Monday, September 28, 2009

Passport to Pyongyang(Dorasan Station)

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Demilitarised Zone

After the Second World War and the surrender of the Japanese troops who had occupied Korea, the nation was divided between the Soviet controlled north and the American controlled south, along a boundary known as the 38th Parallel. Splitting the peninsula in two, in 1948 it became the border of the newly independent countries of North and South Korea.

In 1950 war broke out between the two countries, which resulted in a remarkable North Korean advance into South Korea, which nearly pushed the US forces into the sea. An impressive counter attack by the United States and the United Nations combined, then resulted in much of the North becoming occupied.

At this point the leader of North Korea, Kim Il Sung, realising that the situation looked bleak, was preparing a retreat to the hills to engage in guerilla warfare tactics. It was at this time that Chairman Mao Zedong of China, sent in members of the Peoples Liberation Army to help North Korea, reinforcements which eventually led the North pushing the warfront back down to the 38th Parallel, resulting in a stalemate position between the two sides.

The Korean War Armistice Agreement was officially signed on July 27, 1953 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.

When the armistice was signed this led to the Demilitarised Zone(DMZ) being created, in order to act as a buffer between the two countries to prevent further military action. Running roughly along the 38th Parallel, it is officially known as the Military Demarcation Line. Under the terms of the armistice, each side agreed to withdraw its troops a minimum of 2000 metres from the line, dividing the peninsula and radically changing the lives of millions of people.

It is world's most heavily fortified border and is patrolled by an estimated 1 million troops on the northern side. 600,000 South Korean soldiers are stationed on the southern side together with 37,000 Americans and some of the world's most advanced military hardware.

Ironically the lack of human activity along the 4 kilometre wide, 250 kilometre long strip dividing Korea, has led to an abundance of wildlife. Without interference from man, habitats have flourished and it has become a refuge for many endangered species.

The DMZ is also a popular tourist destination with 180,000 visitors a year, so on Saturday I decided to venture into this place of intrigue, to help gain a greater understanding of the events that have befallen North and South Korea over the past century.

After meeting up in Seoul with a tour group, we travelled north along the Han River on the recently constructed Freedom Highway. Looking out of the window I could see that the side of the river was lined with barbed wire and there were military posts every few hundred metres. Some with soldiers in and some interestingly with cardboard cut-outs of military personnel in them, to give the impression of them being manned.

The tour began at Imjingak Park, which is located just south of the DMZ, 50 km north of Seoul. Vividly illustrating the tragedy of the Korean War, it is the furthest point north that civilians can go without permission. It was built in 1972 in the hope that one day, Korea would become reunified and to help console those who were separated fron their families in North Korea.

The main building is the North Korean Hall and there are exhibits and photos here relating to life in North Korea, its politics and history. Standing opposite this is Mangbaedan, a large granite and marble altar, constructed by the government. It is a place where people who cannot visit their homes and families in North Korea can gather, to perform ancestral rites on holidays at New Year and Chuseok.

Lying just beyond this is the Freedom Bridge. It gained its name from events during the ceasefire between North and South Korea in 1953 when a total of 12,773 South Korean prisoners of war crossed it, when they returned from North Korea. The end of the bridge is blocked by a fence and surrounded by barbed wire entanglements. People come to pray here and leave messages for a unified peninsula and peace between the two nations.

There is also an open air museum here with planes and tanks from the Korean War, as well as memorials dedicated to those who lost their lives fighting.

After looking around Imjingak we boarded a bus with other tour groups and headed into the DMZ. We then crossed the Imjin River over the Unification Bridge which was constructed in 1998 to replace the Freedom Bridge, previously the only entrance point into the DMZ. Along the way were we were forced to slow down because of the huge metal tank barriers, which the bus had to snake in and out of, like a skier going down a mountain slalom.

We then passed through a checkpoint where out passports were looked at by Korean soldiers and we were warned not to take photographs for security reasons. From out of the window I noticed signs explaining the danger of landmines in the area.

The Third Infiltration Tunnel

Once through the civilian checkpoint we passed an army barracks, where there were Korean soldiers playing basketball and football, before we finally arrived at the Third Infiltration Tunnel.

It was found on October 17, 1978, after the South Korean government was informed of its existence by a North Korean defector. One of four tunnels discovered in the 1970s, it is believed that there may be as many as 20 in all, constructed by the North as part of an invasion strategy. Situated 73 metres below the surface, it is 1635 metres long, and averages 2 metres in height and diameter. It is the nearest of the tunnels located to Seoul that have been found so far and it would have been possible for a total of 30,000 troops to pass through it an hour.

Before descending into the tunnel, we had to put on hard hats and then we walked down a 400 metre decline which intersected with the tunnel. Upon entering, it was possible to walk into it another 400 metres, to where the edge of the DMZ exists above ground. Whilst walking along it, our guide pointed out to us that the North Korean government had denied that the tunnel had been dug for military purposes, but was part of a coal mine and that they had even painted the sides of the tunnel black to help justify this excuse. Once we reached the end we then made our way back.

