Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Visit to Korea's Deadly DMZ

Used With Permission from Wikimedia Commons - US Soldier 2002

The cease-fire went into effect six decades ago, but no peace treaty was ever signed, meaning North and South Korea officially

remain at war.

To help maintain the uneasy armistice, diplomats established the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), a 2.5-mile wide buffer, cutting 160 miles across the Korean Peninsula. It's the most heavily militarized border

Used with Permission from Wikimedia Commons - DMZ 2005

Used with Permission from Wikimedia Commons - North Korean Soldier 2005

in the world.

Fences topped with razor wire physically


the two countries

But it hasn't prevented numerous hostilities between North and South Korea. Back in August, each country launched shells across the DMZ after three landmine explosions maimed two South Korean soldiers. South Korea claimed enemy soldiers sneaked across the border and planted the mines along a known patrol route in a neutral area.

North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, responded to the exchange of gunfire by declaring he was mobilizing his troops for an all-out war.

Hoping to avert a crisis, Korean leaders held a series of marathon talks inside the DMZ at Panmunjom, also known as "truce village."

Welcome to the Joint Security Area (JSA), the front line of the Korean conflict.

It's the only section of the DMZ where North and South Korean soldiers stand face-to-face.

The border runs down the middle of these two blue conference rooms, meaning one side is in South Korea and the other in the North. The white building is part of North Korea.

Tourists can't just wander into the JSA. It requires prior-authorization and being part of a group. I went with Koridoor.

There's plenty of rules to follow in such a potentially dangerous place – walk in single file lines; no gesturing or attempts to initiate conversations with North Korean soldiers; and no photos, until instructed.

At times, it felt a bit over done, but when one tourist snapped a photo without permission, a US serviceman, who was leading the tour, politely demanded he delete it.

After we received a briefing and signed release forms, soldiers escorted us into one of the negotiating rooms. Our previously talkative group suddenly grew quiet.

This South Korean soldier is straddling one of the world's most deadly borders. To the left of the flag and the microphones is the South and to the right the North. The microphones are on 24 hours a day to record anything that is said or done here.

"When I give you the word, you'll have three minutes for photos, and then we must leave," said one of the guides.

I headed straight around the table and into North Korean territory.

The conference room contains two entrances, one on each side of the border. When tourists visit from South Korea, the door on the North Korean side is locked, thus allowing me to safely visit North Korea.

Just in case someone decided to defect, a South Korean soldier, trained in martial arts, stood guard in front of the door to prevent anyone from leaving and presumably to stop any North Korean soldier from entering. By the way, the dark glasses and taekwondo stance are meant to intimidate the opposition.

The day I visited the JSA no North Koreans approached the border, but it happens routinely.

Here's a 2008 picture taken from North Korea during a South Korean tour group's visit to the conference rooms.

Used with Permission from Wikimedia Commons - 2008

The border is the concrete slab in the middle of the photo where the two North Koreans are standing at attention. During periods of unrest, a US soldier told me guards on both sides will sometimes square off at the slab, a mere inches from each other. The soldier told me he's heard of North Koreans feigning drawing their weapons to try to provoke the South.

When dignitaries visit, the tension and drama rise even higher.

This is a 2010 photo from then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's trip to the JSA. Notice the North Korean soldier peering through the window.

Used with Permission from Wikimedia Commons - 2010.

I'll admit I was a bit nervous at times but mainly thrilled to finally see a place I'd read so much about over the years. If you're thinking of going, I'd highly recommend Koridoor.

Will Korea ever be reunited?

Some of the older people I talked with maintain hope. The war split the families of more than seven million people into two countries – preventing travel, mail, or even phone calls from traversing the divide.

But many younger people say they don't have much interest in reunification, especially because of the potential astronomical cost of developing the infrastructure and economy of the North.

Meanwhile, North and South continue to aim their weapons at each other, and the world continues to hope that no one makes a miscalculation that could trigger a major global war.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Real South Korea

Hongseong High School, South Korea

New York City is certainly not representative of the way most Americans live just as Paris can't provide insight into the typical French household, but we visit these places for a snapshot of the countries.

Still, I'm always eager to get beyond just tourist attractions and immerse myself in a culture, which is why I joined Couchsurfing.

