During the last week of May, Dominik and me flew from Taiwan to South Korea to spend there our week-long semester break. We were invited to stay over at Dominik’s friend’s house. Sarah was so kind, she picked us up at the airport in Seoul, which was 1,5 hour away by underground from the city centre.
Korean flag is probably the most interesting one of all. “The white background is a traditional Korean colour. It represents peace and purity. The circle in the middle is derived from the philosophy of yin and yang and represents the balance of the universe. The blue section represents the negative cosmic forces, and the red section represents the opposing positive cosmic forces. The trigrams together represent the principle of movement and harmony. Each trigram represents one of the four classical elements.” – from the Wikipedia.
On our first evening, Sarah took us to see the Hongdae district. The area is located in the western end of the city and is famous for small bars (Koreans are tired of the chain brands), street arts and indie music culture. The most interesting thing we encountered were drinks sold in plastic bags that could be hanged on the neck, served with a long straw. Another interesting thing was a “HO bar”, which was a strip club for women. For dinner we got Korean barbecue and hand made ice cream. It was a nice change after Taiwan – the ice cream was super delicious, as oppose to the Taiwanese version of the desert, which is simply put inedible.
The city gives off a very modern vibe. The underground is very well organised – there is different music played for different trains, there are guidelines made with respect to where one wants to change showing the shortest way to reach the destination and the whole system is wheelchair accessible.
The Korean culture is rather different to what I am normally used to. Koreans have a great respect for age, which is shown in the language and manners – there are 9 different levels of formality in speech, depending on relations (friends, close friends, work, military, older people, etc) one has to adjust the level of formality and grammar which changes along with it. Sounds like a big headache for foreigners.
Also, some older people seem to be very rude, up-nosed, and have little regard for white, female foreigners (me), which often resulted in pushing around and quite unpleasant looks (couple of times also happened that after taking a look, a person sitting next to me on a train would get up and change the seat…). Apparently, some Koreans from the old generation are a little xenophobic and homophobic, which results in making claims like “only foreigners are gay, Koreans have no ‘gay issue’, and only foreigners transfer HIV, so Koreans should stay away”. This is of course a huge generalization, but I must say, Seoul is the only place I have been to, which made me aware of being ‘white’, different. Some people were openly hostile.
Having the above in mind, the oddest thing is, that many Koreans are crazy about plastic surgeries, which make them look more like western people. Most popular operation is getting a double eyelid and breast enlargement. Probably the most creepy thing we have seen, was a girl who had her lips done in a way that she looks like she was constantly smiling… I would imagine it is hard to express real emotions with such face. The operation was supposed to give hare face a pleasant vibe – newest fashion in Seoul.
Apparently, it all works both ways as the recent case of a Brazilian guy shows. He fell in love with Korea so deeply and wanted to fit in, so he went threw 10 plastic surgeries to look like a native. The outcome is rather shocking…
Another bizarre thing is the fact that tattoo parlors are forbidden, and people who have a tattoo are considered weird and possibly dangerous, which also results in difficulties in getting a job.
On Saturday, Sarah took us to the Bongeunsa Temple 봉은사 in the Gangnam district.
The air pollution in Seoul is very high. It is believed to be caused by Chinese industry and brought to Korea by winds.
In the evening, Sarah took us to see her friend’s band concert – Sugar Come Again. It was an amazing evening! We met many wonderful people and had educative, political conversations about reunification…
On Monday, we went to see the Gyeongbokgung Palace 경복궁 and the statue of Sejong the Great.
Sejong the Great’s (1397 – 1450) biggest achievement was inventing Hangul – the Korean alphabet. Before the implementation of Hangul, Koreans were using Chinese characters. Unfortunately, due to the lack of sufficient education, bigger part of the society was illiterate. King Sejong decided to change the situation and come up with an alphabet consisting of 24 consonant and vowel letters. However, the letters are not written consequently like in the Roman system, but are grouped in blocks consisting of three to five letters including at least one consonant and one vowel., each of which transcribes a syllable (just like the Chinese characters used to do). The system is still being used in both parts of the Korean peninsula.
After strolling through the Palace’s gardens we took the eastern exit and walked down the Insa Dong 인사동 district, where we could enjoy lots of small cafes and designer shops, as well as street art. Unfortunately prices were way out of our reach. Before travelling to Japan, I was convinced that it is the most expensive country in Asia. However, I was pleasantly surprised – the price level was more or less the same as in Germany. In Korea on the other hand, prices were so high that we ate out only couple of times. Besides that we were preparing food in Sarah’s kitchen…
Tuesday morning greeted us with a thick layer of smog and strong sun. Even 50 SPF cream did not shelter us from getting sun burned.
