Korea Journal, December, 2000 - Part Three

Alfred C. Snider, University of Vermont


December 23, 2000

The last full day of my visit would be, I know, a very busy one. There was a taping, a visit to the National Assembly building, lunch there, meetings with various persons of note, two very important debates to watch, and a scheduled celebration that evening. I awoke early full of excitement for the events to come.

I skipped breakfast because I knew that there would be two fine meals that day. I worked on my journal for that day, finished it up, and went down to the business center at the Prima Hotel for a hook into the internet.

What had previously been so difficult, attaching my PowerBook to their ethernet connection, was now quite easy. I had figured it out, which had taken a couple of days given the different ethernet settings and the inability of the hotel personnel to advise me (not because of language but because the most knowledgeable person there was the bellhop, who was always trying to give me the wrong end of the cable to plug into my computer). This time it fired up instantly and the pages I wanted to look at loaded very quickly. I even got to review my email which had piled up (what a pile!) since I had been gone, and even managed to type some responses out to items which seemed urgent. I posted my journal entries to eDebate and Parli and found that my previous posts to parli had been rejected because my Earthlink account was not subscribed to that listserv. I fixed that, and then shut it down and headed back upstairs.

I straightened up my room because I was expected Gyeongho and Nadja to show up for a taping of an installment of our regular Lawrence Debate Union television show, Flashpoint. This show has now been through over 225 installments, and it is a half hour program discussing either some issue of political and/or social interest or about debates and debating. This time I wanted to do a show with Gyeongho and Nadja about our experience at the Korean National Tournament and about international debating in general. I set up the furniture appropriately, managed to get enough light on us (I finally figured out how to make the light switches operate), set up the digital DV camera (using a tripod I had borrowed from Gyeongho earlier) and ran a sound check. Everything was ready to go.

Gyeongho called about five minutes before we had planned to meet and said he would be late. He is very prompt about such things, but when you use cellphones like Koreans it is common to give people you are going to meet updates on your traffic status. He and Nadja arrived just a few minutes late we set up for the show. No sooner had we begun taping than Gyeongho's phone rang and we stopped so he could answer it. We started over again and he turned it off. We had an excellent show and I looked forward to processing it back home. I am planning on doing all the production in-house from now on using iMovie 2. They were charming and articulate, with Nadja sharing some very personal moments she had experienced in Korea, her motherland, which she was visiting for the first time.


After the show we jumped in a taxi (a black deluxe taxi, not much more expensive, but more comfortable -- and Korea must be the only country I have been in where the taxi drivers dress like airline pilots…minus the hat). The drive was easy, as the traffic did not seem that heavy this morning, and we arrived at the National Assembly building (an incredibly beautiful edifice surrounded by a very impressive complex of buildings, open spaces, and lovely statuary.

As we arrived at the front door we met lawmaker Shin, who we were there to visit, on his way in. We greeted each other heartily and we made our way to his office. He made us feel very welcome and very comfortable as we at down for a chat. He served us coffee (it was delicious, and I even had a cup -- breaking my three week caffeine fast).

We talked about a very beautiful and large photograph on his wall, which I found to be very impressive. Gyeongho told us that it is a lovely lake in North Korea right on the Chinese border, and that tradition holds that the Korean people came from this lake, and that it is the spiritual home of Korea. The fact that lawmaker Chin had a picture of a location in North Korea so prominently features told me much about him. As a member of the ruling party he supports the "sunshine" policy of moving to normalize with the North and eventual unification, but this picture told me his commitment may go a lot deeper than that. We discussed the tournament, and then talked about the way the complex and his office was laid out, with a lovely view. They were talking about interior design and were struggling for the Japanese term for scientific interior design, and I happened to know it -- fang shuei (I can say it, but may not spell it correctly in English). I got lucky. We went back to discussing the picture and talked about the possibility of having a debate involving students from the North and the South, and he told me he would fully support any efforts we could make in that direction. I mentioned that David Berube at the University of South Carolina was working through professors in their Government and International Studies program who had considerable contacts in the North, and I mentioned the idea of using the Carter Center at Emory University, which has an excellent record of working with Pyongyang. He said he fully supported all such efforts and looked forward to a more concrete proposal. It was a very exciting discussion. We were joined by the President of the Citizen Debating Club that Gyeongho had founded for the now more than 230 professionals (including lawmaker Shin) who have graduated from his Speaking and Debating night class Nadja and I had spoken in front of right after my arrival. He brought with him a very handsome gentleman (the first Korean I had seen NOT in traditional dress who had a beard) who was the President of the Korean Ethnic peaceful Unification Association. He joined our conversation and spoke about issues relating to who the next President of Korea would be, but I was asked not to discuss this outside of those people in the office, which I agreed to do as a good guest and a foreign visitor.

