30 May 2011

Why So Serious?

The blog is alive!  I've taken about a month off of writing, but I'm getting back in the game.  In the next few days I plan to provide a post recapping the month of May and one recapping my first six months in Korea (I can't believe I'm already halfway through my contract).

But anyway, on to the topic of this post.  A weekend in Seoul.  And quite a weekend it was!  The activities included a trip to a war zone, eating my first moving animal (not exactly alive, but still moving nonetheless), staying out until 4:30 in the morning on Saturday, and spending the better part of my day on Sunday touring around Seoul with a Korean that I randomly befriended at Changdeokgung. 

As is usually the case with these adventures, I woke up at the crack of dawn (which by the way is an expression I was recently teaching to my adult students) to catch the 6:30 train to Seoul.  (I was unaware of the fact that the KTX is more expensive during rush hour or else I may have been tempted to catch the 4:00 train.  I can be so cheap sometimes.)  I got into Seoul around 9:00 and conducted a phone interview with a prospective teaching candidate during my walk to the pickup spot for my tour to the DMZ (not the most formal interview, but it worked).

DMZ is short for Korean Demilitarized Zone ( 한반도 비무장지대 ) and it functions as a buffer zone between North Korea (Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or DPRK) and South Korea (Republic of Korea, or ROK).  The DMZ stretches across the entire Korean peninsula and is about 2.5 miles wide (half of that 2.5 miles is technically the South's side and half is the North's side).  The borders on both sides are heavily fortified.  The bus spent a lot of time actually driving right near the border and both the North and the South have barbed wire fences and guard posts lining their respective domains.  The tour guide also pointed out what she referred to as an "anti-tank bridge", which looks like a bridge, but actually contains a bomb and should the DPRK ever launch an assault, the ROK would detonate the bomb to retard the DPRK's progress.  Another little tidbit that the tour guide pointed out was the fact that live mine fields still exist within the DMZ and that while it is believed that about seventy percent of the mines have been recovered, that obviously still leaves a lot of land mines. 

Despite the somewhat nerve-racking conditions in the DMZ, there are a limited number of people who do in fact live within this area.  There are "peace villages" on both sides of the DMZ (Daeseongdong ( 대성동 ) in the South and Gijeongdong ( 기정동 ) in the North).  The citizens of Daeseongdong get unique benefits such as an exemption from military service (military service is mandatory for all males in South Korea) and no taxes.  Unfortunately, they also have to obey a 12:00 am curfew and deal with the constant threat of North Korea.  There were actually cases of North Korea kidnapping some of the farmers in the village while they were out in the fields, so South Korean soldiers now accompany the farmers.  I don't know about any of the perks for citizens in Gijeongdong (I guess the fact that you don't have to live in North Korea is pretty nice), but the village's claim to fame is the world's tallest flagpole (Wikipedia says it's third but the tour guide and every other website I've found list it as first).  South Korea constructed a 323 foot flagpole in Daeseongdong during the 80s.  What was the North's reaction?  They countered with a 525 foot flagpole in Gijeongdong.  This instance epitomizes the truly infantile behavior that has been occurring for the past 70 years.  I can't help but to laugh at the behavior and propaganda that occurs on both sides.  For example, Daeseongdong (the South's village) is referred to as "Freedom Village", while Gijeongdong (the North's village) is referred to as "Propaganda Village".  I mean is that really necessary?

So on to the tour.  I chose the tour from tourdmz.com simply because of the timing.  I've heard that the USO tour is the best, but it starts at 7:30 in the morning and isn't offered on Sundays, so there really wasn't any way that I could do it.  This tour left Seoul at 10:40 and we spent about an hour driving before stopping for some bulgogi ( 불고기 ), which is beef, for lunch.  We then headed to our first stop on the tour: Imjingak ( 임진각 ).  Let me just start off by saying that the contrast in this place is absolutely ridiculous.  It's literally an amusement park combined with a Korean War memorial.  The main attraction at Imjingak is the Bridge of Freedom, which was used by POWs who returned to the South after the Korean War.  We spent a little time here before heading on to Camp Bonifas.  Camp Bonfias is manned mostly by Korean soldiers, but there are some United Nations troops stationed there as well.  The base is located about 1.5 miles from the actual border.  The base is notable for its proximity to Panmunjeom ( 판문점 ), the Joint Security Area (JSA), and its one-hole golf course, which was infamously named by Sports Illustrated as the most dangerous golf course in the world.  If you thought bunkers were a pain, try playing on course that has minefields on three sides. 

