Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Blast from the Past: Korean Folk Village

Just south of Seoul, in the city of Suwon, is a really interesting place that is very uninterestingly titled "Korean Folk Village." Despite the bland name, this place turned out to be a treasure-trove of historical and cultural experiences.
My traveling companions with an on-duty sentry.

In an area of almost 250 acres and spread through woods and on either side of a natural stream, the Korean Folk Village boasts over 260 houses from around Korea that date back to the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897).
There is also a bazaar where you can eat traditional foods (and rice wine) and buy traditional crafts (as well as souvenirs). This place is pretty interactive. A visitor can: ride horses, make pottery, tie knots, dye fabric, wear old-timey clothing, play traditional games, and watch a traditional wedding and other performances like acrobats on a tightrope, equestrian feats and farmers' music and dance.

Making traditional fans.
A traditional wedding. The bride is decked out in the red with the long cloth in front. The groom is in blue with the long braid. Looks uncomfortable.

What Korean Folk Village would be complete without an Amusement Park?

We rode a little roller coaster, viking ship, and even an American West shoot-em-up ride. Odd.

It's a shame that I don't have any more visitors coming to South Korea, because this would be a great place to take them!
Beautiful place.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Visiting a War Zone

Unless you are stunningly naive, you well know that Korea is a divided peninsula, made so after the victors of World War II divided up Korea (as a spoil of war from the conquered Japan who had ruled Korea as a colony since 1910) between the USSR to the North and the United States to the South. This led to the horrible Korean Conflict (1950-1953) that ended in an armistice (signed by China, the United Nations, and North Korea--not South Korea who never wanted the division) that left the peninsula in the divided state that we know it as today. The armistice agreement established the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), a 250 mile long, 4 mile wide area that hugs the Military Demarcation Line separating the two countries. This is the most heavily militarized border in the world.

And also, as it turns out, a very popular tourist attraction! While it is quite a lengthy process for South Korean citizens to visit the DMZ, foreigners can visit pretty easily--and they do, to the tune of 500 visitors a day. But it's not exactly a stroll in the park, as we discovered from our visit in late May. Here are the details:

