Seoul of Asia
Trip Start Jun 27, 2009
48Trip End Jun 25, 2011
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We flew on a really nice plane (All Nippon Airlines - ANA), we had a good meal and before we knew it, in an hour and a half later we were landing in Seoul, South Korea. I love how everything is so close in Asia! Mac's friend from high school in Chicago is Korean, and now lives in Seoul, so he was so nice and picked us up from the airport and drove us back into the city. We stopped in the university district full of bars, clubs and restaurants and ate at none other than Ruby Tuesday's. It sounds so normal, but they don't have RT's in Japan - so it had been over a year since I'd had the salad bar!
Seoul is the capital of South Korea and is situated about 50 km (30 miles) south of the North Korean border, also known as the de-militarized zone (DMZ). Seoul is a city with ancient history, the area of Seoul appears in history as early as 18 BCE! With over ten million people, Seoul is South Korea's largest city and one of the largest cities in the world by population. Covering an area of only 605 square kilometers, smaller than New York City or Tokyo, it is one of the world's most densely populated major cities.The Seoul National Capital Area has almost 23 million inhabitants making it the second most populous metropolitan area in the world, after Greater Tokyo!!
Our first full day in Seoul, Mac and I got up really early to take a day trip to the DMZ! I've been wanting to go on this tour ever since I arrived in Japan, it sounded so fascinating to me. Anyways, we met at the USO (United Services Organizations) base in Seoul, Camp Kim at 7am! I met lots of other Americans, other English teachers, and tourists from Ireland, Australia and England. Mac and I boarded one of two tour buses and we drove an hour outside the city to the DMZ between North and South Korea.
Our tour began at Camp Bonifas whose motto "In Front of Them All" provides some idea as to its position in relation to the border. Camp Bonifas is the base camp for the United Nations Command Security Force-Joint Security Area (JSA). We were given a 20 minute slide presentation briefing, highlighting the history and present situation at the DMZ
We drove alongside the road that divides North and South Korea, barbed wire fences, and active land mines. I think only after I signed a Death Waiver at the base, stating I wouldn't sue the United States Military if I was shot dead, did it start to hit me just how serious the situation between North and South Korea is. Even though we were guided by United Nations Command military personnel, we weren't truly safe at any point. They were very serious in telling us we could not at any time point or make obscene gestures while on the border. The North is always looking for excuses to start things up with the South and especially to see tourists on the border gawking at the other side...not good
Our first stop was the MAC (Military Armistice Commission) building which sits on top of the line between North and South Korea. We could walk to the other half of the building, which is North Korea - but don't worry South Korean soldiers (known as ROK, or Republic of Korea) were guarding the door to North Korea. They now station a guard there because a few years ago the North Korean soldiers heard people inside the building, opened the door and pulled someone to the other side! Don't worry mom, I didn't dare get close to that door. I was fascinated by the stance the soldiers stand in to be more intimidating towards the North, fists clenched, legs spread, aviator sunglasses on, and ball bearings tucked into their cuffed pants (the noise when they walk makes it seem like there are more people present than there actually are).
Next we walked back inside to the Freedom House, which was dedicated at Panmunjon by the people of Korea as a symbol of hope for a peaceful reunification of the divided Korea under a free and democratic government. From here we could see North Korean soldiers staring at us with binoculars outside their towers, and the atmosphere felt really tense. To make matters worse, numerous Americans kept accidentally pointing at North Korea when they asked questions! The soldiers got really mad at them..
The large building in my pictures on the North Korean side is called Panmun-Gak, a building originally designed to house reunions between families from the North and South
Next stop: Checkpoint 3, which is near the scene of the 1976 Axe Murder Incident. I couldn't believe this story...In 1976 soldiers were doing some routine maintenance on a tree whose limbs were blocking the view of a checkpoint tower. Even though the tree was clearly on the Southern side of the military demarcation line, it was next to a road the North Korean soldiers used to enter and exit the JSA (Joint Security Area). The North Koreans came to complain and told them to leave the tree alone. They claimed the tree was planted in honor of the birth of Kim Il Sung (Kim Jong Il's father). The maintenance work stopped for a few days while the commander decided how to proceed next and what precautions to take
When a plan was reached, the work continued until another soldier from the North came over and again demanded for the work to be stopped. The officer in charge at the time, Captain Bonifas, directed the workers to continue since this was a legitimate activity and the work needed to be accomplished. By this time the North had gathered 30 soldiers around the tree, and when they refused to stop trimming the tree one soldier wrapped his watch in a handkerchief, placed it in his pocket and yelled, "Kill the Americans!" The weapons used on the American soldiers were the very axes they were using to trim the tree. Captain Bonifas was brutally mutilated as were 4 other US enlisted men and 4 ROK soldiers. After all of this was over, the tree was cut down and everyone learned the tree was actually over 150 years old, and that there's no way it could've been planted to honor the birth of Kim Il Sung.
From here we could also see the Bridge of No Return, the only bridge connecting North and South Korea. No one has set foot on the bridge for 50 years. We also saw the giant flagpole at the North Korean Propaganda Village, apparently it weighs 600 pounds. It is said to be the largest flag in the world. Kim Jong-Il blasts propaganda on large speakers for 12 hours everyday, mostly at night
The last stop on our extensive tour was to climb down into the 3rd tunnel. Tunnels were dug as close as 44 km to Seoul by North Koreans in attempts to reach South Korea. They were designed so that 30,000 armed troops could pass through the tunnel in one hour. There may be as many as 17 tunnels that were either completed or are still under construction. Other acts such as land mines, fortifications, are considered defensive actions against the South, but tunnels have no other purpose than to make a surprise attack against the South. Kim Il Song had his soldiers paint the walls of the tunnels with black coal, in case they were caught, they could claim they were merely old mining shafts.
There's so much more to this day than I have written, but I think it can only mean so much to people who haven't been there and experienced the feeling of staring directly into North Korea.
Overall, it was an intense day, but one I enjoyed very much..chocked full of information, a totally different type of tour than I have been on in a while. I spent the rest of the day with Mac, his friend Brian and his wife exploring Seoul, walking around markets and eating delicious Chinese food for dinner.
The next couple of days I spent visiting the main palaces of the city, eating delicious street food, and just generally taking in everything about the city
Impressions of Seoul were of a vibrant, bustling, international city - the people are more forward and assertive than the Japanese (but it would be hard not to be more forward than a Japanese person because they are so timid and always apologizing). I definitely want to go back, especially because it is SO close to Japan.
After I got back from Seoul I headed back to schools to watch more sports day practices, teach a few classes before all the JET's in Wakayama headed down south for our annual Nachi Camping/Kayaking trip! Lily and I had fun planning this event, it was so easy because it takes place in our town.
About 30 JET's met us at our local train station, where we caravan-ed up the mountain so everyone could hike around the Nachi temple/shrine complex, see the pagoda, and the waterfall
Tomorrow I'm taking off work and Lily, Tony and I are flying down to the southern most prefecture in Japan, Okinawa. There is a large marine base there so some of you may have heard of it for that reason. It's famous for its clear water, white sand beaches, and fantastic diving and whale watching. I plan on spending the next 4 days laying on the beach and working on my tan.
Will write again when I get back...
Love to you all,