Sunday, March 31, 2013

We are safe, despite crazy talk from Kim Jong-un

Every few days Irish has been asking me to reassure her that we are not in danger as there is more crazy talk from Kim Jong-un.  We are aware of the news coming out of North Korea.  We are hearing from friends in the United States, where the news seems to suggest that war is imminent.  If I was at all concerned we would be making plans to evacuate with our children.  I don't want to be glib, but I am not concerned, and we really are not in danger.

It is easy to dismiss a lot of the talk as insane ramblings.  Talk of launching missile that will hit the United States is just nonsense.  They simply can't do it.  Talk of there being a "state of war" or of an end to the armistice is similarly ridiculous, and often blown out of proportion.  It sounds bad when you hear the armistice is no longer in effect, it loses it's power when you find out they have said that four times in the last 10 years.  It's just something the North Koreans say.  There is a purpose to that language, it is intended for a domestic audience, for people who are completely isolated and in a desperate situation.  I suspect Kim Jong-un wakes up every morning hoping this is not the day the generals get sick of him and stage a coup.  He is trying to keep the army on his side, and keep the population loyal.

In a practical sense a full scale attack would be terrible, a lot of people in Seoul would die (thousands, not millions), but then the DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea- North Korea)  would cease to exist. The articles below help illustrate the limits to North Korea's military strength.

Washington Post: "A photo that makes North Korea look a lot less scary"

Asia Security Watch: "North Korea Can’t Really Turn Seoul Into a 'Sea of Fire''

Popular Mechanics: "Can North Korea Really "Flatten" Seoul?"

Being belligerent works only to the extent that it gets something in return.  South Korea has been motivated to negotiate because they don't want small scale aggression like the ship that was sunk a few years ago.  But a full scale attack from the DPRK, the "sea of fire" is incredibly unlikely both because they probably can't do it (see above) and because they get nothing out of it, worse, they lose everything.

They have no allies. There won't be World War Three with Russia and China backing them up.  Russia has long since abandoned them- it's a large reason why they have no electricity and famine.  And there is no love between China and North Korea.  China wants North Korea to be as stable as possible because they don't want millions of refugees, but beyond that there is absolutely no chance they are going to fight the United States to prop them up.

Even if this isn't reassuring, from a purely pragmatic perspective, we are 20 km south of Seoul proper.  If the absolute worse case happened and there really was an attack we are out of the range of the North Korean artillery.  Osan Air Force base is just to the south of us, we would get in our car and drive there as quick as humanly possible waving our passports in front of us, ready to be evacuated to Bangkok.

Fortunately the chances of that being necessary are unbelievably slim.

The people here who have lived with this threat for decades now are going about their daily lives just like always.  And in every other way South Korea is very very safe.  For two months the key to our car was stuck in the ignition and we just left it, confident no one would steal our car.  (now that we have fixed it I keep forgetting to bring the key with me)  When we are out late at night we cut through alleys and walk dark back streets and don't think twice about it.  It's a pleasure being in a country where crime and violence- while not gone- are not pressing issues.

We are starting the last quarter of the school year tomorrow, in just a matter of weeks we will be visiting friends and family in the US for the summer, and then we will be returning to the ROK in August for the start of another school year.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

DMZ with my parents

One of the classes I am teaching this year is East Asian Studies and this includes Korean history.  I knew a fair bit about Chinese history, and enough about Japan to be comfortable teaching it in a high school. But moving here and teaching Korean history to Korean students made me nervous, so I have been reading a lot since last summer.  And now, I'm not an expert, but I am knowledgable about events in modern Korean history.  And recent tensions have led me to read more news and analysis, again I'm not an expert, but knowledgable.  (I'm more worried about traffic accidents and lightening strikes than I am about an attack from the North.)

So, for as long as we've been here I've been curious about going up to the DMZ.  The USO runs a tour that everyone seems to recommend.  Our school is taking a big group up there in a couple of weeks.  But with my parents in town I decided to take them- a little worried that all my efforts to convince my mom that we were safe would be undone by taking her to one of the most fortified places in the world. 