Amusement park and...
Reminders of one of the most tragic events in Korean history
At Camp Bonifas we were given a short presentation about the history of the DMZ and then we had to board a super-special United Nations bus.  Why did we have to change buses?  I'm not really sure.  We were accompanied by a South Korean soldier and we proceeded to drive to Panmunjeom and the JSA.  Even after going on the tour and researching the places, I'm still not exactly sure what the difference is between Panmunjeom and the JSA.  Panmunjeom is a village and the JSA is where talks are held between the North and the South.  But I saw nothing even resembling a village around here, so I think they are pretty much the same thing.  To be completely honest, I was a little disappointed with the JSA.  I can't say that I ever really felt very much tension at the place.  It's pretty much just a staring match between the North and the South.  However, one extremely cool thing is that they let you enter the buildings on the border, so I technically got to enter North Korea.

Let the stare-down begin!
Why so serious?
I'm in North Korea
We also visited the Bridge of No Return, which is close to the sight of what is now known as the Axe Murder Incident.  The Axe Murder Incident occurred in 1976 when the JSA was not divided and soldiers from the two sides could therefore interact with each other.  The incident occurred when two American soldiers, Capt. Bonifas and Lt. Barrett, began to chop down a tree.  A group of North Korean soldiers demanded that they stop and when the two soldiers refused to comply the North Koreans responded by taking the men's axes and using them to murder the two soldiers.  This event ultimately led to the division of the JSA and perhaps the coolest and most appropriately named military operation I've ever heard, which was called Operation Paul Bunyan and completed the task of chopping down the tree.

We returned to Camp Bonifas from the Bridge of No Return (a misnomer if I've heard of one), changed buses and then headed back to Seoul.  So how would I sum it up?  It was a very interesting tour.  And I mean VERY interesting.  It's definitely a unique place.  However, I couldn't help wondering how much of the tour is actually legitimate military procedure and how much is just for show.  They go into a lot of warnings about what you should and shouldn't do, but I never really got the sense that anything would happen if you broke the rules.  Although I must say they did at least scare us enough to prevent anyone from doing anything stupid, which I guess is their goal.  The tour is a must for anyone visiting Seoul, but it might not be quite as chilling of an experience as you would expect.

I got back into Seoul around 4:30 and immediately jumped on the subway to Yeouido ( 여의도 ), which is the main business district in Seoul and also home to a beautiful riverside park.  The main reason I wanted to go was to see the 63 Building ( 63 빌딩 ), but I also ended up just wandering along the river.  It was a nice way to way to end the day and I headed to my hostel once the sun went down.

63 Building
The end of the day brings the beginning of the night.  I started out the night with a free beer from the hostel where I stayed (a pretty good business technique).  I then set off for some soju and sannakji ( 산낙지 ).  A quick note: I'm pretty sure soju is necessary when you're going to be eating something that's still moving.  Sannakji is baby octopus that is cut up and then served immediately.  The arms continue squirm around and the suction cups continue to function for about 5 minutes after it's served.  This provides certain difficulties when eating, such as simply getting it off the plate.  Once this is accomplished, you dip it in some sauce and chow it down.  It's pretty important to really chew it though, as there have been cases of the arm getting stuck inside people's throats.  So what's my verdict?  It's an interesting experience that you're not gonna find anywhere back home, so why not?  The night stretched on and on and I met some pretty cool Koreans and foreigners.  I finally called it a night at 4:30.

On to Day 2.  I began my morning (closer to afternoon) with a tour of Jongmyo ( 종묘 ), which is a royal shrine dedicated to the kings and queens of the Joseon Dynasty.  It is the oldest royal Confucian shrine and for this reason in particular it has been placed on the UNESCO World Heritage list.  The architecture and colors were much more subdued than in the palaces, but the vast open spaces really create a sense of grandeur that's unsurpassed by any of the palaces.

From Jongmyo I made my way to Changdeokgung (which also happens to be a World Heritage site).  You might remember that I visited this palace back in January.  However, I skipped out on the Secret Garden, and for this reason I decided to make a second trip and check it out.  It was very beautiful place and felt about ten degrees cooler than the rest of Seoul.

My last stop of the day was Jogye Temple ( 조계사 ).  This is the chief temple of the Jogye Order (a sect in Korean Buddhism) and as such is one of the most important temples in Korea.

And that was my weekend in Seoul.  I had a fantastic time (as I always do when I go to Seoul) and this ranks up there as one of my most memorable trips thus far.

No comments:

Post a Comment