Monthly Archives: November 2010

TV Interview / 电视采访


Today I visited another palace. No, I can’t get enough. Gyeongbokgung Palace was the primary palace of the Joseon Dynasty for the first 200 years, until it was burned down by the Japanese in the 1590s. It wasn’t rebuild until the 1860s, only to be destroyed again by the Japanese when they annexed Korea in the early 20th century. The photos I’ve included here highlight what I see are some of the unique aspects of this palace that distinguish it from those I’ve seen in China. At the palace I also watched a Joseon-era changing of the guard performance. I’ve included snippets of video so you can get a feel for that.


After leaving the palace I walked by the Blue House. The Blue House is the residence of Korea’s president and is so named because of the colour of the roof, not the building. I forget exactly what the blue signifies, but in the other palace I visited only one building had a blue roof, and it had something to do with the king. I didn’t get a tour of the Blue House.


On my way to lunch I was stopped by a crew from a Korean TV network called EBS English. They were filming a program for teaching English and wanted to interview anyone who could speak English fluently. I did a quick three-minute piece with them. Now you might find me on Australian or Korean TV!



Korean Food / 韩餐

Here are some pictures of the food I’ve been eating the past week. Other
than the fact that there is always a kimchi side-dish, I have no idea
what the rest of it is. More later on what I got up to today.



Temple Life / 寺生活

I’ve seen enough Buddhist temples in China that I don’t need to see
anymore. You know the saying about churches in Europe? The same goes for
Buddhist temples. However, here in Seoul, it’s possible to take a proper
tour of a temple, and get an introduction to the tea ceremony and Zen
meditation. It wasn’t nearly as exciting as the DMZ, but it was
interesting nonetheless. Also, today is the day high school students
write their university entrance exams, so the temple was full of parents
praying for them.


Besides the temple, today I accidentally wandered into the largest
fabric bazaar I’ve ever seen. Everyone in there is rushing around with a
book of fabric samples (I know there’s a special word for those samples)
trying to find matching colours and patterns. On the way home from the
temple, one of the tracks in the subway station was occupied by a train
full of vendors selling stuff! I also came across a gas station with
pumps hanging from the ceiling instead of being bolted to the ground.



The DMZ / 朝韩非军事区

Today I went to North Korea. I’m not kidding. I took a tour to the DMZ,
and under the watchful eye of UN soldiers, stepped across the border for
a minute for a photo op and then back again. And that’s as much of North
Korea as I ever want to see. The North Korean military also kept a
watchful eye on us, but I don’t think they were watching for our benefit.

All this happened inside one of the meeting buildings of the UN Military
Armistice Commission (MAC) which straddle the border in the Joint
Security Area (JSA). The JSA is the only place in the DMZ where soldiers
from both sides stand face to face. This is where representatives from
both sides sometimes have meetings. Two soldiers stood guard inside, one
of them blocking the northern entrance to the building, and about six
stood guard outside. It was clear they were worried the North Koreans
might do something silly, as they are wont to do, even though there are
probably a dozen tour groups that go through the JSA every day. We could
only see two North Korean soldiers in the JSA. We’re told the rest stay
inside watching everything with their cameras.

The visit to the JSA was very quick. Most of it involved ID checks, and
briefings on what we could and couldn’t do in the JSA. We were quickly
marched two-by-two out of the bus, through the South Korean Freedom
House and into the MAC meeting building. After that we stood on the
steps of Freedom House taking pictures before marching two-by-two back
to the bus again. In the JSA we also stopped by the location of the Axe
Murder Incident in 1976
, and the Bridge of No Return, which is no longer
used. We weren’t allowed out of the bus at either of these stops. After
that we were taken back to the gift shop, where we could buy North
Korean alcohol, including Dear Leader’s favourite, cognac. I was tempted
to buy some, but don’t have enough space for it in my luggage.

For the rest of the tour we were outside the DMZ, but never far away. We
visited Dorasan Station, the “first station toward the North” on the
Seoul – Pyeongyang railway. For the moment the trains don’t actually
cross the border though they did a few years ago. Right now it just
serves as a commuter rail station for people who live close to the DMZ.
We also visited Dorasan Observatory from where, if it had not been
foggy, we could have seen North Korea.

Another interesting stop on the tour route was the Third Tunnel. This is
one of four (known) tunnels dug under the DMZ by North Korea to
facilitate an invasion. I used to think this was a bit ridiculous as
many things North Korea does are ridiculous, though not funny. Today the
guides told us it’s possible to move 30,000 infantrymen through the
tunnels in a single hour. If they had more than one tunnel, that might
make a pretty good head start on a surprise invasion. We weren’t allowed
to take our cameras into the tunnel. We walked in the tunnel to a point
about 200m south of the border and 73m underground.

This was a pretty serious day. There were several places near the DMZ
where we were not allowed to take pictures and there was no fooling
around at all in the JSA. We warned ahead of time that our visit to the
JSA would “…entail entry (sic) into a hostile area and possibility of
injury or death as a direct result of enemy action.” I find myself
wondering what the soldiers think of tourists wandering through the DMZ.
War could break out at any time and they would be on the front lines,
but for us it’s just a holiday.


Memorials / 纪念碑

Today was kind of a theme day. I visited three different
memorials/museums in Seoul.

The first place I visited was Seodaemun Prison. The Japanese occupied
Korea a full 40 years before they invaded northeastern China and this is
where they imprisoned and tortured Koreans who fought against them.
Seodaemun was one of many such prisons in Korea. After liberation, and
after the Korean Civil War, the prison was used by South Korea’s
dictatorship for many more years. For some reason, there is only one or
two brief mentions of this at the museum and it focuses almost
exclusively on the years when Japan occupied Korea.

The second place I visited was the Jeoldusan Martyrs Shrine. This is the
location where many Catholics were executed by the Joseon Dynasty in the
1860s. At that time Korea was a strict Confucian society, even more so
than China. Korea had adopted Confucian ethics from China and then
augmented it with a caste-like system. For example, whereas in China
anyone was eligible to sit the Confucian exams to become a government
official, in Korea only the ruling elite were allowed to take the tests.
(I’m not sure who outside of the ruling class in China would have been
literate anyway, but that’s another story.) When the Catholics showed up
preaching ideas of human equality, the ruling elite in Korea didn’t like
it. Catholicism spread quickly at that time, and the ruling class
cracked down hard.

The final place I visited was the War Memorial of Korea Museum. This
museum covers every conflict that is known to have happened on the
Korean Peninsula, as far back as the days when there were three
competing kingdoms on the peninsula, though it focuses mostly on the
Korean Civil War of the 1950s. There’s also a LOT of military hardware
on display which I found kind of odd. There are tanks, trucks,
airplanes, boats, and rocket launchers outside and inside there is a
section devoted to Korea’s current military capability, including a
virtual shooting range. It seems like a mix of war museum and war memorial.

It was a sombre day, I said a few prayers, and learned a bit more than I
wanted to know about torture.