  • The DMZ is only about 40 km north of Seoul. Since private cars can't access the area and you have to be part of a tour to enter, most people catch a tour bus in Seoul and go from there. Much of the ride up there hugs two rivers--the Han and then the Imjin--and the water is lined quite intensely with barbed wire, gun placements and look out posts every few hundred meters. No surprises will come floating down the Imjin River from North Korea. I do feel sorry for the soldiers who have the duty of staring at the river.
  • First we stopped at Munsan Reunification Park where there are monuments to many different individuals and groups, including journalists killed in the war since this was the headquarters for journalists. Here we also ate lunch. It is 25 km south of the border.
  • We next visited Imjingak, which is 10 km south of the border. This is the farthest north that civilians can go without documentation. For this reason, South Koreans whose hometowns are in the north and have relatives there, visit Imjingak on those holidays (like New Year's and Thanksgiving) when the custom is to visit one's hometown and pay respects. We saw the Memorial Altar that was erected here for this purpose. We also saw a bridge--one of three on the trip--that was built by the 13,000 South Korean prisoners of war who needed a way to cross the small river here when they were being marched back after the war. Another major highlight of Imjingak was the front of a train. This train had been delivering supplies during the war when it came under heavy fire and had to be abandoned into land that became the DMZ. Thus, it remained untouched for 60 years until it was pulled out last year and brought to Imjingak.
The front of the train that came under fire and was abandoned in the DMZ. Looking slightly worse for the wear.
Freedom Bridge
Memorial Altar
  • After Imjingak, soliders came aboard the bus for the first of two security checks. This one was pretty tame; they just checked to see that we had foreign passports. During the second check, they carefully checked all of our passports to see that our numbers aligned with those that had registered for the tour. They also checked to see that our cameras didn't have too strong of a zoom and they even checked our dress code. If we weren't appropriately clad, we couldn't proceed:
--no shorts
--sandals have to have a back strap (no flip flops)
--no jeans with holes or frays
--tatoos have to be covered
--must wear sleeves
--no tights or leggings
--no Western logos, particularly on hats
--no sports wear of any kind
--no army wear
Why? "Because North Korea is always watching."
  • So, since we all safely passed the security checkpoint, we proceeded across Unification Bridge, which was covered with yellow and black barricades that indicate military presence. We were forbidden from taking pictures at this point. We also passed under (at this point and several others) the 12 anti-wall tanks that stand between the DMZ and Seoul). These are huge concrete structures that are designed to blow up at the touch of a button and impede the forward progress of any advancing tanks. It was slightly sickening to drive under them, given the possibility of being crushed by several tons of concrete. Here's to sound engineering.
  • Finally, we made it to the Advance Camp. Here, there is Camp Bonifas, home to 700 soldiers, 95% from South Korea and 5% from the United States. Because South Korea never signed the armistice agreement, all the flags flown here are from the United Nations. This Camp is 400 meters from the DMZ. The DMZ is 4 km wide--2 km north of the military demarcation line (MDL) stretching into North Korea and 2 km south. Basically, this is as close as it gets. Here we got a presentation about the DMZ and switched buses. To enter the DMZ we had to be driven by military personnel on a military bus. We couldn't bring anything with us besides our camera. We had to wear special badges that announced our status as visitors. From this point on, we could only take pictures when they told us we could.
The military buses.
Our guest badges, to be worn prominently on the front of our shirts.
  • On the military bus, we couldn't stand up. The only person who could stand was a soldier at the front wearing a bullet proof vest. We were driven past SK's three-tier defense system: land mines, barbed wire and gates, and tank barriers. They drove us to the Joint Security Area (JSA), an 800 meter wide area that is jointly administed by North and South Korea. Half of the area and the buildings are North, half are South (blue is South, gray is North). Here, you can see the MDL marked by posts and lookout points, lines on the ground, and lines down the middle of the table in the United Nations Command Military Armistice Commission Conference Building where Northern and Southern leaders come together for talks.
The JSA--the concrete slab down the middle is the MDL. These South Korean soldiers are looking North.
The line down the center marks the division of North and South, even in the conference room.

Here, South Korean soliders stand at the border and look towards the North. One solitary North Korean soldier stares back through binoculars, while many more look back from inside their building. (When it is necessary for more NK soliders to come down to the MDL and stand guard, they stand in groups of three--two facing each other and one facing north. The Southern soldiers look north to protect against violence from NK, the Northern soldiers face north to protect against people defecting.)
Can you see the North Korean solider staring at us with binoculars?
  • When we got out of the bus here, we were given very strict orders:
--no cases of any kind, lest they be mistaken for bombs
--nobody could have any kind of alcohol or consumed any recently
--no video cameras or talking on cell phone
--no pointing or gesturing
--no writing anything down
--no eating or chewing gum
--nothing can be held in your hand
--stay in two lines, wear visitors badge
--only take pictures when explicitly told it is ok
Becky and I ate the JSA
  • We were able to stand in the United Nations Command Military Armistice Commission Conference Building and walk around to the other side of the table. This means...I was in North Korea!!
Me on the other side of the border.
  • We got back on the bus and were driven through the DMZ a little bit more. We saw North Korea's propaganda village--designed to showcase the ingenuity and modernism of the country, even though no one lives in the village. It is home to the world's tallest flag pole, with an enormous North Korean flag on top.
  • We also glimpsed South Korea's Freedom Village, made up of a few families who were allowed to live within the DMZ because it is their ancestral land. Out of the 1 million landmines that were dropped by aircraft onto the area that became the DMZ, 70% still remain. 30% were cleared so that farmers could do their work, but you can imagine that they don't take many romps to the countryside. Since their farms abut North Korea, they are guarded by armed South Korean soldiers as they go about their farming. The SK Freedom Village and the NK Propaganda Village are only about a 15 minute walk from each other, but no one has ever made this trip.
  • We also saw the site of the 1976 Axe Murder Incident and the Bridge of No Return. This bridge was where the prisoner repatriation operations took place, but once you go across this bridge either way, there is no going back.
Bridge of No Return
  • Thankfully, there were no incidents this day at the DMZ. But, our visit was a stark and sad reminder that the peninsula remains a divided place. Families are still separated. The South Koreans say they long for reunification and believe that all Koreans are one people. It is my hope and prayer that some day peace can come to Korea and North and South can be reunited in a way that is beneficial for all.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Update from the Sports Desk2

