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THE DOCILE TIGER
- While waiting for the fog to clear over Seoul

In India it would have provoked a riot. Americans would loudly have demanded the reason why. I can imagine Europeans protesting volubly. But the Korean passengers just sat or slept placidly in their seats during the four and a half hours that our Asiana airline flight was grounded at Jeju, an island 60 miles southwest of the Korean peninsula, because fog shrouded our destination, Seoul’s Incheon airport, an hour’s flight away.

They also serve who only stand and wait' Hardly! The Koreans didn’t stand in any case: they were recumbent and somnolent in seats that extended into full-length beds. But standing or sitting, sleeping or waking, their’s not to question why. They had been told to remain where they were, and that was what they did, without a murmur. There must be a linkage somewhere, I thought, between placid obedience and South Korea’s transformation into an Asian tiger, member of the prized Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. No tiger could be more docile.

Legend has it that the sacred fungus of immortality grew in profusion on Jeju, Island of the Blest. According to another legend, Halla San, the Peak that Pulls down the Milky Way, a vague shape, looming darkly on our right, bridges heaven and earth. The grey sea lapped at the shore on the left, almost where the runway ended. Korea’s biggest island is only an islet. “Honeymoon couples come to Jeju,” explained the pretty Korean air hostess, allowing me to call my waiting host in Seoul on her mobile. But neither she, nor her colleagues, could explain why we had to remain imprisoned in the aircraft.

“Thank you for your understanding,” they pleaded over and over again, asking if I was hungry. Could they get me something to eat' A drink perhaps' I wondered what the other passengers might say if I accepted. Would they also demand food and drink' But then, I decided, Koreans were too well-behaved to seek anything they were not offered.

The pilot had warned of the fog before we knew he would land at Jeju. Fogs are a common enough winter occurrence in Delhi and no cause for worry. At worst, he would have to circle in the air a few times. My Australian neighbour — a young immigration official posted to Seoul to check out passengers flying to Australia — stirred in his sleep to murmur a question. Dawn had yet to break outside. The others in our cabin, all Koreans, like their compatriots beyond the Economy curtain, did not stir.

Momentous things were happening in their world. Han Myeong-sook, prime minister since April and the first female incumbent, was again threatening to quit. She had first announced her intention on February 11. Roh Moo-hyun, the president, was also due to quit, but he has no option. The constitution doesn’t allow him a second term. He has also promised to leave the ruling Uri party, apparently to maintain neutrality in the run-up to December’s presidential election. But if Roh is leaving Uri, Han is returning to it. Is this preparatory to running for president' No one knows.

Nearer home, Chung Mong-koo, Hyundai chairman, flew into India as we were stranded on Jeju with the horizon getting lighter outside. Seoul’s district court convicted Chung on February 5 of financial and other misdemeanours involving $110 million. He was sentenced to a month’s imprisonment, but has appealed. He can argue that he served double his sentence in jail when he was arrested last year. He knows, too, that Indian high society would be impressed by the charge against him. Handsome is as handsome does, and Chung, at 68, has done a great deal. India apart, he has set up Hyundai plants in America and the Czech Republic, and plans to follow in China and Turkey. The Chennai factory, which began operating in 1998, produces 300,000 cars annually, and Chung wanted to see how the second factory, scheduled to start producing later this year, is doing.

Streaks of white gleamed on Halla San. “Snow!” exclaimed the air hostess, pointing. It’s an extinct volcano and covered in snow in winter. People trek to the crater some 2,000 metres high. But she did not have the energy for such vigorous exercise, she admitted with a tinkling little laugh while I tried to convert metres into feet to get a sense of the height. There were more solicitous offers of breakfast. The chief purser joined us in the open doorway to a crisp Korean spring morning where the air hostess and I had been chatting. He warned me, ever so politely, not to step out on the gangway. It was against the rules.

The intercom crackled to life. It was the pilot. Incheon was still under fog. The minutes went by, so did the hours. Several announcements later, we remained where we were. Incheon was still fogged. Jeju’s terminal building was visible, a modest structure by east Asian standards. Cream walls and black glass, “Jeju International Airport” painted on the tower. Why couldn’t we go and sit there' The purser explained it would violate immigration rules. But surely there’s a transit room' He couldn’t understand: his English petered out.

I tried to describe the transit lounge at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, packed with Bengalis, on chairs, tables and even sprawling on the carpet, like Sealdah station platforms with refugees. These were refugees too in a sense, being passengers on Aeroflot’s now discontinued London-Calcutta journey, forced to kill about eight hours between flights. Soviet immigration confined passengers to that one room.

An hour later, and other planes were joining us on the tarmac. Nearby was an Aeroflot aircraft. I saw Royal Khmer in the distance, and Cathay Pacific. Also the orange star and crescent of Gulf Air. But most were the blue Boeings and Airbuses of Korean Air. Jeju airport was crowded with parked planes two hours later. But no gangways, no buses, no people. No stirring of life. Just silence. They were all waiting for Incheon to clear.

The Koreans were sitting up now, wide awake but unquestioningly silent. They are a hardy people. I would see them in the snow in January’s bitter cold outside my frozen frosted window in a small London suburb called New Malden. Wrapped in knitted caps and mufflers, hymn books in mittened hands, singing away, their breath rising like clouds, their music filling the early Sunday morning silence. They were evangelists. The faith doesn’t matter, it’s the resilience that counts. The Japanese can barely invest in India because of their essential comfort level. But Koreans do not need exclusive clubs and golf links, their own schools, special cuisine or shopping malls. They can rough it out. According to Choi Jung Il, their ambassador to India, there are a thousand Korean families — families, not individuals — in Madras alone.

But they are also prone to suicide. Yuni, a successful 26-year-old pop star, killed herself last month. Korea has the highest suicide rate of any of the 30 OECD countries. Some say it’s because of tiredness with a surfeit of prosperity. Others explain that wealth creates complexes, driving to despair those who don’t have it. The government is trying to fence in bridges, balconies and tall buildings, remove toxic agents from farm chemicals (pesticides in Andhra Pradesh!) and purge the internet of suggestive sites. Tackling the symptom, not the cause. Yet, the 40 million or so South Koreans are said to be either Buddhist or Roman Catholic.

There was movement in the cockpit. The gangway was hauled in. The intercom again spluttered. The fog was lifting at Incheon. We were away. We had arrived at six and it was now well past half-past ten. Four and a half hours of confinement. And still, not a single Korean passenger had asked any questions.

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