South Korea 2003 Part 1:The War Zone & Shopping Lights

Here's a re-posting of my Oct 2003 travelogue on South Korea.  Interesting to compare against my recent North Korean journey.

South Korea: Looking For Calmness In Land Of The Morning Calm

Part I: The War Zone & Shopping Lights



The slick Incheon International Airport and the super-modern motorway leading from here to Seoul, capital of South Korea, are the very symbols of a Korea that its government wants to portray to the world – a modern, dynamic technology giant at the forefront of development and progress.  The Airport Expressway leads to the 1988 Olympic Expressway, another infrastructural wonder the Koreans have built high above the banks of the Hangang (i.e., Han River), flanked on both sides by the skyscrapers of the sprawling metropolis of Seoul, the world’s fourth most populous metropolitan area with 10 million people in the city and 20 million in the extended region. 


Bright neon lights, space-age architectural masterpieces and huge malls testify to the transformation of what used to be a dirt-poor country into a global economic and manufacturing power in merely five decades.  All these, however, mask the reality of a relatively wealthy country albeit in the midst of a recession, located next to a pathetically poor but nuclear-armed regime ruled by a totalitarian regime responsible for millions of death and more importantly, have claims over South Korea.  Seoul and its fantasy dreamland are but 44 km from that land of darkness that have repeatedly challenged the survival of South Korea over the last five decades.  Where is calmness in the Land of the Morning Calm?




Korea is an ancient nation located on a peninsula in Northeast Asia.  Heavily influenced by Buddhism and Confucianism, Korea’s fortunes have always been linked to its two powerful neighbours, China and Japan, whose armies had marched across the paddy fields of Korea many times over the past two thousand years.  In 1910, the country was formally annexed by Japan after the latter defeated China and Russia in successive wars during the previous two decades. 


In 1945, upon the defeat of Japan during WWII, the Great Powers decided that Korea should be temporarily divided into two on the 38th parallel: Russia to takeover the northern half of Korea and the USA the southern half.  This was supposed to last till free elections were held in both zones of control, but the intrigues of the Cold War led to the formation of two separate regimes in 1948 – that of the communist Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the North (DPRK) led by Kim U Sung, and the pro-West Republic of Korea (ROK) in the South led by Syngman Rhee. 


History has taught us that regimes with long names are probably dubious, for they often have lots to hide behind some grand title.  On June 25 1950, DPRK launched a sudden invasion of South Korea, where most US forces had already been withdrawn and the country recently placed outside the United States Security Perimeter in Asia.  Within three days, Seoul fell, and by one month after the invasion, about 90% of South Korea had come under North Korean occupation, leaving only a small enclave in the south around the port city of Busan. 


The United Nation forces led by the USA came to the rescue of South Korea.  They landed far behind enemy lines in Incheon near what is today the international airport, and by December 1950 not only crossed the original 38th parallel line but also captured Pyongyang, North Korean capital, and marched all the way to the North Korea-China border along Yalu River.  Communist China, fresh from the Revolution which chased US-backed KMT regime to Taiwan, was alarmed by the sudden arrival of US troops on its border.  Chairman Mao sent a volunteer army across Yalu River, which threw the UN/US forces all the way down south. 


Seoul was lost again to the Communists and then regained after another counter-offensive in March 1951.  Before long, it was a stalemate more or less along the original 38th parallel, which led to peace talks and a most uneasy armistice which lasts till today.  The previously unknown village of Panmunjom suddenly emerged as the venue for inter-Korea talks.  It remains the only place where one could get a few inches into North Korean controlled territory without joining a full-fledge propaganda tour to the North.




We arrived in freezing Seoul after an overnight flight from Singapore, checked into the hotel, and then rushed off to join a day tour to Panmunjom.  Panmunjom is part of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), a strip of land 4km wide along the cease-fire line.  The DMZ is supposed to be a buffer zone of peace between the two opposing armies, and yet, decades after the truce, it remains a fairly dangerous place, one at which armies are at a state of high alert. 