First, we went to see The War Memorial of Korea 전쟁기념관. It was opened in 1994 on the former site of the army headquarters and is the most impressive war museum I have ever seen. It is an absolute must see when visiting Seoul. South Korea is still officially at a state of war with their northern neighbours, and the consequences of that are visible all around the city – gas masks at the underground stations, regular civilian training in case of air strike, obligatory military training for every Korean man lasting for two years, and lastly: Seoul is divided in half by the huge Han 한강 river; in case of an attack from the north all the bridges are ready to be blown up… so it is better to live on the south side of the river.
Some Koreans still hold a grudge against Japanese. In 1910 Korea was invaded by Japan and ruled by it until the end of the World War II. Since Japan (along with Nazis) lost the war, the Korean peninsula was divided into two zones of occupation – northern part was taken by the Soviet Union and the south part by U.S. forces (similar to the post-war Berlin situation). In 1948 two separate governments were created. Both were claiming to be the legitimate one of Korea and none of them wanted to acknowledge the border set up on the 38th parallel as a permanent one. Global tensions, the Cold War and other factors caused the conflict to escalate into the open warfare when North Korea supported by Soviet Union and Chinese forces invaded the South on 25 June 1950. Since South Korea was focusing its resources on building economic stability and better future for itself (as opposed to North Korea that was spending all its money on military training), the country was utterly unprepared for a war. Luckily for South Korea, two days after the attack the UN Security Council decided on the formation and dispatch of the U.N. Forces in Korea. The United States and many other countries moved to defend South Korea.
The fighting ended on 27 July 1953, when the armistice agreement was signed. The agreement established a new border between the two Koreas close to the previous one and created the Demilitarized Zone.
Some Koreans also hold a grudge against North Americans. The fighting ended over fifty years ago, but American Army is still present and well in South Korea…
After educating ourselves on the subject of Korean War, we headed to a hidden art district. I came across it when reading an article about the most beautiful stairs around the world. Unfortunately, there was no information given in which place exactly in Seoul the stairs may be found. It took over two days of internet research to pinpoint the spot, but it was totally worth it – 이화벽화마을 Ihwa Mural Village. To get there, one must get off at the Hyehwa 혜화역 metro station and take the exit 2, walk down the street and turn the first left, climb the hill and pass a hill park.
Cheonggyecheon Stream Restoration Project was our next destination. Cheonggyecheon river side is a lovely place to take a walk and escape from the city if only for five minutes. The restoration of the river side (previously covered by streets) was designed to provides flood protection, increase overall biodiversity, reduce the urban heat island effect and air pollution, provide with economic advantages as well as attract thousands of visitors per day.
Jogyesa Temple 조계사 – the centre of Zen Buddhism in Korea – amazed us with hundreds of colourful lanterns.
In the evening, we walked to the Molly’s Pops and bought €20 worth bag of ice popsicles, SO DELICIOUS, nom nom nom!
After that, Sarah took Dominik for a Taekwondo (a Korean martial art) training. I had to stay at home and study for my fast approaching exams 😦
On Wednesday we were already running out of things to do in the city, so we decided to see the Leeum – Samsung Museum of Art 삼성미술관 리움, which to our disappointment turned out to be so so at best.
On Thursday, we travelled to the Bukhansan National Park 북한산국립공원-도봉 지구, which was only half an hour bus ride away from the city centre. The park was absolutely mind blowing, and its proximity to the city made it even more attractive.
Koreans love to hike. They love even more hiking clothes, to the point that people often wear the outfits as a casual wear… By the entrance of the park, there were many hiking gear stores, offering all kinds of wild stuff, most of which I did not know what is designed to be used for.
Sarah Katin summed it up as follows in one of her sarcastic blog entries about Korean culture: “Koreans love hiking. What they love even more than hiking is dressing to go hiking. They’ve got all the goods: North Face jackets, argyle knee socks, spring-loaded walking sticks, heat-activated gloves, spiky shoe boots, more North Face stuff, you get the idea. Don’t worry if you don’t look the part, they understand you’re a foreigner and find your ignorance amusing.
Enjoy the hike. It’s more like walking slowly in a large herd along a gently sloping and well-trodden path, but whatever. If that’s not enough of a workout for you, stop at one of the many outdoor gymnasiums and swivel your hips on a metal disc like the super-serious elderly man on the disc next to yours. Afterwards, he’ll share his seaweed rice rolls (aka kimbap) and soju with you. It’s like the trail mix and water of Korean hiking.”
