Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Korea: A Fascination with the North

An-yon-haseyo again!

As I mentioned in my last post about my trip to South Korea, when I learned I was going to visit the South, I began researching all things Korea; food, culture, language, history and of course this unique relationship with the northern part of the country. The later turning me into a North Korea investigator.

I have become completely fascinated with North Korea.

Because it is an essentially forbidden land in so many ways, I of course, want to know more. The first thing I did when I found out Americans aren`t allowed in (Yes, TECHNICALLY we are, but it`s difficult to say the least)? I went to Kayak.com to see what would happen if I tried to book a flight. Turns out a flight from Tokyo to Pyongyang, North Korea`s major city, wasn't an option, though I did find one from LA to Beijing to Pyongyang. Wasn't too expensive either.

Relax, I'm not going.

I wanted to know about the country's politics, which I found can really be summed up in a lineage, Kim Jong Il and his dad. I wanted to know about the human rights they have, lack of may be a better description. I wanted to know about the secrets, the visiting policy, the reason it is the way it is, how the rest of the world views them, what they think of themselves and what the status is at the moment. I started poling anyone and everyone.

While I was still in Japan, I was drilling Kellyne with questions about what she knew, and what it was like to live so close to such a taboo country. She said it`s interesting. Explaining that while the rest of the world stresses out about North Korea and the nuclear weapons that they brag about having in their possession, the South Korean's seem rather nonchalant about it. 

"It`s something they have grown up with," she explained, "maybe North Korea will attack, maybe they won`t. Remember back in November when North Korea attacked one of the South Korean islands killing a few people? Well, the rest of the world was freaking out, but many South Korean's believed it was Kim Jon' Il`s son showing off. Apparently people aren`t as intimidated by him and he knows it so he may do things to try to get "respect" from the rest of the world."

In talking with friends online about my new found fascination with North Korea, seeing if they had anything they wanted to offer to my growing knowledge about this unique country, I found out a few facts. Nick Spear, a friend from high school and probably one of the smartest people I know was thrilled about this new intrigue I had. We talked about it for awhile and got to Kim Jong Il`s eldest son, Kim Jong Nam, who is set to take over when his very ill father passes. "Did you know he forged a passport to leave North Korea because he wanted to go to Tokyo Disneyland? And got caught?!" Nick asked. He always has the best did you know facts. I had no idea this had occurred. Here is the always reliable Wikipedia to explain the incident to us...

Wiki: Kim Jong Nam; 2001 Tokyo Disneyland Incident

In May 2001, Kim was arrested on arrival at New Tokyo International Airport (now Narita International Airport), accompanied by two women and a four-year old boy identified as his son. He was traveling on a forged Dominican Republic passport using a Chinese alias, Pang Xiong,[5] which could mean "fat bear".[6] Kim was reportedly wearing a white shirt and dark blazer along with sunglasses and a gold chain. After being detained for several days, he was deported, on the instructions of the Japanese government, to the People's Republic of China. Kim apparently told his questioners that he was in Japan to visit Tokyo Disneyland in Urayasu, also near Tokyo. The incident caused Kim Jong-il to cancel a planned visit to China because of the embarrassment to both countries.

This little incident may have cost mini Kim his potential ruling position. Who knew the desire to see Mickey was so strong. 

I was asking Nick what he knew about the people of the country and he said not much, no one really does because everything is so secretive. All media in North Korea is monitored by the government and we all know that there is basically no information coming out of the country. I was saying how sad and scary that is and Nick commented that while it is, the North Korean's think the way they live is normal and that North Korea is the best country ever. We then continued to discuss that while they have essentially been brain washed, it's as thought ignorance really is bliss in this situation. It seems better somehow that they don't know what else is out there, what they're missing, and that the rest of the world really isn't a big fan of North Korea.

I then went to look further into exactly what the situation for the people really is in this mysterious country. I stumbled across this Wikipedia page, hands down the most enthralling Wiki page I've ever read.

This Wikipedia page and the stark contrast between North Korea, and well, the rest of the world, got me wondering what exactly it is like at the border of the two countries. As I was pondering this, Kellyne informed me that we were in fact going to the border. I was thrilled the instant she told me. Apparently getting her to go had taken quite a bit of convincing from her co-workers as she was worried that she would say something and get shipped over.