“IT is a landscape of nightmare, this wasteland of a demilitarized zone: artillery craters, barbed wire, minefields, graveyards, the skeletons of villages and the remains of rice paddies. The earth has been shelled, mined, overgrown, booby-trapped, burned and abandoned to grow wild yet another time,” wrote William Holinger of Korea’s DMZ in The Fence-Walker.


Hundreds have died since the beginning of the truce – what an irony.  North Korea, ruled by a self-isolated, unpredictable and semi-mad dynasty, had in the past few decades undertaken provocative actions against the south, ranging from digging of military tunnels beneath the DMZ to brutally murdering tree-trimming workmen crew.  Even today, security on this area is tight.  Visitors can only visit on a guided tour, and passport details to be provided well in advance. 


The first stop was the Observatory at Mt Odu, located at a panoramic mountaintop viewpoint overlooking the point where the great rivers, Imjingang and Hangang, meet each other and the Yellow Sea (the body of water that is part of the Pacific Ocean).  At this point, the northern shore is North Korea, separated by shallow waters merely 3.2km wide, which at low tide is nothing but mud flats.  This side is freedom and the other side oppression.  A small village stood on the other side of the North, where farmers tend the field next to huge propaganda billboards about a Heaven On Earth.   What a Heaven whose mountains were bare, totally treeless!  The past decade of famine – the result of economic mismanagement and the relentless mobilisation of resources for the country’s nuclear project – had led to at least 2 million deaths.  Relentless cold winds turned our faces cold but I wondered about the hardy North Korean farmers in that land beyond, so near and yet so remote.


Down the hill along the so-called Freedom Road along the Imjing River.  This is a bitter ideological divide where places are named from propaganda prospective.  The North Korea of today may seem like a living hell when compared to the wealthy, free and middle-class South. 


Back in the 1950s, the picture was less clear.  Those were the days when the then hugely confused and still largely colonial West were battling demands from the Developing World for national independence, social justice and equality.  The ideals of socialism were seen as progressive and just, and the Soviet bloc as a force for liberation and freedom.  The politically unstable South at that time was poor and ruled by what was considered by many as a corrupt elite.  Radical South Korean student activists often saw the North as a utopia, all the way up to the early 1990s when tales of a terrible famine began to sip from the North.  In fact, progress only came to the South in the 1960-70s under the rule of the dictator, President Park, who overlooked a period of rapid industrialisation and modernisation.  Park himself was however assassinated in 1979, by his own intelligence chief, in what was an episode of mystery in the history of Korea.


Not far from here we entered the DMZ proper where due to the deliberate lack of development as well as minefields, wildlife and nature flourish. White Manchurian crane, deer and bears are found here where they risk ending up as dishes elsewhere in Korea. 


The village of Taesong-dong remains in the DMZ.  These are among the wealthiest of Korea’s farmers – they are subsidised by the South Korean government to stay put in their ancestral village.  For that, strict restrictions on everyday life apply, for instance, they must be at home and accounted for by 11pm and all windows and doors closed and fastened.  In addition, they have to live with the relentless broadcast of North Korean propaganda from loudspeakers from the other side of the border.  Fancy living here?


The huge South Korean flag at Taesong-dong and the even greater North Korean flag at the adjourning village the other side of the DMZ, Gijong-dong, are testimony to the childish competition the rival Korean states engage in.  One put up a greater flag than the other, until both sides ended up with these monster flags – the North Korean one is the largest flag of the world, period.  The South calls Gijong-dong, the Propaganda Village, and say no one lives there.  I find it difficult to believe how less propagandistic Taesong-dong is compared to Gijong-dong.


It’s time for lunch and the so-called free lunch included in the US$60 day tour was hosted at Camp Bonifas, base camp of the US forces in the DMZ, named after an US captain brutally murdered by North Korean soldiers while leading a workforce attempting to trim a poplar tree in Panmunjom in 1976.  As the local DMZ guidebook aka Propaganda mouthpiece reads, “For three days that tree stood as a challenge to free men everywhere.” 


