Korea: past present and imagined future in a day

2014-06-28 10.23.54I had a day free in Seoul before my plane, so I took the opportunity to do a morning trip to the DMZ. For the uninitiated, the DMZ is the Demilitarized Zone, which is the border between South and North Korea running along the 38th parallel. I would have liked to see the Joint Security Area where negotiations etc were held but that was a whole day trip and I didn’t want to risk missing my plane home.

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However the half day trip to the DMZ was quite enlightening. We had a guide who (well at least according to him) was one of the most experienced guides in the DMZ – a 50 year old Korean guy in board shorts and reflector sunnies who still retained the accent gained when he studied (apparently mostly surfing) at the University of Hawaii. The first thing to learn about the DMZ is that a lot of tourists go there. When I say a lot, I mean some number of thousands a day. If the North Koreans ever invade, they are going to have to go through bus loads of Chinese tourists first.

2014-06-28 10.27.56Because our guide is the Ninja of Tour Guides, he made sure we got to the “3rd Tunnel” well ahead of the crowds (I think there were only a couple of buses when we arrived).

The second thing to learn about the DMZ is that it is a weird cross between a heavily militarised border, a museum and an amusement park. The 3rd Tunnel is pretty much at the heart of that. The North Koreans have tried to tunnel under the border to Seoul on a number of occasions – this tunnel is the third such effort discovered by the South Koreans. The North Koreans tried to disguise it as a coal mine, even painting the walls. It was discovered in 1978. We got to walk down to the tunnel which was 73m under the ground (the walk up again was pretty hard work). No photos are allowed and, apparently, until a few years ago there were always soldiers on guard down in the tunnel. It is quite an impressively sized tunnel straight through granite.

2014-06-28 10.21.54For a “de-militarized” zone, there are certainly a lot of military about. Here are some soldiers getting a pep talk before their visit into the tunnel.

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You see the reality of it being a defensive zone and not just a fun tourist venue when you realise that the entire area around is landmined.

Nonetheless, there is a nice little museum of the history of North-South conflict at the 3rd Tunnel and this is where I learned the third thing – the South Koreans have a slightly confused view of the North Koreans.

2014-06-28 10.52.35At the museum there was lots of information about the conflict and the various attempts by the North Koreans to come and invade, kill or kidnap South Koreans since the war. There is also a short film – which is where these conflicted views are most apparent. It starts by displaying the North Koreans as terrible, devious aggressors and then ends by talking about how the whole Korean people should be reunited one day. It is quite odd.

2014-06-28 11.08.09That whole sense of wistful optimism about the future of a reunified Korea is further reinforced at Dorasan Station, the train station in the DMZ. I thought this was an odd place to visit, but it is a really revealing monument to hope and optimism and obsolescence. The Board pictured above includes the names of all those South Koreans who donated money to build the station – there are something like ten thousand of them.

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The story of the station goes something like this: during the 1990s, the “Sunshine Policy” led to some opening up of relations between North and South Korea. South Korea’s only land border is with North Korea, so they were hoping to run a train through North Korea which could then hook up eventually with the Trans Siberian and other railways in China. These was agreement and this station was built and George Bush came and opened it. Because the North Korean train line was from around 1900, the South Koreans then offered to build new track so their trains could operate. They built the line through to the first Korean town and a train did the trip through and there was a party and then it returned. Before building of the rest of the train line could continue, relations broke down, the North Koreans put an end to the project and no train has travelled north from the station since then (a train from Seoul brings tourists once a day to Dorasan, but no further.)

2014-06-28 11.16.59No one has ever travelled to Pyeongyang from the station. But there still seems to be an edge of hope that one day it will happen.

2014-06-28 11.17.50We also then went to the Observatory where you can look over into North Korea (but not take photos). You can see the nearest North Korean town which has the largest flagpole in the world. You can easily see the North Korean flag flying atop it! You can also see where there is a factory zone – South Korean companies using North Korean workers.

There was a buddha there too.

2014-06-28 11.57.46We then had a quick visit to Unification Village a town wholly within the DMZ. Apparently the people who live there are quite wealthy from farming, but they have to be home at 10pm every night for security reasons. The land in the DMZ is apparently quite fertile, even if there are occasional unexploded ordinance problems. At the shop in the village you can buy DMZ rice, ginseng and North Korean alcohol. Our guide told us to avoid the North Korean plum wine because “that isn’t drinkable if you are human.” I bought some brandy.

We headed back into Seoul and our guide took us for genuine Korean BBQ – it was completely delicious. Because he has been going there for ten years, we got all the additional free things – kim chi stew, salads, potatoes, you name it.

