Friday, February 28, 2003

Sorry for the the lateness of this update. We've had a busy few weeks - last Saturday morning, Will, John, Rick, Amy, Megan and myself hopped aboard the 7:50am Saemaeul express train to Seoul. It was a wet, grey day in Korea and the countryside slipped past quietly as we dozed and rolled northwards to the nation's capital. We arrived in Seoul at about 1:30pm and made our way on the subway to our hotel. Riding the subway in Seoul was an interesting experience, with a very visible police presence at most of the subway gates, most likely as result of last week's terrible subway arson in Daegu.

From our hotel, we made our way over to the Itaewon district, home to the largest US military base in Seoul and a very foreigner-friendly area. You can buy all kinds of knock-off goods and custom-made leather jackets for dirt cheap. We had an excellent meal of Pakistani food (no less!) and had a wander through the markets, and then made our way to a palace north of the city - only to find it closed up for the day. Undaunted, we moved on to the Yongsan Electronics market, where you can find all the latest gizmos and gadgets for sale. I was interested in what was on display, but did not find myself moved to buy anything.

Saturday evening, we embarked on night of drinking and dancing that saw us move from Itaewon over to one of the university districts and visit several establishments for some fun and frivolity. The evening was memorable enough if for only the insane cab ride we had back to our hotel at 4:30 in the morning. I swear this driver was pushing 140 km + through the deserted streets of Seoul, running red lights and taking corners like a Formula 1 driver. Will, John and I slid around in the backseat, and fueled with a little Dutch courage, we egged him on with shout of "Bali, Bali!" or "Hurry, Hurry!" - I'm amazed we made it back in one piece.

On Sunday, we went and checked out the Korean War museum. It was a sobering experience, as the conflict between North and South still simmers even 50 years later. In fact, just last week, a North Korean Mig-19 made a provocative flight into South Korean airspace. The museum was an impressive stone structure that straddled a large pool of water, and was surrounded by vintage and modern displays of weaponry; including tanks, artillery pieces and aircraft.

Inside, you could wander through a chronological display of the 1950-53 conflict. The displays included multimedia projections and dioramas of the major incidents in the war. Prior to our visit, I hadn't known much about the Korean War, as it is often overshadowed by the later conflict in Vietnam. It was an intense, violent three years, and the capital Seoul actually changed hands four times between the North and the South. The frontlines seesawed up and down the pennisula, until they settled roughly where the DMZ lies today, just shy of the 38th Parallel. The most unsettling thing for me, I think, was the images of the street combat outside Seoul's train station. The very same building we had deboarded into the day before. Interestingly though, while much of the displays were in Korean, and therefore unreadable, from what I could gather - the conflict is painted very much as a 'Korean' struggle, and very little is mentioned about the US and UN troops that contributed so much to that war.

50 years on and the conflict remains unresolved, and while the current nuclear chess game is being played out on CNN, the shadows of the past continue to loom large over the pennisula. While most people don't like to talk about the North, there seems to be a definite feeling sometimes we are living in war zone. Maybe it's the groups of young, uniformed soldiers who wander the streets, or maybe it's the occasional overflight of military jets - I can't quite place what it is exactly, but it's there. Having learned more about the devastion wreaked on this country as a result of the last war, I can only wish there isn't another.

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