Following the so-called Panmunjom Axe Murder, US/Korean forces launched “Operation Paul Bunyan” – hundreds of soldiers and many helicopters were mobilised for what must have been the most expensive tree cutting exercise in modern history.  Soldiers entered the Joint Security Area of Panmunjom and began cutting the tree while on alert for any North Korean opposition.  As the book further described the 45 minutes operation, only the stump of the tree was left “to remind all who would visit Panmunjom the resolve of the (UN forces) to maintain freedom in the Republic of Korea.”


After monstrous portions of overcooked pasta and salty pizza on army mess trays, I checked out US Army newspapers and periodicals in the camp restaurant.  These are unusual times.  US-South Korean relations are in a bad shape.  The South Koreans resent what they see as American arrogance and aggressiveness towards their Northern “brothers”, while the Americans were bewildered by what they saw as lack of gratitude for the US-led rescue of the country from the Communist North. 


Incidents involving the rape and murder of Korean women by US soldiers did not help.  An article in an US Army newspaper reminded soldiers of a curfew policy imposed since Sept 11, 2001.  Despite that, another article was about Korea as the “Duty Assignment of Choice”.  Of course, even with all the anti-US demonstrations in Seoul, US soldiers do not get shot at as in Iraq.  Those in Korea must be praying hard they wouldn’t get sent to Baghdad.


On to Panmunjom itself.  The site of the ceasefire talks is today Propaganda Central Korea, for both the North and South.  Both states bring tourists here for an overdose of their own version of the story, complete with watchtowers and panoramic views of the “other side”.  There are 24 buildings today in what used to be a farming village. 


In a macho, perhaps childish display of strength, both sides have assigned their tallest and fittest soldiers to Panmunjom.  On this day, only one North Korean soldier was seen, standing behind a pillar on the far side.  Despite the freezing weather, the South Korean soldiers – all in dark sunglasses - stood silently and expressionless in a rather bizarre stance – chest out, stomach tucked in, arms bent in a hostile, pre-engagement taekwando stance, as if to intimidate the other side.


As the bus sped towards Seoul’s glittering glass towers, away from all those barbwire and concrete bunkers, cold sweat suddenly overcame me.  We may live in the world of MTV, cybersex and paintball games, but areas of darkness and dangers are never too far away.  The many remnants of the Cold War remain, be in Korea, China/Taiwan, Middle East issues, and they continue to pose enormous threats to peace and prosperity. 




Visitors to the Panmunjom Joint Security Area are required to sign a declaration, which among other things, states that:


Fraternization, including speaking or any association with personnel from the Korean People’s Army/Chinese People’s Volunteers (KPA/CPV) side, is strictly prohibited.

Visitors will not point, make gestures, or expressions which could be used by the North Korean side as propaganda material against the United Nations command.


In addition, visitors are banned from wearing, among other items, jeans, T-shirts and sportswear.  It is said that these used to be symbols of the U.S. in a once-poor South Korea, and the sight of anyone from the southern side wearing these would give rise to North Korean propaganda that the South was an American colony.  Interesting reasoning…




Long influenced by the Chinese civilisation, Korea once had the Chinese language as an official language of the Court.  The Korean intelligentsia used to express themselves in written Chinese and up to as late as the 1960s, the Korean language was written in a mixture of Chinese script and the Korean alphabet invented by King Sejong in the 15th century.  In fact, some linguistics estimate that 60% of the Korean vocabulary is of Chinese origins.  Reforms of the past few decades, which emphasised on a more Western and nationalistic orientation, have plagued Chinese characters from everyday usage. 


The resurgence of China as an economic power, however, has led to some interesting new trends.  China has become the largest trading partner of South Korea – even more than the United States and Japan - and the Chinese language is in vogue again.  Many road and public signboards are trilingual – Korean, English and Chinese.  In Seoul, I saw advertisement posters and billboards promoting Chinese language courses.  Korean firms are major investors in Northeast China, where many ethnic Koreans live, and many direct flights link not just the capitals of the two countries, but also provincial centres as well. 


