Tuesday, September 19, 2006
My flag pole is bigger then your flag pole!
One of the downsides to living in HK, is that our friends are in constant rotation. The half-life of an expat here is about 1 year. As soon as we make friends with someone, they move onto a new city. This past weekend I went to Seoul, Korea to visit one of these rotated friends, Jill.
Seoul was a little quirky and a little on the boring side. It's sprawled out so it didn't have an exciting skyline. It's also horribly expensive. A Starbucks coffee is about 3x what you would pay in the states and a small can of deodorant (because I forgot mine) was $8. They're food tastes all the same because they put chili paste in everything but they have the biggest dumplings I have ever seen. They also use the word "fucking" when naming their stores.
A few strange things I saw while wandering around the city was a Barbie exhibit at the Korean War Memorial Museum. What's up with that?!? I don't remember "soldier" being one of her multiple personalities. Another strange thing is hospitals allow their patients to wander off the property while recovering. It's a little weird going into a bakery and standing next to you is a guy dressed in his hospital jammies and slippers while carrying his IV bottle.
There have been things that Troy and I have come across while traveling around Asia that would never, ever be allowed in the US because everyone is afraid of being sued. For instance, being allowed off hospital property while recooperating. Other examples include wandering around a factory at your own free will with no safety zone to follow, firing AK-47's and going to a closed ended canyon with un-caged, un-leashed tigers is just to name a few.
The coolest thing I did while in Seoul was go to the demilitarized zone between South and North Korea. This is the most heavily fortified border in the world. There is a buffer zone between the two countries that extends for 2km on both sides of the border. This is called the DMZ. For the tour, which was led by US army personnel, the rules were very strict regarding dress code, our conduct and the fact that we could not point, gesture or try to communicate in any way with the North Koreans. I don't now how many times that was told to us. They were serious about the pointing too. On Jill's last trip up, one of the tourists kept pointing until an army soldier threw his ass into the bus. There were areas we were not allowed to photograph and at some places if we wanted to take pictures we had to stand within a "zone" to take the photos. One girl stood outside of the zone and took a picture and a soldier immediately deleted the photos from her camera. This building is in North Korea and the brick line in the rock is the dividing line between two countries.
After arriving at Camp Bonnifis and getting an overview of the Korean War and the DMZ we then signed our life away because we were in an area where "military action could take place at any moment". Camp Bonnifis is a United Nations Command Center and mainly has US and Korean soldiers based here. The ROK (Republic of Korea) soldiers were very serious and a little intimidating. Part of their required uniform is very dark sunglasses which is meant for intimidation (which clearly worked). The ROK soldiers based here are considered the best of the best of the Korean Army and are all Tae Kwan Do masters. There was clearly a distinct difference between the attitudes of the ROK and the US army soldiers that was leading the tour. ROK's attitude was basically "Don't f***k with me" while the army guys were like "Hey dude, what's going on!"
When we got to the border, we got out of our buses, walked into a building then out the other side where we then looked straight at North Korea. Opposite us is a similar NK building. Standing on the top step is a NK soldier standing at attention and is wearing what looks like something a general would wear. Behind him is a panel of windows with one panel removed. Behind this removed window you could see a guy sitting there with binoculars watching us. This was where we could not point, gesture or try to communicate in any way with the North Koreans. It was a little weird looking over to them and knowing they are watching our every move. They also had several cameras pointed at us the entire time.
Several buildings straddle the border between the two countries with there also being a distinct line seperating the sides. The main building we went into is where negotiations take place. Two ROK soldiers were stationed in there while we looked around. One blocked the door that leads to NK soil, and the other was stationed at the head of the negotiation table to protect the UN flag. Their stance they took was called a modified Tae Kwan Do stance. Even though they are the good guys, they were still very scary.
Outside of the buildings were 3 more ROK guards. One basically patrolled and watched over everything, while two more were stationed on the corner of the buildings facing NK. They stood half concealed by the building so as to make a smaller target. It is also meant to be more intimidating to NK. They just have that whole intimidation thing down to a science!
The North Koreans are funny, actually I guess it's the government that is funny. Several years ago, SK built a flag pole that was the height of a regular flag pole. NK had to out do it so they built a taller one. Of course SK didn't like this so they built an even taller one. So on and so forth. SK finally said screw this, you can have the biggest flag pole. So now NK has a flag pole that is almost 500' tall and flies a flag that weighs 600 pounds and is over 90' long. Talk about going overboard.
This flag is also in a village named Propaganda village. A few years ago, NK had huge speakers that blared propaganda messages all day and night. This is where the name of the village came from. After SK installed their own speakers blaring their own recordings the two sides came to an agreement and they no longer play the messages anymore. The most interesting thing about this village is that no one lives there. NK built it so that when people visited the DMZ from the south, they would see this village and think that NK was prosperous and that their citizens had nice places to live. When in fact this is no where near the truth. Only a few dozen people maintain the buildings and raise and lower the flag in heavy wind.
Jill is going to Pyongyang (capital of NK) in a few weeks and is going to do the same DMZ tour but from the NK side. I can't wait to hear about it. She said NK has very, very strict rules regarding their behavior there. Such as, whenever they come across a statue of Kim Il Sung (Kim Jong Il's father) they have to bow. She said there are over 25,000 statues of him so they could be doing a lot of bowing while there.