Posts filed under 'History'

Salernos in South Korea

Mom, Dad and traditional performerAs part of their 40th wedding anniversary trip to Hawaii, my parents made a detour to South Korea.  As my mom noted, it was not the top of their “foreign destinations” list, but it had me, so that made it pretty attractive.  My parents have not left North America in 40 years, but they handled customs and immigration like pros.  Here are a few highlights from their trip:

1) A bus tour around Seoul (which meant _I_ finally understood how this city was laid out!).  Seoul from the Cable Car

2)Dinner at a Buddhist restaurant which covered the table in small bowls of tasty vegetables and ended with traditional Korean dancing and drumming.  I was really impressed that my parents managed to sit on the floor for over two hours.

3)  Shopping in Insadong, a traditional (and touristy) shopping area.  My Dad commented that this was what he expected of “the teeming masses of Asia”- densely packed streets, crowded buildings, lots of alleyways crammed with shops, a profusion of brightly colored goods.  It contrasted sharply with the skyscrapers, elegant sculpture, large parks, and Rodeo Drives of modern Seoul.  There my mom noted “I have never seen this many Louis Vitton advertisements, even in America!”

Traditional House at folk village4)  Touring a folk village in Yongin.  We saw houses moved from various parts of the country, with rice thatch roofs, rice broom-swept courtyards, hand carved kitchenware.  It was hard to believe that my colleague’s grandparents lived in a home similar to these into the 1970s.  Change has happened really fast here.

5)  Meals with colleagues.  Many of my colleagues wanted to meet my parents, and honor them with a meal.  So we had lunch at the National Museum with a member of the U.S. Embassy staff, her mother-in-law and her daughter.  Another evening we roasted duck over a fire with two colleagues, and then we had lunch at a famous soy sauce making restaurant with another two colleagues.  Soy sauce and soy paste jarsIn six days, my parents had six kinds of kimchi and close to 100 different kinds of Korean food.  They were great sports, trying everything once, and finding they liked almost all of it.

6)  Meeting with students.  Due to a scheduling conflict, my parents visited the Korean Presidential Residence (Cheong Wa Dae or the Blue House) along with students from my American Political Culture class.  The students were outstanding ambassadors, providing translations of the Korean tour information.  My parents also attended my study group where students took full advantage of the chance to talk with foreigners who also happened to be Professor Salerno’s parents.  Meeting with English-speaking foreigners is still pretty rare in Pyeongtaek, so having three in a classroom was pretty special.

The Korean My parents enjoyed being elders in a country that has traditionally honored age (although that is rapidly and unfortunately changing).  I was fascinated to watch people who have always acted the “senior” role with me, suddenly acting the “junior” role with my parents!  It affects how people shake hands, pour drinks, drink drinks, and prioritize desires.  I think my parents liked best all the children who would come up to them and shyly ask “Where are you from?”  and then ask to have a picture taken with the friendly foreigners.  Many ran off giggling. 

One interaction may serve as a summary for the trip:  Walking up the _steep_ hill to Namsan tower, my mom asked four middle-school girls what they were eating.  “Ochingo” one said, clearly struggling for the English.  “Squid” I translated and they nodded and giggled.  American Political Culture Class at Cheong Wa DaeA huddled conference followed and the girls then offered their food to my parents. Remembering that it is impolite to reject offerings of food, my mom accepted and everybody smiled - a cultural interaction successfully negotiated.  Food, giggles, language, and culture on the way to a scenic view.  It was a great trip.

1 comment May 24, 2008


Waegwan Cherry BlossomsThe following is a true story.  I have only made up some of the facts.

On a late afternoon in 1950, a Benedictine army chaplain stepped off a train in Seoul, South Korea. Or maybe he stepped off the train months before and was working in an army camp.  Four other men stepped off the train, into the army camp.  Perhaps they were wearing black robes with hoods, perhaps not.  They were Benedictines just the same.  The army chaplain asked from where they had come.  “North Korea” they answered, “we have been thrown out.  We were the lucky brothers.  All the fathers were killed.”

