On Saturday, I visited North Korea!
With three weeks left in Korea, I decided this was something I really needed to do. The USO here organizes great full day tours where you really get to see some interesting sights.
We started at 7:30am leaving on a bus for the DMZ or DeMilitarized Zone. This is an area 4km wide and 265k wide that stretches from coast to coast. With the two Koreas still being at war, this area was designed to create space and an area called the Joint Security Alliance where the two sides could come together for meetings. Apart from this little finger of the JSA that stretches across the DMZ, no humans have entered the DMZ in 50 years. It’s thought that there are many native species of flower and animals that are thriving in this area and with the possibility of a joint country becoming a prospect, it has already been decided that the DMZ will become a national park with only one road running through it to join both sides.
The whole tour and area there is fascinating. I’m a bad student and don’t know much about the Korean war and I admit to not really following the current situation. Certainly sitting here in Seoul we feel very safe and it’s hard to believe that North Korea would ever be a threat. However, visiting the area and listening to the threat that the soldiers are facing, makes you feel a little vulnerable up there.
This was our first stop in the JSA. You can see the blue buildings which are South Korean, and the white ones which are North Korean. That large building in the back is an equivalent guard station on the North Korean side. In this area we are not allowed to point, wave or gesture in any way to the North side.
Finally we were allowed to enter the building where the two sides come together to meet. This is the exact table that they sit at. The guards in the building for that day are from the South Korean side. Apparently during these meetings the soldiers are on full alert. The North Koreans stand on their side in a triangle formation facing each other. Our soldier told us that they have orders to shoot each other if one of them tries to defect to the South. I think the last attempt like this was in the 80’s and resulted in a full gun battle between the two sides.
When we entered the building, we had to move in quite a ways to make space for everyone on the tour. Our guide then looked at those of us on his left and announced that we were currently standing in North Korea!
Apparently they used to have real flags of the countries hanging inside the building until some North Korean soldiers inside the building were seen on camera to be blowing their noses on the American Flag. Now, they just have this small frame with miniatures.
One of the pictures that I didn’t get was that of the world’s 3rd most dangerous golf course. It is a one hole course right up by the DMZ and is surrounded on three sides by minefields. It used to be the number one most dangerous course until Afghanistan and Iraq entered.
Our next stop was an observation checkpoint on the southern side. The easy way to distinguish North from South Korea, is to look at the trees. The Northerners have no trees left on their mountains as they were all used for fuel. That big flagpole there is in propoganda village in the Northern part of the DMZ. It is fairly uninhabited now but they used to broadcast propaganda messages throughout the night from this pole.
There is an equivalent village in the southern side of the DMZ called Freedom Village (hhmm, guess which side we think is in the right). It’s Korean name is Taeseon village and it is a small farming community. Inhabitants must show direct descendancy of a Taeseon villager and have strict curfews plus limited areas to roam in, as there are still minefields. Why would they do this? Because as long as they stay there for 9 months of the year, they earn wages completely tax free. It’s enough money for them that they can afford nice holiday homes in the islands off Korea to spend their remaining 3 months of the year.
This is the ‘Bridge of No Return’ that bridges the two sides and is heavily guarded. Following the war, the two sides came to this bridge to release POW’s. These POW’s had to choose which side they wanted to live in but once you made your decision, you couldn’t undo it.
Right beside this bridge is this monument. It used to be a poplar tree and the Americans and South Koreans needed to cut it down because it was blocking their view of the bridge. Because it is in the middle, the North Koreans were invited to attend. The operation to cut down the tree cost the army 90 million dollars!! They had B-52 bombers at the ready, ships just off the coast and full military out. Unfortunately this wasn’t enough. The North Koreans had axes hidden and were able to axe 2 American soldiers to death before being shot. This monument is in memory of the soldiers. Oddly enough, on the Northern side, they have a ‘peace museum’ where they have mounted the axes used and have plaques commemorating the Northern soldiers who died killing the Americans.
While up at this observation point, we overheard an old Korean man talking to some people about the fact that he had lived in Canada. Like a lot of young people, they dismissed him and walked away. I know I’ve been guilty of this too but I was really glad that instead of doing that this time, I stopped to talk to him. It turns out he is General Paik Sun Yup who was the commander of the 1st Battalion that manned this post during 1950. By 1953 he had risen to become Chief of Staff for the Korean Government and had 60,000 troops at his command. He met Eisenhower, General MacArthur and many other famous names. Following this he went on to become Korean Ambassador to France and then to Canada. It was fascinating listening to him talk about the fact that he lived through the things we were coming to learn about.