Soon we were joined by perhaps my most favorite person I had met on this trip, Dr. Lee of the Korean Broadcasting Institute. She was as charming as ever. Dr. Lee asked about how my lecture at the Prime Minister's office had gone, and I gave hr my report, thanking her for her concern. Lawmaker Shin suggested it was time for lunch and that we would be eating a traditional Korean dish for the New Year, called "duck-koo" (pardon my translation). I said I was glad to do so, having just experienced special dishes for the winter solstice the other evening as the guest of Dr. Lee. Dr. Lee complemented me on my tie, knowing full well that she and Nadja had selected it for me.

We went downstairs through the main vaulted hallway at the center of the National Assembly building and stopped in front of two large golden statues, where I asked to have our pictures taken. Lawmaker Shin's secretary had come along to photograph the events we would be involved in and he was able to use both his camera and mine. I asked that we stand in front of the statues of Syngman Rhee, the first president of an independent Korea in the 20th century. We took several such shots and I will always treasure them. We then went deeper into the bowels of the building, where I was told that there were sufficient offices for government operation to go on there, and that it was built to withstand an attack by small nuclear weapons, a chilling reminder of the risks still at play on the Korean peninsula. We took tunnels to another part of the complex and rode elevators up to the dining facilities which the lawmakers use. We were ushered in to our reserved table and began a delightful lunch. "Duck-koo" turns out to be a delicious soup featuring delightful wontons, vegetables, and nice noodles. We also had a small salad, some tangy kimchee (I am really beginning to develop a taste for this stuff!), and some yogurt.

The conversation at lunch was very stimulating. I learned that the journalists who cover national politics conducted a poll at the end of the year to name the best legislators, and that lawmaker Shin had been named best legislator in the areas of environment policy, labor policy, and social policy, which is quite an achievement that he humbling acknowledged. He took a phone call during the meal and for the first time I saw someone using a Motorola StarTac phone exactly like mine instead of one of the tiny and shiny phones used by most Koreans. Some things impressed me about this conversation. One was the way the Korean word for debate ("toron" - same in Japanese) kept coming up over and over again, in conversations raised by lawmaker Shin, Dr. Lee, etc. Neither Gyeongho nor I needed to keep bringing up debate, the process of creating a debate culture was obviously high on their agenda. Another thing that impressed me was Gyeongho's role in the conversation. While he is a college professor, he had been the teacher of most of those at the table in his evening class, and Dr. Lee had been his teacher. I noticed that when he spoke, about any issue, people leaned forward and listened intently. Dr. Gyeongho Hur is not rich and he is not powerful, but on the other hand he is both because he has the wealth of ideas and the power of his articulately spoken words. I was also impressed at how Dr. Lee seemed to recall everything about both of my previous meetings with her, from which foods I liked to what I had said to which coat I had been wearing. She is clearly the most brilliant woman I have met in Korea, but more on that later, and the qualifier of "woman" is poorly used here because she is clearly one of the most brilliant (perhaps the most impressive) people I have met here. We finished lunch just in time to adjourn to the adjoining National Library where the debates would be held.

We had a lovely walk outside on the grounds. I noticed that at almost all doors there was tight security, and they would look to lawmaker Shin who would nod that we were with him. As usual during such breaks, Nadja and I were trading impressions of the events with each other and had a hard time keeping up with the rapid pace being set by lawmaker Shin and Dr. Lee, who led the way.

