Travelling south from Seoul on a high-speed train, the Korean countryside is a dull brown – the only splashes of colour provided by the early flowering yellow forsythia bushes and the traditional blue-roofed buildings, which will mirror the sky when the hazy cloud clears. The ground is well prepared but the growing season has yet to begin. It is a landscape of industrialised agriculture – mile after mile of polytunnels and rice fields intensively producing food for the equally intensively populated high-rise cities that suddenly interrupt the view.
After three days in a university lecture theatre in the capital of South Korea, the open spaces provide a welcome relief – even if it cannot be described exactly as picturesque. It is hard to conceive of a city with a population of 25 million people until you see it with your own eyes, driving through mile after mile of dense sky-scraper apartment blocks. It makes London look like a rural market town! The only occasional flash of greenery is provided by the tall netting of the urban driving ranges.
South Korea has recently introduced new legislation to simplify the process of setting up co-operatives. Only five members are needed to establish a co-op and capital requirements are light-touch. Following 30 years of highly successful industrialization and a rapid rise in living standards, the country is now keen to develop a social economy alongside its capitalist one.
Sungkonghoe University, a small higher educational institution established originally by the Anglican church in Korea, already runs post-graduate courses in co-operative management and its faculty members are keen to be at the centre of the potential development. With only the experience of a small established co-op sector, they have looked to Europe for inspiration.
So it is the first International Symposium on Co-operative Education and Governance which brings representatives of the Co-operative College, Mondragon University, and CADIAI, an Italian social care co-op, to Seoul for three days of intensive presentations. The setting is formal, dialogue is sparse and speeches go on for hours. But whilst a few participants can be seen nodding off after lunch, most pay more than polite attention and there is a palpable sense of excitement amongst the audience about the brave new world of co-ops.
One former President of Sungkonghoe University blamed the lack of a co-operative economy in South Korea on three factors: the break up of the (traditionally very co-operative) villages, industrialization, and the ‘particular sort’ of Christianity which had been imported into the Peninsula.
Kim Young-bae, Mayor of Seongbuk District of Seoul who entertains us to dinner one evening at the ‘Furniture Museum’, lists his objectives as “creating a human rights city, and making his district the hub of the social economy” in Seoul. He expects co-operatives will be a big part of this. The official target, set by the overall Mayor of the city – to establish 8000 co-operatives in the near future is ambitious. Colleagues from Mondragon emphasise the importance of the principle of autonomy and independence – with the state providing a supporting and enabling environment but not interfering. I’m not sure the Mayor was present at that presentation but hopefully someone will pass the message on.
Half way through the conference, friends from home are asking the European visitors on the phone about the current situation in Korea. Western newspapers are carrying headlines about threatened missile attacks by the regime in North Korea in response to joint US and South Korean military exercises. The South maintains these are purely defensive but tension is apparently running high. Not that there seems to be much evidence of it in Seoul. This is a theme which has cropped up in the papers here so often that people treat Pyongyang’s threats as little more than posturing by a government whose days are numbered. Indeed, there seems to be quiet optimism here about the prospects of re-unification of North and South before too long. When that happens, as when the Berlin Wall came down, there will be a great deal of work to do to avoid social unrest or economic crisis when the poor from the North flood into the much more affluent South.
500 kilometers further south we emerge from vast glass and steel railway station into warm sunshine. Spring has already arrived here, with cherry blossom and magnolia trees brightening the view. For my travel companion, a Buddhist, all her Christmases have come at once – we are spending the day touring the temples of Gyeongju – the capital of the ancient Silla kingdom.
Our first Buddha of the day was set in his grotto around 700 AD. His companions are dressed in Persian robes which our knowledgeable guide, Kim Yong Bock, explains raises questions about a religious fusion melding early Christian influence with traditional Korean spirituality. Buddhism played a major part in the unification of the three kingdoms of the Silla peninsula.
Professor Kim feels that the traditions of Buddhist spirituality may be important in achieving the re-unification of South Korea with its northern neighbour, The unification of Silla was the result of a military and political campaign but Kim Yong Bock is optimistic that its modern day equivalent will be brought about through the will of the people. And when it is, perhaps co-operatives will have a role to play in healing the differences which have divided the Korean people since the Second World War.