The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is a tourist attraction so it's not as though we would be wandering up on our own. We got on the tour bus in Seoul at 7 am for the hour or so drive to the border. The tours have varying levels of intensity. Ours was the lowest. We saw 1 of the 4 tunnels dug by the North Koreans to get to Seoul (their are suspected to be more). A mini movie was on the schedule, and a train station built and ready to be used to ship things through to North Korea whenever that time comes. We were also able to get as close as possible to the North, a point where we could take pictures. Then to an overpriced ginseng store that was somehow snuck on to the tour. All in all it was fascinating. Though there were a few things that struck me as odd.

On our way

Can you find us?
When we got to the 1st of the 3 stops, we got out and went into what was a mini museum, then sat to watch the little movie about the border. I don’t know what I expected but they painted this picture that the DMZ was a magical, peaceful, nature filled place. Backed with sappy music, the narrator talked about what a peaceful place the border was, then listed off the types of animals and flowers that lived in within it. There were pictures of flowers blooming and deer running. I was confused.

"Not the last station from the South,
But the first station toward the North."

"Train" bound for Pyeongyang, North Korea

Map showing the round about routes to get things shipped from South Korea to Russia or China,
since NK doesn't allow any transportation to pass through.

My confusion was only enhanced when we got to the tunnel. We were able to walk down to the bottom and walk along the tunnel. We all had on super cool bright yellow hard hats and had to duck the entire time we walked. It was cold and dark and wet. All I could think as we walked deeper, was, my god I hope Korea doesn't have earthquakes too. When we got to the end of the tunnel you could look through a hole and "see into North Korea" which at this point was just black. There was also a camera from the North Korean side watching us. 

The vertical poles are how the South Koreans found the tunnel.
They stuck them in the ground checking for tunnels and found one.

How we entered the tunnel

When the tunnels were discovered North Korea claimed that that South had dug them. It was an old fashioned he said/she said. Being that Kim Jong Il is, in a word, nuts, it didn't take much convincing on my end to know they were lying. Before we entered the tunnel and once we were in it there were signs pointing out the many reasons that the North must be responsible. The sign cited the angle of tunnel, the direction the dynamite was placed and the locations of the tunnels as reasons why North Korea must be responsible. When we came out, I asked Kellyne and the other girls we were with if they felt like that information was being shoved down their throats also, they too had noticed it. The more signs I saw the more questions I had.

The most interesting part of the tour came when we went to the balcony type thing that looked over the border into North Korea. The rules were explained to us prior to leaving the bus. There was a yellow photo line clearly drawn on the ground, all photos had to be taken behind the line. You could only use a point and shoot camera. Cameras with a crazy long black lens were not allowed, as North Korea who was watching us and may think it was a gun. We don't need World War III started by a tourist. After the photo line was a line of binoculars. Put your coin in and you could look on the other side. I was able to see the North Korean flag, and a few North Korean soldiers moving around. 

Soldiers monitoring camera usage

Entrance to the border

After the photo line was a line of binoculars. Put your coin in and you could look on the other side. I was able to see the North Korean flag, and a few North Korean soldiers moving around. As I looked at them my first thought was, Wow, we have nothing in common. You can't eat what I eat, travel like I do, go on facebook, watch FRIENDS, read about something other than how fabulous North Korea is, shop at GAP, talk to anyone outside your country, and most importantly, voice what you think. And I think that's sad.

I think this picture is so powerful.
There literally is a line, and that is how far you can go into the country.
End of story.
The entire bus ride back Kellyne and I listened to music and I fired questions at her. I don't know what I wanted her to tell me, Lord knows she hasn't been to North Korea. Despite her concern, she was not sent over. Though she did say she has a documentary that she said was a must see. And she was right. I think it is beyond interesting and I am attaching a link for all of you to watch. It is called the VICE Guide to North Korea, and is awesome because it's simple and straight forward. It's an American film maker, at least we think he's from the US, who gets in to North Korea and films his time there. Something that is not allowed to be done. What is great is just how straight forward it is. If you were to go over and film this is probably something similar to what you would end up with. It's a 3 part series, an hour total. Enjoy!

