Friday, 26 Apr 2002

SEOUL, South Korea

In addition to attending Earth Day events, the other purpose of my trip to Korea was to conduct more research for my book, Eco-Women of Korea, which will be published in China and hopefully inspire Chinese women. Among the†activists on my radar screen is Shim Suk-kyung of the U.N. Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization’s Korean National Commission, and today I had the pleasure of meeting with her.

I first got to know Suk-kyung at a World Conservation Union Conference on Protected Areas in East Asia. She made a presentation on UNESCO’s efforts to protect the area through its “Man and Biosphere” program. We met for a second time when I formed part of a Chinese nonprofit delegation that visited her office to learn about the work of the National Commission. It was at that time that I learned that Suk-kyung was the initiator of the Northeast Asia Eco-Peace Network, which aims to promote ecological cooperation in the Northeast Aisa region.

I attended the second Northeast Asia Eco-Peace Conference in Yanbian, China, and today we discussed the third conference, which will be held at the end of this year. Because Korea is the geographical center of Northeast Asia, the country has begun to play a more important role in promoting multilateral cooperation on environmental issues.

Upon leaving, Suk-kyung gave me some Korean-language reports on wildlife in Korea. I’ll definitely need to brush up on my Korean in order to read them!

While heading back toward my hotel, I came across an exhibit on the Korean National Soccer Team. As a person born in Dalian, China’s City of Soccer, I instinctively wandered into the exhibition hall. What struck me most was a display of a soccer ball made from a long rope of dry straw. This ball was what the parent generation of the current Korean national soccer team played with in Korean villages when they were children.

Since then, Korea has undergone a sea change. Today’s generation of Korean youth are growing up in a society far different from that of their parents and grandparents. For them, a soccer ball made from a rolled-up straw rope is unimaginable. And it is probably even harder for them to imagine the day-to-day life of the generations before them — before consumerism took hold of Korean society.

Korea badly needs a wake-up call from that rising consumerism, which poses serious threats to the ecological health of the entire region. Koreans’ daily per capita water consumption is the highest in the world. And its hunger for timber products is draining the forest resources of Russia, China, and Southeast Asia.

In an era when it is trendy for young Koreans to follow Japanese and American consumption patterns, people like Park Sunyoung offer a beacon of hope. Sunyoung is a graduate student at Kyunghee University and is studying environmental nonprofits in China. Her commitment to the environmental movement is inspiring. We met late this afternoon, together with Sunyuong’s former boss, Youn Jae-hyun.

Both Sunyoung and Jae-hyun have started to learn Chinese. As China’s economic status has improved, the Chinese language, regarded as a threat to national security during President Park Chung-hee’s military rule in the 1950s and ’60s, has again gained popularity in Korea.

The dominance of the language is just one of the ways China is starting to change the region, and the world, in good ways and bad. Tomorrow I will fly back there to continue the fight to save our nation’s dwindling and damaged natural environment. As the largest country in the world, with one-fourth of the global population, we owe it to ourselves and to all people everywhere to step lightly on the Earth.