British Find in Korea No Isolated Isle"For British sailors and marines stationed on Port Hamilton [Geomun island], life was not very exciting. There were occasional visitors and from time to time, the regular garrison was reinforced by visiting ships. But life in general must have been dull and dangerous in the autumn winter gales." Thus wrote J.E. Hoare, the British charge d'affaires to North Korea and a historian of Korean-British relations, in his book, "Britain and Korea: 1797-1997."
More than a century after the brief British occupation of the islands off the southern coast of Korea, "boredom" could not be further from the truth for British subjects living in Korea. Although the British Embassy in Seoul said it did not know exactly how many British people were living in Korea, there appears to be a sizeable British community concentrated in Seoul. Estimates range from 700 to 1,000 persons, among them business people, embassy officials and English teachers.
One of the most notable and active groups of Britons in Korea is the British Women's Group. Formed in 1977, the group's membership stands at 135, including some Commonwealth members. According to Jill Goodwin, the group's president, the BWG has two main aims: supporting the British community and raising funds for Korean charities.
There are regular meetings of the members at the Grand Hyatt Hotel with a guest speaker. The meeting usually takes place on the last Tuesday of each month. There are also coffee mornings for new arrivals in Korea to meet each other and existing members.
Tennis and skiing outings and trips to markets and other places of interest are organized throughout the year. The members participate in weekly bridge, mah-jongg and hiking clubs. There is also an evening social function every month such as a quiz night or wine-tasting, to which members can invite their partners.
The Queen's Birthday Ball, traditionally held on the first Saturday in June at the Grand Hyatt, is a major fund-raising event. Preparation for the ball begins in January when the BWG committee has a brainstorming session to decide on a theme, which is always kept secret until the night of the ball. The committee expects attendance this year to exceed 400.
The British School, on the grounds of Seoul Foreign School, is another point of contact for British people in Korea. The school offers a British curriculum from kindergarten through sixth grade and has students of 35 nationalities. Gina Campbell-Harris, who is in the school's Parent-Teacher Association, said the school was an important part of her life in Korea. Allison Veit, whose French husband works for Saint Gobain, a manufacturing company, echoed the sentiment, saying she preferred to send her child to the British School over the American alternative next door.
In addition to the women's group and the school, there is a group of Koreans who studied in Britain called the Korean-Britain Society. The society's U.K.-Korea Forum for the Future raises funds for scholarships to study in Britain. It has financed scholarships for such high-profile individuals as Yu Chun-su, the architect in charge of designing the World Cup stadium, Sin Su-gyeong, a well-known pianist, and Seol Nan-ju, a cardiologist.
Last but not least, the British Chamber of Commerce in Korea with 177 corporate members is an active group of business people and others with an interest in Britain. Just this month, the chamber handled a round of bilateral economic and trade policy talks as well as visits by three trade missions from Britain who introduced companies seeking investment.
Despite the burgeoning ties between Korea and Britain, Britons are not immune to culture shock upon arrival here. Asked about her first impressions of Korea, Ms. Campbell-Harris said she was surprised at what she called the "lack of space concerns" on the part of the Korean people. "People bump each other while walking on the streets of Dongdaemun or Namdaemun markets and just pass by as if nothing happened," she said. Ms. Veit said she still liked the traditional outdoor markets like Dongdaemun and Namdaemun because "there's nothing like it in Europe." Other factors they cited as favorable in Korea include the sense of trust among people and relative safety of children.
Ros Sparrow, public relations officer at the British Embassy said, she felt uneasy when her Korean acquaintances asked her age at initial encounters. "A talk about age would take place rarely in the West even among people you were really close to," she said. She lived in Bangladesh, Bahrain, Belgium and Singapore before coming to Korea.
Speaking on community ties Mrs. Sparrow said, "The more underdeveloped a country is the better organized a foreign community tends to be." But she said despite the fact that Korea offers conveniences and amenities that do not necessarily require close cooperation among members of a foreign community, the British community here is close and tight-knit.
There is also an evening gathering every month to which members can invite their partners.
by Park Sung-woo