Tag Archives: north korea

Korea unveils new cruise missile on Armed Forces Day

1 Oct

There has been quite a lot of military activity over the past few days, especially in the air space between Seoul and the DMZ where I live, with many military helicopters flying the route daily.

I wasn’t sure what was happening until I was informed that today was the 65th anniversary of South Korea’s Army and a huge military parade took place in Seoul to mark the occasion.

Two Black Hawk helicopters fly over my school in Munsan, South Korea.

Two Black Hawk helicopters fly over my school in Munsan, South Korea.

Armed Forces Day is an annual celebration in South Korea, held on October 1st each year, the day that South-Korean forces broke through the 38th parallel in 1950 during the Korean War, and is held in honour of South Korea’s military forces. 

Over 11,000 soldiers and 120 aircraft were involved in today’s Armed Forces Day Parade , which is said to have been South Korea’s largest military parade in over a decade. The parade also displayed many of South Korea’s top military weapons including a never before seen GPS-guided cruise missile capable of traveling over 1,000 km.

Let’s just hope that none of those extremely high tech weapons will ever need to be used, as they were when I was here back in  2010, when North Korea bombed Yeonpyeong Island and killed two South Korean Soldiers. 

 

Stunning views of North Korea

15 Aug

It’s not every day that you go on an adventure with two of your friends, in search of a Fortress, and end up less than 2km from North Korea! Well, that’s exactly what happened to me today! As Im living in rural Korea, more than an hour from Seoul, most weekends are spent on the train to the ‘big city’, to go out, party, meet friends and enjoy all the other amazing things that the city of lights has to offer.

Today, Thursday, is Independence Day in Korea so everyone had the day off. Not wanting to make the long trek to Seoul just for the day, my friend Shauna suggested we explore our Paju in her car as she heard there was a fortress only 20 minutes drive form where we live. Nobody ever explores Paju, so it seemed like a great opportunity to prove to all the ‘haters’ that there really are great things to do in this region.

After 30 minutes driving, and frantic attempts at translating tourist signs which were only written in Korean we eventually ended up in a large car park which doubled up as a drive in cinema and a go-karting track! This was definitely not what we were looking for, but there were lots of other tourists around so we parked and wandered around. (We even got a 50% reduction on the parking fee because her car is so small – It’s the little things!) We were told to hop on a free shuttle bus which would bring us to Odusan Unification Observatory. As the name of the fortress was Odusan fortress we knew we were going in the right direction.

The bus brought us up a steep and winding hill, with pretty stunning views of the local countryside. On arrival at the top we were all seriously excited as the views were phenomenal. The fact that it was a sunny day made things look even better. As it turned out there was no fortress to be found, as the fortress was actually a centuries old fortress, on which the observatory had been built on top of! Oh well, we didn’t mind too much as this place was pretty spectacular.

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Shauna checking out the view

Flag flying high on Korean Independence Day

Flag flying high outside the Odusan Observatory on Korean Independence Day

We paid the dirt cheap 3,000 won entrance fee, took some photos of the gigantic Korean flag blowing in the wind then entered the obseravtory, unsure of what we were going to see. We then proceeded to measure ourselves next to the ‘average North Korean soldier’, admire a photography exhibit of photographs portraying the horror of the Korean war, and eventually went upstairs where we had a private screening of a short movie outlining what could be seen from the observatory.

The obseravtory had  360 degree views of the surrounding area but it was the view to the North that captured our attention. The Observatory is situated at the meeting point of the Imjin River and the Han river, and as they join together the river continues to flow North, into North Korea. Directly out the windows in front of us was a clear, unobstructed 180 degree view of a country we know so little about. The river which divides the two countries is 2km at its widest point and only 460 meters at the narrowest point. AS it is tidal, you could almost WALK across the river bed at low tide. You could pretty much WALK to North Korea in about 10 minutes. MIND BOGGLING.

Visitors young and old enjoying the views from the observatory

Visitors young and old enjoying the views from the observatory

Map outling where we were and what we were looking at across the river and border.