The army chaplain called the bishop who called an abbot who called a meeting.  In two years a new monastery was created for these North Korean monks.  They thought they would soon head back.  New monks vowed stability to a place they had never seen.  They still have not been back.  After 50 years, they celebrated what they had accomplished - six dependent houses, 3 retreat centers, 5 hospitals, 30 churches, 2 high schools, 2 middle schools, a retirement village, more than 150 monks, artisan workshops for gold, stained glass and wood, and a major Catholic press. 

Waegwan Abbey mapBut they had not forgotten that chaplain.  In preparation for their celebration, a few monks and nuns came to the U.S. to visit him. They told him he was remembered as an honored founder.  His confreres were shocked.  They had long assumed those good, old stories, so well-told and funny, could not possibly be true!

The chaplain became Abbot Gerald McCarthy of Saint Anselm Abbey.  He died just after those Benedictines visited and vindicated his stories.  I arrived at Saint Anselm College later that fall, but I did not hear the stories until seven years later.   

On a late afternoon in 2008, a teacher stepped off a train in Waegwan, South Korea.  She was met by a man in blue jeans, but he was Benedictine just the same.   She was chasing stories.  I’ll post more of them soon.

Add comment April 16, 2008

Democracy in Korea

Democracy in Korea is only 21 years old.    The contrast between a thousand years of monarchy, 40 years of colonial control, 20 years of dictatorship and 20 years of democracy was made vividly real for me this week.

First, I went to a presentation on the Gwangju uprisings in 1980.  In 1979 Korea’s second President and first dictator was assassinated.  Hopes for democratic change swept the country and were rapidly put down by the third President Chun Doo-hwan, a military general.  Students in southern Korea refused to stop protesting for greater democracy and the army massacred an unknown number of people.  Students, women, children, bystanders, the elderly - everyone was a target, and therefore most people joined the protests.  Eventually the town was placed under army rule.  Since all of this was done with the knowledge, if not permission, of American authorities, residents of Gwangju remain actively anti-American.  They had hoped for support for a new democracy and did not receive it.

Gyeongbokgung Royal RoadSecond, I went to one of Seoul’s many palaces.  The English language tour guide regularly reminded us that Korea is now a democracy.  “Here we are walking on the royal road,” she told us.  “In the Joseon dynasty, only the king could walk on the central part.  Commoners had to walk on the sides.  However, we are now a democracy, so you can walk on the central part since in Korea the people are kings.”  Later we came to a doorway called “doorway of prayers for long life.” The guide informed us that “Once this doorway was used only by royalty.  That is why it is so tall, since only royalty did not need to bow before entering.  However, in a democracy no one bows so you can all walk through the tall doorway and pray for your own long life.”  What a vivid reminder of the power of the people in a democracy!

Third, Korea is in the middle of its Parliamentary election campaigning.  The election is April 9.  This is a hotly watched contest since originally the GNP (the President’s party) was expected to win easily, but now the opposition party has a good chance to prevent a sweep.  Yet most of the people I know are remarkably indifferent about the elections.  Voter turnout is expected to hit an all-time low.  A sense that politicians are corrupt, that they do not represent the average voter, that only the wealthy can really run, that candidates are out of touch with daily reality, that there is no “good” candidate to vote for - all of these seem to be depressing voters and voter turnout. 

In thirty years, Korea has gone from literally battling for democracy to being proud of having it to being disillusioned by its less than perfect form.  I have asked dozens of people whether they think President Lee Myung-bak (criticized by some for being too authoritarian) could lead a slide back to dictatorship.  Everyone agrees: “No, democracy is too entrenched here now.”  But democracy requires an active, educated, engaged citizenship, vigilant in keeping an eye on its own best interests.  I am struck by how quickly Korea has reached America’s levels of disenchantment, frustration, and unwillingness to participate.  Perhaps we will be able to learn from however they deal with the isssue. 

Add comment April 3, 2008

March 8 - International Women’s Day

Women Open the WorldIn America March is Women’s History Month, but in much of the rest of the world, March means International Women’s Day.  On March 8, 1908 15,000 women marched through New York City to demand shorter working hours and better working conditions.  In 1911, a German woman launched the first International Women’s Day in Copenhagen, Denmark to demand equal rights for women.  Since then this has been an international celebration not of women’s past, but of their present status, needs and hopes.

