Archive for May 2008

I crossed to the dark side!

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 tour guide for the day and….our protector!

        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.

 They are watching you!!! Look closely and you’ll see a man with binoculars standing in front of one of the doors. He stood there and watched us the entire time.

 The soldiers do not guard this area permanently. They were just there to protect us during our tour!

 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.

 The Southern soldiers must stand half hidden by the buildings to present a smaller target to the Northerners.

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!

 This is the exact border on the outside of the building and it runs directly in the center of the table as well. I am shooting this picture from North Korea!

 I had to do the cheesy shot of me with a soldier while 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

I did it!!!!!

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!

 I struggled on the bike – it was a gruelling 45 minutes up hill! 

 Running through the farms…..

 Getting closer…..

 And closer still…at least Elissa is having fun!

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

Good News!

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

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

Happy Birthday Buddha!

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.

 This obviously helps you get in the dharma spirit of the event.

 The first good karma thing to do is send a good wish and you tie it to this string. Is it like a birthday wish and if I tell you it won’t come true?

We then got busy making our own lotus flowers. How’s a girl supposed to feel at a lantern parade if she doesn’t have a lotus to swing?

Some of the other options were:

 Having little things put on you that have been on fire. No idea why.

 Trying to win a prize by doing the longest meditation. I know I’m a competitive person but this one really didn’t interest me.

 Painting your own buddha thereby bringing you good luck.

 The one I was most interested in (using a see saw to shoot other people in the air) was only a spectator sport.

 The whole street festival led up to the temple in a beautiful little area called Insadong. There was a ceiling of balloons all around the temple and this is what it would have looked like from above.

 And from underneath.

 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?

 As soon as the sun set, the real celebrations started. A huge parade of floats and lanterns. They all went in front of this enormous hanging of Buddha which was about 25 stories high.

Luckily, I was able to upgrade my Lotus!

1 comment May 15, 2008


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

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