South Korea & The forbidden North! (2008)

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 4 and the final leg of that journey (Eastern and Western DMZ,  Seoul and Suwon).

November 14th, 2008

Hi All,

I have to say South Korea is one of the best countries I have ever travelled in, this has been an awesome trip and one I wont forget! I can thoroughly recommend visiting here – it has something for everyone – and if shopping is your thing you can go mad here – department stores and markets everywhere – some open until 4.30am!

Regardless of the fact that I can only say about 5 Korean words outside of some food dishes (hello/goodbye, yes, no and thank you) the people here have been fantastic, helpful and friendly, the sights are great and of course the food is delicious (well most of it – much like China there are still some “surprise’s” out there! Although it’s normally the taste more than anything – the weirdest known thing I have eaten so far is silk worm larvae).

The last 2 days have been great. Yesterday my destination for the morning was the Eastern DMZ. I took an early morning bus from Sokcho to a place about 1.5 hours north called Daejin, then walked about half a kilometre to the Goseong Unification Observatory ticket office, but the actual observatory is about another 15km north of this place! Here is where a potential hiccup could have occurred – the guide book says there is a shuttle bus (there isn’t), the tourist info place in Sokcho said there would be a taxi (there wasnt)! Oh oh – the ticket office lady was quite surprised I was on foot (got that “are you mad”? look!) – anyway here is where the helpfulness of the South Koreans shone through once again – she came out of the ticket office, raced down to a Korean organised tour bus and arranged for me to get a lift with them (for free)!

This was hilarious – the tour bus was full of elderly South Koreans, they thought it was just great that I was onboard – I sat in the jump seat of the bus next to the front door (this caused a surprise for a South Korean soldier who was checking the required paperwork at the entrance gatehouse – he was not expecting to see a relatively young white guy on board – but my papers were in order and off we went!). All the oldies where trying to chat in limited English and Korean with me, shaking my hand, patting me on the back etc – it was a great experience. They were pointing out all the sights on the way!

So we got to the observatory – they were going to be there for 40 minutes and offered me a lift back – otherwise I would have had to hitch hike somehow – so I gratefully took up this offer (this made them all very happy – one old bloke Mr Yonge had been to Australia at some stage and was rapt!). This day was a nice warm sunny one – about 19 degrees (warm for here at this time of year) and we had spectacular views across the Eastern DMZ into North Korea. There are also some old aircraft and tanks there along with a military museum which were all very interesting to see.

North Korea Goseong Unification Observatory - Eastern DMZ
North Korea – View from Goseong Unification Observatory – Eastern DMZ
Goseong Unification Observatory  South Korea
Goseong Unification Observatory – Eastern DMZ

From the observatory you can also see a mountain range  called Geumgangsan (Diamond Mountains) that is very cherished by all Koreans (and Chinese too). We had a very clear view of the moutnains, a really nice place considering it is basically right in a war zone!

Geumgangsan (Diamond Mountains) - North Korea
Geumgangsan (Diamond Mountains) – North Korea

After this they dropped me back at the ticket office – lots of goodbyes! I walked back to Daejin and then an uneventful bus trip for once back to Sokcho.  I took a  quick walk along the beach in Sokcho where I bumped into a young Korean couple I met on the mountain climb yesterday in Seoraksan National Park (they were quite funny – dressed in matching clothes as each other both days)!  Then I managed to catch and express bus back to Seoul almost straight away – I seem to have had great luck with catching intercity buses and trains straight away on a whim of chance whilst being here!

Seoul South Korea night
Seoul
Seoul coloured fountain
Seoul

And now for today – what a day! I went back to the Western DMZ to Panmunjom in the Joint Strategic Area (JSA) run by the United Nations and the North Koreans (I could not go here last week because someone had thrown anti North propaganda off a bridge and the North Koreans shut the place down). All was good today – but there has been some tension between North and South in the last day or so.