Warm weather has brought with it many opportunities for being active.

It was recently revealed to me that near Hannam University, hidden on this balcony above an alley, is a batting cage. Stick about 50 cents into the machine and step inside the dingy netting for a chance to whack the small ball that is hurled randomly in your direction. No helmet included. Good lesson in self-defense.
Check out that form!

We also went with some Chinese friends to play ping pong. Ping pong is a very popular "sport" here, and it is intense! There are many many ping pong clubs. It really is a workout and people generate quite a sweat. This is not your kiddie ping pong game. Well, except when we played. But it was still fun to go check out a club and "do like the kids do."

Chang Moon and Katie

I have mentioned before about how many mountains are in Korea and how Daejeon has some really great hiking. Turns out we also have some great mountain biking. A professor at Hannam was awesome enough to take me with him mountain biking at Gyejoksan Mountain (he goes about twice a week), and Sue let me use her super sweet mountain bike. It was tough but great fun and absolutely beautiful. I wouldn't at all mind getting more into mountain biking!

At this same mountain a week later, there was a Barefoot Festival that I am really glad to have participated in. It was a 7 km walk up the mountain barefoot on this clay/mud that they claim has ALL of these health benefits! Check it out:

Tons of barefoot people.
After walking through a big pit of Loess Yellow Mud.
At the finish line, flower petals were strewn.

There were hundreds and hundreds of people, and all sorts of musical performances, acts, things to walk on, etc along the way. The weather was gorgeous and my feet felt fine. Plus, it was sponsored by a soju company so all participants received two big bottles of soju!

And speaking of athletic endeavors being sponsored by alcohol companies, a friend, Juli, and I went down to Gwangju last weekend for a race. If you remember from a few posts ago, you loyal readers you, Gwangju was the site of the May 18, 1980 uprising/massacre that remains a symbol of the struggle for democracy in Korea. So, every year, there is this race (among other activities) to commemorate the event. There is a half marathon, a 10k and a 5.18 k race (5.18 like May 18, how clever). There were thousands of people which made it pretty hard to run, especially since a lot of them were walkers and not really paying attention just kind of goofing off, but it was a great day, the course was nice, and it was fun to be a part of it!
Plus, as I hinted at, it was sponsored by Cass beer, so we all got beers both in cans and on tap after finishing the run. A makkoli (rice wine) producer also sponsored the event, so there were free samples of that. The 10k runners took home a big bag of raw onions. And the snacks afterwards were shrimp chips, soy milk, and mocha sandwiches--even after eating half of one I still don't know what it is. So, even though my running time wasn't that stellar compared to other 5k races I have done, it sure was an interesting experience!

Next, an athletic endeavor that was a little less strenuous and a little more American-like: bowling. Not too much to report here--turns out that bowling in South Korea is pretty much exactly like bowling in the States. Leagues, funny shoes, inappropriately sized finger-holes, malfunctioning lanes and cheesy cartoons when you get a strike or spare. Seems pretty popular too, as we had to wait a little while for a lane.

Hurling a ball down the lane with a tremendous amount of strength and precision.

FINALLY, a few weeks back I moved up to yellow belt (level 2) in Taekwondo! I know, I know, I am a fearsome sight to behold. It's probably only a matter of weeks until I start breaking bricks with my head.

