I recently returned from a vacation that took me to Malaysia, Singapore and South Korea. It was my first time landing in Malaysia and Singapore but not South Korea. I had been an English teacher in Korea almost 20 years ago. When I was there, I wrote a bi-weekly column for a Nova Scotia newspaper about my experiences. I’m doing that again except this time, the columns are for my own blog.
Part V of Singapore ‘16
I had been to Seoul twice when I lived in South Korea 20 years ago. I had gone with friends, both Korean and Canadian, to explore the markets and go salsa dancing at a Cuban bar. Seoul was huge at the time and I remembered walls of people coming towards me like an ancient Greek phalanx. Not so 2016. The never-ending flow of people coming at me from all angles didn’t seem to exist like it once did.
Don’t get me wrong, there are still a lot of people, over 10 million, in Seoul. I think I didn’t see the crowds because Jason and I used the metro (subway) to move around the city. We weren’t out and about when students were going to and from school. There were other differences I noticed about Korea from then to now. Where were all the soldiers patrolling the train and bus stations? Twenty years ago, the military was everywhere. Today I still saw soldiers in uniform but they weren’t on active duty. They were sitting on the bus going home on leave or eating in a restaurant. They weren’t on patrol.
Young women used to cover their mouths when they laughed. That isn’t happening anymore. Girls weren’t walking arm-in-arm either. The vendors who used to sell dried squid to bus passengers didn’t board the vehicle and walk up and down the aisles, hoping to grip your taste buds. Things have changed. But despite the things I found different, one thing has stayed the same: the threat of North Korea.
South Korea and North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK) have been in a ceasefire since the Korean War in the 1950s. The two countries are separated by the demilitarized zone (the DMZ), that’s only about an hour’s drive from Seoul. The DMZ acts as a buffer between South and North Korea and is the most heavily militarized border in the world. Tourists can visit the DMZ but beware; you can also be shot while seeing the sights. Jason and I decided to live on the edge and signed up for a DMZ tour.
I think it’s kind of strange to travel to a border for a peek into another country’s way of life. But North Korea is fascinating in a dark and twisted way. Nowadays you can travel to North Korea and visit places handpicked by the government but Jason and I didn’t want to give Kim Jong-un’s regime any of our money. Instead, we settled for a glimpse from the South Korean side. We went to the DMZ with Koridoor, a tour company in Seoul affiliated with the USO (United Service Organizations), an organization for U. S. military personnel. Our DMZ tour left from Camp Kim, a U.S. military base.
The tour left early in the morning and the bus was filled with tourists of all nationalities but mainly Americans from the Rotary convention. As we headed out to the demilitarized zone, we began to see the markings of a country on guard. The highway skirting the river leading to the Yellow Sea had barbed wire wrapped around the guardrails and every few metres there were covered platforms with soldiers stationed in them. In some of these little houses, I saw the soldiers hunched over their guns pointed out to the water, ready to fire at any moment.
Seoul is so close to the DMZ, just over 56 km (35 miles). The South Korean capital is always hopping with people going to and from work and school and living life: business as usual. The people here know their world hangs in the balance. But what can you do when your neighbour is hostile and doesn’t care about human rights?
We started our tour at Camp Bonifas, a United Nations Command military post, where a U.S. army private gave us some history about the DMZ. (I thought I had a good grasp on the background but there’s a lot I didn’t know. Google it.) Going from cosmopolitan Seoul, to the strict rules of the DMZ was a big change. Private Chun (a Korean-American raised in California) told us not to point or make gestures of any kind. This is so the North Koreans can’t use it as propaganda. (Pointing is rude in Korean culture.) He also told us not to take photographs until he gave us the word. (Although this didn’t stop some people.) Then we continued on to the Joint Security Area (JSA).
It’s at the JSA where the two sides face each other: South Korea on one side. North Korea on the other. We went into a building where the sides meet and I stood, technically, in North Korea for five minutes. Private Chun said sometimes North Korean soldiers will make comments and laugh at the tourists but no one bothered us that day. We could see one North Korean solider posted at a building on the other side. There was a second man who we couldn’t see because he has his gun trained on the first man in case he decides to defect and bolts for the South. Then the second man will kill him.