This year marked South Korea’s 24th International Women’s Day celebration and my first.  I joined 5000 other people and 167 women’s groups for an information fair, concert, ceremony, and parade.  Foreigners were invited to wear purple and white (the colors worn by US suffragists).  I ended up marching next to another Fulbrighter, an English teaching assistant.  We were warmly welcomed, handed pinwheels and balloons and coached through the Korean cheers.  In a crowd wearing purple hats, carrying blue umbrellas, waving bright red “No human trafficking signs”, or trailing green and yellow streamers, for once no one had eyes for the white face in the crowd!

The White and Purple FloatThe guests of honor this year were the women and volunteers of Sharing House.  This organization was created to house, care for and honor the Korean women who were kidnapped during World War II and forced to work as sex slaves for Japanese soldiers.  For decades they were abandoned by their families and shunned by society, but in the past ten years there has been an outpouring of support for them.  Some of these women and their supporters have protested in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul for 800 straight weeks, demanding an apology and reparations.  Recently the US passed House Resolution 121 calling on Japan to apologize, which was not welcomed by Japan.  You can learn more at  or .

Women’s status in Korea is remarkably similar to that of US women in the 1980s. Laws for women’s equality are on the books, but popular attitudes have not caught up.  Rapists often escape punishment on the argument that a woman wore revealing clothing and thus incited the man to rape.  Victims of domestic violence are assumed to have acted in a way that provoked violence.  There is an increasingly sharp split among women as well, best shown by the contrast between “golden misses” (single, highly educated, highly paid urban women who disdain marriage) and “golden egg mothers” (rural, uneducated, farm wives who have third, fourth and fifth children to reap the benefits provided by a government desperate to fend off a future worker shortage by increasing the lowest birthrate in the world).

An In some ways, Korea is way ahead of other countries.  A 2004 law criminalized the prostitution of women, providing punishments for “johns”, “pimps”, and “procurers” rather than women forced into prostitution.  It also provides mental and medical health care, empowerment and vocational training, and guaranteed jobs for women who choose to leave prostitution.  Advocates say simply changing the language from “prostitute” to “prostituted woman” and from “morally degrading behavior for women” to “morally degrading behavior for men” makes a huge difference.  This is especially true in a nation where red light districts are still highlighted as tourist destinations and both government and business officials continue to see providing a sexual partner for clients as part of the deal-closing culture.   Then again we have Eliot Spitzer.

Marching for better working conditionsListening to Koreans talk about women is fascinating.  Most women complain about the “double shift” of working full time and having sole responsibility for home and family care.  The Korean tradition of building bonds at work through 5 hour long drinking rounds after work tends to automatically exclude married women.  Women only make 63% of a male salary for the same job.  (The number in the US is 78% and in Europe it is 90%).  Korean Men however talk about how there are more women in college than men, women are excused/excluded from military duty, and they are perceived as better at learning English and thus getting better jobs.  Women think they have made only small progress toward equality.  Even with legal requirements that women fill half the spots on party ballots, there are few prominent female political leaders in Korea.  Yet men feel strongly that they are losing power and that women are running the country.

The Rainbow CoalitionThese differences actually show up in the two major political divisions in Korea.  The former “liberal party” President created a Ministry (Cabinet level post) of Gender Equality and the Family.  The name implied attention to both male and female issues.  This was a crucial realization, since there had previously been little discussion about the problems of men in Korean society. Why do some seek out prostitutes?  Who will rural Korean men marry when more and more Korean women reject marriage?  Already rural counties are more multicultural than the cities as male farmers import wives from the Philippines, Cambodia and Vietnam - into a nation that has long valued its racial homogeneity!  However, the current President tried to eliminate the ministry altogether, and settled for downsizing it and changing its name to the Ministry of Women.   This implies that women are getting special treatment, and it will likely doom the ministry’s effectiveness here.  President Lee’s 24-7 “pragmatic, responsive” government is also causing women (and men) to resign from government service.  Being constantly on call for government needs leaves little time for family needs.

