Thursday, July 23, 2009

Namdaemun Market

Named after the nearby Namdaemun Gate, Namdaemun Market is one of the biggest wholesale markets in South Korea, covering a total of over 10 acres. Established in 1414, it is also the oldest and largest, with over a 1000 shops, retailers, stalls and vendors selling anything and everything that you could possibly imagine.

Namdaemun is renowned for being inexpensive and small retailers come here to buy their goods from wholesalers, which they then resell. As most of the businesses in the area concentrate on wholesale, this allows the individual buyer to purchase things more cheaply and there are bargains galore on offer.

It's also very popular with Korean people and tourists as well, who are looking for a bit of atmosphere plus the odd bargain and is definitely worth checking out while in Seoul.

I went here today to buy a rucksack and a few other things for my holiday next week, when I'll be travelling to Busan on the southeastern coast. Hopefully I'll also get to go to couple of other places as well if I have time and weather permitting.


One of the most noticeable things about the market that I haven't seen before were the number of shops selling gingseng. Very popular in Korea and throughout Asia it is believed ginseng has medicinal qualities, that amongst other things can cure fatigue, strengthen the immune system, lower high blood pressure, and purify the blood from toxin.

Sounds like the perfect soju-induced hangover cure to me.

When I got home from a hard days shopping(and haggling) I checked the BBC's website and to my surprise they had included my blog as an example of how people are now using digital media. You can check out the article here.

You can see all the photos here.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Boryeong Mud Festival

Last Saturday, I went to the Boryeong Mud Festival on the western coast of Korea, about two and a half hours drive from Seoul. It is held along the 3.5 km long white sand beach of Daecheon, which is surrounded by mudflats, now the area's most valuable asset.

Daechon is a town which feels not unlike the commercialised resorts in Britain with its theme park rides and large hotels and it definitely isn't the place to come to if your looking for that quiet seclusion most travellers crave, as it can get pretty busy at weekends during the summer months.

There were a number of events held throughout the course of the festival including mud sliding, mud wrestling, a grand mud bathtub, mud football and a mud beauty contest. In fact just about any activity where it would be fun to get muddy.

The festival was started in 1998 to promote the sales of mud related cosmetics in the area and in the seven years it's been going it has become one of the biggest festivals in Korea with approximately 2.5 million visitors this year.

It is also the festival that attracts the most number of foreigners with some 30,000 turning up this year, all apparently unable to resist the apparent charms of a mud and alcohol fuelled weekend. At times it almost seemed as if every single English teacher in Korea was there.

You can buy mudpacks, mud body cleanser, mud sun block lotion, mud soap, mud shampoo, mud cleansing cream, in fact just about any beauty product you could think of, the manufacturers had somehow managed to make out of mud. Or you could just scoop some up in a bucket and get it for no charge whatsoever if you were that way inclined.

Of course most people weren't there for the cosmetics or the health benefits of the mud, they were there for a good time and it was great to see everyone letting their hair down, all completely caked in mud. Despite the rain throughout much of the Saturday people's spirits weren't dampened and the party went on well into the night, even after the fireworks and bands appearing at the festival had finished.


There were also lots of traditonal Korean events to see and most interesting of all was a shaman ceremony, which involved shaman priests walking barefoot over what can best be described as an assault course of huge blades, where the slightest mistake could have resulted in some very nasty injuries. It was thrilling to watch and it definitely had the crowd on the edge of their seats and fortunately for everyone watching there wasn't any blood.

The following morning I decided to test the health benefits of the mud for myself so I went to the Boryeong Mud Skincare Centre. For 30,000 won I got an all over mud massage and face pack.

Rich in nutrients and minerals such as germanium and bentonite, apparently it's highly effective in preventing contraction and aging of the skin and also aids the body's metabolism, circulation and nerves. I'm not too sure about the health giving properties all the marketing men would have us believe, but it's definitely worth it even if it's just for the experience.

For all the photos click here.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Korean War - Part IV

Eisenhower being sworn in as president

In January 1953, Dwight Eisenhower succeeded Truman as president. Having been openly critical of the war he made it be known that he was willing to use nuclear weapons, in order to bring about an end to the hostilities.

