Monday, May 19, 2003

As we pulled out of Seoul, past a skyline shrouded in the early morning haze, our tour guide cautioned us: ¡°Remember, once you get to the De-Militarized Zone - there¡¯s no more De.¡±

As if to reinforce that point, while drove up the Unification Highway, winding north along the Han River, the road was lined by barbed wire, machine gun emplacements and manned pillboxes.

It was a beautiful Sunday morning and we were on our way towards one of the last remaining Cold War hotspots in the world.

The De-Militarized Zone (DMZ) is 61 KM from Seoul. Following the signing of the ceasefire in September of 1953 at the close of the Korean War, negotiations between the United States (under the auspices of the U.N.), China and North Korea established a Military Demarcation Line (MDL) between the two Koreas. Both sides in the conflict agreed to withdraw their forces a minimum of two kilometres on either side of the MDL. The space in between became known as the De-Militarized Zone.

Imjim Park

About an hour out of Seoul, we pulled into Imjim Park to see the so-called ¡°Freedom Bridge,¡± an old wooden-trestle bridge where, following the signing of the armistice, 13,000 Prisoners of War returned to the South.

Legend has it that as the former captives crossed the bridge they cried out in thanks for their freedom, giving the bridge its name. Fifty years later, the gate to the bridge is draped in colourful banners with personal messages all expressing a desire for reunification. There are still nearly 10 million separated Korean families and in the small park surrounding the bridge, small vigils and photo displays had been set up recognizing just some of families that had been reunited.

As we left the park and approached the first military checkpoint over the Imjim River, we drove under several collapsible concrete overpasses that could be dynamited to slow a military invasion. On either side of us however, were rice paddies and ginseng fields, evidence that even in one of the most highly militarized locations in the world, rural life continues unabated. Less than 500 people live in the DMZ and for their patriotic efforts they are rewarded with free land and exemptions from taxes and compulsory military service.

At the checkpoint on the Unification Bridge we were greeted by South Korean (ROK) troops standing side by side with their US Army counterparts. A young ROK official, clad in a dark suit, boarded our bus and asked for identification from all passengers. Cleared through the checkpoint, we proceeded down the bridge and our bus had to slalom in and out of iron tank barriers for several hundred metres till we reached the other side.

3rd Infiltration Tunnel

We wound our way up past camps full of bare-chested soldiers playing soccer in the mid-day sun and arrived at the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel where we filed in to a Interpretive Centre to watch a slickly produced multimedia presentation.

To our pounding soundtrack, the video called the DMZ the last remaining scar of the 20th Century¡¯s ideological battles and showed heart-wrenching scenes of divided families reunited interspersed with patriotic images of South Korea¡¯s rapid modernization and technological prowess. Surely a little propaganda never hurt anyone.

More interestingly however, it talked about the ecological value of the DMZ, which has existed in a nearly primitive state of nature. No human has stepped in it for nearly 50 years. And for good reason too, there are over 4 million landmines in the DMZ. All around the parking lot of the Interpretative Centre were red triangles and warning signs in English and Korean indicating the presence of minefields.

The 3rd Infiltration Tunnel is one of four officially recognized tunnels under the DMZ, the latest having been found as recently as 1990. We were told that the South Korean Government suspects there are upwards of twenty other infiltration tunnels, but will not confirm exact numbers in order to prevent any panic amongst a skittish population.

This particular tunnel was discovered in 1978 when a North Korean engineer in charge of its construction defected to the South. While hospitalized, he revealed the existence of the tunnel to authorities.

In order to find the tunnel, ROK forces dug more than a hundred boreholes in the location he had roughly described and filled them with water. They waited to see if the water levels in any of the boreholes descended. Sure enough, in one of the boreholes, the water drained out indicated the presence of a cavity below.

From that borehole, they dug an interception tunnel at roughly a forty-five degree angle in order to intersect with the North Korean tunnel.

We descended on a little monorail 300 metres down into the earth through the same interception tunnel. The trip took about 5 to 7 minutes to get to the bottom and is no trip for claustrophobics, as the walls of the tunnel brush your hardhat and shoulders all the way down.

Once at the bottom, our tour guide reminded us once again not to defect to the North and pointed us down the tunnel. The sheared granite faces of the tunnel walls were dripping with ground water and you could even stop to sip ¡®official¡¯ DMZ bedrock water from a small filled cistern.

The length of the entire tunnel is 1635 metres, 1200 of which are in North Korean territory.
Designed to allow an entire battalion of troops (10,000 men) pass through each hour, the tunnel was intended, had it not been discovered, to reach the outskirts of Seoul.

