Visiting the DMZ After a Missile Launch

The Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea which hugs the 38th parallel is a place which former President Bill Clinton called the “most dangerous place on Earth.” Created as a part of armistice negotiations in 1953, the two-kilometer wide DMZ is a stern reminder that North and South Korea are still technically at war and that the United States paid a heavy price to protect South Korea during the “Forgotten War” from 1950 until 1953.

In spite of all of this, there is one place where tourists can visit the DMZ and enter North Korea by crossing the Military Demarcation Line between North and South Korea: the UN-controlled Panmunjom complex, set up inside of the Joint Security Area. Straddling the 38th Parallel, this is the only chance most people will ever get to see North Korea from the free world.

I joined a USO-sponsored tour to the JSA five days after North Korea conducted their most recent missile launch (February, 2016) and present you this photo essay about the experience. USO runs the best tours and I highly recommend booking with them several weeks in advance if you are looking for a day trip during your next stay in Seoul. You can click here for more information.

After meeting our tour group a few minutes before 7:00AM at USO HQ, Camp Kim, in downtown Seoul, we hopped on a bus began the 90 minute bus ride to Camp Bonifas, located just inside the South Korean side of the DMZ. We were quickly asked to sign some paperwork that said we were entering an active war zone and were putting our lives at risk by continuing on the tour. After handing in those papers, our tour continued on a long stretch of highway towards the DMZ.

As we approached the checkpoint to enter the United Nations-controlled segment of the border, or bus swerved back and forth to avoid several barricades as raindrops slid down the bus windows. Once the bus came to a stop at a border checkpoint, an American soldier, Private Kennedy, boarded the bus and checked all of our passports before we could proceed to Camp Bonifas and UN Central Command inside of the DMZ. He would be our tour guide for the rest of the trip.

IMG_3491After we arrived at Camp Bonifas inside of the DMZ, Private Kennedy ushered the tour group into an auditorium to deliver a briefing about what we were going to see on today’s tour. Aside from simple instructions about what to do and what not to do on the border (pointing, gesturing, taunting, and yelling were strictly prohibited), we were informed that  because of escalated tensions on the border we would be unable to visit Dorason Observatory, a location which provides one of the best views of North Korea from South Korea.

We boarded our bus and began one of the most interesting rides of my life, down a narrow road towards our next location: Panmunjom, the famous blue buildings which straddle the 38th parallel and are in both North and South Korea. We were prohibited from taking photos on this stretch of the tour, but the wildlife and scenery inside the DMZ were out of this world.

White cranes, massive buzzards, and other rare birds were numerous in the rice paddies and barren hills and parched landscape which set between North and South Korea. The restricted nature of the DMZ has, ironically, turned it into one of the most ecologically diverse places on earth. Along with the wildlife, barbed wire fences, mine fields, and military outposts sat on top of various hills as clouds and mist obscured the distant landscape. Rice paddies and rusting vehicles were also visible off in the distance.

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After a short briefing, Private Kennedy informed us that the Korean soldiers were real and we were not to touch them or get within six inches of them. He then let us know that anyone who stood to the soldier’s right was in South Korea and anyone who stood to the soldier’s left was in North Korea, just past the 38th parallel. The picture that follows was taken from the North Korean side and shows the 38th parallel in the middle. The sand is North Korea and the gravel is South Korea.

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Inside of the conference room, a soldier stands at the ready with his back to North Korea, preventing any tourists from either being abducted or choosing to defect to the Communist North.

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Outside, things were just as tense but in a more visible way. A North Korean soldier appeared several moments after our group re-emerged from the conference rooms. As we positioned our cameras, he played a game with us, ducking in front of and behind the pillars on the North Korean border facility. He kept a vigilant watch during this act.