The last part of our trip was a visit to the 3rd Tunnel. During the armistice talks between North and South Korea, the South Koreans were working hard on reunification of families (in fact we visited Freedom House where they bring divided families to meet for a day before returning to their lives) and assumed that North Korea were as earnest in their promises. However, they later found a series of tunnels running 75 metres under the DMZ into South Korea. So far, only 4 have been found (the last one in 1983 I think) but they fear that there are many more. The most dangerous tunnel is considered to be the 3rd Tunnel as it was designed to allow 30,000 armed troops to enter South Korea in less than an hour. The tunnel exit was only 52km from Seoul. All sorts of excuses were given – it was coal mining (not true, the tunnels are made of granite), it was the South Korean army (the direction of the dynamite blasts shows that it was from the North). We actually got to enter this 3rd tunnel and walk down to the border (75 metres below ground!) where it has been sealed off. I admit to a small case of claustrophobia as 3 tour groups were attempting to enter and exit all at the same time.
The whole trip was so interesting. The elite soldiers from the American and South Korean army are posted at the DMZ for 12 months at a time and must practice response drills in case of attacks, or attempted defections. And yet, the majority of their time they do nothing. No attacks in 20 years but their mere presence is required. It’s just bizarre!
2 comments May 21, 2008 lizzie
I finished the triathlon! 300m swim, 15k bike ride and 5k run (sprint triathlon). I finished in 1:22:04 which was actually slower than I had done it in practice the week before but it doesn’t matter because I did it! It turned out to be a miserable day – cold, rainy and windy. I’m blaming that for the slow time since everyone had a slower time than they expected😉 I think the final count was 7 minutes for the swim and transition (including stuck inside the shirt time), 45 minutes on the bike and 30 minutes for the run.
The transitions went okay because I had Elissa helping me and I really needed her help when transitioning from swim to bike. Long sleeves and jackets and long pants plus socks and shoes all over a pretty wet body and very wet suit….. I got stuck!
Then when going bike to run, I threw off the bike and jacket and Elissa threw on my hat and ipod.
Have a look at the photos and you’ll see how much I was enjoying it! Elissa was nice enough to do the run with me since that was when you are really tired and ready to quit. She was great and you can see that she was certainly enjoying herself more than I was at that point!
After this there was a BBQ at the apartments, round the back out of the way of the rain, thunder and lightning that began shortly after we started. I certainly felt that I deserved the beer that day!
But, I can’t just rest on my laurels now. The wedding countdown is on…….6 weeks!!!
1 comment May 19, 2008 lizzie
I can’t believe I didn’t mention this earlier! I got the job! I will be working at Marshall’s school next year as an EAL (same as ESL) and Individual Needs teacher. It is a huge relief to know that I have a job and won’t be driving Marshall insane next year. If you want to check out the school it is www.discovery.edu.hk
I’ll be in Hong Kong for about 10 days before heading to the states so hopefully that will be time when I can visit the school (brand new, purpose built facilities) and meet some of the students I will be working with next year.
This also means that we are taking the very grown up step of looking to buy a place in Hong Kong. We kept insisting that we would not move to Discovery Bay where his school is located since it’s mainly an expat community where the children all attend the school we would be working at. However, it also doesn’t make sense to each make a 45 minute commute twice a day. So, we are looking into the dark side and thinking of a place there. The other benefits are that there is a lot of wilderness around, still good views, a 20 minute ferry to Central and we can get a place that is twice as big as we have now. When my stuff gets to Marshall’s in June, it’s going to look a little bit like a furniture shop with pieces lining the walls. Extra space would be nice!
Add comment May 15, 2008 lizzie
I’m not sure of his exact age, but I think that if you’re in your thousands of years, you deserve a birthday. We were lucky and had the last two mondays off school. The first was actually for children’s day and the second was for Buddha’s birthday. The birthday celebrations lasted a full week and last weekend some of us went to the Lotus Lantern Festival to kick off the celebrations.
Some of the other options were:
Being a buddhist celebration meant that it was all vegetarian food – which wasn’t so bad even for a hardcore meat eater. This poster was apparently meant to inspire us with all the famous vegetarians there are in the world. Ghandi I know, but Jesus?
1 comment May 15, 2008 lizzie
Well, avian flu has hit Korea. Last week 5 children were admitted to hospital and some of them died from what the government believes is avian flu. Many Korean schools have been closed down however we are open. We did have some field trips cancelled but unless more parents call demanding closure, we are likely to stay open. It’s one of those things that doesn’t seem to directly affect you until we went running today and in the farm area that we run through, there were men all over in full body suits with masks. Any trucks coming through were being sprayed down and whatever liquid it is was running all over the road. It was a little scary and we were glad to get the run over with. It might be wise to take a break from that area for a while!