On our last day we saw the DMZ – demilitarized zone – is a border barrier, which runs along the 38th parallel north and cuts the Korean Peninsula roughly in half. It was created as part of the Korean Armistice Agreement between North Korea, the People’s Republic of China (supporting the North Korea during the Korean war along with the Soviet Union), and the United Nations Command forces (supporting South Korea) in 1953.
It is 250 kilometres long, 4 km wide and (despite its name) is the most heavily militarized border in the world.
The border crossing point is more busy than I had imagined. There are quite many trucks going back and forth to the Kaesong Industrial Region.
The park was formed in 2002 and is located ten kilometres north from the Korean Demilitarized Zone (an hour’s drive from Seoul). The park allows South Korean companies to employ cheap labour that is educated, skilled, and fluent in Korean, while providing North Korea with an important source of foreign currency and employment.
As of April 2013, 123 South Korean companies were employing approximately 53,000 North Korean workers and 800 South Korean staff. The wages, summing up to $90 million each year, had been paid directly to the North Korean government.
In 2008, the relationship between the both sides of the Korean peninsula was the best since the war: the Kaesong Industrial Region was creating big revenue for both countries, south Koreans were allowed to enter the North by train for tourism purposes and in general the tensions were slowly being put at ease. Unfortunately, one of the South Korean tourist, decided to ignore the regulations, woke up early and left the hotel without any supervision to enjoy a sunrise on a beach. A soldier spotted her and after a brief argument shot her dead. Ever since, the South Koreans are no longer welcome in North Korea for tourist purposes and the number of military incidents (including shutting down the Kaesong Industrial Region for couple of days) were increasing and tension escalating. The rail road connection was shut down and all hopes of train travels to Europe disappeared into nothing.
From the view point one may observe The world’s third-tallest flagpole flying a North Korean flag over Kijŏng-dong near Panmunjom. It got so ridiculously high due to a competition between the two cities located across the border from each other. One city had a pole with South Korean flag, the other with North Korean. Each city wanted to have comparably higher pole, so after the first one was built higher, the second one was rebuilt to be even higher. Then the first one had to be readjusted and so on and so on. The symbolic competition got completely out of hands, luckily South Korea took the high way and at some point stopped readjusting the flagpole.
From the observatory also the “Bridge of No Return” may be seen that crosses the Military Demarcation Line. It was used for prisoner exchanges at the end of the Korean War in 1953. The name originates from the fact that many war prisoners of North Korean Origin, captured by the South Korean forces did not wish to return home. The prisoners were brought to the bridge and given the choice: to remain in the country of their captivity or cross the bridge to their homeland. However, if they chose to cross the bridge, they would be never allowed to return.
It is believed that North Koreans dug over 20 infiltration tunnels – South Korean and U.S. soldiers regularly drill in the Korean Demilitarized Zone to search for them. Untill today only four were discovered.
Only 44 km from Seoul, the Third Tunnel of Aggression was discovered in October 1978 based on information provided by a defector. It is 1.7 km long, 2 meters high and 2 meters wide. It runs through bedrock at a depth of about 73 meters below ground. It was designed for a surprise attack on Seoul from North Korea, and can easily accommodate 30,000 men per hour carrying light weaponry.
Initially, North Korea denied building the tunnel, but after proving it with by analysing the direction of the dynamite blasts that drilling was made from the North Korean side, then officially North Korea declared it part of a coal mine; black “coal” was painted on the walls by retreating soldiers to help confirm this statement. However, there is no geological likelihood of coal presence in the area.
The South Koreans have blocked the actual Military Demarcation Line in the tunnel with three concrete barricades. Tourists can walk as far as the third barricade, and the second barricade is visible through a small window.
The current, official South Korean politics opts for reunification. The nation however, is divided in their opinions. During our stay, we have heard many arguments against, such as drastic cultural and economical differences – it would cost a lot of money to bring North Korean neighbours to the level of life and education that is enjoyed by the South Koreans. On the other hand, many people think of North Koreans as their brothers and sisters and truly hope that the Korea can be united again.
The trip to Seoul was very educative and at many times felt surreal. The infamous North Korea that normally may be seen only in staged, TV images, was right in front of our eyes. It is hard to describe what a person feels when looking in that direction… sorrow, compassion, impotence…
For comparison, my friend went to North Korea for some kind of diplomatic mission. Here one can read about his adventure. Unfortunately the text is only in Polish, but with Google translate and attached photos it should not be difficult to get an accurate impression.