joseon Dynasty. After the Japanese invasion in 1592, during which the palace was burnt, the Koreans rebuilt it to serve as the main palace for about 270 years. I also took a night bus tour of Seoul. It is a city of many wonderful bridges overlooking the beautiful Han River.

The USA's TGI Friday's Restaurant
© Copyright
Wafaa' Al-Natheema, 2005
Korean food is like Japanese food—very delicious and healthy. I was so pleased with the quality and variety of food in S. Korea. Even European-style food and pastries were superb. Restaurants in Korea are very reasonable. However, the American junk food was copious in an alarming scale. Pizza Hut, McDonald’s, Starbucks, and even Dunkin Donuts made their vivid presence everywhere I went. The TGI Friday’s Restaurant (see image) near our hotel was showing off its presence by having a huge model airplane on top of the restaurant’s roof, a view that can only be seen by people living in higher buildings or on airplanes. Shopping for anything in S. Korea, whether clothes, shoes, furniture, home appliances or cars, is excellent. Name it, you will find it there in excellent quality and competitive prices.

I was craving to see the countryside in S. Korea. Every time I asked to see a village, they looked at me as if I was a strange person or making an unusual request. To justify the lack of villages (if this is true), two Koreans told me that the Japanese burnt most of Korea’s villages. My mind was instantly visited by a couple of thoughts and questions: Why were some king palaces rebuilt, but not the villages? Knowing Korea is an agricultural country, where do they plant their crops, in the factories? JJ Of course, I was being sarcastic. I may do some investigation on whether S. Korea indeed has no more villages!

The Jogyesa Buddhist Temple was one of the interesting places I visited in Seoul. The beautiful hymns, the monks’ drumming, the breeze, the candlelights and the birds flying freely and roaming within and without the temple made it all a spiritually intoxicating experience. I was so humbled by the help of a woman who worked at the temple and who knew English. She gave me a tour and explained some of the Buddhist rituals. Bowing in front of the statute of Buddha is not meant to worship the statute; but it is for prostration. She said, “Christians accuse us of worshiping idols.” I smiled at that comment because in western churches, Christians also kneel before a statute that symbolizes Jesus, so what is the difference? Kneeling is OK, but bowing is not? It was alarming to learn that in S. Korea, the majority of the population has become Christian. This conversion was due to the preaching of Christian missionaries from the industrial and colonial west (mostly from the USA, the same country that divided Korea). This is one of the main reasons why Koreans have lost so many aspects of their roots and culture and began to have conflicts within the family structure. Regarding this matter, the Buddhist woman, whom I met at the temple, wrote, “We do not need the bread in missionaries’ hands anymore. Christian missionaries degraded Buddhism. The important thing is that we found our tradition (Buddhism) to be far better than that of the west. This was possible in part due to the economic progress in S. Korea, which allowed temples to offer classes and teach Buddha’s wisdom.”

As if it were not enough for the USA to divide Korea, later even the allied S. Korea was made to be in conflict from within. Knowing that conversion to Christianity became the phenomenon among the younger generation, conflicts with parents were inevitable. Intermarriages between Christians and Buddhists have been rare. Additionally, many among those who converted to Christianity somehow feel and behave as if they are a better class, and have the tendency to imitate the American/western way of life much more than the Buddhists. Due to the recent economic boom in S. Korea, the conversion to Christianity has nearly stopped in the last two years or so. It seems that one of the main reasons for adopting Christianity was economic. The West’s Christian missionaries financially supported many of the Koreans. This reminded me of how some Christian missionaries behaved during the Tsunami tragedy (in December 2004), having food in one hand and the Bible in the other, trying to convert Hindus and Buddhists to Christianity. Luckily western Christian missionaries have not been successful in converting Moslems to Christianity. Instead, Christian Europe and the USA (along with extremist and Zionist Jews) have been slaughtering Moslems or funding the slaughter of Moslems in Europe and Asia as a part of an ethnic/religious cleansing campaign, not to mention accusing them of every explosion that takes place in the world (without evidence) including and especially the 9/11 attacks!!

It is one thing for people to learn about Christianity and voluntarily convert, and completely another for Christian missionaries to come to foreign lands from countries with globalization mentality and capitalistic yearning, trying to convert the indigenous people and cause them to lose their roots and culture, not to mention create conflicts from within.

After I left the Buddhist temple, I enjoyed spending some time in the nearby shops that sell religious products and souvenirs. At one shop, a monk passed by me and asked where I came from. When I replied that I was from the USA, he gave me an unforgettable gloomy look and cursed Bush. Then I told him “I am an Iraqi living in the USA”. He still gave me the disgusted look and said George Bush is very bad! I agreed with him. I don’t think he realized how pleased and hopeful I was to hear his comments. Until I saw him, I was feeling some disappointment that S. Koreans have lost their tradition (with the exception of food and holiday celebrations) and have been bowing to the American/western politics (as in the war on Iraq), and mimicking their way of life.

I am thankful to the circumstances that brought me together with the monk. He gave me some hope.

© Copyright Wafaa' Al-Natheema, 2005

More pictures available at: "Images from the Peace Festival in South Korea"