Last but not least, a conversation you may find rather interesting. When I returned from Korea, my fascination with the North was still strong, if not stronger. I was talking online to one of the other ALTs, Kris from England. He is new to Kamagaya this year and we were both having a slow day at work so we were chatting online. He went to university in England, though studied abroad for a year in Hong Kong, where he met two students from North Korea. When he told me this I was floored, and immediately began drilling him with questions. Our conversation is below, I usually hate reading other people's conversations, but I modified this to make it easer. I must say, it is totally worth the read. 

me: hello!

Kris: helloooo! How was Korea!?

me: hi!
   Greatttt, partied, went to the DMZ
   quite the well rounded trip

Kris: I saw some pics pop up on fb. um..... quite possibly a retarded question lol, but, what is the DMZ? 

me: ha, no worries
  it's the demilitarized zone
  border between north and south

Kris: ahhhh. so you were by north korea? how was that?

me: well i was in seoul, the capital, major city
  love cities
  then we took a tour and drove like an hr to the border
  im completely enthralled by north korea

Kris: yeah, i saw some pictures while i was in HK. shame no one can go there :( what did you see? just a big wall or...

me: well there were lots of check points and a few rules
  but we took a tour that wasnt as intense as some
  at the border, it was almost like a huge patio that looked out
  there was a yellow line painted on the ground and you could       only take pics behind it
  at the edge of the wall were telescopes to look on their side I saw the flag and a few of their military peeps

Kris: wow......so covert lol but fascinating as you said!!!
i just spent 10 minutes reading north korea`s wiki article haha


Kris: we had two north koreans at my university in hong kong. but it was really weird. everyone stayed far away from them and they spent all their time together

me: NO WAY
how did they get out? and what were they like? god im such a nerd, were they going back?

Kris: lolol. well at the time i just knew they were korean. then when i asked about them because they studied non stop, one of the girls in our italian class explained that they were north koreans. one guy in the class was southern and they didnt really talk to him.
i had no clue why. i didnt know about korea then. so she explained it all to me. but basically......they had been paid, fully, all tuition and living and transport costs by their government. BUT only if they studied physics, specialized in nuclear physics and maintained a ridiculous score. plus they had been selected by the government as two of the top students i think from either their school or area. not sure why HK though
also, the other conditions were, on no circumstances were they to leave HK except to return to North Korea
they were to remain in HK at the university, study and return only on specific holidays. but it was preferred that they remained in HK until graduation. and then when they return to the North, they would work under the government. so jobs were supplied too

me: did they speak english?

Kris: well....
lol. ok so....
it was two guys. one was really quiet and shy but smiley. the other one was usually pretty serious and more confident. but generally, both were really really nice. i got on with them really well in and out of italian class. they spoke english, id say, fluently. though accented and shy. they were also studying italian.
  but, they were a little unclear and iffy with saying much on why, but from what i gathered....
they had to drop italian in the second semester. basically, italian was their choice module. they both really wanted to learn it and were interested in italy. but, they dropped it in the second semester even though they told the teacher they were likely to continue. it was sudden and they wouldnt really say why. but from what i got out of them...
basically, they had to study certain modules. not just for their course but for the requirements home had put on them. Italian did not come under those requirements. it was their option module. and apparently they werent supposed to have them. so they quickly dropped it and took all pure science. i think, judging by how they reacted and what they said, they got in some trouble for taking italian as it deviated from their main subjectbut... the bad thing is...

 me: god thats scary

 Kris: i really understood the whole human rights situation. because of their study habits.....
so, in hk, it was typical for students to sleep 4-6 hours in one week! and practically live in the library. i got used to that. it was the students choice because they put pressure on themselves to do well. but these two....
they had to maintain the top scores. they became notorious. they were always together, just them two, studying or eating only. never hanging out with anyone else but willing to talk if you spoke to them and nice enough, but they stayed away for the most part. and every class they would come in, blood shot eyes, ridiculously tired. and a couple times, the quiet one would doze off or practically pass out in class, and his friend, the more serious one, would nudge him and speak quite sharply in korean and the other one would apologize a lot
and they got all the highest marks, in every class, for every subject, except italian. they were infamous in the physics department, as the two of them continuously scored the highest and way above everyone else. but, that was their life. one weekend, they studied non-stop, not even to eat, for 16 hours! and a typical week for them was 2-3 hours of sleep a night if they considered they had time, as a reward, then study in their rooms non-stop. they only left to go to class or to quickly get food. one week, they only slept 4 hours. HK students do similar, but near deadlines or exams. these two did it every week, every month, for the whole year
the last time i saw either of them was the quiet one... and he was so pale, and really thin and sickly looking :( but they had to ensure they got the right marks and learnt everything fully

