Archive for the ‘South Korea’ Category

My horribly, horribly long-overdue and no longer relevant attempt to shore up some loose ends in South Korea and share a few more experiences.   I’m considering firing myself for missing so many deadlines but nonetheless, enjoy!

Day 6: The Goodbye

“Korea Ken”: Always with the world in his rearview.

This post would probably be a lot harder to write if it were still late-October, 2011, on the heels of Dad’s greatest adventure yet.  Not only did we have a great time together but him leaving put forth the realization that his trip overseas I had been so excited for was actually over and I wouldn’t see him, or any of my other family members and best friends, for another seven months.  Needless to say, the two-hour train ride from Incheon International Airport to Uijeongbu was a lonely and reflective one.

But alas, thanks to my undying procrastination and sheer laziness, this post isn’t being written in October of 2011 and I’m back in the United States where I’ve been able to visit home twice in two months.  Needless to say, things are a lot different now than they were last October.

The last day of Dad’s vacation started like every other, with a nice breakfast at our usual spot at the Dragon Hill Lodge.  I think it’s safe to say we became regulars of The Oasis (and Bentley’s Pub, for that matter) in just one short week and anybody who knows my old man won’t see this as much of a surprise.  Relaxing at the hotel while waiting to grab a taxi to the airport gave us a little time to look back on the week that was.  We accomplished the majority of what we wanted to accomplish all while battling through my complete failures as a trip planner and a brief cold my Dad came down with thanks to that pure Korean mountain air.  We partied in Itaewon, visited the War Memorial of Korea, took in the city from Seoul Tower, saw a Joseon Dynasty palace, and toured the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel and DMZ, all while enjoying the sights and sounds of downtown Seoul, South Korea — one of the biggest cities in the world.  In fact, we even made time to throw our love letters at a South Korean boy band:

While the sightseeing and great company were awesome for the both of us, the greatest success of the trip was my Dad actually making the trip itself.  A 14-hour flight from Seattle to Incheon is no small task and visiting a foreign country and unfamiliar land can be a bit daunting at best.  I was incredibly proud that Dad made the trip, was a trooper throughout, and was a good sport the entire time (and has since continued to be a good sport about all of my blogging antics).

I can’t say enough about our time spent together and I was proud to have hosted my Dad on the peninsula where I was serving a year tour with the United States Army.  I hope my Dad looks back fondly on his vacation as I finally bring this series of posts to an end.

And with that I’ll leave you with one more lasting image from the now-famous Ken’s Epic Korean Vacation Adventure.

Korea will never be the same.

BRING IT, COMMIES!

My horribly, horribly long-overdue and no longer relevant attempt to shore up some loose ends in South Korea and share a few more experiences.   I’m considering firing myself for missing so many deadlines but nonetheless, enjoy!

Day 5: The DMZ

The North Korean flag just across the border at the DMZ. A flag that takes several slave laborers well-paid professionals to handle due to its enormous size and weight.

We saved the most tense and important destination for our last full day of tourism in South Korea — The Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ.  Naming this area the “Demilitarized” Zone is like calling the Middle East the party capital of the world.  Nearly all of the people inhabiting the DMZ are members of the military, both from South Korea and the United States.  The only non-military residents within the DMZ, on the South Korean side, live in a town called Tae Sung Dong (one mile from its North Korean counterpart, Kijong-Dong) and are a certain group of South Koreans who are descendants of the people who inhabited that particular area historically.  The residents of Tae Sung Dong are considered South Korean civilians and thus fall under South Korean law; however, they’re able to farm their land without being subjected to South Korean taxes and the males are not required to fulfill the mandatory military requirements like all other South Korean men.  It’s important to realize that, besides the small farming community of Tae Sung Dong and any tourists taking the bus through the area, the DMZ is only inhabited by members of the military, not to mention it is still approximately 40% mined from the Korean War.  Basically, the DEmilitarized Zone is actually one of the most militarized borders in the world.

The only way to see the DMZ as a tourist is through a guided and extremely controlled bus tour.  There are two options to the tour: the DMZ tour that takes you to the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel and the DMZ Observatory, among other stops, or the JSA (Joint Security Area) tour that takes you to all of the above as well as down to the actual border where soldiers from the two sides stand off, face to face, in one big, sketchy staring contest.  Unfortunately for us, the JSA tour wasn’t available the week my Dad came to vist (holding true to the pattern of poor vacation planning by yours truly) so we were forced on to the standard DMZ tour instead.  My Dad, being the good sport as he had all week, took the disappointing news in stride and made the most of our day spent at one of the most historically significant places in recent memory.