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His appearance stood in stark contrast to the South Korean guards on our side of the border. The imposing concrete facade of the North Korean side provided a backdrop which perfectly illustrates the differences which keep Korea divided to this day. IMG_3548 copy

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Our tour then continued to some other spots inside of the JSA. We stopped by JSA tower to take in another stunning view of North Korea from a military observation point very near the location of the famous axe murders and the Bridge of No Return. As the weather began to clear, more of North Korea’s bare hills were visible, but we could not see the famous flagpole bearing a 600 pound North Korean flag. Because the North cleared out all trees to prevent defections several years ago, it is very easy to see where the border lies in the distance. The clouds were eerily representative of the mysterious nature of North Korea to the outside world.

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The Bridge of No Return was a location where POWs chose between the North and South following the armistice and where several prisoner exchanges have taken place since 1953. President Clinton visited the bridge and attempted to walk on it, resulting in its subsequent closure to tourist groups.

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North Korea beckons across the Bridge of No Return. IMG_3608IMG_3599 copy

The Bridge of no return is seen in the last part of the photo, with North Korea in the background. The foreground is part of a footpath to our outlook point. IMG_3588 copy

After a few more minutes on the bus and a stop at the JSA gift shop, our tour with Pvt. Kennedy was over and we were on our way out of the DMZ to stop at one of the famed infiltration tunnels leading from North to South Korea. I could not take any photos there because of the nature of that tour, but some Korean soldiers left their helmets on a table during our lunch break to close out the tour. IMG_3688 copy

As an American with an interest in the Korean War and military history, the DMZ was always one of my top travel goals when I moved to Japan several years ago. I am very happy I got to visit during a time with such high tension and recommend everyone visit before the DMZ is either closed to tourists or ceases to exist. This is truly the last vestige of the Cold War left on earth.

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The Itch to Learn Another Language

The one thing I feared most about traveling to Korea this weekend has begun to manifest itself in my thoughts this evening: I think I want to learn some Korean. While, on the surface, this may not seem like a bad thing, or even a worrisome point, it is very dangerous for me given all of the hard work I have put towards learning Japanese over the past two years. 

When I first came to Japan and started learning it two years ago, I had no idea what I was doing when it came to formal language study. I studied Spanish in high school, was good at it, but dif not find it challenging enough so I ceased studying it when I was in college. On study abroad, we were required to take a language class so I took Japanese with the intention of only studying it for one semester and calling it a day at my university because I had met the language requirement. Two years, a summer language school, and a return trip to Japan later, I think there is no doubt that I fell in love with studying Japanese and the nuances that accompany learning a new language so radical and different than Western languages, let alone English. The instant feeling of helplessness and being lost I experienced in Japan back in January, 2011, re-emerged as I stepped onto the bus which would take us from the plane to the airport in Busan, South Korea. 

There I sat on the bus in Korea, speaking Japanese with some new friends I made on the plane, staring at a sign with no idea how to read it. I even had less of an idea of what the sign meant aside from having what appeared to be a singing group pictured on it. From that moment on, I tried to absorb as much of the Korean I saw on the train as quickly as possible. The same goes for common words or phrases I heard inside of stores or in the open air markets which are sprinkled all throughout Busan and Seoul. What is this Hangul? How is it read? What does the ad mean? – Those were very common questions I asked my Korean friends. 

It was so frustrating for me to be silent when ordering something at the convenience store, but it was even more frustrating to not have the ability to read a sign. That is what frustrated me the most. 

And so the desire to learn a third language begun. 

Following lunch with my friend, I said a few words in Korean and even read some Romanized names on the train as we headed back to Seoul Station. She said my pronunciation was very good, which encouraged me to study some more Korean hen I returned to Japan. 

 

This poses two obvious problems for me.

Firstly, where will I get the time to dedicate myself towards another language, especially when I have devoted so much time and energy to Japanese. 

Secondly, I am very afraid that if I start learning another language, I will lose much of my Japanese ability and Japanese skills that I have developed over the last two years in very intensive studies. 

Many of My Korean and Japanese friends say that the grammar is similar between the two languages. They also say that some vocabulary is shared, too. I just worry about forcing out the Japanese I have learned in lieu of a rudimentary level of Korean studies. 

Have you studied a third language? If so,  how was your experience? 