In early April the sides came together once again and during this time the first prisoners were exchanged in Operation Little Switch. The Korean War Armistice Agreement was officially signed on 27 July 1953, at the truce village of Panmunjeom and resulted in a ceasefire between the two countries. However a formal declaration of peace has never been signed, meaning that the two countries are still officially at war.

American marines crossing the Freedom Bridge, which links North and South Korea at Panmunjom

The final exchange of prisoners of war began on 5 August and continued until 23 December 1953. It was called  Operation Big Switch and took place on the border between the two countries on the Bridge of No Return. Prisoners were brought to the bridge and given the option to remain in South Korea or cross and never be allowed back

Much controversy surrounded the exchange regarding the voluntary repatriation of Chinese and North Korean soldiers, as well as allegations of the torture and brainwashing of UN prisoners of war. Nearly 76,000 prisoners of war were returned to the communists, whilst 12,773 United Nations Command POWs were repatriated. Whilst held captive around 40 per cent of the UN soldiers died and many of those that returned were malnourished and weak from their ordeal.

American prisoners of war 

In the armistice agreement the Demilitarised Zone(DMZ) was established to act as a 4 kilometre wide buffer zone between North and South Korea. It is the most heavily fortified border in the world and cuts the Korean Peninsula in two. Each side agreed to move their troops back 2000 metres and although soldiers from both sides are still allowed to patrol it, they must not cross the Military Demarcation Line(MDL) which runs through the centre.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

The Korean War - Part III 
 F-86 Sabre jet interceptors

Towards the end of 1950, war in the air also intensified and became a major worry for the United Nations Command. The appearance of Soviet Mig-15 jet fighters, flown by Soviet pilots masquerading as Chinese and North Koreans, stopped most of the daytime raids on North Korea. In response the US sent F-86 Sabre jet interceptors to Japan in their bid for supremacy in the skies.

All the time this was happening the Chinese were building up their forces. On November 25, they launched a major offensive of 180,000 troops against the UN soldiers, which would prove to be one of the most important turning points in the war. Fighting at night the Chinese maximized their strengths of stealth and large numbers, whilst minimizing their weaknesses of susceptibility to air strikes, or lack of artillery.

Attacks focussed on cutting off supply and withdrawal routes and ambushing counterattacking forces. Casualties were severe, and with the onset of a bitter winter, General Macarthur, realising he was facing an entirely new war, ordered a retreat. By mid-December the UN troops had been pushed back to the 38th Parallel and continued fighting forced them South.

The Chinese People's Volunteer Army

On New Year’s Eve, the Chinese along with North Korean units crossed the 38th Parallel and by January 4, 1951, they had reached Seoul. They managed to push a further 50 miles south but the victory for the communist forces was shortl-lived as the were unable to cope with the superior firepower of the UN.  Seoul was retaken by UN troops on March 14 and ten days later they had advanced to the 38th Parallel.

General Macarthur at this point became a strong voice advocating a strategy of complete victory, which put him at odds with Truman, who had declared he was now willing to sign a ceasefire. By making his views public Macarthur had ultimately signalled his own demise and he was relieved of his command to make way for General Matthew Ridgway. Talks began between the sides on July 10, 1951, but were unsuccessful and continued to flounder for the next two years as they remained locked in a stalemate position.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

The Korean War - Part II
  General Macarthur
On 15 September 1950, General Macarthur launched a daring sea-borne assault on Inchon, a coastal town located on the North Western coast near Seoul, 125 miles behind enemy lines. The military aim was to cut off the supplies and communications to the North Koreans and trap them in between the forces landing there and those located in Busan.

The assault was risky due to the nature of the unpredictable tides and rocky port, which made landing difficult. The waters of the Flying Fish Channel, which the assault would have to pass through, were only accessible for three hours a day at certain times throughout the year, depending on the season. For much of the time while the tide was out there were impenetrable mud flats, which extended three miles out from the headland.

Macarthur was eventually able to convince his superior officers that the assault was viable and preliminary naval gunfire and air bombardment began on 13 September. As Macarthur had predicted, the North Koreans were taken completely by surprise and the 13,000 troops involved in the landings met little resistance. There were few casualties and Inchon was quickly taken.

