Thursday, September 10, 2009

New lessons in modern Korean history


I have done so much interesting sightseeing lately that I cannot spare you another lessson in Korean history - it is just too fascinating.

Chapter 1: It is all the Japanese's fault or Seodamun Prison in Seoul: Korea became a Japanese protectorate in 1905 and a colony in 1910 and the Japanese who had only very recently been "awakened" themselves by the Americans modernized Korea within years. Modern textile, steel and chemical industries emerged along with new railroads, highways and ports. By 1940 the Japanese owned 40% of the land and there were 700,000 Japanese living and working in Korea. This modernization left Korea much more developped in 1945 than for example Vietnam under the French, but Korea had to pay a high price for that: Japan tried to destroy the Korean sense of national identity. Koreans were forced to change their names and not speak Korean.

Millions of Koreans were used as "mobile human fodder" for the Japanese doing forced labour in Japanese mines or forced into prostitution as "comfort women" for Japanese soldiers in WW II.Any resistance was brutally supressed and this is were the Seodamun Prison comes in. The Japanese built this prison in the early 1900s and it was soon filled to the brim with male and female Korean resistance fighters who were brutally tortured and executed. The prison has been restored with a lot of effort and after visiting it I could understood very well why the Koreans still dislike the Japanese. Koreans love life-size modells in their museums and therefore this prison is full of torture exhibits with a lot of fake blood and piercing screams - definitely not for the faint of heart....

Chapter 2: The Korean War or the Korean War Memorial Museum: We should have been warned: This museum would be big. But it was not big, it is huge! It took us 3 hours to work our way through learning everything we always wanted to know about the Korean war and did not dare to ask. In fact we learnt more than we ever wanted to know and were totally knackered afterwards. To sum it up this is what happened: After 1945 Korea was divided into a Communist North and Capitalist South with the goal to have joint elections soon . Only that this never happened. By 1949 both the Soviets and the Americans had withdrawn their troops. North Korea's Kim Il Sung launched a surprise attack on South Korea on 25 of June, 1950, when the border was almost unguarded: The South Korean troops had been dispatched to help the farmers during rice planting season... The North Korean army swept over the South and occupied almost the whole Korean peninsula.

For the first time in history the UN authorized a military intervention and asked its members for military help which came mostly from the Americans. And this is when General Douglas Mac Arthur enters the world stage again at the tender age of 70. He is extremely successfull and turns the war around with his famous Incheon landing. Unfortunately, the Chinese do not like that and entered the war on the North Korean side. For 3 years the war is waging back and forth and Seoul alone changes hands four times. Soon both sides realised that no one could win this war but truce talks took 2 years until an armistice was finally signed in 1953. The South Korean government never signed this armistice as they did not want the war to end without re-unification. After 3 years and 1 one month of war and 4 million people had died, North and South Korea were divided more or less at the same demarcation line as in 1945....

Chapter 3: The war goes on or Lee Seung-bok Memorial Hall: There weren't many sights on our route to Seoul and so we were quite interested when we came across a signpost to the Lee Seung-bok Memorial Hall. The only problem was: We did not have the slightest clue who this Lee Seung-bok was! The Memorial was huge and we were the only visitors - and everything was in Korean. We were greeted by a big statue of a little boy and figured out that this Lee was born in 1959. So who was he? A former president? Wouldn't he still be alive then? And why did we find all sort of childhood memorabilia? It took us quite a while of cluelessly wandering around until we found some English explanations and realised who this Lee was. And that is the story. Lee was 9 years old in 1968 when the North Koreans decided to infiltrate South Korea and recruit members for the Communist Party to stage a Communist Revolution in the South. Their 'recruiting methods' were rather strange though:

They assaulted Lee's family in the middle of the night. But Lee had been a good student at school where they had told him that the Commies are the bad guys. So when the Northern guerillas tried to talk to him he just told them: "I hate Communists!" The Commies did not like that of course and cut his mouth open, killing him and his entire family. I am not surprised that they did not recruit many people on their trip. Lee became a hero, a modell of good education and had a huge memorial hall dedicated to him. Maybe it would have been better to keep your mouth shut - this is what I thought...

Chapter 4: The daily war at the border or the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone): A definite highlight of our travels in Korea was a trip to the DMZ. The way these tours are conducted are very telling. First of all only foreigners are allowed into the DMZ itself. You have to take a tour and even have to obey a dress code: No jeans, sandals, provocative T-shirts and no 'Gangster look'. You even have to change buses to get into the JSA (Joint Security Area) itself, which is shared by Southerners, Northerners and the peacekeeping nations. In the DMZ the war goes on a little bit every day giving the whole area an eerie feeling. We were told not to communicate at all with the Northern soldiers, even if they show us a middle finger.... The Southerners all wear sunglasses (so they can avoid direct eye contact if they end up in a staring contest with their neighbors), stand around in a sort of aggressive Taekwando position (looks more frightening) and have ball bearings in their trouser seams (their tingling makes them sound more in number than they actually are). And the Northerners are not short of provocative actions: In 1978 they brutally killed two American soldiers who wanted to prune a tree in the JSA (it was blocking their sight)- with an axe, later known as the axe murder incident. They erected a flag post in their propaganda village close to the border and when the Southerners built an even higher flagpost, they responded with an even bigger one. Right now we are at 100 m in the South and 165 m in the North (with a 35 m long flag!).

In order to infiltrate or even attack the South they built various tunnels under the border, one of which tourists can visit. When the tunnel was discovered, they claimed it was an old coal mine - but unfortunately this area consists of granite and there is no coal whatsoever. The most 'hilarious' accident however took place pretty recently in the joint conference room in the JSA where you can actually cross 2 meters into North Korea - the room is literally built on the border. On the Southern room side flags of the UN nations participating in the Korean war were displayed until the visit of President Bush. What had happened? During the visit two North Korean soldiers tore down the American and South Korean flag to clean their shoes and blow their nose with it..... Now the South has substituted the flags with plastic plaques...

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