During my latest school holiday, in addition to checking out Seoul, I couldn't resist the offer from a Couchsurfer to see "the real Korea," and so I found myself in Hongseong, a city of 90,000 about two hours from the capital.

What's there to do in Hongseong? Not much, although I did enjoy walking

through the rice fields and wandering around the city.

Despite the lack of sights, Hongseong was one of my most fulfilling travel experiences ever because of my host Jay and his family.

Couchsurfing involves an incredible amount of trust. While Jay, a teacher, and his wife worked, I entertained myself, free to come and go as I pleased because I had a house key.That's the world of Couchsurfing.

We got together after work, when I was able to partake of some

of Korea's culinary delights

and just enjoy spending time with Jay, his wife, and their two kids.

The highlight of the four-day visit was Jay asking me to teach a couple of his English classes at his high school. You'd think that's the last thing a teacher would want to do on vacation, but I couldn't have felt more honored.

The students seemed to enjoy my lesson on "Why Study English?" At the very least, it was refreshing to just focus on trying to inspire the 10th graders, rather than worrying about covering reams of material.

Afterward, I took questions from both classes. My favorite – "Do you have a gun?" Is America's reputation really that bad? It's something to think about.

After school, the principal invited me to a dinner meeting. If you haven't tried Korean food, you're missing a treat. Rather than ordering one entrée, customers often sample

several, smaller plates of food placed on the table for all to enjoy.

I've always believed experiences are more gratifying than looking at statues and museums. Although I didn't see a lot in Hongseong, I'll never forget my four days encountering the "real Korea" with Jay and his family.

Sometimes, an experience – even a potentially deadly one – evolves into an unlikely tourist attraction, such as a visit to the Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Korea. I'll head there next.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

A Visit to Brunei

Oil transformed it into one of the richest countries on Earth. A strict Islamic code dominates both religious life and society as a whole, and the country's leader rules with absolute power.

Sauda Arabia, Iraq, Kuwait?

Nope, it's no where near the Middle East, and it's full of Malays, not Arabs.

Welcome to Brunei – a tiny, tropical country surrounded by Malaysia on the island of Borneo in Southeast Asia.

Being an Islamic country, you won't find much of a nightlife here, including any alcohol, but you will find virgin rainforest, water sports, and an ever-growing foodie scene.

This is a shot of a vendor making kebabs at a popular night market, a tasty snake for just a couple of dollars.

Having a long weekend on the calendar, I decided to check out the nation, which is about the size of Delaware.

Most sights lie within walking distance or a short taxi ride away in the capital of Bandar Seri Begawan.

Of course, there's plenty of mosques, the most prominent being the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque that dominates the skyline. The main dome is covered in gold.

The home of the Sultan, who's personal wealth is estimated to be around $20 billion, isn't bad either – a 1,788-room palace. Unfortunately, it's only open to the public for three days each year following Ramadan.

Tourists also flock to Kampung Ayer, a series of 42 water villages built on stilts.

Known as the "Venice of the East,"

 it's the largest stilt settlement in the world,

home to almost 40,000 people.

Rather than the sand found in most oil-producing countries, more than half of Brunei is covered by forests, making the Ulu Temburong National Park a popular stop for outdoor lovers hoping to spot wildlife.

Crime isn't a concern for tourists. Brunei is one of the safest places in the world, adhering to the draconian, Islamic, sharia law, leveling such punishments as stoning for adultery, amputations for theft, and flogging for drinking alcohol. Numerous civil rights organizations condemned the Sultan for enacting the law in 2014, especially since he reportedly lives a quite lavish and decadent lifestyle.

Since there isn't much to do in Brunei, friends asked why I went there. I guess part of the reason was wanting to visit one of the few remaining absolute monarchies, seven at last count. In the pictures above, the military was preparing for the king's 69th birthday.

On a daily basis, the Sultan's presence is felt and seen everywhere  – television, newspapers, and even billboards and banners.

In most countries, a leader's birthday isn't even noticed.

In Brunei, it's a national celebration.

But you won't hear anyone complaining because criticizing the Sultan is illegal.

Even though Brunei isn't a tourist mecca, it's worth a short visit, if only to experience a culture and political system far different from that seen in Southeast Asia or the rest of the world.