While on my trip to Asia last week, I was suddenly given the chance to visit Seoul, South Korea. I jumped on it and made my way out to Seoul from Tokyo for three days. As my plane from Tokyo approached the beaches of Incheon airport, all I could think about was General Douglas MacArthur’s landing at Incheon with UN troops back in September of 1950. This risky invasion ultimately split the North Korean forces in half and turned the tide in the Korean War. While the war is still technically unresolved, the importance of this mission still lies in the eventual recapture of Seoul. Of course, as a History major, I feel it is my duty to inform you of these little things.
Anyways, the ride to Seoul from Incheon took a remarkable hour and a half of driving on massive newly built freeways surrounded by even larger developments sprouting up all over the place. One thing that struck me about Asia more than anything else was just how much construction is going on EVERYWHERE. It was as if this construction went uninterrupted from Incheon airport to Seoul city itself. It was truly amazing. With that said, I have to admit I wasn’t nearly as excited about visiting Seoul as I was about visiting Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur or Singapore (of which I had visited in the preceding week). However, it wasn’t until night time that I came to enjoy Seoul for what it really was: the True City of Lights. Now I know Paris has long taken the name of the “City of Lights,” but after seeing Seoul, Paris just doesn’t compare. With night time, Seoul comes alive in a way you will never come across in Paris. Entire river banks become lit with neon and fluorescent lights, shopping malls stay open 24 hours, buildings become animated with entire tv screens and LEDs, street vendors hawk their items to you into the early hours of the morning, and most importantly food carts stay running well past midnight. It was a truly amazing experience that just simply can not be put into words.
The initial hesitation I had with regards to Seoul and South Korea vanished especially during a late night showing of a South Korean football (soccer) match at a Korean fried chicken restaurant (not that KFC!). Not only was the fried chicken to die for, but the beer was ice cold and the locals were exceedingly friendly (almost annoyingly, especially as one man kept asking me questions in very broken English as I tried to eat and focus on the match!). I didn’t have to venture far outside of my hotel before I was completely immersed in Korean culture and nightlife. It was hard to find my way back to my hotel any time much earlier than 2am since everyone stays out so late in Seoul. Unfortunately, I had no one to show me around and give me a local tour, except that didn’t matter too much. Just getting lost in a city and finding your way back can sometimes teach you quite a lot about a city and its people.
Halfway through my journey, I found myself with little to do in Seoul other than take the normal touristy “Bus Tours” of the city. For me, this was a NO GO! I needed to find something a little more interesting – something which could satisfy my inner historian more than a boring audio track played on repeat as you circle the city in a double decker bus. I eventually came across a Korean Demilitarized Zone tour which would take me to deep into the DMZ and slightly inside the border of North Korea for around $150. This was too much to possibly turn down. I had to do it and booked a tour for the next day (unsurprisingly, these tours book up weeks in advance and it still amazes me that I was somehow able to find myself onto one of these tours).
The initial tour of the DMZ was quite cool. We saw guard outposts, North Korean infiltration tunnels dug 75 meters below ground through solid granite, and minefields. It was only after our traditional meal of Korean Beef (it may very well have been Korean Dog, but still very good!) called bibimbap, that our tour started to get REALLY interesting. Unlike half the people on the tour, I had booked the full day DMZ + Panmunjeom or Joint Security Area tour. It was this second half which really got me going. We were taken to the United Nations command center where we were issued ID cards and legal forms to sign. I started to question what I was getting myself into. What came next was truly incredible. We made our way outside to the Joint Security Area shared by the North Koreans, Americans and South Koreans. This is the commonly photographed, but seldom seen area where the two Koreas stand face to face only meters apart. The entire time we were watched and filmed by North Korean guards on the other side, anxiously waiting for something to happen. The eeriness of being watched through binoculars while being filmed was certainly unsettling.
We found our way into the United Nations meeting room where the two Koreas come together for talks every so often. Upon walking around the table with the UN flag in the middle, we suddenly found ourselves a few yards inside North Korean territory. We were accompanied at all times by upward of 5 South Korean (ROK) and US troops so that the North Koreans wouldn’t attempt to kidnap us at any point (I thought they were originally joking when they told us this but I guess it has happened repeated times). Once we stepped back outside we were taken to a vista where we could look over the scene of 1976 North Korean Axe Murder Incident in which two US officers were brutally murdered while cutting down a poplar tree. To the north about a kilometer stood Propaganda Village, an uninhabited village made to look prosperous for the purpose of “attracting” South Koreans to the North. Here also stood the world’s tallest flagpole at a monstrous 160 meters, fixed on top with a 600 lb. North Korean flag which would tear under its own weight if it wasn’t for the constant gales passing through the DMZ.
As we stood there looking over the DMZ and Propaganda Village, the extremely creepy sound of North Korean music began to trickle to our ears from loud speakers almost a mile away. According to our US Army escort, the music is seldom played but he believed the North Koreans were watching us from a distance and decided to give us a little background soundtrack to go with our tour. For me, this was just too much. I had never been on such a frightening yet exhilarating tour in my life. Having stepped in North Korea and heard their funky beats, I was ready to return to Seoul and capitalism. I can not describe the emotion of gratitude that swept over me upon seeing Seoul light up later that night. As I wandered around Seoul on my final night in Korea, I couldn’t stop thinking of the discrepancies between North Korea and South Korea – democracy and capitalism versus authoritarianism and communism. While it had never truly occurred to me during my life, it was made very clear in South Korea that I LOVE CAPITALISM!!!