Tourists are only allowed in the first 200 metres of South Korean tunnel. At the end of the tunnel is the last of three blockade walls sealing off the tunnel to the North. The wall is guarded only by some barbed wire and a small video camera pointed at the inlayed door.

Apparently, in the hopes of obtaining some tourists dollars for themselves (Canadians can visit North Korea via Beijing), North Korea has also opened their side of the tunnel to tourists, which made me think how strange it would be if there were tourists on the other side of the wall and just what they were being told by their handlers.

Despite repeated denials from the North, the evidence seemingly indicates that they were behind the tunnel¡¯s construction. They even went to extraordinary lengths to disguise the tunnel, once it had been discovered, by claiming it was a coalmine and painting coal dust on the walls.

Our tour guide even adopted the linguistic fashion of the day, pointing out the so-called ¡°Smoking Gun,¡± or incontrovertible evidence of the North¡¯s intentions. It seems that the direction of all the boreholes for the dynamite sticks are pointed towards the South.

Mt. Dora (Dorasan) Observatory

From the tunnel, we drove up to the top of a small mountain to the Dorasan Observatory. After being herded into a large theatre we received a short briefing from a ROK soldier who stood by a scale diorama of the DMZ in front of a large plate-glass window overlooking the real thing. In a clipped, practiced speech he identified some of the various landmarks of the area.

In the distance lay Gaesong, North Korea¡¯s second largest city, where the North has recently established a special inter-Korean economic zone to try and attract investment capital from the South. In the heart of the city stands a massive gold statue of Kim Il Sung, one of the more than 25,000 statues of the Great Leader that dot the North Korean landscape. Standing three to four stories high, it is easily visible on a clear day.

Also visible is the North Korean ¡°propaganda¡± village of Gijeong-Dong where the only permanent residents are the hired hands who tend to the rice paddies. We were told by the ROK soldier briefing us that the proof of this fact was that all lights in the village are turned off at the same time each night, though this may be more likely due to the North¡¯s chronic power shortages rather than some malign propaganda scheme.

Directly opposite Gijeong Dong, on the other side of the barbed wire, is the South Korean city of Taeseong-Dong. In 1981, the South Korean government gave the residents of Teaseong-Dong a new 100-metre flagpole. Not to be outdone, the North set about building an even bigger flagpole in Gijeong-Dong. Completed at 160 metres, the North Korean flagpole is claimed to be the largest in the world - the dry weight of the flag alone is over 300 kilograms.

It all seemed like a ridiculous attempt at one-upmanship, except that both parties are heavily armed.

From the Observatory deck, you could power up large binoculars and scan the length of DMZ and eyeball, albeit from a distance, one of the most secretive and reclusive regimes in the world. Unfortunately, photographs of the DMZ were not permitted, except from behind a clearly painted yellow line. The ROK soldiers that were accompanying our group strictly enforced this rule.

Iron Silk Road

Scanning the binoculars to the left, we could see ROK troops were busy building a railway line northwards through the DMZ.

In June 2000, former South Korean President Kim Dae Jung visited Pyeongyang, under his ¡°Sunshine Policy¡± designed to engage the Communist State. The summit addressed a wide range of economic, cultural, sporting, and transportation issues, including the development of a new trans-Korean rail track.

The goal is that, once completed, the railway will link Busan to Paris via the Eurasian Land-Bridge and the Trans Siberian Railroad. Dubbed the new ¡°Iron Silk Road¡± the railway line now awaits only the completion of a narrow 300-metre strip of track through the minefields to restore transportation links between North and South.

We visited Dorasan Station that is currently the last stop on the line to North Korea. Many hope that this railway will serve as a beachhead towards reconciliation and eventually reunification of the two Koreas.

As our bus rolled south back into Seoul, I sat and digested everything I had seen; it was an intense day that was at same time both fascinating and tragic, and a little bit scary too.

Tuesday, May 13, 2003

Okay, so in my last update I mentioned # 3 on the cool Korean invention list – the hydraulic lift truck. Some of you may have been wondering what #1 and #2 are. #1 has got to be the heat sensitive Go/Stop label on Korean beer bottles: when you’re beer is cold, the label is green meaning it’s good to drink – when it’s red the bottle is warm and the beer will taste like crap. Not that it’s much better when it’s cold. # 2 on the list are the courtesy bells in some public washrooms - when you’ve been up all night drinking Soju and eating Korean barbeque and Kimchi and are suffering the consequences the next morning – you can push this button and the sweet sounds of birds chirping or waves crashing will mask any unflattering noises coming from the toilet

But enough digressions, we recently had a long weekend off of work, as the Koreans celebrated Children’s Day. Amy, Megan, Leigh and I seized the opportunity to get out of Ulsan in the search of fresh air, beaches and some tranquility.