Troops fighting in Seoul

In contrast, the march towards Seoul was a slow and bloody as troops became engaged in urban warfare. At the same, forces located in Busan launched a push northwards. The North Koreans panicked and fled and on 25 September, Seoul was recaptured. Of the 70,000 north Korean troops who had been engaged in battle at the war front at the Busan Perimeter, over half were captured or killed, whilst the remaining 30,000 retreated back across the 38th Parallel into North Korea.

By 27 September, troops moving southwards from Seoul met those heading North from Busan. Proving the doubters wrong yet again, Macarthur had confirmed his place in history as one of the greatest military strategists to have ever lived.

With South Korea now liberated the Americans chose to continue past the 38th Parallel into North Korea. Their aim was to reunite the peninsula under a pro-western government, whereas the Chinese wanted North Korea to act as a buffer state.

Despite China’s threats to join the war if the UN forces entered North Korea, General Macarthur was confident of victory and believed China would not intervene. On 20 October, the capital of North Korea, Pyongyang, was taken and UN and Republic of Korea forces pushed northwards towards the Yalu River, which marked the border between North Korea and China.

The Allies reached the Yalu River on 24 October. At the same time, the Chinese began to send troops across the river, who engaged in a series of attacks under the name of the People’s Volunteer Army to officially avoid declaring war on US, Britain, France and other members of the UN. Macarthur paid little attention to these attacks, underestimating the strength and numbers of the Chinese soldiers in North Korea, a strategy that would ultimately prove to be costly.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

The Korean War - Part I 

 North Korean troops entering Seoul

On the 25 June, 1950, North Korea, seeking to reunify the peninsula, launched a surprise, but well organised attack on the South and advanced towards the capital Seoul.

Using arms supplied by the Soviet Union, they were able to quickly penetrate and overrun the weaker South Korean forces. Seoul was captured in a matter of days as the North Koreans advanced southwards to the strategically important port of Busan.

Their superiority was a direct result of the American stance towards the South Korean government who wanted to reunify the peninsula. President Syngman Rhee had even openly declared his belief of national unity by force.

In response, the Americans, worried about the possibility of the South invading the North, had limited the army to 98,000 troops, who were barely anything more than highly trained policemen. With 135,000 soldiers, the North Korea People’s Army outnumbered South Korea’s troop total and they were also supplied with more weapons, tanks and artillery.

The United Nations unanimously condemned the invasion of South Korea

As a show of military strength, President Truman immediately ordered troops into action and and air and naval units were sent in from nearby Japan. The US appealed to the United Nations Security Council for support and a motion to brand the North Koreans as aggressors. Once this was passed, member countries were called upon to help with military assistance.

Fortunately at the time, the Soviet delegate, who no doubt would have vetoed the motion, was not present. This was in protest at the UN, for refusing to give a seat to China. 14 UN nations offered to help including the United Kingdom, France, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Thailand, South Africa, Turkey, Colombia, the Philippines, Ethiopia, France, Australia, Belgium and Greece.

In total 300,000 troops were sent, with 260,000 coming from America. The UN Security Council also asked the US to appoint a supreme commander for the UN force and Washington selected General Douglas Macarthur, who had famously helped to defeat Japan during the Second World War.

As the North Korean army drove south, the American personnel, hurriedly sent from positions in Japan, fared badly against the superior enemy troops. The North Koreans cared little for prisoners of war, breaking international law by killing them, as the war-machine marched ever onwards towards the south of the peninsula. On 20 August, General Macarthur issued a statement declaring that that Kim Il-sung would be held responsible for any further atrocities committed against the UN forces.

American soldiers defending the Busan Perimeter

By September, the North Koreans had advanced so far they occupied all of South Korea save for a small pocket of resistance around the southern city of Busan, at what became known as the Busan Perimeter. 180km long, it extended to the Nakdong River which acted as a natural barrier, making it easier to defend.

For a period of 6 weeks throughout August and early September the North Korean troops attacked relentlessly, pushing the South Korean and United Nation forces to the limit. During this time the war came close to being lost, as inexperienced troops were thrown into combat against the highly organised North Korean army. Casualties were heavy, but fortunately the troops managed to hold the defensive line. Ironically, the withdrawal of the UN and South Korean forces created unintentional problems for the North Koreans as their supply lines became stretched and over extended and they ran short of weapons, food and ammunition.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Here's a short film of the Admiral Yi Sun-shin Festival.