Map outlining where we were and what we were looking at across the river and border.

Fancy sending a postcard from the Demilitarized Zone??

Fancy sending a postcard from the Demilitarized Zone??

The short movie informed us that everything we could see was built by the North Koreans as propaganda; impressive houses and multi stories apartment blocks, all to show how “amazing” life is over there. This would have been more convincing if the houses weren’t half finished, some with no roofs, other just looking empty and uninhabited.

We had a chance to look through binoculars for a few minutes to get a closer view at life in the North and I was jumping around with surprise when I saw 2 men in black walking through a field chatting, and another man wearing white working in a field. You’d swear I had just spotted aliens on Mars or something. I really don’t know why I was so happy to see people, but I guess everything to do with North Korea is exciting when we know SO little about the country.

View of North Korea from the viewing platform

View of North Korea from the viewing platform

Beautiful day in North Korea...weather wise.

Beautiful day in North Korea…weather wise.

I can ALMOST touch it!

I can ALMOST touch it!

Besides my childish excitement, I was also quite pensive as I watched some local South Korean kids posing with plastic soldiers, eating ice-creams and taking pictures on their 500 dollar smart phones, while imagining the lives that similarly aged kids have only a few kilometers away. Will we ever really know what is going on across the border?

(Details: If you are visiting South Korea and would like to check out the Odusan Observatory you can get the Gyeonggi-Line train from Seoul to Geumchon station then get the 900 bus from Geumchon all the way to the Observatory car park, then get the free shuttle bus to the top. More info HERE. Feel free to ask questions and I will do my best to answer.)

The Scariest Place on Earth

8 Apr

With all the recent talk about North and South Korea, I thought I would share this post with you. This time 2 years ago I was living and working in Munsan, a town of about 100,000 only a few KMs from the border with North Korea. Here’s what I had to say about it at the time….

Sometimes as I lie in my new bed, in my new room in a brand spanking new apartment block, it’s easy to forget where I am. From the minute You step outside the door of your 21 storey apartment complex you are gently reminded EXACTLY where in the world I am. I have become so used to seeing soldiers everywhere that I have simply forgotten to write about them in my blog.

I am living in Munsan, which is a city only 20 minutes from the boarder with North Korea. Munsan is the last stop on the train line. If you go any further, and as far as I know only freight trains do, you will find yourself in the depths of a ravaged nation. A country that has been totally cut off from the outside world, has a secretive government and a nation that has been struck down with famine. Today, due to the government’s secretive nature and its reluctance to allow in foreigners, North Korea is considered the world’s most isolated country.

ers on the Train line that operates from the North Korean city of Kaesong, to Munsan, in the South.

ers on the Train line that operates from the North Korean city of Kaesong, to Munsan, in the South.

Soldiers are everywhere in Korea. At the moment I am sitting in a PC Bang, which is like an internet cafe except I’m the only person actually online, everyone else is playing computer games. I am also the only girl and the only perosn not in camoflage uniform! There are probably about 20 soldiers in here, as always.

When I walk down the street in Munsan, you see soldiers everywhere, just going about everyday life. As we are so near to North Korea, there are lots of high fences with barbed wire and look out posts, a lot of which it must be said are no longer in use. But the soldiers remain.

A South Korean Soldier checking the barrier, just north of Munsan.

A South Korean Soldier checking the barrier, just north of Munsan.

Of the three tunnels between North and South that were discovered in the last 30 years, one of them, the third infiltration tunnel, ends only 12km North of Munsan. I’m hoping to do a tour of the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) next weekend, where you actually get to go down into the tunnels and experience it first hand. The tunnel is about 1,600 m long and about 150 m below ground. It is apparently designed for a surprise attack on Seoul from North Korea, and can easily accommodate 30,000 men per hour along with light weapons!! Eeeep.

Don’t ask me how or why exactly, but on Friday the other Munsan teachers and I ended up in a place Bill Clinton famously called, “The scariest place on Earth.” Anyone who knows me and knows my keen thirst for adventure will know I do not turn down offers to go to crazy places, in fact I LOOK for them.