And that's all for sports at this hour...

What a busy May!

So much has gone on in May that I cannot possibly fit it all into one post! So, this post will be the first of several to come over the next few days (hopefully, if I can stay motivated) detailing some of the adventures that May has brought.

There are many holidays in May. May 5 is Children's Day, in which kids get off of school, receive gifts, and hang out with their families. May 8 is Parent's Day--here Mother's Day and Father's Day are combined into one holiday. May 10 is Buddha's Birthday. Lantern parades and festivals are held throughout the week, and temples are lavishly covered in colorful lanterns. Even though the day was rainy and overcast, it was still pleasant to visit a temple and stroll around.

This monk was nice enough to pose for a picture.

May 15 is Teacher's Day. I received some mud facial treatments. Other days in May commemorate the anniversaries of important events in Korean history. So, I wasn't the only one busy this May!

But, I did take some time on my own to explore a really wonderful park called Ppuri Park, curiously nicknamed "Filial Piety Theme Park." It was more amazing than the name gives it credit for. This park is dedicated to providing the history of family names in Korea, and the park has 136 sculptures representing different family names.

There are currently 286 surnames in Korea (the Big Three being Kim, Park, and Lee), with 4,179 family origins (called Bongwan). Together, the surname and Bongwan represent a family. A person's given name is composed of one character (syllable) that specifies which generation of a family the name holder belongs to, and another character for identifying the individual. Thus, every single Korean name has 3 characters (syllables)--two for the first name and one for the family name, which is actually put first. Aside from that genealogical lesson, the park was also just simply exceedingly beautiful.

To switch gears and focus on something not at all intellectual, some friends and I visited an all-you-can-eat sushi restaurant earlier in the month. The food came around on a conveyor belt that you could just grab things off of. There was a super wide variety of foods that came by--even ice cream--but this roll was the most interesting: imitation crab meat and cucumber surrounded by seaweed and rice, topped with a slice of processed cheese, colored sprinkles, and sweet sauces. Bona Appetit!
I went to Daejeon's NGO Festival. It was interesting, though I couldn't understand most of what the NGOs were supporting. But it was fun to be asked to pose with these very handsome South Korean soldiers.
"Which of these ones is not like the other one..."

The final entry for this post is about my trip to the Damyang Bamboo Forest--the Bamboo Culture Experience. Damyang is a pretty small city/village outside of Gwangju that is the northernmost point on the peninsula where bamboo grows in abundance. Bamboo is its thing. I ate bamboo ice cream and bamboo hotteok (sweet pancakes), went to the Bamboo Culture Experience Village and walked on Confucian Scholar's Road and Philosophers' Way, among other equally serene experiences. Here's a fun fact: "While walking around [the bamboo forest], negative ions (anions) are released from the bamboo that will ease the mind dramatically. The temperature in the bamboo forest is 4 to 7 degrees (Celsius) cooler, because of the elevated levels of oxygen."

So that was fun!

That's only scratching the surface of what has happened so far in May. Whew. Stay tuned.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Gwangju: Vive la Revolution!

With the Middle East in the midst of nation-changing revolutions, it was poignant for me to visit Gwangju here in Korea. Starting on May 18, 1980 and lasting through May 27, the people of Gwangju came together against Korea's ruling military regime in what they call the "Democratic Uprising."

The military regime squashed the uprising. The official statistics say that there were 154 people killed, 76 missing, and 4,176 wounded and/or arrested, but the total numbers may actually be much higher. The city was blockaded from the rest of the peninsula, and the military opened fire on the people. Chun Doo Hwan, whose coup d'etat in 1979 was one of the sparks for the uprising, remained in power until 1988. The military regime continued to rule. For a while it appeared as if the uprising had failed.

But, Koreans never forgot Gwangju, and the memory of the uprising "proved a touchstone that fed continued demands for democracy throughout the 1980s." Eventually, democracy did come to Korea. One of the heroes of the uprising was elected president in 1998. Today, the uprising is seen as a pivotal moment in the march towards democracy, and its participants are viewed as national heroes.