me: oh my god, i literally just gasped out loud. were they still there when you were left? did they talk to their parents? or were they shocked by the outside world? in my mind all of north korea lives in a slightly more homey concentration camp. i dont know if thats ignorant or accurate

Kris: thats the thing. they didnt say much on it. they were still there when i left. i saw the quiet one a couple of days before i left HK.... he was in the library as usual. its where i usually bumped into him. and i could tell he always wanted to hang around and chat but the other one would always try to hurry him away. not sure about talking to their parents. i know they said they didnt really have much plans to return home any time soon and they said contact was difficult, so i dont think they did much, if at all. and as for their opinions on the outside world....
well, i know one class them and the south korean were talking about differences in food and culture, but nothing, at the time when i knew zilch, to give away what n. korea was like or the tension between the two. just quite civil conversation in culture differences between the two.
and they were both fascinated with italy, especially when the teacher did a lesson on italian culture with loads of picture slides. but for the most part....
they were so absorbed into their studies, i dont really think they quite knew what was going on around them. as far as i could tell, they had never really explored or looked around HK. as soon as they had arrived, it was study mode from the start. we would mention well-known places in HK and usually, they had no clue
i dont really think they went that far from the campus
we had food places, stationary, clothing shops and everyday essential places either on campus or a 5 minute walk away, so they didnt really need to i guess. they knew very little about England. they seemed to know a fair bit about america though, but they didnt seem to hold a grudge against the s.korean or treat him badly. the serious one was the same to all. the friendly one was the same to all. it didnt matter. but the s.korean was very cautious of them. and when word got out it was nuclear physics they had to study, people sort of...steered clear from them.
it's a shame, cos they were both really nice. but it sounded like they were under huge amounts of pressure and ddnt really get any choice in anything, the quiet one said he would have preferred to major in european studies with a focus in italian but he knew he could never do it

so im guessing they didn't date, i mean if they didn't have friends, then i'd go with no. did they say if they had any family in south korea? or anything about kim jong il?

Kris: no, but i think one of them had a crush, but couldn't really pursue it. i know the s.korean had a girlfriend and one of them was a little jealous lol. they never mentioned kim jong il or anything about human rights or politics etc. it was always sort of tip-toed around. as far as i can remember, no family in south korea. somebody in class asked them that and the n.koreans and s.korean guy sorta stared at them and just said no lol

me: it fascinates me and breaks my heart all at the same time
what else what else

Kris: yeah. i really liked the quiet one, so when i saw him around i always tried to get him to chat a bit, and i think he wanted to, but if the serious one was nearby, it was always cut short. although we were lucky enough, one night, that i bumped into two girls from italian and started chatting with them in the library, then the quiet one walked in alone and he stopped and we were all chatting for like, half an hour. which for him, is reaaaaally long! so i knew he wanted to make friends and hang out, but, he always had something else keeping him from doing it.

me: aww
  did they seemed shocked by what was around them?
  aka the world

Notes and well wishes from the S to the N

Kris: shocked? hmmm.....
well, the serious one,....he seemed like, he had accepted things. got into a routine or habit and just sort of accepted it. so it was difficult to get reactions out of him much. but we got him to laugh or joke a couple of times. the quiet one though...... not so much shocked. but he generally seemed really curious in everything. like, he would always ask me a lot of questions whenever we spoke and he wasn’t insanely tired
he seemed interested in people a lot too... he really wanted to socialize. and in different subjects. and i know a couple of times he was surprised or... i guess, delighted....if i got like, a frappucino or something. im assuming theres no starbucks there lol
me: ha ya im gonna go with no. did they say anything about the plethora of internet or tv? if i were them i would have googled their country, but then I guess i probably wouldnt know what google was
Kris: but he definitely showed much more curiosity in things. it was like watching a child sometimes or talking to one. but the other one just sort of seemed to have accepted the way things were with his life and it took a lot to interest him or bring that curiosity back. like he thought it was pointless now
ah...... well...... thats the strange thing

me: maybe he didn't care, or maybe was easier not too since he knew he was going back