Third infiltration tunnel, DMZ near Munsan, South Korea

Third infiltration tunnel, DMZ near Munsan, South Korea

We had befriended some US military soldiers who happened to live in the JSA (Joint Security Area) situated about 15 minutes north of Munsan and about 5 minutes south of North Korea!! The JSA is the only area in the country controlled by both North and South Korea. It is known to be one of the most isolated places on the planet, with stories of shootings and kidnappings rife. One of my friends said that she heard a story recently of someone’s grandmother who had been kidnapped for 5 days ‘just for fun’. This is no place to mess around in.

So off we went on our little adventure to what was once one of the most terrifying war zones on earth and a place still covered in secrecy and armed forces. The journey there was weird enough. We first had to cross the ‘Bridge of No Return’, a bridge lined with explosives so if any attacks or intrusions were to take place, the military could delay their progress by blowing up the only entrance into South Korea. We had to pass many checkpoints and often show our I.D cards.

We were given a mini tour of the army base, were bought a free breakfast and as the tour buses passed by (with each passenger paying 150 bucks each!) they waved at us as if we were animals in a Zoo or celebrities..it was very bizarre and we felt very out of place. We were been watched at all times, and that we weren’t allowed to take any pictures (Ooops!). It is a weird place, surrounded by mountains and green fields, and one of the first places I have witnessed birdsong and wildlife amoungst the army bunkers and look-out points.

Soldier in the JSA, North / South Korea

Soldier in the JSA, North / South Korea

On exiting one building we heard gun shots and looked at each other with frightened glances. Thank-fully we were told it was just the shooting range/practice range, but it was still somewhat scary. The guys flicked laminated pieces of paper at us, their “licences to kill’. These were no joke, they were real life licences to kill. They also showed us their guns, unloaded of course. A serious reminder of where we were.

We got to observe the army first hand, the rank system, how ‘higher ranks’ could smoke the junior privates and how their was a huge amount of respect to be found. It was quite a culture shock to us carefree teachers I must say and I was happy to head back to Munsan and my life as a teacher!

Kim Jong il Dead

19 Dec

Breaking news from the BBC (HERE) has just announced that Kim Jong Il,69, the ruthless dictator of North Korea has died. He is reported to have passed away while travelling on a train earlier today.

I wonder how this monumental event will affect relations between North and South Korea considering reports this morning say that the military have been put on high alert after news of his death was announced. With over 1.7 million troops from the two Koreas and the US army already squaring off every day, this event threatens to be a dangerous one.

Kim Jong Ils third son, Kim jong Un, who was made a high ranking general earlier this year, is thought to be his successor. But will he rule with same ruthlessness and skill as his now deceased father? Or will this event finally allow for access,and in time recovery, of this secluded and severely damaged nation? 

Only time will tell.

Kim Jong Il, who died today aged 69

Ethical Travel… Should you go?

7 Mar

It is always the less visited nations of the world that catch my attention when travelling. Roads less travelled, cities that never get a mention in the “must visit” lists, places my parents or friends would never dream of going.

When it comes to getting out there and choosing what countries to explore, should Ethics play its part? Are certain countries hard to get to for a reason? Can travelling to a corrupt country be seen as supporting a corrupt government or regime? Where do you draw the line between being adventurous and just being darn reckless?

Living within a ten minute drive of one of the most heavily armed borders in the world, that once crossed, lands you in what could well be the most isolated nation on Earth, can be very tempting for an adventurous soul like myself.

Satellite image of North Korea Vs South Korea at night

For many people, including fellow teachers I work with and probably all my friends back home, this would be viewed as a threat.  A downfall of life in South Korea. Playing with Fire. For me, however, I see it as an opportunity. What could be a once in a lifetime opportunity to get an inside peek at a nation   secrets and mysteries.