The tour was over and I went to visit the Deoksugung Palace which was just across the road from my hotel. When I got there there was an elaborate changing of the guard type ritual going on. The costumes and weaponry were amazing. Apparently some of the people who dress as palace guards are young men who didn’t make it into compulsory military service and they do this for two years instead.

The grounds of the Palace are quite lovely. There is actually a new Western-style part of the Palace complex which was built early in the 20th century.

After that there was time for an iced tea at the hotel before heading to the airport. Another part of Seoul explored!

Weeks! #26: change and Korea

2014-06-24 10.30.34All staff address. Considering the number of structural changes are Department is going through, it was timely. I have lost a number of colleagues at my level recently and from 1 July my Branch has two new sections with new responsibilities and overall a slight change in direction. Interesting times, as they say.

2014-06-24 19.45.24-2We got exciting new plans for our house. All going well, by this time next year our current house should have been razed and our new house under construction.

Sebastian got a belated birthday present from Rachel which included moulds for chocolate spoons so he whipped us up a dessert creation of his own invention.

2014-06-24 21.05.21Heading off to Seoul I needed a new book t read. I decided it was time to read The Quarry. As it was Iain Banks’ final book, I had been saving it up a little It was a lovely book and I read it before I left Seoul. A simple well told story with beautifully rendered characters. So sad to know it is the last new novel of his I will ever read.

2014-06-25 09.28.16This is my grumpy face. This is what my face looks like after i have struggled through two packed days of work feeling super-sick on the thought that I would have a nice relaxing Wednesday on the plane flying Business Class to Seoul after breakfast at the First Class Lounge only to get down graded. Yes, down graded. My whole do-you-know-who-I-am-Platinum-Frequent-Flyer persona kicked in. I was not happy. Flying economy is not the end of the world, but it was the gap between the sustaining expectation and the reality. And I didn’t even get breakfast because I had to wait around until the last people had checked in to get everything organised. No First Class Lounge. No Business Class. And, as it turned out, my reading light on the plane didn’t work nor did they have video on demand. I am not sure I am rushing to recommend flying Qantas code-share with Asiana to Seoul from Sydney. Though the flight attendants did put on a whole magic show mid flight.

2014-06-25 21.27.48Nighttime view from my hotel room window…

2014-06-26 08.32.50Daytime view! My hotel was in a great spot about ten minutes walk from the Australian Embassy and just across the road from the Town Hall. Pretty funky too.

Breakfast view!

2014-06-27 08.54.40And there appeared to be a portal to infinity in my bedroom. Along with the Nespresso machine.

In between meetings on Thursday I got to have a bit of a wander around the nearby area.

2014-06-26 12.07.22Said hello to my very favouritest building in all of Seoul, possibly in all the world.

And also saw one of the near daily protests.

2014-06-26 15.25.28Most of my meetings n Thursday were at the Australian Embassy.

The Town Hall lawn opposite the hotel were taken up with commemoration of the sinking of the Sewol Ferry and the death of over 300 mostly school students. Apparently the disaster has had a significant impact on the psyche of the Korean people, and protest against the government over its role are visible as well as signs of mourning all over the city.

2014-06-27 10.53.14Friday started with an early lunch meeting with Human Resource Development Korea at a restaurant on 32nd floor of a building with a spectacular view of the city. At the moment all the public servants are slowly getting relocated out of Seoul – mostly to Sejong City which, apparently, is a created city “like Canberra.” The HRD folk, however, have been moved even further away to Busan which is Seoul’s second largest city and an industrial centre, about three hours away. Jinsil, one of the HRD people I have dealt with most closely over the last year, told me that she still commutes there – her family is living in Seoul., although sometimes she stays overnight in Busan with friends or colleagues. I can’t imagine a three hour commute even on a fast train.

After lunch I went and gave my presentation – the main reason for my visit. The visting French expert and I were then taken away by Dr Cho from KRIVET (Korean government research body on vocational education) who I have known for about a year now for a wander around another part of Seoul, including a visit to the cathedral.

This was my favourite.

2014-06-27 17.46.19Dr Cho also bought us traditional summer ice confection – red beans on shaved ice. I was a bit dubious, but it was actually quite delicious.

A lovely dinner with the folk from the seminar followed where a lot of Australian wine was consumed (not sure how my French colleague felt about that, but he was unfailingly polite). It was only a short walk home – the town hall is an excellent landmark.

2014-06-27 21.32.23The next day I had a day to myself which I will blog about separately. A big part of it was a visit to the DMZ which is a kind of surreal place – a landmined part theme park zone of defence activity and conflicted ideas about the North. Weird.

2014-06-28 10.26.37After a busy day it was off to the airport for the flight home. Fortunately no downgrading this time.

2014-06-28 19.39.26Home again – my inevitable duty free purchase included Bombay Amber which I am looking forward to trying.

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