National Assembly Building | National Library, location of the Final Four

We entered the National Library and made our way downstairs into the basement, where the main auditorium was located. It was buzzing with activity as the time neared for the debates. A good crowd had gathered (about 150 people) and Gyeongho's staff was everywhere making things ready. The crew for the webcast was all set up, and I checked out their operation. My thoughts of webcasting this event had been shelved some time when I heard of the extent of their operation. They had a three camera shoot set up, direct lines to the house sound system, separate microphones for crowd noises, camerapersons with headphones connected to a director who has on a separate room down the hall, and a full technical crew. I went back to visit the control room for the webcast and was most impressed. They had four monitors (one for each camera and one for the outgoing shot), a 12 channel sound board, two servers (in case one crashed), a VHS deck and a digital tape deck to tape the outgoing signal. The signal being broadcast was using Windows Media Player and looked quite good, with excellent clarity and motion, though there seemed to be about a 25 second delay, but that really isn't something that viewers in places like America or Europe were likely to notice. I congratulated the director and the crew on their set-up and we briefly discussed webcasting, as they had some time before the event began. They seemed interested in our efforts at distance debating using two windows in one page with QuickTime, and they indicated that they would have to use QuickTime to do that since Media Player did not support two open screens on one web page.

Webcast control room | Awards for the victorious

I went back to the auditorium as the debates were about to start. Every team would receive a substantial cash prize (about $US 4000 for the first place team). The judges took their place. The first debate would feature the consolation match between teams who had finished third and fourth in the competition. The teams came forward and flipped for sides. The side winning the flip chose affirmative and then revealed what area of corruption control they would be discussing. There was then five minutes for the negative team to prepare before the debate started. They had constructed a large countdown timer which each team and the audience could easily see which I instantly fell in love with, but it would be a bit large to carry from tournament to tournament in the USA.

Consolation Round: Affirmative, Negative. Judges

The debate began and seemed to be quite spirited and there seemed to be substantial use of evidence and the pace was fairly quick for a first time debate tournament. Nadja and I sat next to each other and discussed the debate as it proceeded, but mostly on non-verbals since neither of us speak Korean. Cross examination was interesting because the questioner stood at the main microphone while the answerer sat at their table and use a microphone there. Their use of prep time was also somewhat different. Each team has ten minutes prep time but they must indicate how many minutes they wish to use (in thirty second increments) before they use it. The constructive speeches are seven minutes and the rebuttals four minutes, with cross examination being three minutes. This debate featured two very strong women, one on each team, but the second negative speaker was the weakest of the four debaters, so I assumed the affirmative would win.

Dr. Lee announces the decision, 7-0 for the affirmative | Teams shake hands following decision

After the round was over and the judges had deliberated, and before the decision was announced, Dr. Lee (who was chairing both judging panels today) asked me my impression, knowing I did not speak Korean. I predicted 7-0 for the affirmative, and she seemed surprised that I had guess so correctly. The judges did, in fact, rule 7-0 for the affirmative. Student debaters in the audience had also been asked to vote, and while the affirmative did prevail, it was not so lopsided.

There was a 20 minute break, and everyone trooped out to the snack bar located right outside (what good planning) and I was able to congratulate the debaters as well as talk to many others I had met during my visit.

The stage was then set for the championship match, two teams from Hanyang University, who obviously knew each other (and each other's arguments) well. No close out here, this debate was for the National Championship, beautiful cut crystal awards, and some large checks. The sides were determined, and the affirmative announced their plan would be about reducing corruption in the field of taxation. The Director-General of the Prime Minister's Office, Key-jong Park, who had hosted me so excellently the day before, joined the judging panel and Prof. Kim of Kyung Hee University (who taught at Appalachian State University and knows Glenda Treadaway) sat next to me to translate some of the arguments to me.