Goddesses?For all these reasons, women and men paraded through central Seoul, carrying signs, shouting slogans, and singing songs.  They celebrated what has been accomplished and they demanded attention to continuing problems.  I did not always understand the language, but I understood the point.  And I was glad to be there.

Add comment March 17, 2008

The first hike of spring

Seoul Fortress Wall up BugaksanAh, the fresh, sweet scent of arnica gel, sure sign of spring and sore muscles.

It was supposed to be an easy hike - less than three hours with no metal stairways or ladders.  Mount Bugak (Bugaksan) is a small mountain behind the Korean Presidential Residence (called the Blue House) and Gyeongbokgung Palace.  The mountain was crucial to the decision to make Seoul the capital of Korea, since it provided a good buttress against enemies coming from the North, had neighboring mountains to the South and West, and a huge big brother mountain behind it to the North.  (Remember, Korea is a peninsula - land enemies come from the North).  The lack of a good mountain in the East led to centuries of debate over whether to move the capital; the debates continue today for reasons unrelated to mountains. 

Bugaksan was off-limits to all hikers for almost 35 years due to a major attack by North Korean commandos in the early 1970s.  15 North Koreans managed to sneak into South Korea, camp on a nearby mountain for three weeks,  observe the Presidential Residence, and eventually attack the President during an outdoor ceremony.  The President escaped, but the First Lady was killed.   The army was given sole control over Bugaksan thereafter, filling it with barracks and look-out posts, but also allowing a rich diversity of wildlife to develop.   The area was reopened to the public two years ago, with a formal system for signing in and limits on how long and how late you can hike.

Seoul against Bugaksan RangeI had not counted on three things.  First, as promised there were no metal stairways.  Instead there were lots and lots of stone and wooden steps.  The trail followed the old fortress wall of Seoul, passing the Northern Gate (equivalent to the now burned South Gate, Namdemun).  Up, down, up, down.  Second, I had not realized how little verticality there has been in my winter life.  Rice fields are pretty flat, my walk anywhere in town is pretty flat, and since I wasn’t in my office for 2 months, I wasn’t doing 3 flights of stairs 4-5 times a day.  After lots of flatness, your calves notice every up, your knees every down. 

The third factor was putting too much leg work in one weekend.  But, really, the square dance had only lasted a couple of hours.  And it was supposed to be a very short parade!  More on those in future entries.

Add comment March 9, 2008

Roman Catholicism in Korea and Saint Anselm’s Humanities Program

Myeongdong CathedralKorean Roman Catholics take great pride that Korea is one of the few places in the world where Catholicism arrived before missionaries.  Catholicism came to Korea first via a Korean royal who converted while in China.  In the 1700s missionaries arrived from China and Japan and in the early 1800s from France.  The first recognized Catholic faith community in Korea met in 1784 at Myeongdong Cathedral in Seoul.   It may give you a sense of how big Seoul is and how many Catholics there are to realize that Myeongdong Cathedral holds Sunday mass at 7, 9, 10, and 11 am as well as 12, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 9 pm in addition to masses for elementary and handicapped students, middle and high school students and an English language mass.  About 11% of Koreans are Catholic (4.5 million people).

Jeoldusan Stations of the CrossBut Catholics faced violent persecution at numerous points in Korean history and thousands were executed all across the county.  In 1839 all the French priests were killed.  In the 1866 killings, 8000 of Korea’s 23,000 Catholics were killed.  When Pope John Paul II visited Korea in 1984 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the official establishment of the Catholic Church in Korea, he canonized 103 martyrs.  The site where he prayed is called Joldusan or Beheading Mountain.

Jeoldusan Martyr Memorial

At Saint Anselm, I teach in our required 2 year Humanities program, which contains a unit on the early Christian martyrs.  We read about Saints Perpetua and Felicitas who were brought before the Roman authorities for failing to make the sacrifices that recognized the Emperor as a deity.  Even when her father pleaded with her on behalf of her family and baby child, Perpetua would not renounce her faith.  In an era when Church and State were deeply linked, this disrespect of religious ritual was also treason.  When State and family were deeply linked, this disrespect of family lineage and authority showed one to be a danger to society.  So Perpetua was executed.

