MY INCREDIBLE 1988 JOURNEY TO KOREA

In the otherwise grim 1988 in my personal and professional life happened something extraordinary: I got an invitation from the Korean Institute of International Studies (KIIS) to attend their annual conference, which that year was devoted to a pivotal for the time topic: Soviet perestroika and pending changes in E. Europe.

How this invitation reached me – the obscure junior research fellow at the then Institute of Sociology at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences? It was due to a combination of at least two accidents, comparable to winning the loto’s jackpot. For my studies, I had to read a lot of publications which were not available here in Bulgaria, but thanks to the perfect interlibrary loan service, I could get books for a month, and articles on film (xerox machines were still a novelty then). However, with one journal article I faced troubles: two or three queries have been refused from the pool libraries. And I decided to address directly  the journal publishers in Seoul. I did not expect even that my letter will reach there, but it not only did: it get to the address just on time when fellows there were organizing the summer conference. Quite apparently, they haven’t whom to invite from Bulgaria, and sent an invitation to me. I was completely aware that if I go through the ordinary itinerary, I’ll never fly to Seoul – someone from senior staff will make it. I saw from the KIIS’ letter that from each of the countries that already had confirmed participation, Hungary, Poland, and Yugoslavia, there has been two participants, a senior and a junior one. And I rang Prof. (Assoc. at that time) Nansen Behar, who was the referee at my PhD thesis’ defense. He was one of the ‘champions’ in foreign travel among the Bulgarian scholars. I posed him a question, whether he has travelled to Seoul, and he answered No. Then I told him – I can arrange an invitation for you, but you need to fix  formalities here in Bulgaria. This was at that time far not an easy task: there have been some relief travel abroad regulations for us at the Academy, but, indeed, still the approval by the superiors, incl. the communist party apparatus, was a must. And once Prof. Behar mentioned without any details that he had fixed up our trip as high as with the then Vice PM on external economic affairs, Andrey Lukanov.

It is just this important point that make me think that our trip to Korea – for sure, first ever for Bulgarian social scientists, if not for the whole academic/ University  community in Bulgaria – may possibly had some hidden agenda which may certainly led to the establishment of the diplomatic and other relations between Bulgaria and Korea.

We flew to Frankfurt, Germany, where we had to take visas at the Republic of Korea Consulate-General, There we met the other E. European participants – Prof, Longin Pastusiak from Poland, who later was speaker of the Polish Sejm, Prof. Radovan Vukadinovic from Zagreb, who was one time minister in Croatia, and the others. Formalities went smoothly and promptly, the same afternoon we took the KAL flight via Anchorage, then on the same fatal route, where only five years earlier a Korean passenger airliner was shot down by a Soviet fighter jet.

Conference, sponsored by Daewoo, was great. I presented there a paper on the interdependence between societies all over the world – globalization paradigm was still to come, and a taboo in our part of the world, which was trying to isolate itself from the rest of the planet. We visited the Daewoo motor assembly complex in Incheon, which was completely automated – robots were executing all operations, and few workers observed to intervene in case if necessary. And I was recalling a line in my daughter’s textbook stating that ‘South Korea is a backward semi-dependent country’. It was 1988 then. Berlin Wall seemed as it will stay forever, or at least for many years ahead. We lived then in a communist country here, and DPRK was our friend…

Upon returning home, I wrote a brief piece in the then popular weekly, Pogled, in its sports pages – it was in the eve of Seoul Olympics. Somehow at the DPRK Embassy (as I recall, a close relative of the Chairman Kim Il Sung was the ambassador in Sofia) understood about it, and – as I was told by an editor – “several black diplomatic cars with angry personal” has ‘attacked’ the weekly’s staff to protest publication, but in vain – it was published, probably the first positive essay on the Republic of Korea ever published in communist Bulgaria…

Stephan E. Nikolov

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