We had to be on the bus at 7:30 in the morning, and it takes at least an hour to get up to Yongsan, so I met my parents in the dark at 5:30.  One bus ride and three train transfers later we made it with about 15 minutes to spare.  There were at least thirty other people on the tour, and a woman named Clara was our tour guide.  She was very nice, and her English was solid, but I kept hearing how hard it is to say "demilitarized" when Korean is your native language.  

It takes about 90 minutes to get up to the area near the border.  Leaving Seoul, traffic started thinning and as we followed the Han river north we started seeing barbed wire, and then guard stations.  and Clara told us we were seeing North Korea across the river.  It didn't look any different across the river, but it felt strange recognizing the shift from massive urban area to highly defended border area. 

Barbed wire and guard station on the river

Much more barbed wire, and soldiers, and road blocks.  Definitely not in Seoul anymore. 

There are a lot of abbreviations associated with this area. We were ultimately headed to the Joint Security Area (JSA)- this is often called Panmunjeon, or the truce village.  The JSA is the only place North and South Korea come in contact.  At the end of the war the line that was drawn is called the Military Demarcation Line (MDL)  The Demilitarized zone (DMZ) is two kilometers north and south of the MDL, so 4 km total width, running all the way across the peninsula.  The southern border of the DPRK is at the top of the DMZ, the northern border of the ROK is at the bottom of the DMZ.  Except in the JSA where there two meet inside the huts on the border.  

The first gate we passed was going into the Civilian Control Zone (CCZ).  This comes before the DMZ and as the name suggests most civilians aren't allowed in this area, though a small number of Koreans live and farm in the "freedom village" which is different from the "propaganda village" in the north (one difference is the enormous flag pole in the north is taller than the enormous flagpole in the freedom village)

At the edge of the DMZ is Camp Bonifas.  When we got there our passport were checked , more than once.  We saw a slide show and presentation from an American soldier who would be our escort,  giving a broad outline of the war and the armistice. Then we switched busses and after a short drive past a highly electrified fence and tank defenses, and through a live mine field we were at the Freedom House.  Walking through we came to the huts where negotiations have taken place, with ROK soldiers standing guard and on the other side of the huts a single North Korean Soldier facing us from their building that mirrored the Freedom House.  Our escort told us the North Koreans were taking pictures of us so we should go ahead and take as many pictures back as we wanted.

North Korean soldier standing guard

My mom, looking very suspicious

My parets holding their central Pennsylvania newspaper.  (they publish pictures of people holding the paper  at landmarks when they travel- I think this one should get in)

Inside the hut we there were two South Korean soldiers standing guard perfectly still.  All of the ROK soldiers had their fists clenched, we were told it was the first position in Tae Kwon Do, they appeared ready for some hand to hand combat if it came to that.  The Military Demarcation Line runs through the middle of the hut, so as we walked in and walked to the far side we were technically crossing into the DPRK.

me in the north

We were told the microphones on the table were on and being monitored by the North Koreans. 

I was the last one to leave.  The soldiers still hadn't moved a bit. 

After the JSA there were several more stops.  We saw the site of the Axe Murder incident- which was just what it sounds like- two American soldiers were axed to death when they tried to cut down a tree that was blocking a line of sight.  The tree eventually got cut down with a massive amount of military back up.  Near there was the Bridge of No Return. At the end of the war in 1953 POWs were exchanged across this bridge, and once you crossed, as the name suggests there was no return.

Bridge of No Return

Propaganda village and the ridiculously huge flagpole.

 The last stop before lunch was the 3rd infiltration tunnel.  There are four tunnels that have been found, the most recent in the 1990s.  They were dug by the North Koreans under the border, they said they were looking for coal, and apparently even sprayed coal dust to back up the story. We were not allowed to take pictures, so below are ones from a google search.  My leg injury continues to heal, but it turns out a long walk down a steep incline was not the best idea.  It was 350 meters down to get to the tunnel, and then another 300 meters of walking in the tunnel, which was shorter than I am tall, so I was hunched over the whole time.  Fortunately we were given helmets because I kept banging my head. My parents gave up and turned back before the end of the tunnel but I pushed on.  At the end was a big door and through a window we could see a barrier the North Koreans had built, and a large water container, which Clara the tour guide told us was there to "flush back" anyone who tried to use the tunnel. After looking through the window I turned around and shuffled back to the beginning where I could stand up straight then climbed the long hill.  It was a claustrophobic and tiring experience.