My Humanities students may be shocked to discover that this 3rd century A.D. story is deeply relevant for Korean history (and that of other martyrs around the world).  Catholics here in Korea were executed for exactly these two reasons. 

Jeonju Catholic ChurchAt a time when the state religion was based on Confucianism, Catholics’ unwillingness to perform the traditional worship of the King was seen as treason. Their stress on human equality in the sight of God also challenged the divine hierarchies in society, another form of treason. Their lack of patriotism seemed an attack by insiders to a nation constantly struggling with attacks from outsiders.   In addition, Catholics’ unwillingness to perform ancestral rites for their own families was seen as threatening to the stability of society.  They were not good citizens or family members.  Koreans feared their gods and their ancestors would abandon them if they did not kill the Catholics.

Humanities students may also be surprised to see a statue of Michaelangelo’s Pieta outside one of the major shrine sites in Jeonju, South Korea.  Michaelangelo’s expression of the pain of a mother, and the depth of her son’s sacrifice, resonates even for South Korean Catholics.Jeonju Pieta

 I always love it when what I teach in class turns out to be useful in what students think of as “real life” (forgetting that my ‘real life’ mostly happens in the classroom!).  Being able to connect and compare across time and space is an amazing life skill.  It is also remarkably useful when trying to find one’s footing in a new and different culture.

Add comment February 25, 2008

The Imjin War and Turtle Boats

Turtle Boat replica in Yeosu In 1592, the great Japanese general Toyotomi Hideyoshi decided to invade China by going through Korea.  Although he asked permission to pass through Korea, Koreans had been allied with China for over a millennium and refused.  The Japanese then invaded Korea, which had a minimal army.  The Japanese took the capitol in less than two weeks.  When China sent assistance, the battles raged across Korea for six years.  The Japanese were finally expelled in 1598 when their general died.

While they had few if any land victories, the Koreans were quite successful on the sea.  Admiral Yi Sun-shin is celebrated in both North and South Korea as a national hero.  His major contribution, in addition to brilliant command, was the invention of geobukseon or turtle boats. 

Turtle Boat ReplicaTurtle boats were wooden ships plated with spiked iron armor on top so that they could not be boarded.  Windows could be opened on the sides to permit archers to shoot out, but the windows were angled so that arrows could not come in.  To prevent the oars from breaking every time the ship came near another ship, the Admiral had them re-engineered so they pointed down instead of out, making the ship quick and maneuverable in close quarters.  Directional changes were signaled by flags, speed changes by drum; that way no one needed to hear words over the roar of the cannon. 

Each turtle boat had a four foot dragon head on the front and often the back as well.  Inside the front of the ship, an incense burner was filled with sulphur and saltpeter to create a white (and likely foul-smelling) smoky mist.  This was supposed to cloak the boat’s approach in stormy weather, though it also likely sparked fear in the enemy in clear weather!

Turtle Boat drumThe Imjin war still resonates in Korea, in part due to the later takeover by Japan in the early 20th century.  Koreans like to emphasize how much of Japan’s cultural renaissance after this war was due to the kidnapped potters, calligraphers, scholars and cultural treasures the Japanese took with them back to Japan.   But the most famous part of the war is definitely the turtle boats.  For more pictures, click on any of the images in this blog, and click on the little word saying “Turtle Boat set”. 

2 comments February 22, 2008


Jeonju Hanok Village with modern Jeonju in backgroundHan-ok are traditional Korean homes for the wealthy.  In the Joseon dynasty (14-19th centuries), the aristocracy lived in these house-compounds.  A hanok often consisted of one building for the man of the house, with a study, school room and guest facilities, and another building for the rest of the family, storage, food preparation and recreation.  The spaces between and around the buildings would be enclosed by a wall to provide privacy and safety.

The city of Jeonju, about 2 hours south of Pyeongtaek, is well-known for having preserved over 700 of these hanok ranging from 600 to 70 years in age.  Some of these homes have been turned into tourist facilities.  A friend and I stayed in one called “Jeonju Korean Traditional Life Experience Park”. 