View of North Korea(Dorasan Observatory)

Upon reaching the surface, we boarded the bus once again and headed to Dorasan Observatory, which sits atop a small mountain overlooking the DMZ.

From here it is possible to view the North Korean propaganda village of Gijong in the DMZ and see even as far as the city of Gaeseong, North Korea's second largest city.

Gijong was built as a tool, to show the prosperity of North Korea to those living in the South and until recently also broadcast North Korean propaganda through the huge speakers installed there. Strangely, no one lives there, only soldiers are present. The streets are empty. There are no cars or people. At night lights come on in the buildings, yet nobody is in.

It is also home to what is believed to be the world's largest flagpole, at 160 metres. Displaying the North Korean flag, it was built in response to the South Korean government erecting a 100 metre tall flagpole in the nearby village of Daesong in 1981.

Unfortunately you can only look out towards North Korea through binoculars or the telescopes provided. Photographs are only allowed within the marked zones. With the number of soldiers walking around, I thought it wise to respect these wishes.

After a short time we then all got back on board the bus for our final destination, Dorasan Station. Made famous when President George Bush visited in February 2002, he gave a speech highlighting his feelings for not only the hope that one day families would be reunited, but also the danger North Korea potentially posed to world security.

Dorasan Station is a place which provides hope for the future and also shows the reality of the divide that exists today. It lies on a track known as the Gyeongui Line, which is slowly being repaired after a summit between the two Koreas in 2000. It is the northernmost station in South Korea and it is hoped that one day it will eventually provide a connection with the North and the rest of Asia.

Three trains arrive here from Seoul each day and it doesn't currently serve much more real purpose than this, apart from providing people with tangible hope that things will one day change.

A South Korean soldier on duty stood in front of a ticket barrier, just below a sign that points the way for the track to North Korea's capital Pyongyang. He had little to do except pose with tourists eager for a photograph. As bands of happy, smiling snappers stood beside him to have their photos taken, he remained motionless throughout with a cold, icy stare.

On the bus heading home I had time to reflect on everything that I had seen throughout the day. One of the last remnants of the Cold War which still exist, it's a place of intense emotion that seems a world away from the comfort zone of my apartment in Seoul, which unbelievably is only a short distance away. It really puts in perspective much of the sadness that Korea has experienced throughout its turbulent history and the tragedies and hardships that people have had to endure here.

Yet despite all of these things, it is also a place where there at least remains some hope for the future. In recent years the governments of North and South Korea have allowed several short reunions of family members separated by the Korean War.

Although this just represents a small minority of the millions kept apart, maybe Dorasan Station will one day not just be the last stop on a railway line at the border of North and South Korea, or somewhere people visit on a tour looking for something that little bit different, but a place where families are finally reunited after years of separation.

You can see all of the photos here.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Every year on the fifth day of the eighth lunar month, the Harvest Full Moon Festival is held, which is known as Chuseok.

It's a three day holiday which lasts from the 17th to the 19th of September this year. One of the most important Korean holidays, it allows people to leave the cities and visit their home towns, to spend time with their families.

During the holiday, family members pay respect to their living relatives and visit the graves of their ancestors, to give thanks for a bountiful harvest.

As a result of South Korea's rapid urbanisation over recent decades, many people no longer live in the place of their families and ancestors. This results in mass exodus from the cities every year, which causes chaos on the roads and people even book train tickets months in advance.

The radio has constant traffic updates. Traffic jams everywhere. Trips by road that normally do not take more than a few hours, have more than doubled. I feel glad that I've managed to avoid the pandemonium and remained in Seoul.

As a result Seoul currently feels like a ghost town. Shops and restaurants are closed. The streets are near empty. It's even possible to get a seat on the subway. In fact every day so far of the holiday has felt like a Sunday.

It is believed that Chuseok dates back to Korea's three Kingdom's Period(57-668). During the reign of King Yuri, two teams of women took part in a month long weaving competition that was held in the capital, Gyeongu. The winner was announced on the fifth day of the eighth lunar month and the losing team had to provide food and entertainment for the winning team.

On the morning of Chuseok, an ancestral memorial service, known as Charye, is performed at home. On an altar, food and drink including songpyeon, household rice wine and newly harvested rice are placed.

Songpyeon are crescent shaped rice cakes and are probably the most important and loved of the foods offered at Chuseok. Filled with sesame seeds, beans, nuts or dates, they are steamed on pine tree needles and coated with sesame oil.

Afterwards the family has breakfast, enjoying the same food used in the rites and later they then visit the ancestral graves.

Here beolcho and seongmyo are performed. Beolcho involves trimming the grass and pulling out the weeds that have grown around the graves. In the past this was usually done in the days leading up to Chuseok, but nowadays it is generally done on the day of the ritual.

The final ceremony that is performed is known as seongmyo, where a formal bow of gratitude is made. After this families then return home, where they play games and sing songs.