Our destination was Mokpo, a midsized city located on the South Western tip of Korea. We had heard from several people that it was a nice city, but more importantly it serves as a launching point for many of the hundreds of small islands that dot the seas that surround the peninsula. Looking at a map and you see a virtual spider web of small ferry routes that depart from the port in Mokpo.

Driving from Ulsan took about four to five hours and we chose to take a southerly route via Busan and we cut right across the lower half of the peninsula. Along the way, we were treated to views of acres of green tea fields, rice paddies and small farms, bays, inlets and small islands. It was a beautiful drive.

We arrived in Mokpo in the early evening to find that we had missed the last ferry to the islands, so we set about finding a decent hotel near the ferry terminal. From Mokpo we can also take a large car ferry to Shanghai in China, but with the recent SARS outbreak, I doubt it was seeing much use.

We took the opportunity of an unexpected layover, to take a walk through the many fish markets that lined the inner harbour. Nearly every kind of seafood was available for sale, from large rays, to squid, eels, octopus to smaller tuna and other fish. Most just lay in big heaps on the sidewalk, which gave me some doubts about the hygiene. Nor did the penetrating smell of dead fish make it any more appetizing.

In any case, we wandered up and down the streets, many restaurant owners stood on the sidewalk shouting and gesturing at us to come and patronize their establishments. We chose what we figured was the cleanest looking place and thankfully, there happened to be a Korean American gentleman there who helped us decipher the menu. That evening, we feasted on a heaping plate of octopus stir-fry and some spicy fish soup.

Early the next morning, we headed down to the ferry terminal to purchase tickets and to get our car into the line-up for the next boat. Let’s just say it what we found made a two-sailing wait at Horseshoe Bay seem orderly. The line-up stretched in all directions with nobody seemingly in charge. Chaos reined and it was a free for all as people nosed their cars into each other trying to board any of the several ferries that were leaving. The ferries themselves looked like a large WWII landing crafts and you actually had to back your car up the ramp in the bow, which only compounded the situation as people tried to execute three-point turns in the crowd.

Once onboard, the trip took about two and a half hours and we wound our way through several small islands, past seaweed farms and fishermen tending their nets in tiny boats. The ferry’s common areas lacked any seating at all and so people just threw themselves down on the floor.

Eventually we reached our destination, a small island called Doch’o-do, where we were told there was a beautiful beach inside a bay. We drove through the rural villages, down winding island roads until we reached a sprawling bay. Unfortunately, by this time, the weather had socked in and it had begun to rain. Our hopes for a sunny day on the beach were considerably dampened. We spent some time clambering over the slick rocks to explore the area and we found in the water in front of us lay hundreds of fishing buoys stretching out to the horizon.

We left the bay and drove to Bigeum-Do, another island joined to Doch’o by a gracefully arcing bridge. We drove aimlessly for a while searching for another beach and ended up traversing the island several times before we actually found it. We drove through tiny villages, over rutted roads and to several dead ends in the process.

The sandy beach stretched for several kilometres and reminded me a lot of the beaches in Tofino. The difference however, was this beach was littered with all kinds of trash. It was kind of depressing really; we found all kinds of garbage buried in the sand from televisions to oilcans and Styrofoam. Nevertheless, we did find some large rope-covered, blown-glass fishing buoys, which we gathered up as a unique souvenir.

By this time, it was really raining, so we abandoned our plans to stay on the islands overnight and decided we would head to another city hoping we could catch up with some decent weather.

As we boarded the ferry back to Mokpo, all of a sudden there was much commotion as one of the Korean ferry workers, came running up to us yelling that we had to get off the ferry. We were confused, as the ferry clearly said it was sailing to Mokpo. Much commotion ensued as they tried to manoeuvre a bus out the way so we could disembark. Then, yet another Korean gentleman came running down the ramp this time yelling at the ferry worker. Turns out we were on the right ferry after all and we could get underway.

We drove through that evening to Yeosu where we checked into another hotel for the evening. In the morning, the weather was considerably better so we set off to explore the area. It was very beautiful, much like what one expects Asia to look like. Palm trees lined the roads along with lush green vegetation and terraced rice paddies were staggered up the hillsides. The coast was indented with little inlets and the water was a brilliant aquamarine blue.

