‘Stand in line two aside’, the US army private sternly told us, ‘do not gesture or take pictures and follow me’. Alas, welcome to the De-Militarized Zone between North and South Korea.
When Francien and I arrived by airplane in Seoul (25 million inhabitants!) we immediately noticed the bad air quality. It was the time of the seasonal Asian dust (fine dust particles blown from the Gobi Desert) with the air quality index = moderate: hazy sky and making my nose itchy and eyes tear. The first night Francien and I ate Kimchi and beef hotpot (we had to get used to those flat metal chopsticks) and enjoyed drinking Cass beer.
On the wide streets in the centre of the capital we were dwarfed by the steel and glass high-rises with offices and shopping malls. On the roads buses, cars and American style cabs, but no bicycles and only a few motorcycles. Many street markets, clean and organized. (vendors wear gloves and face masks). At double sided pedestrian crossings, a friendly music tune and voice urged us to start crossing, with green bars and numbers indicating the remaining time. The city center was all about restaurants, fast food outlets, malls, shops and street markets. In the restaurants Korean food dominated, but the retail shops offered Western goods. Outside the city center high-rises in which half of Korean population lives. A fast-paced city like so many other big Asian cities.
The 15th century Royal Gyeongbokgung Palace was rebuilt after the war, new looking, busy with people wearing hanboks (traditional dress) taking selfies (local tourists rented for a few hours hanboks and wore them to take nice pictures). If you ask me, it missed the authentic feeling of historic sites, artificial. The same for the Dongmyo Shrine which we visited later. Dare I say it: - The palaces here were similar to the one’s we had seen in Beijng, the bell tower in Seoul similar to the one we had seen in Xian, the beacon hills similar to the one’s at Chinese Wall.
A modern city with people embracing a lot of gadgets, - and I mean a lot: I never figured out the electronics on our toilet seat, the few bikes we saw had built-in GPS, at the entrances of the restaurants models of food on the menu were on display. And then there was free Wi-Fi in restaurants, metro-stations, metro-train, busses, railway station and many other public places, so much that we hardly needed to use our portable Wi-Fi ‘egg’. I never have seen so many coffeeshop. In one such coffeeshop, I gazed at the video inside the small buzzer I got, which would signal my order was ready. Smart phones everywhere. Standing in the metro I counted the people who did NOT stare at their smart phone! Did I mention how crazy the people were to take selfies, making V-sign-posing pictures? All colourful and looking kitschy if you ask me. Glass sliding doors into shops opened on touchpad. At the metro stations there were machines to refund used metro tickets.
When driving from Seoul towards the border with North Korea, the monotonous white apartment blocks quickly made way for military watchtowers, fences, signs with ‘minefield’ and roadblocks. Closer to the De-Militarized Zone, we saw black contraptions on the bridges covering C-4 explosives used to destroy the structures in case of an enemy advance. On that trip our passports were checked five times. Inside the DMZ we saw a 166-meter high North Korean flag pole and could hear loud-speakers blast condemnations of South Korea. Old fashion propaganda. If you ask me, it all was childish, but we were told that South Korea has now also started broadcasting K-Pop music across the border!!! We stopped at the Freedom Bridge, visited the 3rd Tunnel (we went down 76 meters deep with a monorail) and Mt. Odu Unification Observatory. Although this is the most heavily armed border in the world, at times it felt like a tourist attraction with fast-food restaurants, coffee-shops and souvenir-shops, fit for relaxing family outings. Not so in Panmunjom, the Joint Security Area in the middle of the DMZ. In the Welcome Center in Camp Bonifas we had to sign a disclaimer acknowledging that ‘the United Nations forces couldn’t guarantee our safety and injury or death could occur as a result of enemy action’. Puts it in perspective!!!! Our tour was timed with military precision. We couldn’t make gestures, because North Korean guards made pictures and might use them for their propaganda.
Soldiers from both countries eyeballed each other across a courtyard. Inside the armistice building on the border line separating the peninsula, two soldiers stood guard in an intimidating stance (Tae Kwan Do stance) and we set foot into North Korea (half of the building is in the North, the other half in the South). The military escort was very serious; we had to follow strict instructions like walking in two lines, only photographing when and where we were told, making no gestures and following a dress code (no shorts, no slippers). ‘We will stay here only 5 minutes’, the US army private told is in a military tone, ‘because we do not want to provoke the other side too much as tensions right now are high’.
Inside the MAC conference room, where the North and South regularly meet, I briefly thought back to my visits to the former Berlin Wall, the Green-Line dividing Cyprus, the only recently erected Palestinian Security Wall. There were no bullets flying here, but I could feel the tension of the soldiers. Not hard to link the nuclear threat from the North we hear about in the news with this place. Stark reality how a small group of people (regime in North Korea) can lead people in such a destructive direction. For me it was a cold war throwback as this place reminded me in particular of the former Berlin Wall. Didn’t we learn anything? Difficult to understand that this is still possible in our globalized world.
The following day the landscape I saw from my window traveling from Seoul to Busan was hilly and fresh green. The few cities in which our high-speed train stopped dominated by white high-rises (up to 15 story’s sticking into the air); white sameness’s amid green hills reminiscent of the cities we have seen in China, albeit smaller. But here I have not seen a single wind-turbine!
Signs, menu’s, magazines and all but two newspapers were written in Korean, but where it mattered there was ample English under-titling to help us get around. The language was a barrier to get in touch with the people. When we asked two girls the way to the United Nations Memorial Cemetery, they used Google Translator to explain to us. Alas, we found our way. People looked stern, but were helpful and friendly, always gently bowing their heads! They wore clothing not much different from western style. We had to get used to the high trust (or was it the discipline) they had in each other: we walked passed a Go board game on a busy street corner, for anyone to use with no supervision; women inside Starbucks leaving their handbags on the table while waiting for their order at the counter; no one checked our tickets at the railway station-lounge nor in the train when we traveled 2.5 hours from Seoul to Busan. And paying with our credit cards, many times we did not have to sign nor give a PIN at all! (Do not worry, I checked my credit card statement and all is OK!!).
It struck me that I did not see any ‘foreigners’ (apart from a handful of westerners) and hardly any obese people.
Busan was a less fast-paced metropolis. Its location on the seaside gave us a relaxing feeling, with its white beaches, the harbors and mountaines backdrop. On the fish market we could buy anything living coming from the sea, and on the adjacent medicine market we were offered natural remedies ranging from herbs to dried animal parts like frogs, centipedes and snakes. ‘Let me spray this on your head’, the friendly shop owner tried to convince me, ‘it will grow your hair’. I didn’t let him; - aren’t you happy? The United Nations Memorial Cemetery was another stark reminder of the never-ending war between North and South. 2300 UN soldiers killed in the Korean War are laid to rest on this verdant cemetery (including 117 Dutch soldiers).
The city was colorfully decorated with flowers, adding to the relaxed atmosphere considering there are three million inhabitants. No-one seemed to rush, everyone patiently waiting for their turn to cross the streets, get into elevators, board the buses and go about their daily business.
Time to leave again with our backpacks full of nice memories, this time leaving per boat crossing the Sea of Japan. Thank goodness the border between North and South Korea remained peaceful.