Monday, September 14, 2009


Friday, September 11, 2009

Here's the final short film of my trip to the Dano Festival in Gangneung, showing the Hapyeong Dapgynori.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Here's part two of my trip to the Dano Festival in Gangneung.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

In June, you may remember, I visited the Dano Festival in Gangneung. I had a wonderful time and it gave me a far greater insight into many aspects of Korean culture.

Check out part one below, which includes amongst other things a shamen ceremony, women dressed in traditional Korean clothes(hanbok) playing a game of tuho and a visit to the market, where there was a rather interesting medicinal tonic on sale.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009


South Korea has the world's highest rate of per capita broadband connectivity at 70 percent and out of a population of 48 million, it is estimated that there are 17 million gamers.

Wherever you are in South Korea you're never far away from a 'PC bang'(PC room). The dimly-lit, smoke-filled dens of online activity, provide the opportunity for the nation's youth to escape to a fantasy world populated by dwarves and wizards, in games such as Warcraft and Diablo.

Open 24 hours a day and extremely cheap at 1000 to 2000 won an hour(50p to 1 pound), the gaming craze is treated by many as a competitive sport. The government is even funding the construction of the world's first e-sport stadium, which will be completed in 2008.

On TV there are even entire channels dedicated to gaming, showing players competing against each-other in modern-day gladatorial contests for the MTV generation. The best become celebrities, who shun the day to day drudgery of working life to play games for a living.

One of the most famous is Lim Yo Hwan, who is treated with near pop-star status by his adoring fans and recently his internet fan club attracted its 600,000th member. A member of T1, a game playing group of cyber athletes, he earnt around 300,000,000 won(175,000 pounds) last year.

In stark contrast there is a dark side to PC bangs, a world away from the limelight and riches on offer to those who reach the pinnacle of professional gaming.

In recent years there have been a number of deaths and addiction is seen as being a growing problem in Korean society. According to government statistics, counselling sessions for those addicted quadrupled from 2,243 cases in 2003 to 8,978 sessions in 2004.

Last year a 28-year-old man from the city of Daegu collapsed in a PC bang after playing games for 50 hours, the result of exhaustion and de-hydration. He was then moved to a hospital where he died three hours later, from what doctors believe was heart failure, although no autopsy was done.

PC bangs also come in all manner of shapes and sizes. Only a few months ago I had the pleasure of walking into one and being told by the man sitting at the front desk that it was for adults only. I thought to myself what a great idea. No screaming children to disturb me whilst I'm surfing the internet.

A bit surprised to find that there were age limits, I assured him that I was 33 years of age, so it was perfectly OK for me to be there. He looked at me somewhat bumusedly.

I then turned round to see that there there weren't rows of PCs lined up with game junkies in front of them, pretending to be Gwildor the Elf in the latest version of World of Warcraft, but cubicles. Each one had its own PC and a lock on the door, obviously for the internet user who seeks that 'little bit of extra privacy'.

The penny finally dropped. I immediately replied with a big 'Ohhhhhhh,' to the assistant, who responded with a look of joy on his face as I had finally understood where I was. I thanked him for his time and immediately began my search for a PC bang that was a little bit less 'adult'.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Changdeokgung Palace

Photobucket Changdeokgung Palace(Main Hall)

Changdeokgung is one of the original five palaces of the Joseon Dynasty and was constructed between 1405 and 1412, as an auxiliary palace to Gyeonbokgung by King Taejong. It has experienced a turbulent history and along with Gyeonbokgung was burnt down in 1592, when the Japanese armies invaded.

Rebuilt in 1609, it became Seoul's main centre of power until 1868, after restoration of the the main palace Gyeonbokgung, which had laid in ruins from the latter part of the 16th century, was finally completed .

In 1997 the palace became a UNESCO World Heritage Sight and to visit it you must join a tour. I have to admit I didn't really enjoy this, as it took away the freedom of really being able to enjoy and appreciate the experience, making it all feel somewhat rather like a school trip.

Walking through the huge Donhwamun Gate at the entrance you then go over the Geumcheon Bridge. Made of stone it was constructed during the 11th year of King Tae-Jong's reign in 1411 and is the oldest of its kind that remains in Seoul today.

Further on you come to Injeongjeon, the main throne hall of Changdeokgung Palace, where the kings would have conducted the affairs of state and held official functions for foreign ambassadors.

It is possible to view inside, where you can see the throne sitting against a screen with pictures of the sun, moon, and mountains on it. Above this are carvings of dragons and mythical birds and although dimly lit, it's all still extremely beautiful to see.

Biwon Garden(Secret Garden)

In 1463 the palace was expanded by King Sejo, who created the Biwon Garden(Secret Garden). This served as a recreational area for the royal family and provides an example of ancient Korean landscaping.

Here there are lotus ponds, stone bridges, pavilions and imported trees over 300 hundred years old, which all conform with the topography of the landscape and are in harmony with nature.

You can see all of the photos here.