July 24, 2008

Korea vs. Lee Myung Bak

-When we would walk through the protests late at night we would see riot police lining the streets. Water cannons ready, shields up. They were ready for anything...staring into the very face of danger, staring into the very face of this sweet high school girl and all 6 of her friends.-

In the early stages of the protests people came out of every nook and cranny to wave candles, chant catchy tunes such as, "I don't need it, you don't need it. I don't eat it, you don't eat it", boast signs and wear flags. The majority of the population was out in support of banning the importation of American beef. A few were out for Lee Myung Bak's head and fewer still were there to be where the action was.

-Jen and I posing with our new friends... don't they look dangerous?-

Lee Myung Bak, despite an on going criminal investigation, is their newly elected president. Not more than 6 months prior to these record breaking demonstrations the populace voted in favor of Mr. Lee. It was a landslide victory. We were told that many people didn't even leave their homes to vote because everyone knew the outcome of the election before the poles had even opened in the mornings. I remember going to school the next day and chatting with one of my students about the results of the previous day's elections. She was furious. She didn't like what he stood for. She didn't like his past dealings in business. She didn't like anything about him. I left school that day with the realization that even in middle school in Korea they seem to understand the importance of voting. The importance of doing their duty for their country and the importance of understanding what it is that a government stands for. The next few months confirmed my students feelings as the general populous seemed to turn on 'poor' Mr. Lee.

-Take a look at the advertisement on the bottom of the riot bus...-

Now he finds himself in a bind. The people have been out protesting through extreme heat and monsoon rains. At first they were peaceful. Millions would gather on the lawn of City Hall and show their disregard for the countries new found leadership. To put this into perspective, the last time they had protests of this size it brought down the ruling government and Korea changed forever from a military dictatorship into a democracy. Yet, at this point it was a family event. It was a sort of twisted way to claim family time. Middle school students ran through the crowded streets with signs that stated, "OUT LEE MYUNG BAK" and "RENEGOTIATE WITH THE STATES OR GET OUT OF OFFICE". Some carried large stop signs with Mr. Lee's name written on them and many had personalized t-shirts stating their opinions of disgust.

-The Korean police force...could you take these guys seriously?
That's what I thought. Neither do we!-

Now, over three months later, the protests still continue. But they are no longer family affairs. There is a hint of violence in the air. In one weekend I heard that hundreds of citizens as well as riot police were sent to the hospital with injuries. The catholic priests have moved onto the City Hall lawn to hold prayer vigils which encourage Lee Myung Bak to heed the people and for the people to seek resolution through peaceful terms. Trev and I tend to stay clear of the downtown area.

-A smaller group of protesters sitting in the streets.-

Mr. Lee is still in office and still digging his proverbial grave a little deeper with every foreign relation that he botches up. The Koreans are now angry with him for his dealing with the North about the shooting of the South Korean tourist and about his dealing with Japan over the island of Dokdo, which both countries claim is their land.

Poor Mr. Lee, can't seem to do anything right these days.

July 21, 2008

North Korea

Part of our Kaesong trip entailed a beautiful hike through a densely wooded forest to see one of the three most famous waterfalls in Korea (Bakyeon), the remains of an ancient wall and to visit a temple that managed to survive the communist regime (Kwaneum). The trek was not disappointing.

The trees were tall and old. The forest itself looked almost identical to what we are accustomed to hiking in around Seoul. That is, minus the trash, excessive population and noise pollution.

I have no doubt that these forests have seen much in their days with Kaesong being the capital city for some 500 years, not to mention it being such a pivotal city during the war and now with the insane control of the country and the citizens. I'm sure that there are stories that the world would pay anything to hear that only these forests could tell.

The water of Bakyeon Waterfall was fresh and clean; the waterfall itself seemed revitalizing, some say the waters in this area have healing powers.

The cliff faces and boulders along the path were, as in Geumgangsan, strewn with propaganda. While the forests and the mountains looked so similar they felt strangely haunting, strangely 'big-brotherish'. This feeling combined with the rock carvings of old songs, communist slogans and speeches from the 'great leader' and the 'dear leader' reminded us that we were indeed in North Korea and no longer in the South.

And, at Kwaneum temple we were greeted warmly by a 'monk' of sorts. I am told that normally monks have their heads shaved. At least this is what seems to be the global norm. So... I'm guessing that this kind man was not a monk but instead a nice old man who was playing the part for the tourists. Appearances, appearances, appearances...