It felt steeper than it looks here, and went on for too long.
I hit my head a dozen or so times
Finally we got lunch, my dad and I had bulgogi- he is getting better with the chopsticks after less than a week of practice, my mom had bibimbop, and said she enjoyed the seaweed, just like her grandson. 

And then, I thought we were returning to Seoul, but there was one more stop, at a train station, built to eventually connect Seoul and Pyongyang, but for now not doing much.  There was a big sign commemorating a speech given there by George W. Bush.  I'm pretty sure the speech was about freedom and evil doers and freedom from evil doers.  I didn't read it all. 

Sign for the train to Pyongyang, sometime in the future

A picture of me, taken by me, on train tracks where I'm not likely to be hit by a train.

After the train station we were done. 90 minutes drive back to Seoul.  The same hour long subway ride in reverse, then a short bus ride and we were home at Good Morning Hill a little before 5. 

Monday, March 25, 2013

Grandparents are here: Korean Folk Village and Korean BBQ edition

Jim's parents arrived Friday evening. They travelled all the way from Hershey, Pennsylvania. They'll be here for one week and we want to pack in as much Korea and Farley time into the visit as possible. Saturday we visited the Korean Folk Village. This is kind of like a Colonial Williamsburg. The kids enjoyed a traditional Korean candy, Korean lunch, jump roping and watching some acrobats and a tight rope walker.

They film some Korean dramas here.
This is a cardboard cutout of one of the popular actresses (I think)

Traditional Korean fun: the jump rope

Grace tries out the friendlier version

Us eating lunch. (In case you didn't see it on facebook, I changed my hair.
That person with Korean hair and my face is actually me)
Grace and August with an acrobat.
 Sunday night we went to MEAT KINGDOM. This is an all you can eat Korean bbq.
Keep eating everyone!
All the sides you can eat!
All the meat you can eat!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Hey Foreigner! Katie and Dave run the Seoul International Marathon

This time, Katie decided to do the whole thing-all 26.2 miles. And guess what? Her buddy Dave trained with her and he ran it too. Since we had 2 friends in this race, we had to get back out there with the bullhorn again. I was out there for Katie's half marathon in the fall and, after the trial and error of that cheering experience, we knew how to do it right this time.

I took the bus from Goodmorning Hill. I was very nervous about this at first. The busses are very fast and from Suji to this part of Seoul is a straight shot, but there are no announcements in English. It's all in Korean, so one needs to know where one is going in order to get off at the right stop. The night before the race, the kids and I had dinner at the Trotters, and they walked me through how to do it. One of the nice things about the bus is the bus app on my phone. I click on the bus stop near our apartment and it tells me what time the busses are going to be at the stop. I woke up at 6am and according to my phone, I had 20 minutes to catch the 5500 to Seoul. That gave me enough time to walk to a convenience store to get a snack and make it to the bus without having to wait in the cold. Once the bus crossed the river near Itaewon I paid close attention to where I was. It was pretty easy though. The closer we got to the palace the more police were out on the street setting up for the race. The bus driver seemed unaware that there was a race going on that day. That surprised me, the race was blocking off a main road that the bus needed to turn down. But that was great for me because that road was where the starting line was! When I got off the bus, I realised that all the other people on the bus were wearing running gear, ready to run the race. 

The race started across the street from the palace.
7:10am at the palace

Mr. Incredible was the first runner I saw. 

This is one of the cool statues near the start line.

Katie's husband, Adam is a professional camera guy. In fact, he works for a tv show called Semipermanent that airs on tv in Korea. It doesn't surprise me that he took a video of this guy-this is quality video work.

