Thursday, November 26, 2009

An American Thanksgiving in Korea

For about a week, Nissa and I had been scrounging around the Internet for some kind of satisfactory place to have a proper Thanksgiving meal in Seoul, but since we both work evenings, most of the good-looking options weren't possible for us. So I proposed we just go to a buffet lunch somewhere downtown and, in the spirit of the holiday, gorge our brains out.

We opted for the Lotte Hotel's "stylish buffet" lunch, and were surprised to be greeted by a large, red, Thanksgiving-themed banner with a glowing, golden turkey in the center. The meal, of course, wasn't the home-cooked goodness we'd have if we could, but it was still great -- turkey with gravy, roast beef, stuffing, potatoes, and yes, even a mini pumpkin pie. By the end of the meal we were both incredibly (and uncomfortably) full. So, mission accomplished. Happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

War memories in the wilderness

Rock face littered with bullet holes (red) from fight
between North and South Korean forces on the Kim Shin-jo trail.

The outside world might associate Korea with conflict and nuclear talks, but you would hardly get that impression living in Seoul.

We've been in Korea almost six months so far and beyond the daily news headlines and occasional civil defense sirens, life here is pretty ordinary. Most South Koreans we've talked to don't spend much time worrying about the North -- and understandably so. The conflict has been going on for over 60 years and the daily ramblings of the North's government hardly affects the lives of South Koreans these days.

That's why I was excited to see some of the remnants of inter-Korean fighting newly on display here in Seoul last weekend.

On Jan. 21, 1968 -- 15 years after the Korean war armistice was signed -- a group of 31 North Korean commandos crept down from the border into Seoul to try to assassinate then-South Korean President Park Chung Hee. The South Korean military and citizens intercepted them and bloody skirmishes ensued. Twenty-eight of the commandos were killed, two escaped back to the North and one was caught alive. Dozens of South Korean citizens and troops were killed.

The event led President Park to boost his military capabilities and create the reserve military forces in April 1968. Those moves, however, did not protect Park and his family in the end. His wife, Yuk Young Soo, was assassinated in August 1974 by a Japanese-born North Korean sympathizer. Park Chung Hee, himself, was killed by the head of the Korean CIA in October 1979.

Not surprisingly, the route that the North Korean commandos used in Jan. 1968 to come to the presidential headquarters has been closed since that attempted assassination. But last month the government opened it again to the public.

The area is known unofficially as the "DMZ in Seoul" because, like the more famous DMZ at the 38th parallell, it has been protected off-limits to human activity for several decades. Officially, the route is named after the only surviving North Korean commando -- Kim Shin-jo. You can read a moving interview with Kim on the JoongAng Daily's website. Today, Kim is a pastor at church in Seoul.

Last weekend I went and hiked the route. It wasn't as beautiful as the trails in Bukhansan National Park that we hiked a few weeks ago, but it was interesting to see the route that made such an impression in Korean history. Surrounding the former-DMZ is a well-to-do area, filled with -- as a hiker I met called them -- "million-dollar-man" houses.

I saw a couple former bunkers on the way to the trail, but the most impressive sight was the rock face riddled with bullet holes (see above) from the inter-Korean battle that took place there. The bullet holes were painted in red and white, so you could see them, and there were at least a dozen of them.

South Korea has changed a lot since the late 1960s. The "Miracle on the Han" has meant high-rise apartments and urban sprawl galore. But it still was cool to see the view from the route and imagine what the soldiers saw when they looked down at Seoul 41 years ago.

Seoul today from Mount Bukak on the Kim Shin-jo trail.

The funniest book I've read this year

Here's my book review
of "Fool" by Christopher Moore which was published in the JoongAng Daily on Saturday.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Test Day

Last Thursday, about 600,000 high school seniors in Korea took their college entrance exams, known here as 수능, or Suneung. The outcome pretty much determines the caliber of university these students will be able to attend, so the pressure is extremely high. To help out, parents and underclassmen have early morning rallies outside the test locations on the day of the exam. They bring hot coffee and bags full of snacks for the exam takers, as well as a lot of cheer. It's pretty much like a pep rally before a high school football game in the States -- except this is for a 10-hour academic gauntlet. Talk about values.

Sound is from Ewha Women's University High School on the morning of the exam. Note: there is some slight profanity (in Korean, of course).

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Happy Halloween!

Halloween isn't really a big thing here in Korea. We went out last night to the big nightlife area near our house and saw a total of four costumes -- and no, we weren't two of the four. There are no Halloween decorations up, no fun-sized candy packs, and no haunted houses as far as we can see.

But Hong Kong on the other hand was in full pre-Halloween celebration mode when we were there last weekend. The above pumpkin-filled play area was in the Hong Kong airport. And we were even able to buy some mini chocolate bars there to bring back to work.

Hope everyone had (or is having) a great Halloween!