The wall of the victims

One thing that was striking to me was the similarities between the Gwangju Uprising and the democracy struggles that are taking place currently across the Middle East and Northern Africa. Just as Egypt had its Tahrir Square as a central place and gathering point, Gwangju had its Geumnam Street that was the scene of some of the most intense action. Today it is remembered as "The Street of Uprising, the Street of People, the Street of Democracy."

News has been censored in the Middle East, journalists detained, and social media targeted; similarly, all news of Gwangju was censored in 1980. This so incensed the citizens that they destroyed some of the buildings of media outlets that were seen to be distorting the real happenings during the uprising.

In both Gwangju and the Middle East, the role of the youth cannot be overstated. In Gwangju, the uprising was originally led by students, who were initially concerned with student government, before moving on to larger issues of national democracy. In response, the military government shut down all universities across the country. Gates were guarded by armed troops. Eventually, the general populace joined the students in Gwangju, and all ages, from elementary school students to elderly people, joined together in protest.

Statue in Memorial Park

Finally, there is the role of the US. In the Middle East, the US had/has to decide whose side to take and the extent of intervention. In Gwangju, the US government was compliant, turning over full control of forces to the Korean military so they could "maintain order" and also helping to "produce an atmosphere of fear among the people" that "helped justify the blockading of Gwangju as well as the armed suppression that followed."

Other patterns emerge between Gwangju in 1980 and the Middle East today.

Today, Korea is a democratic country. Today, people have a voice in their government, and the population expects certain rights and freedoms to be maintained. My hope is that one day we can say the same of Tunisia, Syria, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Algeria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Yemen. If there is one thing that I have learned from Gwangju, it is that people have power. They might not see change within months, years or decades. But, eventually, change will come. The people will be heard. Vive la Revolution!

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Family Time!!

I am one lucky YAV. I was just graced with a visit from my family--10 days with Mom, Susie, Nathan and Hanna. It doesn't get any better than that!

We were VERY busy. They flew into Incheon Airport, and then we stayed for 3 days in Seoul. We went to temples, palaces, shrines, shopping districts, the War Memorial, huge markets, and some tasty restaurants. Susie and I celebrated our 25th birthday together in Seoul.
Susie with her first Korean meal.

Mom and Susie and Gyeongbuk Palace.
Sus and Hanna at Cheonggycheon stream in Seoul.

At the War Memorial of Korea.
Mom with National Treasure #2 in Tapgol Park, Seoul

From Seoul, we bussed to Seoraksan, one of the highest, most popular, and most beautiful mountain areas in Seoul. It was truly stunning. We did several hikes, saw a temple, went up the cable car, and saw waterfalls and caves. Truly one of the most beautiful places I have ever experienced, and because it is still quite early in the season, we almost had the park to ourselves.

We then came back to Daejeon and I was pleased to be able to show my family my work centers, my house, the Hannam University campus, and my friends. Susie, Hanna and I went to a jimjillbang--one of the Korean spas--where I treated Hanna and Susie to a vicious scrub-down by a Korean lady in her underwear. We visited the art museums, downtown area, and arboretum.

A Korean lunch with the family, Simon, Haejung, and Katie.

At my work, Seomna Center, with one of the teachers.

At the Daejeon arboretum, in the rain.

Finally, we spent a few days in Busan on the southeast Korean coast. We checked out the humongous department store, ate a picnic at the water's edge, witnessed a Korean drumming performance, went to the UN Memorial Cemetery, oogled some fish at Jagalchi market--Korea's largest fish market--and attended a baseball game at "Korea's Mecca for baseball."
Sus at the ballgame.

Family, thanks for coming! What a great time. Can't wait to see you again in a little under 3 months!

I don't care how poor a man is; if he has family, he's rich. ~Dan Wilcox and Thad Mumford, "Identity Crisis," M*A*S*H