Here's the globe promoting the Beautiful Store (this guy did not run the race)
From the start, we cut over a few blocks to the 7km mark. For the first 12ish miles, the race course was perfect for spectators-of which there were very few. The race zigzaged through the streets. From the 7km point, we could see runners at the 5km point as well as the 10km point.
On the left runners are running toward us (toward the 7km point).
On the right, runners are running away from us (near the 10km point)
 Very quickly after cutting across to the 7k mark, the elite men came flying by.
Katie's competition
We settled down at the 7km point to ensure that we would not miss Katie. I'll tell you something that we didn't tell many people last time. You know how we went out to cheer Katie on for her half marathon? Well, we missed her at every point. We never actually got to cheer her on. This time we were determined not to let that happen (spoiler alert: she's VERY fast, and got faster as the race went on. faster.).

L-R: Ricki, Adam and Hannah
Here's Ricki, Adam and me

This wasn't exactly part of the Rock and Roll marathon series, but we did catch these drummers along the way. (There were also drummers around 20 miles, but my video refused to upload.)

Adam cheering with the bullhorn
We saw Dave and Katie at the 7km marker and again at the 12km-ish mark, then again a few km's later. We were definitely hitting our stride. We went from cheering people on to playing them some music by pulling up Eye of the Tiger on my phone and playing it through the megaphone. That was a big hit. Runners had seen us a few times, they thought it was funny and they really liked the music. Several high fived us as they ran by and more than a couple stopped to take our pictures-yes, people running a marathon stopped to take our picture. And one runner stopped and danced with us. Every time we saw someone who looked non-Korean we would yell "Hey foreigner!" Most would smile. One yelled "I'm from Colorado!" And I yelled back "I'm from Denver!" He yelled back "me too!" and then kept running. I'm sure if I don't see him again, I'll at least hear about him from someone. Denver is a pretty small town. Another runner stopped to give me this adorable Koala. This man and the toy are from Australia. He flew here just for the race.

We were having tons of fun, but once we saw Katie and Dave, we knew we had to book it to our next spot-especially when we went from the part of the race that snaked closely together to the part that went from one side of the river to the other.

We took the subway. In the subway station, we stopped for a photo op! Ricki and Adam look like they're having a great time hiking in the subway station.

We crossed the river via subway.

Then, we weren't sure where we were in relation to where the race course was. We definitely wanted to see Katie around mile 20 or 22. This is one of the most difficult parts of a marathon and Adam had prepared gatorade for Katie. It was a tough call-should we try to catch her at 20, or just go straight to the finish. We decided the encouragement and gatorade were more important.

We walked out of the subway station, but there were no obvious signs of the race.

Finally, Hannah (who speaks Korean!) asked a taxi driver. We got i the cab for a very quick ride-we rode about 5 blocks, saw the race and yelled "Yogi-oh!" which means stop here. We paid our 2,400 won ($2.40) and ran to the sidelines. We had some points of reference in the race. There was a man dressed as a king, a woman in all pink and a man wearing an octopus hat, all were running ahead of Katie. We also knew that Katie was in font of the 4:10 pace group. As we waited for her at the 20ish mile we saw the king, the woman in pink and the octopus guy and we knew we were getting close.
Pretty soon, we saw Dave...then we saw the 4:10 pace group. It was then that we realized Katie is a machine. She had passed all those people near the end of the race. She was getting faster.

As soon as we knew we had missed her we ran to the subway to try to catch her at the finish. But while we were on the subway, we got a text from Bonny and Ken that she finished. So we missed her finish again, but we got to see Dave finish. Overall, the spectators at the finish line did NOT like the megaphone.

 I have to say, watching Katie and Dave inspired me to at least check out races in the states, thinking that maybe I have another marathon in me, but I'm not ready to run one this summer and there aren't any that I want to run in Korea. So maybe I'll think about it for 2014. Does Hal Higdon have a 65 week marathon training schedule?

Sunday, March 17, 2013

China- where there is no Facebook, and you can see the air.

I got back late last night from a trip to Beijing.  The second time this year that I've left Irish to take care of all our needy children while I chaperone a model UN trip.  This time at least August did not have a hernia, so that was good.  And my leg is on the way to healing. I left the crutches behind and just wore the leg brace on the flight there.  It's been 11 days since I hurt it, and there is a huge bruise on one side of my thigh, and a second bruise by my knee, but as long as I am careful when I stand up or walk stairs it seems ok.

