Sunday, December 30, 2012

Korea: The War is Over

When over 100,000 troops crossed the 38th parallel in Korea in 1950 to reunite their divided country under a communist regime, I was 10 years old and living in a small town in North Carolina. This aggression was the first move in a short but bloody "police action" or "conflict" between United Nations forces, mobilized by the United States, and an army supplied and supported by China and the Soviet Union.  I was old enough to realize the dangers involved and followed events in the newspaper and on our black-and-white TV.  Pictures and film of Korea as a devastated and colorless country are etched in my memory.

Last week my wife and I spent six days in and around Seoul, still the capital of the southern half of Korea.  The three-year war solved nothing.  Nearly sixty years after an armistice, the communist northern regime continues to threaten the democratic south, with tests of a nuclear weapon and, a week before our visit, the firing of a long-range rocket.  What changed for me during out visit to experience the snow of winter was my monochrome memory of Korea.

We walked around many areas of central Seoul and our friends Kim and Yea drove us outside the city to the north and the south. Evidence of the war's devastation was hard to find.  Now the second-largest urban area in the world, greater Seoul is thoroughly modern with wide freeways, numerous bridges across the Han River, a landscape of skyscrapers, and high-rise condominiums everywhere to house the exploding population.  Yet here near the new modern City Hall was a display thanking the 22 nations that joined the UN coalition to save South Korea.

In Jongno on the way to tour Changdeokgung Palace (which was large and rather uninteresting), I saw this poster for what looks like a play about the war.  When I looked at those few Koreans more elderly than me, I wondered about their experiences in a time when several million civilians were killed and bombs destroyed almost everything.  It was the same feeling I had when visiting Vietnam.  In Hanoi I met ladies who had worked on the Ho Chi Minh Trail and I apologized to them for the destruction caused by my country. Wars in both places were the result of splitting the world into Them (the bad communists) and Us (always the good guys).  The communists won in Vietnam and the world did not change.  No one won in Korea, except perhaps the southerners who benefited from 26 years of dictatorship which enabled authoritarian regimes to reconstruct and rebuild with inflows of capital from the West.  The day before we arrived, Park Geun-Hye, daughter of dictator Park Chung-Hee (assassinated in 1979), was elected president.  Korea today has the world's 11th highest GNP.  Since the early 1990s, however, it has been one of the freest democracies in Asia.

Our goal in Seoul was to enjoy snow, Nan for the first time.  We were fortunate.  The afternoon of our arrival it snowed in the city for several hours.  A couple of days later, the snow was refreshed overnight. Expat David A. Mason, author of Spirit of the Mountains, gave us a tour of Insa-dong while the white stuff was coming down and guided us through an excellent meal of traditional Thai cuisine at a superb restaurant called Jirisan.  He also took us to the inspiring Jogyesa Temple, headquarters of Korea's main Buddhist group which emphasizes Zen meditation, and we went across the street to the headquarters of the Temple Stay program which he helped start.

What made our holiday truly special was Yea, Nan's friend from Phayao, and her Korean husband, Kim.  They live in a small apartment in his parents' house in the suburbs with their daughter Soi-yoon and young son Ka-yoon.  The day after we arrived they picked us up at our hotel in their car and drove us to Nami Island in the north Han River.  Calling itself the Naminara Republic, it has been developed as a nature tourist site and is reached by ferry.  The snow made everything beautiful.  The following day, Yea and Kim took us south to the Korean Folk Village where aspects of the 500-year Joseon Dynasty are on exhibit.  There was also an amusement park and a snow slide where Nan got to complete her winter experience. On both excursions we enjoyed wonderful meals, particular the regional dish of dakgalbi cooked at our table in a restaurant on the banks of the Han River.  On Sunday evening we stopped at a Korean barbecue restaurant in their neighborhood and I enjoyed the delicious marinated meat called bulgogi (of course every meal include kimchi and numerous side dishes). To cap their generosity, we were invited to share Christmas dinner with the family at their apartment.

On Christmas Eve we shopped.  First, at the huge Namdaemun Market where everything is on sale at a proliferation of stores and stalls, followed by a dive into the crowds at Myeong-dong where brand name shops line several car-free streets and the Salvation Army competes with strident Christian evangelists for the attention of materialist consumers eager for a last minute bargain.  In the morning we had toured the traditional neighborhood of Bukchon and taken a taxi and bus up to the top of Namsen Park where the N Seoul Tower overlooks the city.  Nan was most interested in the wall of locks attached by lovers who then threw away the keys (signs warn that this is ecologically damaging to the park).  We ate Italian food for a change in an expensive restaurant with a hazy view of the city.

On our final morning we returned to Insa-dong which could perhaps be called the Greenwich Village of Seoul with its art galleries and shops full of traditional pottery, clothes and masks. At a tea room we shared exquisite drinks and "green tea chocolate," and at a restaurant down an alley we ate bibimbap (with a raw egg) and fish.  We bought handmade candy that melted on the way home, and souvenirs for friends.  I got a tee shirt and Nan dug dirt out of the ground at Topgol Park (where democracy was declared in 1919 despite Japanese rule) for one of her girlfriends who loves anything Korean.

Six days in Korea did much to erase those desolate images I've carried with me of the war.  In many ways Seoul reminded me of Los Angeles with its car culture and miles of freeways (I noticed that nearly every vehicle now has a GPS device and learning directions is as passé as multiplication tables).  If this is a first world country now, then Bangkok with its rough edges and poor underbelly is still struggling to develop outside of the tourist oasis of Siam.  Koreans seemed taller, louder, smiled less, and actually bumped into you on the sidewalk.  I saw little of the spitters I was warned about.  They appeared more serious than the sanuk Thais. There are no spirit houses as in Southeast Asia and little evidence of Buddhism away from the temples. Nan was thrilled by the cold and snow but I found it less convenient and felt like the Michelin man bundled in my layers of clothing and down jacket.  I loved the warm floor in our room at the GS ("good stay") Hotel and the warm toilet seat: luxury!  We only took one subway ride and our T-Money cards (a great idea, even taxis took them) went to waste, but noticed that the transportation system is vast, far superior in its reach of the city to Bangkok's BTS and MRT.  The MTA could learn a thing or two from Seoul. Some of the tourist sites had discounts for foreigners which is the opposite of the Thai strategy.  Overall, it was a terrific holiday, an appetizer for a longer visit.  It's main purpose, however, was to introduce Nan to snow.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks Will. I was looking forward to reading your impressions. Happy New Year. Matt