In November 2008 I went to South Korea to travel around the Northern, Southern and Eastern coasts of the country and visit both the Western and Eastern De-Militarized Zones (DMZ) separating North Korea and South Korea (resulting from the armistice agreement from the Korean War 1950-1953). I have kept my travel emails from that trip, so I thought it might be fun to repost them here and add a few photos and some extra information. This blog is Part 1 of that journey (Seoul, Western DMZ and Busan).
November 8th, 2011
Sorry for the tardy first email. It took me a while to realise that all these “PC Zone” stores up on the 3rd floor or higher of buildings are actually massive internet cafes and bars! Not computer stores!
I am currently in Busan in the very south of South Korea. A port city – took only 3 hours to travel from Seoul to Busan by high speed train (300km per hour / 186 mph) – this is basically the whole length of the country – about the equivalent of Melbourne to Canberra in Australia (which takes about 7 hours by car – Australia needs high speed trains!). I changed my plans at the last minute and headed down here – realised I had to cut out part of my planned itinerary to some of the southern National Parks as I just don’t have the time to physically get to some of these places without a car – oh well!
Really enjoying my time here so far – great sights, friendly people and great food (don’t worry there is no communication barrier when it comes to me and food! Luckily I enjoy Korean food and know enough names to get by – some people speak a little English also)!
The first couple of days in Seoul were great – walked a lot, went to the War Memorial of Korea – their equivalent of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra – apart from the massive B-52 and other military aircraft, tanks and weaponry in the outdoor exhibits there were many things of interest in this place from ancient to modern history – a lot of information on Australia’s involvement here during the Korean War, and a lot on those dastardly North Koreans and their war like and spy like behaviour – including a captured spy speedboat!
I travelled to the Western DMZ – got to see North Korea over all the barbed wire, guard towers and land mines!! Also went down into the 3rd tunnel – one of many discovered that the North Koreans were digging to invade South Korea (10,000 men could march through them per hour) – they must be short up North – I was bent over all the way through the tunnel!
In the Western DMZ is the Dorasan train station – built to one day go to North Korea and beyond, but for now is a dead-end track (it has signs to Pyeongyang though!) . Also the bridge to freedom that joins the 2 countries is blocked! I was meant to go to a place called Panmunjom that is half in South Korea and half in North Korea (where you can see North Korean soldiers up close) – it is where the armistice was signed to end the Korean War in 1953. But the North Koreans would not let anyone in on the day as someone threw anti North pamphlets off a bridge the day before!!!! Bugger! Anyway I am going back to that place next friday to check it out, I hope there are no more incidents!!
THE KOREAN WAR
The Korean War (1950-1953) involved South Korean and United Nations forces against the Communist forces of North Korea, China and secretly the Soviet Union (particularly fighter pilots flying North Korean aircraft). Korea had been occupied by Japan for 35 years (1910-1945), after the end of WW2 in 1945 Korea was controlled by the Soviet Union in the North and the United States in the South. The Soviets established a Communist state in the North while the United States supported the government in the South.
Following years of political tension between the North and South, on June 25th, 1950 North Korean troops crossed the 38th parallel (the border) and invaded the South, quickly overrunning most of the country (Seoul was captured within a week). The United Nations quickly sent forces from 21 countries which by September 1950 had halted and eventually pushed the North Koreans back beyond the border. Australia was one of the first countries to come to the defence of South Korea in 1950 – as they were based just 200km away in Japan at the time. The Royal Australian Airforce (RAAF) was very heavily involved at first with CAC P-51 Mustang fighters and later in the war flying Gloster Meteor jet fighters (77 Squadron).
China warned the United Nations that any forces near their border would not be tolerated. The UN forces under the command of the famous US General Douglas MacArthur had pushed deep into North Korea and the Communists were on the brink of defeat, when China intervened with massive force (18 divisions) on November 1st, 1950. Despite the horrific cold of winter, by January 1951 Seoul was once again occupied by Communist forces.
This did not last long and they were forced out by March 1951. General MacArthur wanted to push them all the way back to China, he even sent an unauthorised message to the Chinese government to withdraw or he would crush them! This was intolerable to the US government who did not want to escalate the war any further (they did not want to start WW3)! Eventually after a number of unauthorised statements by General MacArthur who was trying to shape US diplomatic policy on his own, President Harry Truman dismissed him from command on April 11, 1951.
The war continued, but became bogged down as a war of attrition, much like the Western Front in WW1. It was becoming a stalemate. Whilst the fighting raged on negotiations between both sides were occurring. After two years and 17 days of negotiations the war ended in the signing of an armistice on July 27th, 1953. After the war peace keeping forces remained to protect the South. The United States military have remained there ever since (Australian forces left in 1957). South Korea has prospered but North Korea became an isolated and impoverished Communist state and at times a rogue state. The war really didn’t resolve anything and tensions remain – every now and then there are still skirmishes between the two countries.
In Busan I visited the UN cemetery – a very well-kept and respectful place. Over 300 Australians are buried here so I paid my respects to fallen countrymen (I recognised a number of names on grave stones from “The Forgotten Few” a book I was reading on the Australian Airforce in Korea).
Today I did a hike in the mountains (about 10-12km I guess) – To get there I took a train, then shared a cab with some elderly South Koreans who were delighted to share the ride with me. This was the first time I have been cold since arriving here (has been up to 18 degrees celsius most days) – was wet foggy and windy at the top of the mountain.
On weekends here it is somewhat of a ritual for hundreds of people to hike up there – very busy, not tranquil but it made it fun – many were highly amused to see me wandering around up there (there were no other foreigners)! Along the hike was the Beomeosa Temple and Geumjong Fortress which made for interesting places to explore.
Anyway time to go – I am planning to start heading up the east coast tomorrow. Lots of natural wonders and other sights to see that way. Then eventually make my way back to Seoul for a couple of days.