Kris: like, from what we could tell, they used the computers in the library for books and stuff. but, our italian teacher said they never emailed him back. the uni gave everyone email addresses, but i dont think they used it much. they definitely had nothing to do with social networking. they commented on singers and groups often. and a couple of times i caught the quiet one staring at tvs dotted around campus lol
but really, they knew very little about any celebrities or shows. they didnt seem to know any actually, if they were mentioned in class. which is no surprise i guess
but other than staring at tvs on campus, they didnt seem to express much interest....i guess cos they`re used to not really having it

me: did they see any movies?
or were they at all interested in the diversity?
exhibit a: you're british

Kris: lolol!
um..... not really. they said they didnt really have any time for it. as far as i know, entertainment was not deemed necessary. just eat, study and sometimes sleep. we watched a movie in italian class..... the serious one seemed really unimpressed and, like he almost felt it was pointless. he was used to studying. but it was really funny, cos the quiet one really liked it, was laughing and smiling a lot and seemed to really enjoy it
the diversity, i think definitely. the quiet one again. apparently, from what the others said, i was one of the few that spoke to him quite often and he always asked me a lot of questions about my thoughts and opinions etc.

me: probably because yours were not generated by kim jung il

Kris: lol yeah. but he generally just seemed really curious in things. it was good to see that in him, but sad, one, because he couldn’t really pursue things much and two, because the other one seemed to have lost the ability to be curious or just didn’t show it
but they’ve got another 1-2 years at HK, then back to north korea. and the 3-4 years they’ve got outside of korea, they`re not even allowed to make the most out of it
and so many of the HKers knew they were north koreans and stayed away. especially when they learnt they were studying nuclear physics, what with the whole nuclear situation that was going on and, I guess, still is, in north korea
china sort of pulled away a lot from its friendship with n. korea around the time i was in HK, and with these two around and all the HK local students, you really could get a sense of that. and they both knew that the other students were very wary around them but they just sort of shrugged it off as they knew they were only there to study and that was all

me: interesting
did they say anything about their families, or siblings? what they did or what they thought about them being over in HK?

Kris: i think they spoke about how many brothers or sisters they had. and one spoke about their grandparents i think. but nothing on what they thought about them being in HK or what they did. im trying to remember.....cos i remember the italian teacher asking us what our families did etc....
i think they sort of avoided the question. i know one of them said their grandparents liked cooking and explained a north korean dish that they were good at making. but it wasnt really an answer.

me: hmmm
im gonna guess the answer to this is no, but did they say anything about the the reunion of displaced families between N and S Korea that has happened a few times

Kris: no they didnt im afraid. i know the teacher asked if anyone had family in the other side of korea, and both lots said no pretty quickly. the only other thing i remember is that one of them had been to the other part of korea, but the others hadnt
i cant remember tho if it was n to s, or s to n, but i think, given the situation, the south korean had visited north. and the others asked what they thought
and their answers were pretty.....well, not really informative sort of like "oh it was fun, nice, interesting"....just that sort of stuff

me: really? he didnt answer as i depth as you are lol
i wondered what would have happened if they tried to make a break for it? do you think they were threatened in some way? with their families etc?

Kris: yes! definitely!
families had been threatened. hence being so secretive about their families.
they had to study the course specified at the specified university, and specific modules....no choice. they had to earn and maintain specific scores. they were not to leave hk and upon graduation, return straight away to korea where they would begin work. and they had been paid for everything....most of the hkers said it was likely either they had been threatened or warned or knew what the consequences would be if they deviated from any of that
they didnt seem to live in fear, but then, i think somebody who studies almost non-stop.....that says something and it wasnt because they wanted to or really enjoyed it

me: wow, WOW
did they say anything about medical care?
or about the food that was in HK?

