Friday, November 19, 2010

Korea - "It is o.k? Yeah"

October was a busy month, my English Conversation classes were in full gear, my children were busy with school and extracurricular activities but somehow I managed to squeeze in two trips – sans family. I was due … way overdue. One trip was to Nagoya to my shibori sensei’s studio for a four-day workshop. There is so much to share from that trip that I hardly know where to begin and I can’t say that it was a pleasure trip – it was four days of long hours and hard work. I’ve made notes, started several blog entries and still I have not pulled that one together. I will, but it may still be a while. The other trip I was able to take was to Seoul Korea with three friends from here on base. It was jam-packed and there were many hilarious moments. It was a trip filled with history, shopping, a highly entertaining show, several wild taxi rides, a couple of palaces and more shopping. I had not gone away for a girls weekend for more than 5 years (no Jeff, packing out by myself for an overseas move does not count) and I needed a break, needed some time to myself, needed to have the luxury of stopping to look at something, anything that I fancied and not be questioned about “what are you looking at?” “come on, can we go now?” “how much longer?” I’ve stated this before – but as a reminder, my family is not a family of shoppers – not even window-shoppers. And while I can’t say I’m the biggest shopper in the world I do enjoy looking at things, especially things I know I’ll probably never get to see again. So I was looking forward to this trip … a lot.

We really scored on the weather, arriving in Seoul late on a Thursday evening it was clear, a slight nip in the Fall night air and it stayed that way the entire time we were there. After months and months of humidity in Japan, this was a welcome respite. My friends and I had booked the USO DMZ tour for our first day in Seoul. The taxi ride from the airport should have been my first clue that “I wasn’t in Kansas anymore” – the cab driver barreled down the highway and used his horn freely. After a year of living in Japan this was a bit of a shock – you don’t really think about things that vanish from your environment, like horn blowing, until you’re confronted with them again. Our ride over to the USO was no different, fast paced through the city streets, very reminiscent of riding in a NYC cab. Not sure my companions were digging this too much but I thought it was a crack up – sort of an Asian spin on the west.

The DMZ was a long day and honestly, I was very ambivalent about going. My family on the other hand couldn’t believe I was going there without them, “that’s not fair” was a common refrain. Here are some of my thoughts from the day:

Infiltration Tunnel
Our first stop, the 3rd tunnel tour was interesting only from the perspective of the audacity of North Korea digging infiltration tunnels into South Korea and then painting the inside of the tunnels black and claiming they were mining tunnels for coal. Really? Didn’t they think someone would discover there’s no coal in that area?

Dora Observatory
The stop at the Dora Observatory gives you the chance to look across the Demilitarized Zone and view North Korea’s Propaganda Village. Built by the North Koreans as a “Peace Village,” until 2004 communist propaganda blasted from huge speakers up to 20 hours a day in the hopes of inducing defections to the North. Apparently their propaganda campaign was unsuccessful and in 2004 the speakers were silenced.

Dorasan Station – A train station to nowhere
Dorasan station was educational – I wasn’t aware of the South-North Korea Joint Declaration in 2000 and the importance of connecting the railways. When relations were somewhat better between the two nations the CEO of Hyundai decided to build this train station in the hopes of cutting out nearly 2 weeks of transit time from South Korea to Europe. This was an economic decision – 21 days by ship or hook up a railway spur from South Korea, across North Korea and then onto the TransSiberian Railway. Good idea. Shipments would go from 21 days to 7. Sadly for him and the country, shortly after the train station and railway opened up there was an incident where a South Korean tourist was shot and killed when she veered out of the restricted area her group was confined too. That’s all it took. Now this train station is a stop on the tourist circuit – a symbol of one step forward and two steps back.

JSA/Camp Bonifas
The part the tour that impressed me the most was the stop at Camp Bonifas and JSA. We had to stop here for a briefing at Camp Bonifas – signing of a waiver in case of an “incident” the U.N. would not be held liable – and an interesting short film on the history of the area. We then boarded a bus that would take us directly to the JSA (Joint Security Area). The JSA area was what I’d been waiting for, while I found the other stops somewhat interesting, this area is where history has been made. It was very quiet, and I could feel a certain amount of tension in the air. The South Korean soldiers (ROK – Republic of Korea) are intense, as you would expect at a border with your enemy. They are trained in martial arts – all have at least one black belt in Taekwondo, are college graduates – this is an elite assignment for a ROK soldier. While visitors are in the area they maintain a ROK Ready stance – a modified Taekwondo stance – and they wear sunglasses so that no eye contact is made. At building corners they stand half-covered/half-exposed to show readiness to fight or take cover if a fight breaks out.

No photography was allowed while traveling from Camp Bonifas to JSA. We saw the South Korean village that has the unfortunate claim to fame as being located in the middle of the DMZ – but the silver lining for those born into this village is that they are well compensated, earning on average the equivalent of $80,000 each year. They do have to be inside by midnight every night and they have to spend at least 240 nights a year at their residence. I’m not sure that would be worth it to me … having restricted freedom but I supposed if this is your home and where your ancestors are from it would be hard to leave.

For more information on this area go to:

“It is o.k.? Yeah”
Our Korean tour guide that day was so cute, with each explanation of what we were going to do she would end with “It is o.k.? Yeah” followed by a short little “he, he, he.” My friend Monika and I started to crack up each time this was said …we wondered what she would do if the busload of Westerners had said – “Uhh, no it is not o.k.” This was our first full day in Korea and we were starting to get clued in with a particular mindset – our tour guide mentioned quite a number of times throughout the day about “when we are reunited” like it was going to happen next week. This surprised me, from a westerner’s perspective it sure seems like North Korea has dug in and they aren’t embracing the idea of reunification any time soon, but our guide truly seems to have hope that this will happen soon.

It was a long day but I’m glad my friends wanted to take the DMZ tour. I learned so much and hope that my family can come here to share this experience. Check back in for the rest of the entries on my trip. Till next time, sayonara.

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