As a point of interest, these rock carvings (below) had been scratched out by the government. With some of the carvings dating back to the early history of Korea, 1000's of years ago, we were pondering what they might have said that would make the North Korean government feel that it was pertinent to deface them? We inquired about the matter to the North Koreans guides around us and out of 7 North Korean nationals, not one of them knew or would confess to knowing; a religious statement perhaps or statements pertaining to a more democratic way of life? Either way it is a good example of the simple ways in which their government has control of everything.

It was a beautiful walk. All in all, this part of the tour greatly resembled our previous trip to North Korea. We were fully conscious that this may also be our last trip to North Korea for quite a while. We are just happy that we finished our tours before political relations crashed and tempers heated up.

July 14, 2008

And, Yet Again!!

And, yet again we were in the newspaper; except this time we are moving up in the world. This time we have been featured in The East, a business newspaper out of London, England! Apparently, one day the editor stumbled across our blog and after reading a few entries, he must have thought that there was something of note in what he saw and here we are in the July issue... a coloured double page spread!

The article is a combination of all of the blogs that I wrote on our recent trip to Jeju. If you have been following our happenings over the past few months, you may recognize the pictures above.

Mom and Dad you are famous! Who knew when I took this picture of you guys that it would end up on the desks of 10,000 plus businessmen around London? What an odd coincidental world we live in...

July 13, 2008

Innocent Tourist Murdered in North Korea

In the days after we posted our latest on the North Korean tours to Kaesong and Geumgangsan this is what hits the news:
South Korean Tourist Killed at Geumgang Mountain

In short, a South Korean tourist, doing the same Mount Geumgang tour we had done previously this year was shot and killed while taking a short walk. When she was spotted in a restricted zone she was warned not to proceed. When, out of terror, she fled she was shot twice and killed.

The North is blaming the South; the South is demanding an explanation and an apology from the North.

When we have ventured up into North Korea we have consoled ourselves with the though that the North Koreans:
  1. Need our money and therefore would not harm a foreigner.
  2. Don't want to jeopardize their small but lucrative tourist industry.
  3. Wouldn't want to kill an alien visitor because of the negative publicity and international backlash they would receive.
Boy, were we wrong!!

Just thought that we would post this for you all to see. Take a look.

July 7, 2008

Kaesong, North Korea

-There are no traffic lights in Kaesong City. If you're wondering about their technology... you're looking at it. Yep, that’s right, this man stands at attention all day and directs traffic.-

Arguably one of the oldest cities on the Korean peninsula, Kaesong, a closed city with so many stories to tell. With such recommendations as holding the title of capital city for over 500 years (from 910AD-1392AD), changing hands many times during the Korean War (being tossed back and forth between the two Koreas) and being the chosen place of the first talks between the North and the South in 1951, it would be crazy to pass up our opportunity to visit.

-What looks like an average village is most likely a scene created to warm the hearts of the on looking...us. Rehearsed, regimented and stiff are three words that come to mind.-

-This was the only convenient store we encountered in a city of 150,000 people. It was not open.-

Unlike our other adventures in North Korea this tour seemed to show a more realistic glimpse into the lives of urban DPRK citizens. On our previous visit to Geumgangsan (a mountainous region in the east of N.K.) we were enclosed by a 'tourist fence', a tall metal fence to keep tourists and cameras out and to ensure the citizens stay in. In Kaesong there was no such fence, only an invisible barrier that separated the Northerners from reality and the foreigners from the frightening truth.

Keep in mind that until the boarders are truly opened, we as outsiders may never know what is truly going on inside this impoverished and oppressed country. Like his father, Kim Il Sung, and his father’s mentor Stalin, Kim Jung Il is a mastermind, a true political genius. And, even when the now collapsing regime comes to an end the authorities will be rummaging through the bodies of the innocent and wrapping their minds around countless evils to make sense of the humanitarian mess we presently call North Korea.

-The only department store in the once capital city of Korea. Also, not open. We were not allowed any closer than what you see here. They claimed that it was open from 2pm-5pm on some odd day of the week. Convenient.-

-The Great Leader; Golden in all of his glory. We were not allowed to approach it as we as foreigners do not show utmost respect to Kim Jung Il; Unlike the North Korean citizens we do not see him as a god.-

Geumgangsan, the previously mentioned mountain resort on the eastern coast of North Korea was just that, a resort. This on the other hand allowed us into the once forbidden downtown of a large communist city. It allowed us to amass a small idea of the living conditions of our neighbors to the north.