Kris: they ate a lot, i know that much lol. always hungry. they always bought stuff into class to eat right before or at the beginning and the teacher commented and was always saying to put it away. and they talked about food often
medical care.... i only remember them saying that HK medical care was really good and the stuff you could get, cos one of them got sick or something. at the time, i never really thought any of it. it wasnt until i actually sat and read about korea, things sort of started to make sense. but the Hkers also said, the fact they were in HK and pretty healthy looking, it was likely that some of their family members were military or involved with the government in some way

me: ya thats what we heard at on the bus to the DMZ, rumors that N Korea puts their healthiest looking soldiers at the border. since those are the ones we could see
so now, obviously N Korea doesn't have consulates or embassies anywhere, so if these kids needed anything what would they do? call north korea directly?

Kris: yeah. those in military and power get everything. those not get zilch. it was also, from what I heard, why they could speak english so well. and im not entirely sure. it sounded like they were pretty well connected to n. korean authorities while they were in HK. so im assuming if something came up, they would send stuff or sort it out or get them to go back.

me: hm. ok this is really random but did they say anything about pets? were they given an allowance?

Kris: how do you mean? so like an allowance that they could use for anything they wanted that wasnt to do with school

me: yes,like by a coffee, magazine, shirt
do you think they could take any new clothes they bought outside back to N Korea?

Kris: ah, i think thats included in their living costs. i think they got quite a lot of money. they seemed to live fairly well. they bought things no problem. like i said, they seemed to love food and always seemed to buy and eat it everyone i bumped into them or in class. quite often starbucks....not cheap stuff basically.
pets.....hmmm....not really. and as far as i know they could take stuff back. though they said something about being careful how much they could/should buy. so they didnt often buy many new material goods. it was always on perishable stuff. usually food lol
actually, as far as i know, they didnt really buy much of anything. by the end of the first month, im pretty sure i knew all the clothes they had in their wardrobes. there was only one time that one of them had bought/wore something new, in the whole year.

me: WOW

Kris: oh and one bought a new watch that was pretty expensive. they were really happy with that haha

me: aww cute
  what did they wear? normal-ish stuff

Kris: yeah actually. they blended in well with the other HKers, which sort of have a fashion quite close to Japan. but they liked polo`s a lot. the quiet one was always wearing them. oooooh and one of them, the seriousish one, he had a t-shirt with a cartoon character on it.....argh...what was it.....cant remember lol. but he loved it
its so strange. they really were like curious children for a lot of things lol

me: ya i can imagine
ok so last week after i bought my ticket and started googling all things north korea, i had this thought
  well, first since i was told we cant enter, i went to see if i could book a flight
  turns out you can
not from japan, but LA to Beijing to Pyongyang, their major city
THEN i started thinking, 1-who the hell would be on the flight 2-this sounds silly, but where would the pilots or the staff be from

 Kris: yeah i was reading about tourism there earlier. we can go, just people are afraid to. and if you go it either has to be part of a tourist group that's guided by natives, or, if alone, you're accompanied by 1-2 natives, always

me: because, think about it..i doubt they’d be from N Korea, that they are risking letting them out in the `wild`, UNLESS they are too scared to deviate at all, though i feel like simply exposing them to an international airport would be balllsy
secondly, and this is what im betting they do, have foreign pilots, but contain them in either the airport or hotel

Kris: thats what i was just about to type lol. its likely they`d do that. i wonder what those staff would feel like though going to N.Korea

me: I KNOW
  id wanna go. god curiosity is really gonna get the best of me. I’m gonna be that stupid cat

Kris: lol well, if wiki is right, it seems that you can do group tours there. heavily restricted and accompanied, but, i guess you're still there, you could always look into them

me: in that documentary i sent you, their was a group of tourists in it from china. i cant imagine they would want the US goin, but i know the like to keep up appearances,they’re all about that saying that we could come if we wanted.

And then it was time to go home. It's sad to think that may be the closest we ever get to meeting, talking, or even seeing someone from North Korea.

And that concludes today`s North Korean lesson. Hope you learned lots!

