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Britain and South Korea: 200 years of mutual ignorance

Richard Lloyd Parry reports on moves to make up for lost opportunities
Seoul -Among members of the Royal Family, at least, you would have expected South Korea to have rather miserable associations. It was in Seoul, during a visit five years ago, that the unhappiness which had been rumoured between the Prince and Princess of Wales became obvious to everyone.

Their discomfort, and the correspondents hovering round them, overshadowed the trip; the biggest event in Anglo-Korean relations in the decade since the Seoul Olympics was the irreparable public collapse of the royal marriage.

Now a push is under way to put a new spin on the neglected Anglo-Korean relationship. The pretext is a forgotten celebration: 1997 is the 200th anniversary of the first contact between Britain and Korea. There will be an exhibition of Korean art at the British Museum this summer and a clutch of business ventures (a pounds 300m purchase of British arms is rumoured to be in the offing).

British warships visit South Korea next month, including the aircraft- carrier Illustrious, and the campaign was set in motion with another royal visit - last week the Duke of Gloucester made speeches, attended memorial services for the Korean War, and opened the new Seoul office of Marks & Spencer.

The vigour of the campaign is surprising, given the feeble historical links between Seoul and London. For all the energy with which its bicentennial is being celebrated, the first contact was obscure and inconsequential: in October 1797 Captain William Broughton disembarked from the survey ship HMS Providence at Pusan and was immediately asked to go away.

Formal diplomatic relations were not established until 86 years later. In 1885 the British navy - without troubling to ask permission - occupied a small Korean island where it maintained a base for two years.

From earliest times Korea has been a testing ground for the rivalries of greater powers and only recently has Britain begun to see it as much more than a strategically important sphere of Chinese, Russian or Japanese influence. By the time of the Korean War, ignorance about it was almost complete, as 87,000 British troops sent to fight there between 1950 and 1953 found.

"No one back home knew anything about Korea then, and no one knows anything now," says Len Swatton, a former infantryman in the Gloucester Regiment who saw it virtually wiped out in 1951 at the Battle of the Imjin River.

"I was in the pub the other week, back from a meeting of the veterans' association, and somebody asked me where I'd been. When I told him, he said, `Korea wasn't a war, it was just a peace- keeping operation.' So I hit him. A peace-keeping operation! They call it the forgotten war, and it is."

In South Korea memories of the war are bitterly alive and the Commonwealth contribution is gratefully remembered. But if Britain is hazy about contemporary Korea, the reverse is also true. Images of the West are overwhelmingly conditioned by the influence of the US, which still has 37,000 troops on the peninsula.

When Rover carried out market research for for an advertising campaign, they discovered that images of Britain are decidedly negative. "There are two impressions," says Allan Rushworth, executive director of Rover Korea. "One, that Britain's made a poor showing as a member of Europe. Second, that after being the home of the Industrial Revolution, we've ended up lagging behind globally, and with the implication that countries like Korea are getting ahead.

"In the motor business the market is viewed by most Koreans through an American filter, so what we try to do is to establish an image of Britishness, and then develop it into a more homogenised, Americanised version - start with London Bobbies and Guardsmen, and expand to images of adventure, freedom, guts, authenticity."

One of the company's first magazine advertisements features an apparently quintessential British image of a Range Rover on the bank of a stream in which two friends are fishing. Up close though, the men are wearing denim, not tweed, and cowboys', not ghillies' hats. The car is left-hand drive, and the river pictured is closer to Vermont than Scotland.

Economically, Britain has a good record in East Asia - 40 per cent of Japanese investment in Europe is in Britain. Recently, however, there have been hints that Japanese investment may be tailing off as concerns about Emu and a desire to diversify European operations cause Japanese companies to look elsewhere.

But among the Korean chaebol, the conglomerates which dominate industry, interest in Britain is growing. Hyundai, Samsung and LG have set up in Britain. "We've already got the four top chaebol," says a British diplomat. "Now we're looking lower down the list."

Seoul's minimal cultural influence is exceeded by its economic weight. South Korea is the 11th-biggest trading nation; if the economic graphs maintain their current trends, the South Korean economy will surpass Britain's in the first third of the next century.

Given the likelihood of the collapse of North Korea, and the strains this will impose on the South, this is unlikely. But a reunified peninsula, with 70 million hardworking consumers, will provide even bigger business opportunities. A delegation of British businessmen has just returned to Peking from a trip investigating opportunities in North Korea.

For Britain the truly significant Asian event of 1997 is not its bicentennial with Korea but the passing into Chinese hands of Hong Kong. One of the subliminal messages being broadcast by the voyage of HMS Illustrious is that the end of Britain in Hong Kong does not mean the end of British influence in Asia. This surely is also the point of the anniversary of Capt Broughton's first visit.

If Britain does have a future role in Asia, it belongs not with dukes and fleets, but with businessmen.