Yesterday they closed down the “hotline” between the 2 countries for the first time ever (since 1974 when they put the line in) and the North have said they are going to close off their borders to all foreigners on Dec 1st, so an interesting time to be there! First we went to Camp Bonifas for a debriefing and to get our UN passes etc – very strict, you can only take photos at certain times/places, you can not point or wave at North Korean soldiers (apparently they take photos and digitally modify them so it looks like you are sticking a finger up at them, and they use this as anti North propaganda to embarrass South Korea and the Americans!), you cannot carry any bags or the like, you must walk in 2 lines, not stay in one place for more than a few minutes, and so on! We also had to be very quiet and we wore a little earpiece so the tour guide could whisper and not disturb the guards. I had planned to “permanently borrow” the UN pass as a memento, but alas they keep a close watch on these and everything you do!

Kim Jong Il
Kim Jong Il – North Korea’s “Dear Leader”

From a tower we go to have a look at the Northern side, we could see Chinese tour groups over there and also North Korean soldiers watching us via binoculars. A bizarre experience, but also possibly a highlight of the trip to South Korea, hard to explain but you just had to be there I guess?

Panmunjom - Western DMZ South Korea
Panmunjom – Western DMZ

Then we got to go into the room where they hold talks between the 2 countries, mediated by the United Nations (this is also where the 1953 Korean War armistice was signed). In here it was the turn of South Korean tours, but they take it in turn, once inside you are actually in North Korea (one half of the room is in South Korea the other in the North)! Outside the windows you come face to face with North Korean soldiers (got some good photos of them – in one spot there were 2 soldiers facing each other, one to watch that the other doesnt defect to the South apparently!) – there was a door to the North proper , but if I had entered that door I would have been shot on sight – very serious place!

South Korean Soldier DMZ
South Korean Soldier & the door to the North!
North Korean Soldiers Panmunjom
North Korean Soldiers – Who is watching who?
North Korea South Korea Soldier
North Meets South

The South Korean soldiers are not allowed to speak to you and they essentially just look straight through you. The North Korean soldiers outside the windows ignore you also!

I had to do it!
North Korean Soldier DMZ
North Korean Soldier

Outside when you are back in the bus you drive past these buildings again and it is quite strange to see how some of the South Korean soldiers must stand on guard, half their bodies are hidden from view from the North by a building, the other half exposed so they can still keep watch. This is so if the North Koreans start to shoot at them they have some protection and can quickly duck for cover!

South Korean Soldiers Panmunjom DMZ
South Korean Soldiers
Panmunjom DMZ South Korea North Korea
South Korean Soldiers – see how half their body is hidden

Finally we went to a guard post to have a look at the North Korean Propaganda Village that has this 160 metre high flag pole with massive North Korean flag (this flag has a funny story behind it. South Korea put up a big flag, so North Korea put up a bigger one, the South retaliated with a bigger flag, so the North built the current monster flag and the South gave up on this game!). Originally no-one lived here, it used to have banners and signs denouncing the South and used to blast propaganda across the border via loud-speakers – this has all stopped now and factory workers from the North live there.

Flag Pole Propoganda Village North Korea
Propaganda Village – North Korea

Part of the tour also included lunch, so we tucked into a delicious Beef Bulgogi and Kimchi back in the main nearby tourist area. There was also various old military aircraft and tanks on display nearby.

Beef Bulgogi and Kimchi South Korea
Beef Bulgogi and Kimchi – Western DMZ

Oh on  a side note, a good friend in Australia told me about the popularity of the computer game Starcraft in South Korea. He was right,  they love it here. I know of at least 2 TV stations here that show people playing it – some sort of World Gamers championships. Crazy stuff!

Starcraft
Starcraft

Tomorrow I plan to go to the city of Suwon an hour south of Seoul to walk around the wall of the Hwaseong Fortress – a UNESCO world heritage site. The fortress was constructed between 1794 to 1796 by King Jeongjo, the 22nd king of the Joseon Dynasty to strengthen his power and fortify the southern area of the city (his capital). You can walk around the entire massive city wall, visiting the various guard towers and temples along the way with great views of the city. My time is nearly over here, so I making the most of every minute!

Suwon Hwaesong Fortress South Korea
Suwon – Hwaesong Fortress
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