As we stood on one end of the main downtown strip, we were overcome by the lonely, almost ghost like city. Four lanes across, there were no cars on the road. Only crumbling sidewalks decorated with stiff walking citizens. Their clothes looked new yet strangely old, like something you might find at the back of a thrift store. Something that had been forgotten for a decade to resurface as a DPRK costume. All of it a generation behind.

-Preschool children paraded by in a grand show for the foreigners. Notice the propaganda posters. They look like something straight out of my textbook on the Soviet Union. -

-Alicia and I trying to see downtown Kaesong from a Korean perspective.-

And, the people themselves looked lifeless and robotic. As our bus of foreigners meandered by, heading out of town, they barley glanced up from their duties and none seemed to even notice the solitary giant in the middle of their deserted downtown. Buildings were plain. No color. Nothing fancy. The color was reserved for the propaganda which was plastered here and there through out our route through town. One such poster stated, "We must destroy our prime enemy: America."

As we drove by some of the very few crumbling apartment complexes we could make out faces pressed against the torn window screens and peeking through tattered curtains. Even in the 'safety' of their apartments they dared not stare too long at us. Strangers. As I looked around for more faces, more people to connect with, I noticed that all of the balcony's and breezeways, although falling apart from natural time constraints, were very well kept. Everything was neat and tidy. Some of the windows had dull colored curtains blowing in the breeze and a few of the little balconies had, what seemed to be, little flower gardens growing in small clay pots. Perhaps, pots once used for food?

-A busy intersection far, far away from us. Notice the lack of cars. In the entirety of our four hour visit we could easily count the vehicles that we saw, on the highway and in the city, on one hand. I guess those oil embargoes are doing their job.-

-A shot down a side street. Keep in mind that what we were allowed to see was most likely the doctored-up part of town. And, with limited zoom, the camera can't tell the whole story.-

Our day was overshadowed by guards and regulations. We were constantly watched, from inside the bus and from outside. Soldiers in full attire were stationed every 100m. Eyes sharp. Guns ready. And, as I stood there I couldn't help but wonder, what must their real life be like?

-To me this photos seems to be a bit of a misrepresentation. The streets of Kaesong were barren in comparison with any other city that I have visited in any other country. This shot does not show that.-

Points of interest:
(1) We were the second group of foreigners to visit Kaesong after the gates were opened for tours late in 2007.

(2) The city is close to the Demilitarized Zone that divides North and South Korea. When Korea was partitioned at the 38th parallel after World War Two, Kaesong was on the southern side of the line (within the Republic of Korea). Thus Kaesong is (depending on perspective) either the only occupied South Korean City at the end of the 'Korean Police Action', or the only city liberated by the North Korean People's Army in the 'Great Fatherland Liberation War'. (Wikipedia)

July 2, 2008

Friends & Family

-Trev, Eddy and Cory.-

This past year we've had the chance to get to know some really fantastic people. And together, we've had some truly great times and done some truly crazy things. It's been through this past year of supporting each other and loving each other that we've grown together, laughed together, fought and even cried together. We've become family.

-Almost everyone... (L-R) Nate Crew, T+R Olson, Russ, Erik and Alicia, Cathy, Becker, Jabez, Jen and Cory, Ruda, Jungmi and Will and Eddy.-

A few weekends ago our friends, Jen, Cory and Snickers, were gracious enough to open their home to us. We headed out to their neck of the woods to spend a relaxing day celebrating friendships, old and new. We all enjoyed a great home-style BBQ with all of the trimmings of non-koreaness and after overindulging, we had a wonderful time wowing the crowds with our foreignness at Lake Park in the beautiful city of Ilsan.

-Chillin' in a pagoda. Jungmi, Ruda, Becker, me, Erik and Alicia.-

- The guys. Nate, Cory, Eddy and Trev.-

These three guys have become Trev's long lost brothers. The four of them have killed an uncountable number of afternoons this past year obliterating each other in PC Bongs (Computer Gaming Rooms), eating fatty fried chicken and generally basking in the fact that there are some men around to hang out with.

-Rockin' it out on some mini-bikes. Ruda and Will.-

Just like home... except a LOT smaller, 'dirt biking Korean style'. We all rented mini-bikes for the afternoon and finally got our revenge on South Korean for their crazy-dangerous skills behind the wheel.

We'll miss our family next year.