Add comment May 14, 2008 lizzie
I have 6 weekends left here in Korea! Six weeks!!!!! And they’re already full!
I’m starting to realize how much I won’t get done here before I leave, which will make leaving here hard. I think I’m going to miss Korea and all it’s wackiness. One of the things I can’t believe I haven’t done yet is watch some Bboy. It’s basically break dancing but Korea is the World Champion in Bboy competitions. They have them on TV all the time but I haven’t made it down to see the competitions live yet and I really should.
If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, check out this youtube which has some of the champions doing an amazing routine to Pachelbel’s Canon as played on the Gyageum (a traditional korean instrument):
Mum is coming to visit soon, and I hope she is ready……She gets to help me cross some things off my list! Top of that list is staying in a Hanok (traditional guesthouse) in the city center. There is a lot to see downtown but so hard to get there and back that I don’t often go. However, if we’re staying there, we should get to see a lot of stuff.
Then there’s Suwon fortress maybe, or Nawamsol traditional village, the Seoul Tower. Plus all the things that I already love about here like Namhansanseong mountain, Galbi restaurants, and saunas. I think this will be a great way of finishing up my life here.
Add comment April 30, 2008 lizzie
On Tuesday night I got to see Andrea Bocelli in concert here in Seoul. It was in a small-ish venue very close to where we live so of course, I had to go. He was absolutely amazing. His voice sent shivers down my spine and his encore of Nessun Dorma almost had us all in tears. He sang some of the famous Sarah Brightman duets with a woman called Heather Headley and, although she isn’t a clasically trained opera singer, she certainly held her own with him on stage.
If it hadn’t been for the pouring rain on the way there, leaving puddles in my shoes, it would have been perfect.
1 comment April 24, 2008 lizzie
That’s it! I’ve officially gone over to the dark side. This morning I got up at 5:40 to run!
Never thought I’d see the day…..
(I admit the wedding shortly after the triathlon is pretty good motivation)
Add comment April 15, 2008 lizzie
It’s going to be fun doing this wedding stuff in Asia! Yesterday, Lindy took me to a dress maker here that made her wedding dress. I was nervous! Their online page was all fancy dresses with trains and veils but Lindy assured me that they could do any kind of dress.
We arrived and the dressmaker was waiting outside. There were 3 people helping us – the dressmaker who speaks only Korean, the designer who speaks Korean and Spanish, and the assistant who speaks Korean and English. As you come in, they serve you coffee and biscuits and sit you down in this mini living room. We talked about the design I was looking for and then they suggested I try on some dresses to see different necklines, outlines, materials etc. This is where it got interesting…..
There was a stage at the front of the room with a podium on it. I got taken up there and the curtains were closed. I had to change into bloomers and try on this HUGE dress – it draped down over the podium and had a train. They pinned me in, turned me around to face the living room, turned on the stage lights and right before opening the curtains, handed me a bouquet to hold!
All so I can see if I like the square neckline! I tried on about 3 or 4 different dresses this way, each time with the grand opening. It was pretty funny. We kept trying to get across the type of dress I wanted – this was difficult for them as the dress I want is much more freeflowing and unstructured than the traditional Korean wedding dress. There was one point where I turned to Lindy and I think the look in my eye was enough that she sat me down, handed me the biscuits and took over trying to communicate with the designer. At that moment, I was seriously doubting if this was going to happen.
Eventually, the dressmaker came out dragging the dress mannequin behind him. He started draping and pinning the fabric. I removed a few of the pins he had put in, added a few extra pins and finally had my dress design.
I was so happy! It was so pretty! They couldn’t really believe that this was what I wanted because it’s not like the typical dresses they do but, he said he could do it and I’m excited to see how it turns out. We then picked fabrics and colors and said our goodbyes.
It was so fun, nerve wracking, intense and exciting doing that. Lindy decided we had to celebrate so she took me out for dinner at this really nice Italian where her husband works as the sommelier. We had some great seafood pasta with wine and champagne and then got a ride home with her husband. It was such a fun way to celebrate. I can’t wait for what’s next!
1 comment April 15, 2008 lizzie
the weather is finally starting to change. Last night I had a nice, relaxing evening. Our school has 4 grills on this back patio: two are gas and two are little weber charcoal grills. I got out the mini weber and grilled some great chicken and potatoes. Sat out in the sunset reading my book waiting for the food to cook and often daydreaming about my life next year. A glass of white wine finished off the meal and I was so happy.
Note to self: make sure Marshall gets a grill
Add comment April 9, 2008 lizzie