[Viewpoint] My contribution to Korea

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[Viewpoint] My contribution to Korea

Who would not wish to be immortal, or at least famous, or at least remembered? Who would not wish, in the words of a Korean poet, to leave “footprints on the sands of time.” Or maybe it was not a Korean but the 19th-century American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: “Lives of great men all remind us / We can make our lives sublime, / And, departing, leave behind us / Footprints on the sands of time.”

But surely a Korean poet has said essentially the same thing, and a Chinese poet and a Russian poet and so on. We all want our lives to count for something. We all wish to leave a mark. That’s why some people who have no other way to assert their presence on Earth carve their initials on trees: “H+B4ever.” Scratches on the bark of time.

Then imagine my astonishment when I landed at Incheon airport on my recent trip to Korea and saw a sign informing foreign visitors of the “BBB.” My sweet wife turned to me and said, “That’s your Korean legacy, BBB.” At that moment, my wife and I may have been the only two people on the planet who knew what BBB stood for, but for you I tell you what it means: “Before Babel Brigade.”

I can’t claim that the phrase is really cool, but as BBB is my legacy, my footprint on the Korean sands, I suppose I must defend it.

Long ago, let’s say 2001 or 2002, when this newspaper was new and I was its editor, my boss came to me with a simple request.

It was not so long after the North-South summit of June, 2000. Unification fever was in the air. The South Korean president, Kim Dae-jung, had won the Nobel Peace Prize. The North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, had visited free-market Shanghai and “given guidance,” as they say up there above the 38th parallel.

It was a time of optimism, and I still have the T-shirt: “Visit Dynamic Korea, Hub of Northeast Asia.” Fat chance of that, so long as that black, unelectrified hole persists at the heart of the would-be hub. The “hub” depended on a participating North Korea or a unified Korea.

But in those heady days of yore, the JoongAng Ilbo wanted to sponsor an outreach program for arriving foreigners in Korea. The idea was that a team of interpreters would be on hand at the airport to help new arrivals navigate their way in the mysterious Land of Morning Calm. And the boss wanted me to come up with a catchy English name for the program.

I can’t quite remember what I proposed at first, or second, but they were evidently insufficiently catchy. As the deadline bore down on me, I came up with BBB, the “Before Babel Brigade.” And this was a winner, and the key to my Korean immortality.

The reference, of course, is to the story of the Tower of Babel mentioned in the Bible. To punish man’s arrogance, God determined “to confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.”

But in Korea, language confusion is reversed, thanks to the BBB. The JoongAng Ilbo initiative supplies a brigade of interpreters with the mission to return us, at least in Korea, to a time “Before Babel,” when we might all understand each other. It was fine to see on a recent evening at Incheon that the BBB lives on.

*The writer is former chief editor of the JoongAng Daily.

By Harold Piper
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