Our room in JeonjuOur room was similar to others I have seen.  Inside the external wooden doors, there are sliding wooden doors covered in rice paper.  There are usually a few long, low pieces of furniture and lots of “yo” (thick padded Korean bedding) and small rectangular bean- filled pillows.  Sometimes there is a tiny bathroom, which doubles as the shower; otherwise you use common facilities elsewhere in the building.  Heat comes from the ondol heat (originally provided by a fire under the floor, but now provided by a modern heating unit under the floor).

Like many traditional things, hanok are beautiful to look at, but they must have been a bit tough to actually live in.  The walls are thin, so every sound carries.  The ondol floor heating combined with drafty wooden windows means that all night your backside roasts and your chest is shivering.  External bathrooms are tough in the rain, though still an improvement over the original chamber pots.  The pillows are also an improvement over the original wood, but still more orthopedic than comfortable. 

Our hanok in JeonjuBut once you are awake, the hanok village provides the opportunity to live in two time periods at once.  Walking along the pathways created between hanok walls, one can find buildings where artisans still hand-produce paper, a calligrapher doing brush painting, a mom with a car seat trying to herd kids to the car, or a tea house with a zen garden and Justin Timberlake on the stereo. 

Some hanok have gotten quite run down.  Many backyards looked far more like “rural poor” than “aristocratic garden”.   This reflects the changes in Korea’s economy since the landed gentry ruled the country.  But renovated or not, hanok are a living tie to the past.  Trying to preserve them in ways that respect their history, while also providing their owners with a living, has created a fascinating tourist experience.Run down Hanok

Add comment February 16, 2008

Cultural Loss

In the center of townNew Hampshirities and South Koreans woke up with something new in common this morning - the destruction of a national icon.  Those who remember waking up to the news that the Old Man of the Mountain had finally slid into infinity will understand how Seoulites feel this morning.  They awoke to news that a 610 year old gate called Sungnyemun or Namdaemun was gone.  This gate was originally part of a wall that defended Seoul from invasion.  It was designated as National Treasure Number 1 in 1962.

close up - note the paintingIt will take some time to determine the cause of the fire, but early guesses are arson.  This makes the news all the more awful; this disaster was not natural, not the result of time and impersonal forces.  In addition, Korea lost thousands of their national treasures during various invasions by China and Japan and have invested billions of dollars in restoring those that remain.  The vast majority are wooden structures, and so most are vulnerable to arson.close up - note curved roof

Early estimates suggest it will take 20 million dollars and 3 years to restore this symbol of Seoul and Korea.  I am sure Koreans will spend the time and money.  They have spent millennia rebuilding.  But this morning, people are more focused on what they have lost.

1 comment February 11, 2008

A visit to the DMZ

A stone's throw from North KoreaEvery once in a while I am reminded that I am serving my Fulbright in one of the only countries in the world in the middle of an ongoing, formally declared war.  Granted, it is currently a very quiet war and it looks pretty likely to stay that way.  However the election of a new, more conservative South Korean President has raised “the North Korea issue” quite a bit recently. 

With this background in mind, Tod and I took a USO tour to the Demilitarized Zone.  It lies about an hour north of Seoul and runs 155 miles across the peninsula.  Having already traveled in North Korea on my Diamond Mountain tour, I expected some of the same reserved but engaged interactions between North and South Koreans.  Not here.  This is where the war is still happening, where U.S. and South Korean soldiers died as recently as the 1970s, where shots were fired in this century, and where both sides take their job very, very seriously.

Propaganda Village, North KoreaOur tour began with the bus trip from Seoul.  Within half an hour we were driving between two endless lines of barbed wire, which protected the road and a few nearby farms from invasion.  After passing through the Southern Line Limit (the southern border of the DMZ) we reached Panmunjom and Camp Boniface (named after a U.S. soldier killed by an ax-wielding North Korean soldier during a tree-trimming incident that became an international skirmish).  We had a briefing by a U.S. soldier attached to the U.N. force that patrols the DMZ.  U.S. soldiers are now less than 10% of that force.