Affirmative: Kim and Cho | Negative: Kim and Kim

This was by far the best debate I had seen, both in teams of appearance and in terms of substance (from all I could tell). The affirmative plan was to require all commercial transactions to use a government approved "credit card" so that untaxed cash transactions could be reduced, a very clever strategy. The negative attack offered a counterplan and also questioned the solvency of the plan, since avoiding taxation is already illegal, they argued that making something which was a crime another crime was not going to be effective. They also entered a hot discussion of the statistics being used, with the negative charging that the affirmative's statistics were from seven years ago while theirs would be published in a few days. The cross examination was very vigorous and got numerous responses from the crowd. Clever remarks caused laughter several times. The first affirmative rebuttal seemed a little weak, but both of the last two rebuttals seemed very strong, especially the last negative rebuttal. Prof. Kim informed me that the debate was highly technical in terms of tax and transaction policies. As the debate ended there as a large round of applause. When the voting had been done and before the decision was announced Dr. Lee again asked me my impression, and I said 5-2 or 6-1 for the negative. The audience vote of student debaters was narrowly for the affirmative, but the judges were 6-1 for the negative. Before the judges' decision was announced each of the judges was given a microphone to make comments, and the audience applauded after each one while the debaters listened intently. I informed those around me of the "eye contact" rule that the judge usually looks more at the losing team while making comments, and sure enough they looked more often at the affirmative.

Prof. Lee gives comments |Key-Chong Park gives comments | Debaters applaud judges' comments

There was a ten minute break before the awards presentation, and the winners and losers were both happy. The losing team indicated their interest in attending the World Debate Institute as well, and I encouraged them to apply for a scholarship.

Champions - WDI Bound! | Closing Comments

The awards assembly began and the speaker awards were announced and checks handed out. Students cheered for each other as the awards were announced, indicating to me that a cohesive student debater community was already forming in Korea. Then the team awards were given. After this they added a feature that I liked very much and believe we should adopt. They asked the top speaker to say a few words, and he was, indeed, inspirational, paraphrasing Martin Luther King's "I have Dream" speech in telling students to keep on working hard and never give up. Dr. Hur asked me to make a short statement, which I did, and certainly kept it short. I said that I also had a dream, that one day students from Cuba and students from America could debate each other openly, and that someday students from North and South Korea could debate with each other on the same teams, and that we could use these events to replace weapons with words as an example for all to see. I had been priming this line and testing it on people all through my trip. It went over very well. The winning team gave a few remarks and then I presented them with certificates entitling them to attend the World Debate Institute on scholarship. The event ended with a brief speech by a representative of the Prime Minister talking about how important debating was for creating transparency and critical thinking in Korean society. Then, after a few words from Gyeongho, it was over. Both high ranking representatives from the Prime Minister's Office asked me afterwards if I would consider accepting their invitation to return to Korea in the future, and I said I would gladly do so.

Top Speaker addresses the audience | National Champions address audience

Everyone seemed radiant and happy, especially the sponsors from the Prime Minister's Office, the organizers from Kyung Hee University, and, of course, the debaters themselves. We lingered a while, and then we met up with Kyung Hee who would drive Nadja, Olivia, Gyeongho, and myself to a sushi restaurant for the celebration dinner for organizers and supporters from other universities as well as, of course, Dr. Lee, who seems to be the mentor of the entire group.

The meal was festive as well as excellent. Everyone was cheering the success and sharing traditional Korean shots of their very mild fruit wine, along with the ceremonial pouring of the shots for each other. I was presented a wonderful book about travel in Korea to use on my next visit, which all said should be soon. The conversations between us became as deep and as personal as they had ever been on the trip. Olivia and Kyung Hee told me how much they would missed me and were literally on the verge of tears. Nadja had a wonderful discussion with Dr. Lee about being a woman in such a high position in what is obviously male-dominated Korean society. I will remember her answers for many years, but out of respect for her privacy I will not recount them here. She is an incredible woman. The students began to get rowdier and broke into Christmas carols briefly, and began toasting their school. I proposed a toast to the next national champion debate team for Korea, which I said was probably from Kyung Hee University and those champions were probably seated at the table this evening, which got many whoops from the crowd.