The JSA is surreal and fascinating. It was a solemn occasion too. There was nothing to be smiling about when the people on the North side are being governed by megalomaniacs. Many South Koreans have family in North Korea and it must be heartbreaking to be apart from them. From the JSA, we stopped at a view point of the Bridge of No Return. It was used as a prisoner exchange point but is now just a landmark. Off in the distance there looks to be a North Korean city. Except it’s just the façade of buildings. It’s the fake city of Kijong-dong and the only thing active there are loudspeakers blaring music and propaganda messages. There’s also a gargantuan flagpole erected in response to one built on the South Korean side.
There’s a lot of background and events that I’m glazing over. My story is about my experiences, not the minutiae of the history. The North Korean propaganda directed at South Koreans would be laughable if it all wasn’t so terrible. There are no limits on what the North Korean leaders have done or are doing to their people. Efforts for unification are under
way by some South Koreans. A train is ready to roll into North Korea at any time although only sightseers visit the eerie stop to nowhere today.
Over a lunch of bebimbap (rice and egg), Jason and I sat with an off-duty American soldier. He had been stationed in Afghanistan, Iraq and was in Korea for his second time. Growing up he had adopted Korean siblings and so Korea wasn’t a new experience for him. However, he had never been to the DMZ. We chatted about what we saw and his time as a solider. I asked him why I wasn’t seeing Korean soldiers posted around the country.
“They used to be all over the place,” I said, “even on the beach.”
“With today’s surveillance technology like CCTV (closed-circuit television), you don’t need people anymore,” replied the American solider. “You can monitor far more now with cameras and other systems.”
One of our last stops on the DMZ tour was to a tunnel known as the Third Tunnel of Aggression. North Korea dug 1,600 metres into South Korea in the late 70s. There are three other tunnels around the DMZ. Jason and I walked about 10 minutes down a sloping passageway into the darkness. There was not much to see but it was pretty terrifying to see how far the North Koreans got. It’s said the shaft’s wide enough for about 2,000 soldiers to pass into South Korea in an hour.
The tour was exhausting not because I was walking around all day. It was tiring because I was on guard all the time. I was reminding myself not to point (I also had to remind Jason. He’s a hand-talker and kept pointing to everything.) I had to remind myself not to take photos. These days with mobile phones and always having a camera for every moment, it was tough to remember not everything is a photo opp. Especially when heavily-armed soldiers are the subject.
The bus ride back to Camp Kim wasn’t as silent as I would have liked. The Rotarians were making their evening plans. Loudly. Jason and I already knew what we were doing: meeting a university friend of mine for supper. Dean and I lived in Seminary House at the same time at Acadia University. He had moved to South Korea around the same time I had. While I left after six months, he had stayed, got married and had a son.
Jason and I met Dean and his family and over fantastic Korean barbecue and grapefruit soju, we talked about life and our different paths. When I told them about the things that I noticed that were different, Dean’s wife said like every country, things change. New generations have different outlooks. They want different things. Just like in Canada.
Later that evening, Dean, Jason and me headed to Itaewon, an area of Seoul. For me, it holds memories of cramped food stalls and narrow streets full of boxes of fruits, vegetables and Korean slippers. It used to have a seedy side too as it was a red light district. It was also an area known for ex-pats and that still rings true — and now it’s most known for its lively nightlife. We went to the Wolfhound, an Irish pub, and Dean was immediately surrounded by friends from all different countries. That hadn’t changed.
Jason and I got back to our hotel room after our enjoyable evening on the town. We had two and a half more days to go in the city. Over the next couple days, we saw a baseball game (Doosan Bears versus LG Twins), visited some palaces, went shopping, ate at a North Korean food stall during a Unification event and I had a business meeting at the Canadian Embassy. We packed in as many things possible while having pockets of time to relax and let the memories soak in.
Our first day in Malaysia seemed so far away on our last night in Korea. We had lots of photos and experiences and stories to take back to Calgary with us. While this was the end of our Singapore ’16, the trip we had been planning for a while, it signalled the beginning of something else: a life in Edmonton. Jason has a new job there. It’ll be a hard transition as Calgary has been our home for several years. We have amazing friends here and I don’t want to leave them. However, after visits with old friends, new friends, former homes and new sights, I know home is where you make it.