Freely sharing her thoughts and opinions,

[The Latest]

Must Read: Slate Article Linds sent to me... http://www.slate.com/id/2304655/
Google search: The Space Station
Tune: The Time of Times By Badly Drawn Boy
Accomplishment: Getting some of my speech contest kiddos to improve their pronunciation. Speech contest is tomorrow, fingers crossed everyone!
Obsessions: Love Happens movie, Jeff's french toast, the new Modern Family season, oreos and dried mango from Carol

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Korea: A Visit to the South

(Hello in Korean)

I had only been back in Japan for a few days when I decided I wanted a vacation. I wanted to break the routine. The trip to the states was great, though bitter sweet, and I was completely back into routine hours after landing in Japan. I wanted some excitement, something to break the norm. Since last summer, I had been planning to visit my friend Kellyne, from college, currently living in Korea teaching English. I had a ticket and was all set to go back in March, but the tectonic plates had other plans. The earthquake happened and I went home instead and lost the ticket.

Kellyne and I were chatting one day shortly after my return, and she mentioned that she was leaving to go back to the states soon, as her year in Korea was coming to an end. I was determined to visit her before her October 9th departure. She gets very few days off and in the past when we were planning this, I had said that wouldn`t be a problem. I am excellent and keeping myself entertained. It`s an only child skill.

Pit stop on the way home to get a taste of some Korean alcohol

Kellyne and her place of employment

Kellyne and her match box appartment 

Bathroom that also become the shower.
Toilet paper goes in the cubbord, shower curtin covers the door, and voila, a shower room. 

The entire kitchen behind two doors.

Modeling Korea`s lovely alcohol

But surprise, surprise she had 2 upcoming days off for the Korean holiday Chuseok.

Some info for you, courtesy of Wikipedia…
In modern South Korea, on Chuseok there is a mass exodus of Koreans as they return to their hometowns to pay respects to the spirits of their ancestors. People perform ancestral worship rituals early in the morning. They often visit the tombs of their immediate ancestors to trim plants and clean the area around the tomb, and offer food, drink, and crops to their ancestors. Harvest crops are attributed to the blessing of ancestors.

Some traditional Chusok treats Kellyne had made that day with her kids.


I started looking at my schedule and flights, and everything started falling into place. I would have to take 2 days off work, but it was the only weekend that I could before she left, and the only weekend I could without missing any adult classes that I just started teaching. So two days after arriving back in Japan I had a ticket for Korea the following Friday. I was stoked.

I arrived Friday night in Korea and was slightly surprised that I was not the only white one on my flight from Tokyo to Seoul. Such was not the case when I flew from Taipei to Tokyo. Anyway, as I was walked off the plane into the airport, I was greeted with by a tv screen with a picture of the Korean and US flags next to each other. That was a surprise. Went through customs and immigration, got a new stamp in my passport, which I was all too excited about, then made my way to find my friend.

Kellyne greeted me at the airport with a big hug and a smile. It was SO great to see her! I exchanged my money, we ate at the airport as I was starving, then hopped on a bus to take us to her apartment in Seoul. We had about an hour ride and it flew by as we talked about things we`d done, our time in Asia and what people were doing we went to school with. It had been a really long time since I hung out with a southern Californian outside of California, Kellyne is from San Diego, and we were both saying how refreshing it was. Sometimes I forget how much the southern California culture is apart me. We really are a laid back, fast talking, sandal wearing, care free, Mexican food loving, outdoorsy group. And it was so good to be in that company again.

We made it back to her apartment, stopping along the way at a convenient store to buy tradition Korean alcohol. As she handed me the bag, I glanced in and was surprised to find that I had never seen any of these alcohols before. Not one. Not even a picture. As this thought entered my mind, Kellyne let me in on my first Korean fact of the trip. Korea doesn`t export alcohol. Apparently no country will import it as it has high levels of formaldehyde. Awesome.

On our walk back to her apartment, I started to really pay attention and take note of how this Asian country was different or the same to one I`ve grown to love. My first observations…

-People were slightly more physical/aggressive. Ie: pushing to get in line, fit on the train, sprinting to customs. I put aside my Japan hat and put on my LA one, I too can play this game.

-Cars were bigger, more US-ish sized, and they drove on the right side of the road. Opposite of Japan.

