After over 30 hours of travel (including layovers in Chicago and Tokyo), I finally made it to my hostel in Seoul, after midnight local time. You would think I would be ready for much-needed sleep, however because it was 10am eastern time, I was wide awake. This messed up sleep schedule continued for several days, slowly easing into the new time zone, 14 hours ahead. It’s amazing what you can get accomplished by going to bed at 8pm, waking up at 3am, working on construction drawings for a few hours before heading out for a day of sight-seeing…
Overall impression of Seoul: it’s well organized. The airport is amazing, and apparently there is a golf course somewhere inside… The subway, one of the most extensive in the world, as expected for the second largest metropolitan area (behind Tokyo), is extremely easy to use with well-planned numbering system and is the cleanest I’ve ever seen, and for less than a dollar you can get around to most sights. They even organize pedestrian crossings with arrows on the ground to keep traffic on the correct side. There are maps everywhere showing nearby attractions and where you are, which certainly helps me out until my sense of direction develops since the GPS on my phone won’t work internationally, and still puts me at O’Hare airport… However, Seoul gets major bonus points because I put extensive effort into finding Notre Dame stuff in Michigan, which was a fruitless attempt, and a shop a couple hundred yards from my hostel, proudly displayed theirs.
The highlight of Seoul for me was the USO led tour to the DMZ (demilitarized zone between North and South Korea). They took all of us to Camp Bonifas (US military base near the border) and the private did a brief intro into the politics behind the divide. Then was the joint-security-area, which is what you’ve seen in pictures, guards staring each other down over the concrete dividing line. It wasn’t nearly as tense as I had imagined, especially because Kim Jong-il just recently died, leaving power to his youngest son, a situation that created a lot of uncertainty for the south. Anyway, it was still cool because technically I was briefly in North Korea (center of a conference table is the dividing line), though no North Koreans are allowed in the conference building is the South (or US) is occupying it and vice versa.
They then pointed out from a distance “Propaganda Village” which is the North Korean village located within the DMZ. Apparently it includes a 525 foot long flag weighing 600 pounds and a bunch of Hollywood-type facades that look nice from the outside but don’t actually house anyone. They also broadcast pro-North Korean messages for six to twelve hours a day over loud speakers that at night can be heard from the South. I guess when your government installs jamming towers to prohibit cell phone, radio, and tv signals from coming through you need to listen to something…
Apparently the North has been digging tunnels in order to try to attack the South. So far four such tunnels have been found, and I got to walk through the third one. Just a normal tunnel: wet, smelly, and claustrophobic. You would think that government that is dealing with mass famine would reposition some of its massive military to more productive pursuits than burrowing underground for a mile, pretending it’s a coal mine. But when you put people in labor camps or jail for not “properly mourning the death of your leader”, you have different priorities.
I went to the National Museum of Korea in an attempt to become more cultured. Unsuccessful attempt; I even paid for an audio guide (something I would definitely not ordinarily do) to try and make me pay attention, but ceramic bowls and tiny bronze spears just don’t interest me, and probably never will. The one exhibit that I was interested in, about when the G20 summit was held there in 2010, didn’t have English subtitles and since I know exactly zero Korean, I got nothing out of that hour I spent there…
A much better use of my time, because I actually learned something, was the War Memorial of Korea – a museum dedicated to the ROK (Republic of Korea) military and its history. I think I spent close to four hours learning all about the Korean War, which despite getting A’s in history in high school, I knew nothing about. I had seen a bunch of huge displays in the subways touting travel to Norway, and didn’t see a connection, though they are definitely very pretty pictures of glaciers and whatnot. Then it became clear why they have such a “deep relationship” with Norway: the UN secretary general was Norwegian when North Korea attacked South Korea in 1950, and he supported UN intervention, even though Norway itself only sent medical supplies. The US, unbeknownst to me, once again shouldered the lions share of the support, while the rest of the world sat back.
Korea’s got Seoul. NK imprisons people for not mourning KJI? wow.