Monday, 3 May 2010

Korea - The first trip to the border

Hello everyone!

I was late for school on Monday. Staying up to watch football seems to have that effect on me. My punctuality will be put to the test when the World Cup starts in just over a month's time. As I was late, I hopped on a bus. It's always fun when a bus comes to a red light at a T intersection and decides, rather than stopping, to edge its way to the front of the queue to sit in the middle of the intersection, and then carry on driving when the green man still has over 10 seconds on the timer. This happens more often than it should, but it got me to school that little bit quicker.

Not that my lateness mattered today, though. Why, you ask? Well, we are halfway through the first semester, which naturally means that the kids need to have a week of exams. Well, they haven't had any in, what, six weeks? All of this means that I have no lessons, and have to content myself with sitting in my office (Wednesday excepted) trying to occupy my time. I'm sure I'll cope, somehow.

Last time out I mentioned a few stereotypes that British people have about Korea - the dogs, the hard work, the love of Park Ji-Sung. Stereotypes of South Korea, at least. We have a different view of the North. From talking to numerous Koreans about the history and politics (being my degree it is right up my street), I have found that our stereotypes are somewhat misguided.

North and South Koreans hate each other - WRONG. Both want reunification, but have different motives. The North want to take over; the South want to reunify and have peace. Many older Koreans lost family member to the North after the division. Until the current President took charge, the South had a 'Sunshine Policy' towards the North which gave them food and supplies, with minimal strings being attached. Southerners just want peace, they don't hate the North - it's the Japanese they really hate.

The Korean War wasn't as major as Vietnam - WRONG. This was the first major proxy war of the Cold War, save for the occasional skirmish in Europe (Greece). The only reason Vietnam is a bigger deal is because it happened during an unprecedented movement in American society and culture which took the idea of freedoms to a new level. Most people were a lot more introverted in the early 1950s, when the Korean War took place. Also, try telling a Korean veteran that this wasn't a major war.

Why should we care? Britain wasn't involved in the Korean War - WRONG. Turns out Britain sent a lot of troops and equipment to aid the South. I didn't know this, so was pretty surprised.

Kim Jong-il is a mentalist bent on taking over the world - Well, maybe. But over here he's portrayed more as an idiotic childish brat. Perhaps he should watch Team America and then iron out those character flaws. But there is no tangible fear out here about an impending strike. Even after the Cheonan, people were getting on with their lives. Difficult to scare a Korean. With the amount of exams they have to sit, all the anxiety probably exits their humanity in childhood.

So I decided to take my slightly more rounded view up to the DMZ on Saturday. It was an early start - the bus was leaving Seoul at 7.30. 5.30am wake-ups are never fun, especially as I didn't hit the hay until 2 on Friday night. At least I didn't go to Hongdae and stay up all night, even though the temptation was there. Ultimately, I didn't think that turning up to the border drunk was in anyone's interest. Could have got a state funeral, though.

I almost missed the bus thanks to the subway inexplicably stopping for ten minutes, but we were soon on our way. The McDonald's service station we stopped at must have thought they hit the jackpot when fifty foreigners all got in a line to get Egg McMuffin's. I went through a website, so didn't know anyone else on the trip, but thought it would be a nice opportunity to meet new people. Just about all of us had to wake up between 5 and 6 though, so it wasn't a party bus filled with conversation.

After a brief stop at a museum and white water rafting point, which looked pretty enticing, our first stop was Cheol Wan. We headed up to the Peace Observation Deck, which had views of the border. The view isn't all that spectacular, but what was I expecting? It's a demilitarised zone, not a Hollywood backdrop. There were some South Korean soldiers playing foot-volleyball at the bottom, their relaxed demeanour belying the surroundings of outposts and barbed wire. In this place they also played us a video about the history of our view. Didn't realise the levels of propaganda that came from the South. Heroes vs. Enemies and stuff like that. Thought that kinda smack talk was reserved for people on the other side.

We then headed to one of the tunnels. The North built these as a way to secretly get troops under the DMZ if they wanted to attack the South, but they were discovered in the 1970s. You aren't allowed to go too far into the tunnels, for the obvious reason that you would be crossing the border. We were each given a hard hat, which seemed unnecessary until we realised quite how low the tunnels were. Getting through them with military accessories would not have been fun. You weren't allowed to take photos down there, but most people did. We were told upon exiting the tunnel that the guards had seen people taking photos, and were going to check cameras. Perfect time to slip to the back of the group and take out my memory card. 'Aah, my camera is broke'. Still got that charm.

Was a bit ironic that my camera then wouldn't work when I put the card back in, but I fixed it by the time we got to the next stop, the DPRK Labour Party Building. This was a place any captured South soldiers were tortured beyond repair, and certainly beyond humanity. Not the nicest place in the world. After a couple more checkpoints - at one of which a South army guy came on board to count up numbers, so we got up close to his very large gun - we were at White Horse Hill.

This was one of the main battle points of the War. It changed hands 24 times in 10 days. As you can imagine, that means a lot of people were killed, and a lot of shots were fired. So many shots, in fact, that they made this mosaic entirely out of used bullet shells. Incredible. An army guy talked us through the place in great detail. He was good, but there was a bit too much detail, which meant we were late for our final stop, and missed out on another tunnel. My guess is that they're all the same, so I wasn't too perturbed by this.

The final stop was Imjingak, which is more tourist-orientated than the Cheol Won area. They sold North Korean beer and soju, which I quickly invested in. I didn't get a picture of it, though. Mainly because I forgot, and it didn't last long; we drank it upon my return to Siheung. Nicer than South Korean beer, even when warm. 1-0 to the DPRK! Their soju is stronger as well. Our guide explained that South soju is capped at 19.8% so that, when it is exported to the US, it is classed under 'beer and wines', and not hard liqueur. It's a licensing thing. FYI, Northern soju is 25%.

Imjingak's main attraction is the Freedom Bridge, but there were other memorials to see. I was interested by their take on the 'Bullet Train'. It's different from the Japanese one, in that this one was littered with bullet holes. See what I did there. What was strange was the fun, playful atmosphere that surrounded this place, with kids flying kids and running around. Soon after was a hot, sticky, sleepy bus ride back to Seoul.

It's a strange place, the DMZ. There's probably nowhere quite like it in the world. It was a very interesting trip, especially with my background as a History and Politics major. It made me more fascinated abut North Korea, though I can't see myself hopping the border anytime soon. Though those tunnels are enticing...

Love you all


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