Korea Tales (October 2001)

I got back from a five-day trip to South Korea earlier this week – my first time there, it was very interesting! Campaigners from the Asia region came to discuss their research for our next annual report for two days. We were staying and meeting at Yonsei University in the center of Seoul and a neighborhood named “university town,” with all sorts of hip shops, street-sellers and cool students. Particularly hot items seemed to be cell phone accessories (everything from fluffy toys to sparkling aerials), American jeans and bootleg shoes, bag, jackets, etcetera…

On the third day we took a field trip to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), which is about one hour north of Seoul. It was strange visiting this last remnant of the Cold War; the most heavily fortified border in the world where North and South Korea have been facing each other off in a constant state of war constrained only by an armistice (ceasefire) agreement made back in 1953. At a time when the U.S. seems to be trying everything possible to close or monitor its borders for a terrorist threat which, like anthrax, is barely visible, the DMZ was like entering a time-warp back to a * MASH * show. As soon as we arrived at this observatory point patrolled by South Korean troops we heard the “propaganda” blaring through loud speakers toward North Korea. In Korean, it played speeches, news, pleas to give up the fight and even music – when we were leaving they started blasting “By the Rivers of Babylon.” We received a briefing by the military in a room with floor to ceiling glass windows looking on to North Korea, which was covered in fog and barely visible. One of their problems, which they barely acknowledge, is that U.S. and other mines laid along the DMZ fifty years ago constantly move, especially in heavy rains and floods, and wind up downstream in the rice paddies, where they maim and kill local civilians.

Before we got to the DMZ, we stopped in a small village to have lunch with some landmine survivors; old Korean men smoking their pipes and showing us their wounds and complaining about receiving no compensation from their government. Outside the restaurant were cages and cages of very cute rabbits and a rather sad looking dog – no wonder they served us all vegetarian food after seeing our looks of concern!

The next day, I attended a church service with a few of the campaigners at a church that is a major financial backer of the Korean campaign. They had just started when we walked in and I nearly died it was so funny. Behind the podium was a huge video screen, the type they have a rock concerts, showing this inspirational (?) footage of nature – geysers, waterfalls, lakes (I swear some of it was from New Zealand). On stage, ten impeccably dressed men and women were singing Christian songs in English into microphones as if they were singing karaoke, with a full band backing them. The preacher was dressed in white, standing before a clear plastic podium trying to give a sermon in English (the only service out of ten given that day) when he clearly could only speak Korean, but the words were also up on the video screen. My Muslim colleagues from Indonesia, Pakistan and Bangladesh were sitting in front of me with their mouths open amazed at it all – afterwards they asked if this is what all church is always like. They said it was a good experience.

We also visited the Olympic Park from the 1988 games. It was packed with kids on skates, skateboards, scooters, roller-blades, bikes and the like – nice to see it being used! There was a man-made lake and when music played, fountains of water spouted up – in sync with the music?! There were also dozens of cool sculptures from all over the world.

Before I left Jody and I met with the man who is likely to be Korea’s next president, as President Kim Dae Jung will after to step down next year after serving a non-renewable five-year term. I was dressed in jeans for the long plane ride back while everyone else had their suits on (oops!) and we sat around a very formal table in one of the poshest hotels in Seoul. They’re pretty formal over there but very nice all the while. I learned from my colleagues in the Korean campaign that they had all served time in jail at one time or another for their pro-democracy and pro-unification work – the country is only now really beginning to change for the good.

Anyway, it was nice to try and get away from this town even for just a week to learn about another country’s problems and what some dedicated people are trying to do to change it for the better. DC is as tense as ever, with new anthrax cases reported every day. At work, on Afghanistan we’re dealing with U.S. airdrops of food that is wrapped in yellow and the same size and colour as cluster bombs they are dropping in the same areas. I don’t know how much dumber it can get. When the cluster bombs don’t explode, they become like little lethal landmines, but there is no sign the U.S. will stop using this particular weapon any time soon.

We’ll see…