IN 1965/66, my family and I spent nearly two years in the Republic of Korea (South Korea) where I served as Second Secretary and then Charge d’Affaires at the Australian Embassy in Seoul.

It was an interesting time to be in Korea. The Korean War had ended only twelve years earlier and there were reminders of it nearly every day — in private discussions, press comment, in the evidence of destruction caused by the conflict and in the continuing presence of the US Eighth Army. It was also a time of resurgence and redevelopment which, within a few decades, would see Korea become one of the commercial and industrial powerhouses of the new, post-war East Asia.

Korea is a fascinating country, a spectacular peninsular of hot summers, bitter winters and superb autumns and spring. The people are no less rugged than the terrain and have been described as the “Irish of the Far East.” It is a not inappropriate label because both countries are rugged and attractive, both have been oppressed by larger, more populous neighbours, both have immense independence of spirit and both can boast impressive artistic achievements. Living cheek by jowl with China and Japan and with a significant American presence over the past half a century, along with the once looming presence of the Soviet Union through its wet-nursing of North Korea has not always made Korea’s lot a happy one. Indeed, the brutality suffered at the hands of the Japanese during the decades of Japanese occupation, 1911 to 1945, was one of Korea’s most bitter low points.

It is interesting to recall the history of the Korean Peninsular over the past one thousand years or so. It was conquered by the Chinese during the years either side of the birth and death of Jesus Christ. It was then attacked by the Mongols in the 13th century AD and became part of Genghis Khan’s empire which stretched from Java and Korea in the east to Poland in the west and from the Arctic in the north to Turkey and Persia in the south. Then there were the Japanese pirate invasions of the peninsular under Hideyoshi Toyotomi in 1582-92 and in 1597-98, during the Ming dynasty. They were followed by the Manchu invasions of 1627 and 1636-37, followed by Vassal status in 1637 and Ching dynasty domination from 1644 to 1911. Then of course there was the repressive Japanese rule of the Korean peninsular from 1911 to 1945.

Drifters, tricksters, crooks

It all rather puts the relatively brief white foothold on our own continent in its proper perspective, doesn’t it?

In many respects the mid-sixties was an ideal time to be in Korea. The full flush of industrial and commercial expansion was in its very seminal stages. The foreign community was miniscule — a handful of diplomatic missions, a significant American presence, a number of UN agencies, a sprinkling of foreign business representatives, quite a few missionaries, some academics and teachers and the usual motley mix of foreign drifters, tricksters, crooks, nightclub performers and the like. In these circumstances it was possible to view and enjoy both the end of the old Korea and the fast emerging new version. My own role was assisted by having a very modest grasp of the Korean language having had a tutor in Canberra for a few months prior to departure and again for the first six months or so of my posting in Korea.

A posting in Korea did however have its challenges. In particular, in those times it remained very much a “stag” society which meant that women were house-bound. Any entertainment of an official nature or involving restaurant dinners and the like did not involve women and, similarly, it was very rare to see a Korean woman at a reception or any kind of social gathering. This should not surprise if we remind ourselves, as mentioned above, of the many centuries of isolation and subjugation. Nor did one see a woman in government or private sector offices in those days unless she was sweeping floors or serving tea and coffee. That, however, was the way of the world in Korea at that time — it was their culture, there way of doing things — and, inevitably, it has been subject to considerable change and relaxation over subsequent decades.

A great delight of Korea was the cuisine. Red raw chill-hot dishes or soft, subtle honeyed ones, with the full range of meats, fish and poultry, were among the countless options available in a range of eateries from the small and basic to the larger and more flamboyant. Eating in Korea — whether in Seoul or experiencing regional differences elsewhere in the country — was rarely anything other than a most enjoyable experience.

Notably Sir James Plimsoll

One of the less savoury dimensions to life in Korea at that time was the prevalence of corruption. Everything and everyone seemed to have a price. This was a particular problem in the public sector where, with the fast increasing need for new, contemporary infrastructure, the officials handling the contracts were well placed to get a piece of the action. I recall the local representative of a major international heavy machinery business, a New Zealander, telling me that he had been told by a Korean bureaucrat not to waste his time putting in a contract bid unless, upon winning the contract, a minimum of 10% of the project cost was paid to a nominated official who would then presumably make the necessary hierarchical allocations. (Nor was this problem unique to Korea or indeed to Asia. It certainly took place in Africa.)

Australia enjoyed a high standing in Korea in the 1960s and doubtless still does. This flowed in particular from Australia’s participation in the Korean War in which our troops distinguished themselves in a number of critical battles. Our standing was also greatly enhanced by the work of our senior diplomats, notably Sir James Plimsoll — subsequently governor of Tasmania — who served in Korea after the Korean War. Plimsoll was a great Australian by any measure and the respect and affection with which he was regarded in Korea was palpable when I was there and, from all accounts, for a long time after I left, in 1966. Apart from his intelligence and quiet charm, he had the uncanny and invaluable diplomatic skill to get people to confide in him. When he served in Korea he was very close to President Syngman Rhee and the joke at the time was that if the President needed sound advice he would consult Plimsoll before consulting his cabinet or senior officials!

Those dark days

One of the most significant events in Korea during my time there was the “normalisation” of relations with Japan. As indicated above, Korea has been crushed and bruised by many boots over past centuries but none more savagely than during the Japanese occupation between 1911 and 1945. This meant that when I was there twenty years later there were still many millions of Koreans who could recall those dark days from very direct experience.

Discussions between Korea and Japan on the normalisation or relations began in the early 1950s and concluded in 1965. A lot of people contributed to that process but, at least in the latter stages, none more so than a quiet, sensitive, highly intelligent and delightfully amiable Japanese diplomat named Maeda. I knew him through diplomatic activity in Seoul and because he was a member of a poker school also involving a Malaysian diplomat, two Korean foreign ministry officials, a Taiwan-China diplomat and myself.

After confidential exchanges between the two governments over some fifteen years Maeda was sent to Seoul with a somewhat bland title and he occupied a similarly unobtrusive office. He then went about his work, developing a close relationship with the Korean leadership and key officials along with briefings of important politicians on all sides, massaging the media at senior levels and generally discharging his mandate with consummate professionalism. In the event, the critical latter stages of the normalisation of the Korea/Japan relationship evolved in a measured, almost predictable way with relatively little drama compared to what might have been. I believe Maeda’s role was central to that result.

I understand that Maeda died young, during or after his first ambassadorial appointment — I think in Turkey. His death was a sad loss to Japanese diplomacy.