More than 36,000 South Korean students are now studying in universities in China and an additional 60,000 were granted student exchange visas to China in 2002.  These numbers are incredible when compared with 50,000 South Korean students studying in the United States, a country that has been South Korea’s close ally for the last 50 years whereas China has been neglected by South Korea until the last decade.


Indeed there are many similarities between the two cultures, in terms of traditional values, religions and customs.  China used to be much closer to North Korea politically.  Although China is nominally communist, today’s China is more capitalist in many ways than many countries round the world.  China might have fought alongside the North Koreans five decades ago but many Chinese I have spoken to expressed disgust and contempt for the Pyongyang regime, whereas reserving delight for things South Korean, especially the popular South Korean TV drama series.  All this is all the more amazing considering that Mao himself had sacrificed his son, Mao Anying, who died fighting in North Korea.




The view from the 237 meters tall Seoul Tower on the summit of Namsan (“Southern Mountain”) was incredible – millions of glittering light like stars in the milky way, endless sprawl of skyscrapers spreading far beyond the horizon, the flowing lit-up streams of traffic on the freeways intersecting each other and the Han River. 


“There used to be emergency exercises in Seoul when I was a little kid,” said Helen, the long-hair, aristocratic looking Korean banker with whom we were having dinner in the revolving restaurant of this TV tower.  “Sirens would roar and all lights would have to be off.  And the population would have to be evacuated from the northern bank of the river to the southern bank.”


I shuddered at the economic cost of conducting public exercise of this type in the Korea of today.  I couldn’t imagine the enormous Lotte luxury department store and other mega-size shopping malls without their lights and glow. 


“We don’t hold exercises like that these day.  Just a bomb from Pyongyang and we will all be gone,” Helen shrugged.  “What’s there to be afraid?” 


I guess, if you just get used to it if you have lived under threat for half a century.


Helen’s father was born in what is today North Korea but fled south during the War.  He has no idea how his family are doing in the North but assumes that his parents had already passed away.  For a highly Confucian society like Korea which values filial piety, division of the family as well as the inability to discharge one’s filial duties causes great agony and pain among many of the 10 million or more people with divided families in Korea.  Every year during the Korean Hansik (Grave Sweeping Festival, same as the Chinese Qingming), Helen’s family burn joss sticks and pray for their divided family in North Korea.


Have you seen that now famous satellite map of the world at night?  It shows which places are lit up at night – that is an indication of the state of development of the locality.  A quick glance would reveal enormous areas of darkness in Africa and much of Siberia, the latter largely because of low population density.  If you look for a blown-up map of the Korean Peninsula, you would see light everywhere in the South but darkness in almost all North Korea except for bits of yellow around Pyongyang.  Today’s South Korea is 20 times richer than North Korea on a per capita basis.  Many Koreans wonder about their families on the darker side of the DMZ.  When will the families ever get united?




The glowing lights of Seoul can be deceiving.  All is not well in the Korean economy.  The over-leveraged chaebols might have been partially restructured - Samsung have been rated as the world’s fastest growing brand and all its debts fully repaid – the group now contributes one third of the Korean GDP. But the shift recovery from the Asian financial crisis of 1997 has run into the shallows.  The “spend-the-way-to-recovery” formula has led to an over-proliferation of credit cards. During the height of the credit card follies, even a few homeless and some children were issued with cards.  This sparked off a spending spree nationwide, which briefly led to a domestic boom in the economy but has since led to a huge domestic debt crisis. 


More than 10% of the adult population are behind in their credit card debt payments and bank loans and credit card debts now account for three quarters of the GDP.  KOSPI, the Korean stock market index, plunged 17.13 points or 2.2% on the second last day of our trip, when the country’s largest credit card issuer, LG Card, ran out of money for cash advance over the weekend.


On top of these is the enlarged and ongoing government probe into alleged illegal political fund payments by the chaebols such as Samsung, LG and Hyundai and SK.  With virtually all the major groups of the country been investigated, there is considerable uncertainty about the economy and the country’s top businesses.  This further spooked investors and businesses, in a time when the country faces a competitive challenge from China.  Whither the Korean economy?





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