November 14, 2012

DMZ: Joint Security Area

The Joint Security Area (JSA) is a high security area within the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that divides North and South Korea. Also referred to as Panmunjeom, it was the spot where the historic armistice agreement between the Communist forces and the United Nations Command  (UNC) was signed in 1953. Negotiations between the two sides of the divided nation take place here. International visitors, but not Korean civilians, can take a tour of the area under the auspices of the USO, a non profit organization that aims to boost the morale of American troops stationed around the globe.

 I had checked in with my passport at the Yongsan Military Base in Seoul and then boarded the tour bus. The American guy sitting beside me turned out to be a startup founder working out of his laptop and also seeing a bit of the world at the same time. The bus rolled into Camp Bonifas in the afternoon after stops at the Third Infiltration Tunnel and Dorasan. Outside the bright blue meeting rooms of Panmunjeom, South Korean guards in traditional taekwondo poses stared down their North Korean counterparts.

We watched an informative presentation on the history of the JSA by an American soldier, and heard stories about North Korean axe murderers and defectors. The "Axe Murder Incident" took place when several American soldiers went out to cut down a poplar tree that was blocking the line of sight between a checkpoint and a guard post. The North Koreans objected to this unilateral decision, and attacked the Americans en masse. The camp is named after Arthur Bonifas, one of the two men killed in the skirmish.

We passed by some landmarks within the JSA like the Daeseongdong Freedom Village and the Bridge of No Return. Used for prisoner exchange, the infamous bridge is so named because this is where Korean soldiers had to make an irreversible decision of which side they wanted to go to - the North or the South. The Military Demarcation Line (MDL) dividing the two states intersects the bridge. Every once in a while North Korean soldiers try to nab an UNC soldier and drag him over the bridge to the other side.

The residents of the Freedom Village enjoy the highest average earnings in Korea since they are not taxed on the income they generate from farming. The men of the village are also exempt from fulfilling the two years of military duty that is usually mandatory for Korean men. The village men can marry ladies from outside the village, but men are not allowed to marry into the village. Like Korean beauties who live with their parents, the villagers have a strict curfew and their movements are closely monitored.


"At the end of the day, we must go forward with hope and not backward by fear and division." - Jesse Jackson

November 12, 2012

Conversations With K-girls: Not Working

Although more interrogation than conversation due to the language barrier, engaging in dialogue with a Korean beauty is always a memorable experience.

Me: What did you study in university?
K-girl: Mathematics.
Me: Where do you work?
K-girl: I work Monday to Friday. Not tonight.


"If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart."  - Nelson Mandela

November 11, 2012

DMZ: The Third Tunnel

North Korean troops dug several tunnels to South Korea through the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that acts as a buffer between the warring states. Only 44 kilometers away from Seoul, the infamous Third Infiltration Tunnel was discovered in 1978 on information provided by a North Korean defector. It was the third tunnel to be found but there are estimated to be over twenty tunnels crossing the Military Demarcation Line (MDL). The MDL was defined to be the land border between the two countries in their armistice agreement signed in 1953.

The tunnel walls are coated with coal although none is naturally present in the area. The North Koreans said they were just building the 1.6 km long tunnel for mining purposes and not as a means for sending thousands of troops into South Korea undetected during a surprise attack on Seoul. A sign in the tunnel mentioned that this was just another example of North Korean double handedness. The pathway is rather steep at a 30 degree angle of incline. The tunnel is high enough to accommodate most North Koreans, but a lot of tourists kept banging their yellow hard hats into the ceiling of the cave. The tunnel has been blocked off before the MDL by several barricades put up by the South Koreans.

After emerging from the tunnel into the bright sunshine, I went to the Dora Observatory overlooking North Korea on the 38th parallel. From here I could see Kijongdong, a movie studio like set of a village depicting the life of perfect harmony and luxury led by residents of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. South Koreans call it the Propaganda Village. A tall mast proudly waved the North Korean flag, built to one up the height of the flag pole constructed on the South Korean side. These are among the tallest flagpoles in the world. The South Korean tour guide asked whether there was any visual difference between the two lands. She indicated that on the North Korean side the mountains had no trees, since they had to use all the wood for heating and eating.

