From Far East to East End

04/15/2010 12:00 AM |

After wine tasting at Raphael Vineyards in Peconic and a tour of Southold Historical Society, professionals from Gwangju, South Korea, get their fill of fresh-from-the-vat North Fork Potato Chips in Cutchogue on Tuesday. The Rotary-sponsored cultural exchange group will tour Suffolk County throughout the month.

Wine, golf, microbrewed beer, a struggling artist population and journalists trying to remain nimble in an ever-changing newspaper industry.

Gwangju, a vibrant city in South Korea, really isn’t all that different from the North Fork, said a group of South Koreans currently touring the region as part of a month-long international Rotary cultural exchange program on Long Island.

“There is not a big difference,” said Jinhyun Joe, a 38-year-old woman who teaches foreign language in Gwangju, located in southwestern South Korea. “But there is a different spirit — and we do have a faster Internet system.”

Hosted by local Rotary member Bill Sanok, Ms. Joe was one of four Koreans to visit the Times/Review Newsgroup offices in Mattituck Monday to talk about why they’re here and what they’ve been experiencing so far. Earlier that day, they had visited the renewable energy firm GoSolar in Riverhead, the Riverhead school system and had lunch at the Jamesport Country Kitchen.

Ms. Joe, who served as a translator for the enthusiastic group, said she enrolled in the exchange program to grow as a teacher, “so my students can get experience in life.”

“Students are in school from 8 a.m. until 10 p.m.,” she said. “They can’t leave. It’s very important for me to be able to tell the students about many things that they cannot experience themselves.”

Political journalist Chulho Park, 35, described how Korean politicians wished they had the kind of money that politicians in the U.S. spend on campaigns.

“But people are worried about supporting that kind of system because of bribes and corruption,” he said.

A reporter for 20 years at Gwangju Daily News, which has a circulation of 300,000, Mr. Park added that his paper has been experiencing extreme downsizing similar to that of U.S. dailies, and figuring out ways to make money off Internet news has also been a struggle.

“Hopefully I still have a job when I get back to Korea,” he joked.

A city of 1.4 million, Gwangju translates into “city of light.” It is also known for its arts and cultural richness. Suny Yu, a 27-year-old professional cellist, described how most artists struggle financially, just as they do here.

“But luckily, she is a good cellist,” Ms. Joe added. “She has been able to make a good living.”

By planting 10 million trees across the city and investing in alternative energy, the people of Gwangju have spent years trying to make their city into a greener place to live. Seungsig Cho, a 39-year-old CEO of a power company in Gwangju, said he came to Long Island to see how energy companies are incorporating green technology and to “observe the mannerisms and culture of the people.”

Though Gwangju is home to a place called Oriental Brewery, which produces the Korean “OB” beer, imported wine has only recently made its way into middle-class culture in South Korea. But before the group left to have more fun in Wine County and take a tour of North Fork Potato Chips in Cutchogue next day, they got serious with their thoughts on the people of North Korea, who have lived in a totally different society of a Communist dictatorship for years.

Ms. Joe, speaking for the whole group, said that South Koreans don’t see their neighbors to the north as threatening, as most Americans do.

“North Koreans are still viewed as our people,” she said. “Most Koreans don’t think of them as the enemy. We are expecting unification someday. We are helping them in many ways, and we are hoping that the result will be good.”

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