Cameras aren’t allowed down in the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel, so this will have to do while you use your extensive imagination to picture what a very rudimentary tunnel, carved deep in to the earth, might possibly look like.

The first stop on the DMZ tour, besides the obligatory detour to the DMZ Gift Shop (seriously –You, too, can take home your very own piece of oppression and sadness!), was the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel.  The appropriately-named 3rd Tunnel is the third (Shocking!) of four tunnels discovered deep underground that allegedly start in North Korea, go under the DMZ, and all appear to head in the direction of Seoul.  Supposedly intelligence has shown that up to 15 total tunnels exist, although the remainder have not yet been found.

A mile-long, 45-degree access ramp takes you down in to the tunnel where hard hats are required thanks to an incredibly low ceiling — apparently they don’t grow ’em too tall in North Korea.  You can walk the tunnel all the way to the effective underground border where barbed wire, cameras, and a giant iron door prohibit you from going further.  It is almost creepy to stare at a door, deep in the bowels of the Earth, that will literally take you in to one of the most secretive and secluded nations in the world.  This was one time I did not want the “What’s behind Door #2?!?!” question answered.

The DMZ Observatory with the South Korean flag in the background…and apparently South Korean civilians in the foreground.

The second stop on our tour was the DMZ Observatory where, on a clear day, you can see miles in to North Korea with the naked eye and even further with the coin-operated binoculars (Capitalism at it’s finest!).  The picture at the very top of this post is essentially what the North Korean town of Kijong-Dong looks like through the binoculars, along with their massive flag and flag pole built only slightly higher than the South Korean flag pole pictured just above in what amounts to nothing more than a Cold War-esque pissing contest.

The first village you see across the border in North Korea has come to be known by the good guys as “Propaganda Village” as it appears to be a Utopian society with beautiful, modern buildings…until you realize the buildings have no windows, let alone inhabitants, and the collection of buildings really only amount to one big Hollywood sound stage.  The propaganda of a better life is further debunk by the rolling, naked hills seen in the distance that are a product of extensive and severe deforestation, not to mention the numerous tales of famine and food shortages heard on a regular basis.  [“Propaganda Village” is the blue-roofed buildings at the base of the flag pole in the picture at the very top of this page.]

Us: “We’ll take two tickets to North Korea…JUST KIDDING!” Him: (Not amused.) — OK, so this exchange didn’t really take place, but a cool picture nonetheless.

The last major stop on our tour was Dorasan Station, otherwise known as the last train station headed north in South Korea.  There has always been some level of hope for a unified Korea that would allow for a train system to run from the south end of the peninsula all the way to China.  With even more cooperating countries, the dream would be to connect the train systems through Asia and in to Europe and everyone living as one big, happy family.  Unfortunately, this scenario sounds more like a lyric from John Lennon’s “Imagine” than it does reality and there doesn’t seem to be much of a chance of it ever happening thus Dorasan Station stands a symbolic reminder of the struggle, as well as an eternal hope for progress.  This also means the terminal must be guarded by angry-looking South Korean soldiers to ensure American GIs such as myself don’t try to defect (this has actually happened more than you’d expect).

Looking back, there was no better way to cap off our adventure through South Korea than by visiting one of the most historically-significant areas that, for better or for worse, most people think of with they think of South Korea.  With my Dad being the history buff that he is, I felt that the DMZ was the pinnacle of our week together.

Sign reads: “The two most eligible bachelors in South Korea.” Take a number, ladies.

Below are a few more pictures taken at a later visit to the Joint Security Area (border) that my Dad unfortunately didn’t get to see.  I know he would have been as fascinated as I was.

I wonder who will blink first?

The South Korean soldiers at the JSA are specifically picked for their height, weight, soldiering skills, and prowess in Tae Kwon Do.  Their stance is a modified martial arts stance nicknamed “RoK Ready” and they stand with half their body concealed by the blue buildings to serve as both protection and to conceal from the North Koreans any hand signals made by their hidden hand to the headquarters not pictured behind us.  They also wear super-sweet Ray-Ban aviators to hide the direction of their focus.  And as expected, the RoK-issue Ray-Bans are now available at the DMZ Gift Shop! (Seriously.)

I think I’ve got the look.

The North Korean compound, as welcoming as a visit to the in-laws.

And last but not least, my friend and yours: The North Korean Soldier (being a totally creepy Peeping Tom, no less)

My horribly, horribly long-overdue and no longer relevant attempt to shore up some loose ends  in South Korea and share a few more experiences.   I’m considering firing myself for missing so many deadlines but nonetheless, enjoy!