Within weeks of setting foot on Korean soil I had already leapt at a chance to see Punmunjeom and the army base with a group of American soldiers we had befriended in a local bar. It was a bizarre experience to be walking around no mans land….a little slice of American soil within the North/South Korean border.

Now I wonder to myself whether I want to go to North Korea or not. Adventure Korea is running a tour in July I believe for either a one day or weekend trip to a city just over the border. All tours would be heavily guarded and you normally only get to hear the propaganda filled spiel written by Kim Jong Il and his cronies and only get to see sites that will specifically shine a white light on all that is “good” about North Korea (known there as “Best Korea”). That aside, should I even be THINKING about travelling to one of the most corrupt nations on earth, feeding money into Kim Jong Il’s deadly regime?

While I write this my boyfriend is in Burma (now known as Myanmar) where he will be backpacking for 3 weeks or so. The Visa process can be quite tedious (although not as long as attempting to get one for North Korea I’m assured!) and as there are no ATMs in the country, tourists must bring a minimum of 250 dollars hard cash just to gain entry into the tiny nation.

According to the BBC factfile on Burma,

“It’s impossible to go there and not give money to the government. From the moment your plane hits the tarmac, you’re lining the military’s pockets. Much of the country’s tourist infrastructure is developed by the use of forced labour. People have been made to construct roads, airports and hotels, and thousands more have been forcibly relocated to make way for tourist areas. Tourism to Burma is helping to prolong the life of one of the most brutal and destructive regimes in the world”.

A young Burmese Boy

I can remember a few years ago hitch-hiking from Kenya to Sudan. Not because I wanted to volunteer there, or report on the devastating civil war that was in full swing but, for a much more selfish and contrived reason…I wanted that stamp in my passport. I wanted to go home and tell my friends and family how I had hitch-hiked to Sudan, had lunch then hitch-hiked back to my school in Kenya in time for work the next day. Not the most ethical travel by a long shot.

So with all this in mind, should the long line of people queuing for visas for Burma at the embassy in Bangkok really be there? Should people with money to burn be forking out 2-3000 dollars for a 10 day tour of North Korea? Should backpackers, myself included, think a little longer and a little deeper before making impulsive decisions to hitch a lift to Colombia or Sudan or Libya? By going to countries like this, are we being selfish and just looking at things from our point of view or does it really make the slightest difference?

So readers, what do YOU think?

Walking in a Winter Wonderland

30 Dec

Murphys Law: Pray for it to snow on Christmas every year since you were a child and it will never snow. Leave the country for 2 winters in a row, and it will snow more than it did it the previous 2 decades!! Typical!!

Ever since winter starting to creep up on us in Korea, the temperature slowly dropping further and further below 0’c I’ve been praying and praying for snow. I even had a bet on with a friend over whether it would snow here on Christmas day, a bet which I lost miserable. But alas, fear not, my years of hoping and praying were not a complete waste of time for alas my winter wonderland has appeared.

Thanks to the snow I have had to queue for nearly an hour to get a taxi to work resulting in me being VERY late for work two days in a row. I have fallen on my ass while legging it down the road trying to make it to work on time, but ending up late, yet again. I have got frost bite on my arse from making too many snow angels and icy hands thanks to attempting to cycle home in the snow without gloves. Despite all these woes…I STILL LOVE SNOW!!

 

Kim Jong Il looking at things

16 Dec

So, I came across an awesomely hilarious blog today. Like Ronseal, it does exactly what it says on the tin. Kim Jong Il Looking at Things is a photo blog of North Koreas undefeated, satanic leader Kim Jong Il well… looking at things! What is crazy is that he seems to be touring the country and releasing random pictures to the media while his country turns to, well, shit. What a man.

Here are a few of my favourites, Kim Jong Il looking at things, food things.

Kim Jong Il, with his entourage, looking at Chocolate

 

Kim Jong Il, with his entourage, looking at Corn

Kim Jong-Il, and entourage, looking at Biscuits

Kim Jong Il looking at eggs...!

Kim Jong Il looking at Bubble Gum

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