 

Reflecting on my South Korean Trip

Good evening. I have finally had a chance to gather my thoughts on this weekend’s Korean adventure for a proper post on the website!

As soon as three years ago, if someone would have told me that I would be atop the Seoul N Tower in South Korea, I would have called them crazy. If the same person had said I would be there with a friend I met in college as a member of the International Student Association, I would have said they were absolutely nuts! I truly believe moments like this are what make life worth living and make it worthwhile to take chances and grab every opportunity that you get whenever it presents itself.

The journey started on Saturday with a short flight from Osaka to Busan, South Korea. From there, I traversed through the city’s extensive metro network to the stop at Haeundae Beach, where my room was located. My first impressions of Korea were nearly exactly what I had expected and I was relieved. Many of my friends had been to Korea in the past, so it was nice that their advice and suggestions were accurate.

That afternoon, I spent some time on the beach, taking in some sun and photographing the elegant scene where the Busan skyline meets the beach. There is always something about the ocean that draws me in for an extended period of time. I stayed longer than I had hoped, but continued on throughout the evening in the general vicinity. I took photos of the traditional marketplace and sampled some Korean food along the evening walk. Image

The hustle and bustle of these crammed, narrow shopping streets is one of my favorite things about traveling, especially in Asia. Hearing the sounds of bartering, children running, and motorcycles serpentining through the crowd is something that everyone must experience once before they die. As night fell in Busan, I continued to Busan Tower to take in the city from above. I am always a sucker for night time city views, and Busan Tower did not disappoint!

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I then strolled through the International Film Festival area before heading back to my room for the evening. I had a ticket for the first train to Seoul on the KTX to meet my friend!

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After the fast, short, and cheap (thanks to the foreigner rail pass that Korea Railroad offers (http://www.korail.com/kr_pass.jsp), I was in Seoul by 10:00AM the following morning, where I met up with my friend for some traditional Korean breakfast and a tour of the city. It was amazing to meet one of my friends in a place so far and different than my university. Perhaps the most remarkable part about it is that she lives in Seoul, I live in Osaka, and we met in Seoul Station for a day out in her home city. We both remarked about how far away we were from Philadelphia.

From the moment I stepped outside of Seoul Station, I felt a vibe of energy and excitement that I have felt nowhere outside of the United States except for Tokyo. It was at that moment where I began to have a very strong affinity towards Seoul. The bustling of the cars, the chatter of pedestrians, and the street vendors everywhere truly makes the city so great. We walked to a palace in Korea and I was able to take in some of the sights and sounds of the more traditional aspects of Old Seoul. Image

There were even traditional guards at the entrance! Image

From there, we ate some more traditional Korean food and eventually ended up at Seoul N Tower following a short bus ride through the city. Image

I love panoramic views of cities and all the industry and majesty that accompanies them, so I took many, many photos of Seoul from above. The locks of love that cover the fence at the base of Seoul Tower were remarkable, but so was the view from the observation deck. I have not felt this high up in my entire life when it comes to viewing a city from above the skyline. Check out the amazing view from Seoul N Tower. Image

From there, it was off to the foreign district in Seoul, where we enjoyed some American drinks and appetizers to close out what was a remarkable day in Seoul. It was at that moment where we discussed our friendship in college, our travels, and what it was like to be meeting in Asia. It was also at that moment when I realized I was so happy that I joined the International Student Assocation at my school. Had I not taken a step outside the box to meet new people after I returned from my first trip to Japan, I never would have had the opportunity to meet so many people and make so many new friends who live abroad, especially in Asia. I never would have had a great tour guide and never would have been able to maneuver and get around in Seoul like I had done that day. It is something I hope to replicate with future trips to Taiwan, Hong Kong, and subsequent trips to Seoul. If anyone is interested in traveling, cultural exchange, or meeting new people, I strongly suggest you get involved in your university’s international exchange programs. It will change you for the better.