Day 4:  Gyeongbok Palace and Palace Museum

After taking in the sights and sounds of the War Memorial of Korea, both inside and out, on consecutive days — largely because, as previously noted, I’m a horrible vacation planner — it was time to take in more peaceful pursuits at one of Seoul’s many palaces from the Joseon Dynasty.  The palace we chose was Gyeongbokgung Palace or, more simply (not really), Gyeongbok Palace.

Gyeongbok Palace is one of the Five Grand Palaces of the Joseon Dynasty and one of six total located around Seoul.  The Joseon Dynasty was in power from 1392-1897, with Gyeongbok Palace being the main palace and largest of the five.   When the Joseon Dynasty began its decline in the late 1800s, King Gojong declared himself Emperor in 1897 and formally changed the name of the Joseon Dynasty to the Korean Empire.   The Korean Empire lasted until 1910 before the Japanese and the Russians (among several other opportunistic nations) seized the moment and duked it out for the rights to the peninsula.  The pesky Japanese eventually won out and officially annexed the Korean Empire under Japanese rule and before they were bombing Pearl Harbor, they were burning down the beautiful palaces of the Joseon Dynasty.

After WWII drove the Japanese out and the Korean War pushed the North Koreans, well, north, the South Korean government began the long process of restoring and rebuilding all that had been burned down by the Japanese and/or destroyed during the war.  As it pertains to Gyeongbok Palace today, nearly half of all original buildings at the palace are still standing or have been reconstructed.

What struck me as being most impressive was the sheer size and expanse of the complex.  Once you step foot in the complex, you’re completely immersed in the palace experience, so much so that there are even hourly recreations of a changing of the guard.  I felt like I was an extra in the filming of The Last Samurai, except without a crazy Tom Cruise running around talking nonsense between takes.

Changing of the Guard:  I totally could have done the drummer’s job.

Along with touring the palace, we had the opportunity to walk through the Palace Museum which was also housed on the complex, albeit in much more modern accommodations.  The museum was conveniently free and started with artifacts dating all the way back to the beginning of the Joseon Dynasty through the Korean Empire just prior to Japanese rule.

A ride fit for Ken: “General Motors (seriously), for ALL your empire needs!”

After sight-seeing at modern-day attractions and touring mostly modern history museums, it was nice to take a more in-depth walk through the ancient history and culture of South Korea and its people.  The buildings of the palace were nothing short of amazing and the museum was full of fascinating relics and interesting information.  We definitely had a lot of fun experiencing the palace and I think the biggest success of the day was that my Dad finally found a palace that fit his retirement needs.

King Ken meets his castle.

My horribly, horribly long-overdue and no longer relevant attempt to shore up some loose ends here in South Korea and share a few more experiences.   I’m considering firing myself for missing so many deadlines but nonetheless, enjoy!

Day 3: War Memorial of Korea Part Deux

Since I had royally screwed up the plans to visit the museum at the War Memorial of Korea by picking the only day they weren’t open, we decided that Tuesday would be as good of a day as any to exact our revenge.  After what had become our normal breakfast stop within the hotel — hey, two days is a streak — we made the short walk just outside the nearest gate and across the road to the museum.

Now unfortunately for the paying audience, there isn’t much that is funny about the War Memorial of Korea and corresponding museum, it is actually more somber than anything.  My Dad, however, enjoys museums, and loves history even more, and the facility is very friendly to English-speakers.  We covered every inch of every floor in the museum as thoroughly as possible, stopping to read as much of the detail as we could — especially that which pertained to the Korean War and, more specifically, the United States’ involvement.

The perfect tag team: the one man who can win hearts and minds and the flags of the United Nations.

There is not a whole lot more I can say about the War Memorial of Korea that wasn’t already outlined in my post The War Memorial of Koreapenned way back when I was still in-processing at USAG Yongsan last June — boy, does time fly when you’re having fun.  Not to plug my own material but I certainly recommend giving that particular post a read, if you haven’t already, as it pertains to this day’s activities and illustrates the museum’s excellent depiction of South Korea’s military history, along with the Korean War and American involvement.  You can certainly tell by the exhibits that the sacrifices made by the people of the United States are held in high regard with the Korean people.

I certainly think the visit to the museum was an enriching experience for my Dad and I believe he actually took some pride in the amount of gratitude given to the United States Armed Forces within the museum knowing I am here serving 60 years later.  We definitely made the most of the day before heading back to the hotel for the evening.

While the War Memorial of Korea and the museum are very educational and very serious places, there’s always time for a little fun:

If the Commies had seen this coming, the war would’ve ended in half the time. Take that, MacArthur.