Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Looking Into The Void: North Korea


Map picture

Lisa and I arrived at Seoul, South Korea after a long 30 hour day of traveling, and as you can imagine, fell into bed without even bothering to take our clothes off. By in large, the trip was uneventful, but there were a few interesting occurrences.

Having literally traveled all over the world, it never ceases to amaze me that there is one, and only one place where I am absolutely certain to have a problem with airport security, and that is always in Kansas City. When I say “only one place,” I mean just that. I have never been subjected to additional screening of my carry-on in any other location, ever. Thus, I guess it should be no surprise by now, that it happened yet again, right here in Kansas City. Because of all my previous experiences, I am very careful to pack my carry-on so that there are no loose items falling about. Everything is neatly placed into a clear plastic bag so that it should be easy to look into the bag and see any item of concern to security. Before the screeners ever get to my bag, I have already removed my computer, and my CPAP breathing machine. At that point, if you just open the bag, it is pretty obvious what is in it. Now I do have to carry some electrical adapters for different countries, and an extension cord for the machine, but other than that, my bag should not be an issue – but in Kansas City it always is! As is usual, my bag was pulled for additional screening. The screener proceeded to literally remove most of the items from my bag, and put them in plastic bins to be sent through the x-ray machine individually. Just to add insult to injury, he then zipped the bag shut and stood it upright so that everything that had been so carefully packed, promptly fell to the bottom of the bag with a resounding crash. Then to add fun to the process, he hefts the bag back onto the scanner belt and turns it upside down, thus assuring that the contents of the bags are a scrambled mess. When the screening is all done, I am left with an upside down bag, six plastic bins of assorted items, a computer, a CPAP machine, and a long line of people wanting to get by me who are literally pushing my stuff off the small platform. Ah, the joys of traveling!

We flew from Kansas City to Detroit, enjoyed a 3 hour layover, and then boarded a Delta flight direct to Seoul, South Korea, which took around 13 hours. Korea is 13 hours ahead of Kansas City across the International Date Line, so we landed a day after we had departed. We flew aboard a Boeing 777 in business class and had a very pleasant trip. At one point, as I was enjoying a steak dinner with red wine, I marveled at the miracle of cruising across the globe at almost 600 mph-some six miles above the earth, with the temperature outside a frigid 45 degrees below zero, while I sat in complete comfort onboard a very large ship in the sky. Pretty cool!

There were two things about our journey that were of note. First, Delta seemed caught off guard by the fact that this flight was full, in fact it was overbooked. I gather that travelling to Seoul on a Sunday is usually a slow time, but that was not the case for this flight. Also, of interest, was the fact that there were almost no two-somes travelling in business class that we could see. Beside ourselves and a very few other couples, it was obvious that the remaining passengers were travelling alone and that their seating companion was a complete stranger. Finally we landed in Seoul and taxied to our gate. I just happened to look outside as our aircraft made the sharp turn into our gate, and I caught a glimpse of the ground crew and security personnel arrayed in a semi-circle in front of our gate. Just as we turned, the entire ensemble bowed slightly from the waist as is the Korean custom to show respect and a greeting. How quaint, I thought.

After a night’s fitful rest, we had a day to explore Seoul. A part of me really wanted to see if we could look over the Demilitarized Zone into North Korea, while Lisa could have cared less. In the end, she agreed to see what there was to see, and so we rented a car and driver for a 5 hour tour of the area, including a drive north to the DMZ.

First a word about Seoul itself; it is a huge metropolitan complex, and is home to over 14 million people, which is almost 50% of the population of Korea itself. The actual “city” of Seoul has two distinct parts, separated by a river. There is the “old” city on the South side of the river, and the “new” city to the North. Surrounding this area are four separate city complexes, one of which is the city of Incheon. To reach the DMZ, it was necessary to travel North through the city of Incheon, which by the way is where we had landed the day prior, and where we would later meet our ship. It took around an hour to reach the border with North Korea.

We traveled North on a beautiful 8 lane highway with 4 lanes in each direction and a median that could be turned into yet another roadway. At first the traffic was heavy, but as we proceeded northward the traffic slowly abated until we were virtually the only vehicle on this huge roadway. In addition, beginning around 20 miles from the border, the roadway became surrounded by a tall barbed wire fence, with guard shacks and partially hidden entrenchments every 100 yards or so. At first, I thought these installations were empty, but then I came to realize that each and every one, was manned by military personnel in full battle gear, and carrying weapons. Eventually we came to a heavily guarded sentry post, where we had to turn around.

The DMZ was created at the end of the Korean Conflict in 1953. The actual area of “no man’s land” is 2 ½ miles wide to which is added an additional 3 mile buffer zone. It is said that in the narrow band of the DMZ itself, there are over 1 million land mines. Had we been able to continue forward, we would have first encountered the buffer zone where local farmers are permitted to work the fields during the day, but then must evacuate at night. Further along the road is the Village of Panmunjeom. This is the site of the building where talks between the two Koreas have taken place over the years. Six days a week, special tour busses are allowed to traverse the road all the way to Panmunjeom, but this option is not available on Mondays, and we were visiting on a Monday--of course. The best we could do was to pull right up to the checkpoint at Freedom Bridge, and then go nearby to the Dora Observation Area. Located there is a modern train station and railway bridge leading to North Korea, both of which now stand eerily silent and empty. On display is the badly damaged train engine that was the last to travel from North Korea, along with numerous monuments and walls on which people have hung poignant notes, prayers, and flags dedicated to their relatives on the other side. Visiting this heavily fortified area was a sober reminder just how high the tensions between these two entities still remain.

We then returned to Seoul with the intention of visiting the “Blue House,” which is the Korean equivalent of our White House. Unfortunately our way was blocked by a heavy security presence because some previously unannounced event was taking place at the time. So, instead we went nearby to the entrance of Gyeongbokgung Palace to watch the ceremonial “changing of the guard.” For many centuries, Korea was ruled over by a royal family and an Emperor. In 1936, when the Japanese invaded Korea, they eliminated the monarchy, and when the Japanese were defeated in 1945, Korea installed a constitutional form of government which has an elected President for one five year term, and 245 legislators, each elected for a four year term. Today there are six Palaces that remain from the time of the Emperors, and while we got a brief look inside one courtyard, we simply did not have the time to actually visit one of them. What a pity, but an excuse to visit Seoul again.

On the way back to our hotel, we stopped to visit the well-known Chogyesa Buddhist Temple. Because the celebration of the birthday of the Buddha was approaching, the Temple was decked out in colorful lanterns on which people had written their prayers.

And thus and the end of a long day, made even longer by the jet lag, Lisa and I fell into bed early in preparation for boarding our ship the following day.

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