Korea was a story of friends and foes for us. We started out in Seoul and popping up to see the friendly neighbours to the North, then headed South and South again to visit some friends from University, now all teachers in Daejeon and Busan.
First though, the North. We decided to take a tour of the Demilitarised Zone (The DMZ, pronounced “zee” thanks to its American administration) and of the Joint Security Area, where soldiers of the two nations meet face to face. On the way, we visited the northernmost station in South Korea, constructed in the early 2000s in the hope that trains between the two countries could start running between the two and starting the extremely long slog towards unification. This happened with some success for a few years until North Korean soldiers shot dead a southern visitor when she strayed off her permitted path. After this incident, the border was slammed shut again. With this anecdote fresh in our minds, it was onto the frontier.
Before embarking on a bus to the border itself, we were asked to sign a disclaimer which explained that the United Nations were not responsible for your death in the event of an unexpected act of aggression from the North. It was one of many stark reminders that the two Koreas are still technically at war, having only signed an armistice – never a peace treaty – after the war in the 1950s which left millions dead in its wake. We were allowed into the conference room which straddles the border where the armistice was signed, meaning we technically strolled into North Korea by about 4 yards (still counts). We saw North Korean soldiers standing stoically staring at us, but we were under orders not to wave. This was very tempting for reasons I can’t entirely explain, but I was keen not to spark a diplomatic incident. Speaking of which, only 2 days after our visit, a North Korean soldier defected to the South across the JSA, getting shot 40 times in the process. Miraculously, at the time of writing, he is still alive. Another reminder, if we needed it, that these two nations are at an incredibly tense moment in their already tragic histories. We can count ourselves lucky that we have such stable world leaders at this time.
We left Seoul the following day to reunite with Anna and Sean, who were kindly putting us up in Daejeon, two hours south of Seoul. We spent our first night getting stupendously drunk and doing Korean karaoke, which is like normal karaoke but you have a room to yourselves. Shitfaced as we were, it was hilarious, but we certainly paid for it the next day, especially Anna. A takeaway McDonalds (the shame) and a crisp, country walk later and we were back in the game, ready for Korean fried chicken, which is utterly filthy fayre. Our last day as a four was spent in Jeong-Ju, a traditional small town packed with tourists, where Sadie got to fulfil a childhood dream of being a princess, for an hour at least. The town was beautiful and in the throes of autumn, again to Sadie’s delight. It was a great end to a really fun few days, and we were really sad to leave.
Next stop, Busan, Korea’s second city where Alice was next up to host us. She promptly took us for Korean BBQ and beers, so we felt straight at home there. Busan is a really cool little city (well there’s nearly 4 million people there so it isn’t exactly little…), full of character and charm. It is one of the very few Korean cities that wasn’t almost entirely decimated in the war, as the Northern forces didn’t quite make it into the city during their eventually failed invasion. There is everything from stunning temples to hillside villages to gleaming metropolitan skylines – it really had everything. The only downside was Alice contracting full blown man-flu while we were visiting, which I am pretty sure we were responsible for. Still, she was the most obliging host.
We are so lucky to have such great friends dotted all over the globe who are happy to offer us their beds and sofas (although admittedly we sometimes don’t give them much choice). If it wasn’t for them, our travels would be so much less of a rewarding experience and from time to time we have to remind ourselves of that. If any of you kind folks are reading this – thank you for putting up with us.
After Busan we headed back to Seoul for a few days to have a little explore, then flew on to Tokyo, where I’m writing this. Japan will have to wait for next time, whenever we get round to it. Let’s face it, it will be more than a week.