The nearby Kaseong Industrial Complex is a one of its kind unique joint venture between the divided states where around 50,000 North Korean labourers are employed by South Korean companies. Wages are very low, but still much higher than the North Korean norm. Chocolate bars are one of the favourite forms of payment, as they can be bartered in North Korea at an extravagant exchange rate for less delicious goods.

The Dorasan Train Station, completed in 2007, is the final stop on the South Korean side before entering the Hermit Kingdom. A billboard reminded me that it is "Not the last station from the South, but the first station toward the North." No commuter rail service exists today, but the shiny new station has been built in anticipation of the day when an unified Korean becomes a reality.


"If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner." - Nelson Mandela

November 07, 2012

The Creators Project

The Creators Project is an interactive new media festival sponsored by Intel, which makes stops in a few of the world's signature cities such as New York, Paris, and Beijing. For the Seoul edition of the Creators Project there were art exhibits created using the latest technologies from around the world as well as live music performances by Korean artists. 

The event took place at the Dongdaemun Design Park and Plaza, an architectural oddity constructed on the former site of a baseball stadium built by the Japanese. While construction was underway, some ancient ruins were uncovered and the plaza design was rejigged to incorporate these historical artifacts.

I checked out the exhibits in between music performances. At the Treachery of Sanctuary installation my angelic wings, undetectable to the naked eye, were reflected on the screen as I gracefully waved my arms. As I moved my arms faster and faster, the sound of the wings flapping rose to a dramatic crescendo. Another exhibit used an iPad tablet to detect the movement of people standing in front, and reacted accordingly.  

My favourite piece of digital art was titled The Day of Perpetual Night. Chinese artist Yang Yong Liang masterfully stitched together the natural scenery often depicted in traditional landscape paintings with the cityscape of a modern day supercity such as Shanghai. Waterfalls were flowing and pedestrians were walking around on screen in seamless harmony in the digital collage.

The roster of musicians was well known in Korea, but I had only heard of the girl group 2NE1. Their performance had the most energy and personality that I have seen of any K-pop group. A hip hop artist known as Tiger JK tried to stir up controversy by cursing at the white audience members who kept asking him to dance like the Gangnam phenom Psy. In a profanity laced tirade, Tiger JK exclaimed that he is not some performing monkey for white boys to laugh at.


"Fu** all yall who think Asians are here to make you laugh" - Tiger JK

November 05, 2012

The Magic Of Lotteria

Pointing at the dishes that other customers are eating or drawing animals on napkins are viable ways to order food in countries where no one speaks a common language with me, but on occasion a relaxing fast food outlet where I can read the menu and know what I am ordering is all I need. In China, Dico's always provided a welcoming spot to grab a quick bite. The South Korean equivalent of China's homegrown answer to McDonald's is Lotteria.

The menu offers Western favourites that are localized as well as some uniquely Korean additions like the crushed ice flake dessert known as patbingsoo. Some of the more interesting items to be found at Lotteria are a burger with a patty made of fried cheese and a meal designed exclusively for calorie conscious ladies. Staff members appear noticeably nervous whenever I approach the counter to order.

Enjoyed by millions of customers for over three sumptuous decades, Lotteria is owned by the Japan based but Korean owned firm Lotte. The conglomerate has its hands in everything from supermarkets to amusement parks. The name Lotteria is a deliriously clever combination of Lotte and cafeteria. Although the first outlet opened in Japan, Lotteria was the brainchild of a South Korean man and is much more popular in the Land of the Morning Calm than it is in the the Land of the Rising Sun. Lotteria's market share in South Korea hovers around 50% in the fast food segment so I never have to wander far before finding an outlet.


"The magic of first love is our ignorance that it can ever end" - quote plastered on Lotteria wall