I am a little fuzzy on when we passed through which security protocols, which probably makes the U.S. military happy; they are understandably worried about information going from their offices, through blogs, to the North Koreans.  But in general, we were taken to a couple of observation posts, from which we could see North Korea.  Unfortunately we were there on a terribly foggy day, but we could see “Propaganda Village”(Gijeong) where pro-North Korean slogans used to be broadcast 24 hours a day at South Korea.  The flag flown there weighs 600 pounds when it is dry and the flag pole has been raised twice, to ensure it is higher than the flag pole on the South Korean side.  South Korea also has a village on the border called Freedom Village (Daeseong), which is under the control of the UN.  Villagers are not obligated to pay taxes in South Korea or do military service; however they are required to abide by strict curfews and other restrictions. 

White posts mark the borderWe also visited the Joint Security Area where troops from both North and South Korea are present.  We could look across at the North Korean guards watching us through their binoculars.  The UN force has long imposed a dress code on those visiting the DMZ, so that North Koreans can not use images of Americans in cut-off shorts, torn jeans, or slogan-bedecked t-shirts as propaganda that Americans are poor or degenerate.  These have been relaxed some in recent years.  However the ban on pointing still exists, lest the North Koreans say that Americans are all eagerly asking the guards for permission to emigrate over to North Korea.

The Military Armistice Commission building is used jointly by North and South Korea for talks on unification and other issues related to the armistice that governs the two nations.  When we walked inside the building it was the only point where we could cross the line dividing North and South Korea.  The line is marked by white posts spaced about every 5-10 feet for all 155 miles of the border.  In the MAC area, the line continues as a raised concrete line between the buildings.  Even in the MAC building, the microphones down the center of the table marked the divide.

South Korean border soldierSouth Korean soldiers chosen for their intelligence, loyalty and size guard the DMZ whenever tourists enter the area.  They have ball bearings in their shoes so a few of them sound like a crowd and they wear sunglasses to intimidate the enemy.  Like the guards at Buckingham Palace, they do not smile, move or acknowledge your presence.  Of course many tourists felt the need to test their resolve, a move almost as stupid as wildly pointing to the North Korean guards. 

Four tunnels from North to South Korea have been found, largely due to the help of the North Korean tunnel planning expert who defected in the mid 1970s.  The latest tunnel was found in 1990.  We toured tunnel number 3, which is over 1500 yards long, 6 feet wide and supposedly 6 feet tall, though I regularly hit my head.  It was blasted out of solid rock in order to permit 10,000 armed soldiers to invade South Korea.  We could tour the parts that are in South Korean territory and I can only imagine the national shock when the tunnel was discovered - it was a bit shocking just to walk in it.

ginseng farms behind the barbed wireWhat makes the DMZ tour so fascinating is the sense of unreality.  Grim-faced South Korean guards contrast with the humorous and folksy US soldier who clearly has done this tour many, many times.  We were banned from taking pictures in some places for security reasons, so most tourists then took a million pictures wherever they were allowed.  We watched a film that stressed the DMZ’s role as a nature preserve and expressed high-flown hopes for reunification.  We then looked at exhibits that stressed the brutal nature of North Korean actions against South Korea even after the armistice.   We came up out of the invasion tunnel into a gift shop.  Outside, on the other side of the barbed wire, were ginseng farms. 

Few South Koreans have visited any of these areas.  They need special permission to enter the DMZ.  Thus the entire DMZ “tour experience” has been created for foreigners, not for those who participated in the history, or for the people who have to live with its consequences.

It was not really a war zone, and yet in other ways, it was.  The soldiers there really do risk their lives every day, even if the altercations are few and far between.  They would argue the altercations are rare BECAUSE they are there.  The US and Korean flags in the Military Armistice Building have been replaced with plastic ones after North Korean soldiers used the cloth ones to polish their shoes and blow their nose; on both sides, the propaganda war continues. 

Soft seed blossoms on the barbed wire at third tunnelTwo friends here were kind enough to give us a piece of DMZ barbed wire, a gift given every year to active duty US military personnel.  So I will have a piece of the DMZ in my office when I return.  Once again I can hope that some day it will be a historical relic, a symbol of an era dead and gone.  But for now, the war continues.

(For more pictures from the DMZ, click on any picture in this blog and then on the set titled “DMZ” or go to[email protected]/sets/72157603782726591/  )

2 comments January 26, 2008

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