-People were very kind, but in a more blunt manner. It was like Asia and the US combined. For instance, in Japan if you so much as stare at a train map for more than a minute, people will come up to you and try to help you in any English they have which generally isn’t much, at times escorting you to your destination. I felt like Koreans wouldn`t go that far, but they did offer their assistance and would no doubt help if I asked.

-The language was more harsh and louder. And after hearing everything translated on my flight in what felt like every Asian language, I have decided that Japanese is my favorite.

-More people spoke English than in Japan. A lot more.

-The city had an odor, and not a subtle one. Everyone agreed and finally I had to find out what the deal was. Kellyne explained, very well I might add, that the city was oppressed by the Japanese for so long (they aren`t really fans of Japan) that when they were finally free, the Korean`s got a little too excited to build up the city. They were so overzealous that they didn`t dig the sewer system deep enough, so it`s close to the surface. Ergo, odor. Not to mention all the bags of trash everywhere, and kimchi that`s chillin on the side of the road in the heat doesn`t exactly smell like roses.

-There were a ton of coffee shops, I was so into it.

-They had so many western chains! I saw Papa Johns, Taco Bell, Coffee Bean, Subway, Dunkin Donuts, Jamaba Juice. Starbucks and McDonalds obviously…the latter of which delivered.

-The subway was a breeze.

-There was diversity! Granted at times we were semi close to a US base, but even still, there was a large majority of non-military people around from all over, many there to teach English. Kellyne was saying it`s easy to find a job in Korea, more so than Japan I`m sure, apparently Korean recruiters are very common and it`s easy to go through them and get hooked up with a job.

The following morning we went to the DMZ (The Demilitarized Zone), the border between North and South Korea. Both sides are heavily armed on their side of the border, watching the other at all times. However, the border itself is a neutral, demilitarized zone, where meetings are held between the two countries. The week prior to my departure, when I learned we were going to the DMZ, I started to research. I knew a little about North Korea, basically that it was scary and that was honestly about it. After stumbling upon some fascinating articles online, I have become completely intrigued by the situation, so much so that I am dedicating my next blog to it. Stay tuned.
On the road to the DMZ.
We wore shorts and didn`t bring our passports, but somehow made it on the tour.

Kellyne was worried she was gonna say something and they were gonna send her to the North.
We`re safe, needn`t worry.

Check out that decorated bus!

Check Point 1 

Check Point 2

Mini museaum explaining the tunnels that were found from North Korea to Seoul, the obvious assumption being that the North was preparing to attack the South. Though when questioned, the North said that the South dug them. Nice comeback North Korea.

Tunnel Map

DeMilitarized Zone
Kate from Kamagaya went to visit Kellyne in Korea.

Ginseng they tried to sell us for $200.
I`m pretty sure you can buy it at Costco.

After the DMZ we explored Seoul for a bit, went to dinner at a Nepalese restaurant, with a few others before a night on the town. It was a great time!

Night on the town

busy busy Seoul

Amazing Nepalise resturant


AKA rubbing alcohol

love, love, loved that fashion
I bought a Nylon magazine to take home with me.

Outside a club. Does this look like Korea to you?

                                                                      [Around the Town]

The rest of the trip was spent eating and drinking and taking pictures. I forgot how fun it can be to be a tourist. We ate kimchi of course and Korean BBQ, I picked up a few words and basically just played with my friend.
Walk to the station from Kellyne`s appartment.

She told me they run on alcohol and coffee. I believe it.


Coffee Bean and research

Headed to lunch...

...in a cab! Such a treat.

Train Station

No train jumping suicides in this country

Modern Art, loved it

Home away from Home

We didn`t go, but they have these Cat (and dog) Cafes where you pay money,
go in and drink coffee all while playing with either cats or dogs.

Korean BBQ

Traditonal clothes for the holiday

Headed home
All in all it was an amazing time!

Kamsamnida for reading,

[The Latest]

Must Read: Veil of Roses by Laura Fitzgerald
Google search: North Korea
Tune: Moves like Jagger by Maroon 5
Accomplishment: My ability to get through customs in any airport at lightening speed. Took some practice, but I`m a pro now.
Obsessions: Korean BB Crème, Korean Nylon magazine, Japanese Cherry Blossom candle from Bath and Body works, VICE Guide to North Korea documentary, TV show Castle


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...