As our meal concluded, the reality hit that I would return to Busan for my flight out the next morning and my friend would return to Seoul for class in the morning. I took the KTX back through the night and arrived in Busan around 11:00PM. After frantically rushing to catch the last train, I returned to my room and went to sleep. I was fortunate enough to catch a glorious sunrise at the beach before heading back to the airport.Image

I had what I considered to be a tremendous weekend in Korea: sightseeing, rekindling friendships, and sampling great food along the way. There is something to be said when you have a friend showing you the way through one of the biggest and most modern cities on the planet. I look forward to returning to Korea someday.

Please leave your comments below!

Until next time.

What Learning Japanese has Meant to Me

A little more than two years ago, I went to Japan for the first time as a part of Temple University’s study abroad program at Temple University, Japan Campus. My decision to study abroad in Japan was rooted in reasons different than many other students: In the Spring 2010 semester, Temple Football and I parted ways and I did some serious soul searching.

Following a long talk with my most trusted advisors at Temple, the choice was clear: study at Temple Japan to learn about myself and the world. I had always had an interest in Japan and the United States’ relationship with the East Asian nation but never thought I would have the opportunity to actually go to Japan, especially as a college student. What seemed like a great opportunity to grow as a person and expand my horizons has become so much more as time has continued to pass.

I will never forget what it was like when I first arrived in Japan, with my vocabulary limited to: ありがとう (arigato- “thanks”), and さようなら (sayonara – goodbye). The whole experience was not terrifying, as it probably should have been. It was truly invigorating for me. I made some new friends, studied the language hard with a professor who really cared about all of her first-year students, and ended learning so much more than I ever though possible. Two months into my study abroad program in Tokyo, I had finally figured out how to go through Tokyo without getting lost and was even able to have very, very basic conversations with some of my friends in Japanese.

Things all changed on March 11, 2011, with the Great Earthquake. My experience in Japan came to a drastic end, as I was forced to return home to the United States. Little did I know it, but the kindness expressed by the Japanese on the night of the earthquake inspired me to continue to study their language and lit a spark within me to try to return the favors they had given me when I was such a novice in Japan for the first time. The scenes of that night have never left me- shopkeepers handing out onigiri on the night of the earthquake, and the policeman in Shibuya who knew three words of English who helped guide me home amid the chaos of March 11th.

Once I returned to Philadelphia, I joined the International Students Association to help foreign students at Temple learn about Philadelphia and the United States much like the Japanese had helped me during my time in Japan. It was rewarding to return the favors of the past, but I had no idea what would be on the horizon for me in a few short months.

Fast forward to today and so many things have changed. I went to Japanese language school last summer in what was one of the most grueling and rewarding experiences of my life. I am now back in Japan as an English teacher, enjoying every tiny interaction that I have with the Japanese people and with my newfound friends in Japan.

When I returned to Tokyo at the end of July, familiar places seemed to be abound with new life that was absent just two years ago. Instead of memorizing what I needed to hear on the train to get off at the right stop, I was able to listen to others’ conversations and read advertisements. I could speak with my friends only using Japanese and I could even see how English translations differed from the original Japanese meanings of announcements and signs. It was almost like I was back in Japan for the first time.

I have such a deeper appreciation for Japan and the Japanese people since I have returned subsequent to my language school. Everything from chatting with people in the restaurants and bars, to reading the signs, to just saying hello to people on a daily basis helps me know the language study was what made this all possible. If I had returned to Japan without studying Japanese in the interim, I do not know if I would be enjoying it as much as I am at this point.

My first time in Japan, my Japanese friends made such a great effort to help me in any way possible in Japan and now I am back, two years later, to help the Japanese in any way I can, albeit in a different role.

Learning Japanese has done so much for me from a personal to a professional level. Meeting new people and interacting with people in their native tongue is an experience I will never forget as long as I live.

I am an advocate for English education in the United States, but I encourage everyone to study a second language if they have the opportunity. Devoting the time and energy to this study  will reap tremendous benefit and personal satisfaction in the future. After the long hours of study, the first time you have an interaction with someone else in a language other than English will be an unbelievably memorable experience.

I hope I can have this type of experience in Korean someday.

Have you had this type of experience in your language studies?