My work over the years has allowed me to travel all over the world. Still, Asia is an exotic destination for me. The people are great, and seem truly glad to see Americans. I’ve got to spend a lot of time in Japan and China, but I got a chance to go to Korea for a conference, and found Seoul a great place to visit. Like anywhere in Asia, Korea is a long haul flight. Luckily, we get to fly business class when we go, so you can’t feel too bad for me.
South Korea is not a big country. Its economy is huge, however, and is ranked thirteenth in the world in GDP. Ironically, one of the poorest and most backward countries is literally a stone’s throw away. Add in some nuclear weapons, one of the largest armies in the world, and a maniacal dictator, and you have an interesting place to visit.
Seoul is the capital and largest city with over 10 million people. The place is huge. It sits astride the Han River and is thoroughly modern with excellent roads, transportation systems, hotels and the people are just great. The food was good, too, especially the Korean barbecue where you cook things yourself right at your table. But be sure you know what you’re getting. Going into a place we saw a small truck pull up to the curb with several crates on the back. Each contained a dog that was a breed I’d never seen before. Don’t want any eatin; dogs.
The shopping here is great, too. Much like the Ginza in Tokyo with a real emphasis on electronics.
We were there for a nuclear engineering conference in 2004, and the Koreans were excellent hosts. In addition to all the technical sessions on nuclear fission and stuff, we found time for a couple of really great days out.
I was lucky enough to travel with a friend who has the same interests. So we asked the concierge at the hotel what were some good things to do. She told us to hop on a metro train and toor the Gyeongbokgung Palace, probably the top tourist spot in the city As we got off the metro, we noticed for the first and only time, signs of civil unrest. There was graffiti on a map on the wall of the station. Now the Koreans are an orderly bunch, so this seemed out of character, and we couldn’t read a word of it. We soon found out what it was about, though, as right at the exit of the station were a group of protesters and a large group of police. Still the people were very helpful, and we asked them how to get to the palace. Emerging from the station we saw police buses were parked row upon row right across from the Japanese embassy. Not wanting to end up in an Amnesty International public service spot, we decided to walk the other way, only to have our helpful Korean protesters literally run us down and steer us back the other way. Now the Koreans aren’t the only ones who can’t stand the Japanese, who made no friends during the war when they pretty much conquered the entire Far East, and treated their conquests less than civily. So there is an on-going protest at their embassy that is about as orderly as it can be, and has probably been going on since the end of World War 2. Luckily, they left the old, fat Americans alone.
Just down the street is the palace. It was first built in 1394 by King Taejo, the founder of the Joseon dynasty. It became progressively bigger and more grand until the Japanese pretty much tore it down in the 1930s. It’s quite a source of national pride that they’ve been able to restore it to it’s previous grandeur.
Now my buddy is about 10 years my senior, so at the time he was pushing 60. He is a rather ordinary American not-quite-senior-citizen. The day we went here must’ve been a school holiday because the place was crawling with kids. The were all dressed in matching clothes, so that all the second graders had red on, the third graders, green, etc. As soon as we walked into the place, the kids broke ranks and ran over to us. They wanted no part of me, but they were all over my friend, reaching up to touch him and asking him questions in English while their teachers beamed. I’m guessing he had more than a passing resemblance to old King Taejo. Where ever he went, they followed. We finally got out of there just to give him a break
Our next trip was about the most bizarre thing I’ve ever done on purpose.
The De-Militarized Zone
I won’t rehash the Korean war for you. My dad was in it where he served on a submarine. As the North Koreans didn’t have much of a navy, this wasn’t too hazardous. Not like the army and marines who slogged up and down the peninsula for four years. When the hostilities ended, a border was fixed at the 38th parallel. The truce was signed in Pam Mun Jon, a deserted village right on the border. North and South Korean troops are stationed there, and there have been no small number of skirmishes and lives lost.
The area surrounding the border is called the demilitarized zone, or DMZ. The DMZ has only two villages besides Pam Mun Jon, the North Korean town of Kijong-dong, and the South Korean town of Daeseong-dong. These two towns will tell you a whole lot about Korea. They are “open” towns that can be visited, so they are the subject of intense propaganda campaigns. The most visible manifestation of this are the flag poles, which the respective governments continue to increase in height to out-do the other. They also use loudspeakers to tell the other side what jerks they are, and send over thousands of balloons when the wind is right containing political slogans.
The two villages are very exclusive as they have to show the world how “real” Koreans live. The north village is well-maintained with plenty to eat. The residents all own cars and their own houses. The south is maybe the best place to live in the whole country. The residents don’t pay taxes. The males who are born there have the option of staying, but the girls are turned out when they finish school. Women can marry their way in, though.
So leave it to the capitalist dogs in the south to turn the DMZ into a tourist attraction. We boarded a bus at our hotel and headed 20 miles north on a completely empty brand new superhighway. Soon we were riding along with a river on our left. Several barbed wire fences and mine fields made me think that the north was right over there on the other bank. The road then headed through some mountains. Where there was a cut, there was a big billboard that spanned the road. I asked our guide why there were no advertisements on the billboards, and she said they were tank traps. They were huge slabs of concrete about 30 feet thick and suspended above the road on thin concrete legs. These were wired with explosives and could bring the slab down into the cut in the event of an invasion from the north.
At the end of the line was the nicest train station I ever saw. Never mind that zero trains came here. The point of the station was that when the inevitable Korean re-unification comes about, the South will have done their part by building a top-notch train line and station. Not 20 feet past the station, the rail line ended.
There were DMZ-themed miniature golf courses and roller rinks, but probably the coolest thing we saw were the infiltration tunnels that were constructed by the north to sneak in spies. When the south discovered them, they blew them up. But they turned one or two into tourist attractions where you can don hard hats (you had to as the tunnel was about 5 ft high) and descend into the earth continually bumping your head. About a mile in, you reach the bottom where the is a dotted line painted on the ground that says, “North Korean Border”. Just past the “border, the tunnel is collapsed keeping the enemy hordes out, but making a Korean buck none-the-less.
The last place we visited was an observation post right on the DMZ. From here, you could gaze across a park-like setting of wooded hills to the north. As the bus wound its way up the hill, we saw signs like these just off the road:
I talked to a US soldier and he said it was one of the most boring places to be stationed. The only excitement came when a deer would trip a mine and blow itself up. We used the little telescopes to try to see enemy troop movements, but no such luck. We even looked for the “Dear Leader” to ride by on his horse, but it was not to be.
Then it was back to the city.
That was my one and only trip to Korea. I had a great time, and got to see some really cool stuff. Remember, don’t miss the DMZ, and bring an old guy with you if you visit the palace.
Daytripping with Rick