Korea has spoiled me when it comes to internet connections. Arriving in China I bought a sim card for my phone so there would be a number students could call.  When I got an internet plan I thought the clerk at China Mobile said it was 4G, which surprised me.  She corrected me saying "no no not 4G"  I said that was fine 3G was great.  She looked a little embarrassed  and said no not 3G either.  2G?  She shrugged.  Turns out it was very very slow mobile internet, with no Facebook, and essentially no Google.  It surprised me how much this started to bug me, how much I've become used to always having fast internet connections.

When we got to Tiananmen Square I managed to send Irish one picture which she posted on Facebook, and described accurately as pictures of me, taken by me.  I'm very proficient at arm length self photos, so below there are several such pictures.

It has been 19 years since the last time I was in Beijing when I was in college. (I kept telling people it was 20 years ago, but upon reflection it was 1994, so 19)  The city has grown bigger, there are far more tall buildings, far fewer bicycles, and way way more cars.  I had heard a lot about Beijing's air pollution problem.  When we arrived on Wednesday there was clear blue sky and I thought maybe the problem had been exaggerated.   The first two pictures below were taken on Wednesday at Tiananmen Square and inside the Forbidden City, you can see the sky.  Checking into the hotel everyone was commenting on how nice it was.   The bottom two pictures were taken on Friday at the Temple of Heaven (and they are basically the same picture taken from opposite sides of the temple) I could literally taste the air pollution, the sky was turning a yellowish color.  Apparently the pollution is  measured on a scale that goes up to 500 and on Friday it was at 322, which is bad (I think if it ever got to 500 there would be chunks of coal falling from the sky)

While we walked through Tiananmen Square it felt very locked down.  Part of that was because the Politburo was in session, the new leadership was formally announced Thursday.  There were guards patting down everyone entering the square, although we got to cut that line.  There were cameras everywhere, and a huge wall dividing the square.  Particularly strange was when the tour guide told us that there were more police than normal to make sure no one was able to self immolate.  I've been reading about the Tibetan protestors setting themselves on fire, but had not been thinking about it and even the possibility of that happening was distressing.  After Tiananmen Square and our tour of the Forbidden City we all got on the bus and headed for the hotel. 

We were staying at the Crowne Plaza, which is where the conference was taking place.  It was a nice hotel, and I spent a lot of time in the lobby over the next few days keeping track of students, checking in on how they were doing as they debated resolutions on how to save the world. 

lobby of the hotel
one more arm length self photo from inside the lobby.

Below is the view from the hotel.  The tall buildings are residential, built in 2010 according to the sign outside the gate, closer is rougher housing.  And the smoke in the middle is a power plant, which helps explain the sky. 

Aside from the pollution and slow internet I had a great trip.  On Thursday night we took the students out for a huge Chinese dinner with Peking duck.  They were all a little freaked out when a fish with it's head still on it came out (this surprised me coming from Korean students.)  And they were a lot freaked out when the duck's head came out next to the good parts of the duck.  I'm not sure what we were supposed to do with the duck head, but the rest of the dinner was fantastic. After that we saw an acrobat show.  The acrobats were amazing.  And no one fell and died so that was good.

Beijing is a remarkable city, the sense of history, ancient and recent, is palpable.  Walking through the park surrounding the Temple of Heaven there were groups of elderly people singing, groups dancing, groups playing instruments, each doing it very well.  I found myself marveling at everything these people in their 70s and 80s had seen in their lifetimes.

Back at the hotel there was an obscenely expensive mall next door, and there was a grocery in the mall's basement.  I bought myself some ice cream flavored oreos- which taste about the same as regular oreas, and Pepsi Max, which looks a lot cooler written in Chinese characters.

Finally we flew back Saturday evening.  We got everyone checked in, through immigration and security with no real issues.  My pat down was a little more intense than I might have liked, but otherwise no problems.  After flying very close to North Korean airspace we landed safely and by midnight I was in my bed, pushing August over to make some room.