Festive group of tournament staff and organizers ==>

Finally it was time to go, and the moment I had been dreading arrived. I had to say good-bye to people who had within a week become such close friends, Dr. Lee, Prof. Kim, and of course, Nadja, Olivia, and Kyung Hee. Tears flowed outside the restaurant as we hugged each other farewell. I told that that as a Doctor Who fan (I am sure they didn't understand this, but mysteries are fine with me) I hated good-byes, so I preferred to recall our wonderful hellos as we first met. They followed me to a taxi we flagged down and I got into it and headed back to the Prima Hotel, as emotional as I have been in many, many months.

I arrived at the hotel and went straight to bed, knowing I would awaken early and have a lot of packing to do. But as I lay in bed with my eyes closed, I kept seeing the faces of my new and dear friends flash before me.





December 24, 2000

I awoke early, even though the hotel was late with my wake up call. I skipped breakfast at the hotel because I knew I would be having breakfast with Gyeongho at the airport.

I carefully packed all of my things, and of course found it difficult to fit everything in. Finally, everything seemed to fit. I headed down to the desk to check out, and I left some gifts for Nadja, Olivia, and Kyung Hee to pick up later -- CDs, and a calendar which belonged to Nadja My bill had been entirely paid.

I got into one of those lovely deluxe taxis and was off to Kimpo Airport. As we drove through the early morning there was very little traffic and the sun had yet to rise. The radio was full of cheerful voices singing Christmas songs in Korean.

I was quickly at the airport and was able to check my luggage and select my seat easily since I was three hours before departure. I looked for one of these cheap snow domes I collect representing Korea but could not find one. I found a central place and waited there for Gyeongho to arrive.

I heard his voice as he stepped off the escalator and saw that his family was with him. His wife, Sue, and his lovely children, Benjamin and Caroline (who was born in the USA). We greeted and snapped some photos. Then we went off for a breakfast together.

During breakfast I got to meet and get to know the Hur family. I spoke to Benjamin and Caroline about what they like to do and their favorite activities, and I told Sue how I felt about her husband and how lucky she is to have such a wonderful person in her life. They presented me with a lovely handmade Korean golden paper knife which I appreciated greatly for its beauty and the thought behind it. Gyeongho, of course, had a list of questions, such as how to break extended ties for speaker awards, how to pair a partial 5-3 round for a following round of 64, and about tournament pairing software. After all this time and all this debate stuff, Gyeongho still has questions -- and good ones.

We walked to the gate said our good-byes. I blew them a kiss and was on my way, through the passport checkpoint and into duty free shopping and the gates. As we boarded the plane I was glad to see that far fewer people were traveling on Christmas Eve.

On the flight I got to have some Korean food once more, watched X-Men (fair), Autumn in New York (boring) and MVP (horrible, I ignored the sound track). I was seated next to an American and we spoke a while, when I mentioned debate he said he had debated briefly at Edgemont High School in New York, and I mentioned that I knew David Glass, which took him by surprise. I read a copy of Korea News Review for December and found an article by Director General Park I had worked with and spoken to at the Prime Minister's Office, about corruption. No, it didn't mention the debate tournament.

I tried to sleep but didn't have much success. Finally we touched down in New York City. We had left Seoul at 10 AM on 12/24 and we arrived in New York City at 9:30 AM on 12/24. I got my luggage, cleared immigration and customs, and caught a taxi into the city and my hotel, the Marriott Financial Center. I checked into the room and waited for my daughter, Sarah Jane, to arrive to join me for Christmas.

I had gone to the other side of the world, and debate was there. Debate is expanding everywhere. Each of us is so small and the world is so large, so I think we all have to do our part to support it.

December 25, 2000

My trip is coming to an end. I am on my way to Vermont tomorrow. As I sit here at the keyboard I have a few final thoughts I want to share, but none of them will be surprising to people who have been reading this journal.

Thanks for reading.