It wasn't my first visit to Korea but as with the first, I couldn't help marvelling once again. Even though millions of words have been written about what Korea managed to achieve in just the 30 years between 1960 and 1990 and how, the sheer scale of the achievement always leaves an Indian slightly speechless and defiant.
One's immediate reaction is to think of all the excellent reasons why we failed but deep down you know it: it was the people and their discipline that made the difference. The point is so simple that it is impossible to understand why our political and bureaucratic class can't get it into their heads.
In the late 1970s, when my wife was a student there, she used to see people running up 18 floors to their office if the queue for the lift was very long because there was no question of being late. Late the first time led to a warning, twice to a more severe one and thrice to dismissal without a reference - which meant no job for some months at least.
Contrast that with what the Congress chief minister of Andhra Pradesh did as soon as he took office in 2004. Chandrababu Naidu had made it compulsory for all government servants to punch in their cards at 9.30 am. Rajshekhar Reddy rescinded the order in the first week after taking over as CM. Why, for heaven's sake? How did that order help anyone?
Our conference went the way of all such conferences. The first session was full and after that there were barely 20 people present. It made me wonder what the attendance would have been if it was China that was, so to speak, the other side. But then, Indo-Korea trade is not even $9 billion, compared to the Korean trade surplus with China of around $24 billion. Besides, as a man-on-the-street said, "China is big brother, we are little brother."
This became strikingly clear when during the obligatory visit to the foreign minister Mr Shashank mentioned ASEAN+6 so that India can be included. He got no purchase at all. China doesn't want India in. But Korea does want India to help out with maritime policing, which would help China as well. I wonder how India will bargain because if there is one thing the East Asians and the Chinese love, it is good bargaining sessions.
The need not to annoy China has made Korea go all out on the soft diplomacy front. It came as a complete surprise to learn that as many as 13,000 Indian students were studying in Korea, up from a just around 2,000 a few years ago. In 1977, my wife was the only Indian student there. The number of students applying to study in Korea was increasing we were told, to which my response was that instead of importing students, Korea should export universities to India.
The reply, however, was very surprising: we aren't as good as you are, someone said to me. That completely floored us. But it did provide a small insight into the way Koreans see themselves. In certain things, they seem to be full of self-confidence - manufacturing and technology, for example. But when it comes to services, education, politics, security, etc. that confidence turns to diffidence of a degree that takes one aback.
An excellent example of this came in the presentation made by a very erudite professor from Ewha Women's University in Seoul. She spoke on how Korea would need to import workers soon - its population is aging - and how Korea needed to examine issues arising from what she called "multi-culturalism". It occurred to me that if Big Brother leaned on Little Brother to take in workers, the latter may have no choice but to say yes. Or if North Korea falls apart and there is unification a la Germany, a similar outcome might ensue.
The professor, Kim Eun Mee, said India had a lot of lessons to offer on multiculturalism and quoted chapter and verse from our Constitution, once again taking us all completely by surprise. It also came as a surprise to learn, during another session, that Korea was considering moving away from a fixed five-year term for the government to something like a Westminster model. That would be a mistake, if or when it happens.
As far as India and Korea are concerned, it is pretty clear what Korea wants from India: markets and raw materials. But what do we want from Korea? Technology, for one; training for all sorts of skills (including for punctuality and politeness) for another; and some lessons in how to carry out land reforms.
The two countries are negotiating a free trade agreement and the Koreans are bargaining hard. The prime minister wants the agreement concluded quickly. I wonder how much play "soft" knowhow items would get there. I suspect very little. It will turn out to be just another document containing long and dreary lists of different types. Korea will get what it wants and needs; we will get what we don't need because we will not ask for what we do.