We drove along this brand new highway, until all of a sudden it ended at a sharp drop without any warning. We reversed down the road till we found a picturesque little village tucked into a bay, so we decided to stop and spend some time on the beach. All along the beach, Koreans had laid out strips of seaweed for it to dry in the sun. We lay on the sand and I decided to do a little snorkelling in the cove

Well relaxed after a couple of hours, we decided it was time to head back to Ulsan and face the short week ahead.

Wednesday, May 07, 2003

I’ve felt quite lazy the last few weeks. It’s been hot and sunny (up in the high 20s all week so I’ve found it difficult to sit myself down in front of the computer and write one of the updates. Today, on the other hand, is just pissing down – so what better excuse to get down to business.

A couple weekends ago, Amy and I had our Hapkido blue belt test. We’re now moving on to some of the more challenging breaks and falls, so the test was a little more nerve wracking. That, and the fact that we were now the only foreigners testing for their belts – so, all eyes were definitely on us.

We’ve been going to Hapkido five days a week for almost five months now and I’m still really enjoying it. I can definitely feel the difference in my strength and flexibility (that’s what happens when you have a little Korean guy jumping on your back all the time). We’re learning some really interesting moves, wristlocks and kick combinations - I’m even trying stuff I never dreamed I could ever do, like front handsprings and back flips!

This past week was also moving day at English 2020. Our academy was moving to another location. They have been working on the new site for several weeks and the time had come to actually move the school. We arrived on Wednesday to find several large moving trucks parked outside our school, including #3 on the cool Korean invention list – the moving lift truck. (more on #1 and #2 in another email).

These trucks have hydraulic lift platform that can be raised several hundred feet in the air on a large movable boom. Stairwells and elevators are quite small in Korea, so when people move in and out they do it through their windows on the outside of the building. It’s a site to see, these lift platforms loaded with furniture shooting up and down sometimes 10 or more stories high.

The move itself was fairly painless. The next couple of days, the school was closed, so we had no classes to teach. We spent some time at the work site (well, a lot of time) doing very little. Some times the language barrier works in your favour here… when they can’t explain what they want you to do, they just don’t ask you to do it. I spent much of my time perfecting my hacky-sack skills on the sidewalk outside the school.

On the domestic front, George, Saddam and Tony are getting bigger by the day. We’ve had to upgrade their accommodation to a larger cardboard box, as they’d figured out how to jump out of the last one. It’s almost time to move them onto the roof. They’ve lost a lot of their yellow fluff and their personalities are really developing. (Do chickens have personalities?) George is the most dominant and Tony likes to pick on Saddam. Saddam just sits there and takes it from both of them. It’s funny how it’s mirroring real life…

We just returned from a trip to the South West coast, but I think that may have to wait for another email as this one is getting pretty long already. More to come…

Monday, May 05, 2003

Last weekend was a nice change from our regular hectic pace. Saturday morning, I went out to play a quick 5-a-side game with the Ulsan Won Shot Wanderers. I had to leave early as Joanna was here for a visit. She arrived by bus and we spent most of the day just hanging out at our house, watching movies. Saturday night we went bar hopping in Ulsan, hitting all the local foreigner bars: McKenzies, Asshole and the Royal Anchor. Sunday we relaxed a bit and by mid afternoon, Joanna had to return to Jeonju.

Easter in Korea passed with little incident - and you couldn't buy a Cadbury's Cream Egg if your life depended on it. Seems the holiday isn't really celebrated much here. That is unless, of course, you count the hundreds of baby chicks, some dyed all colours of the rainbow, for sale in the market. They went for under a dollar a piece, or three for two bucks. It was quite a pitiful site and even though we've been here long enough now to have seen some really weird things for sale in the market, we couldn't help but feel sorry for them.

And that is how George, Tony and Saddam joined our family. Yes, we bought three little, fluffy yellow chicks who now rule the top bedroom of our house. We named them in honour of the end of the Gulf War. They are very cute, but eat like vacuum cleaners and make a hell of a noise most of the time. Thankfully, I've been able to tune out their peeping, otherwise I think it would definitely drive me crazy by now.

Our plan is, if they survive, to keep them on our roof. After all, it's a much better fate than what awaited them in that market, in my opinion. Hopefully we didn't buy three roosters or the neighbours will hate us.

Today saw the remnants of Typhoon Kujira hit the pennisula, which meant it has been absolutely bucketing down all day. The Taewha River by our house is swollen with the rainfall and the drainage outlets are all pouring out like mini-Niagaras. I guess as spring is here and summer approaches, typhoons become more frequent. Last year, Korea was rocked by a powerful typhoon shortly before we arrived. We'll have to wait and see what this year has in store.