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A few minutes in North Korea – JSA & DMZ

The borderline of Korea is one of the best-guarded ones in the world. Between peace and freedom village, blue houses, soldiers, conflicts and secret tunnels lay a tourist attraction between North and South Korea.

 

 

Korea was over 35 years the colony of Japan before it got independent in 1945 after the Second World War. But only a few years later the Soviet Union and the United States divided the country into South (Republic of Korea) and North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) in 1948. Two years later North Korea attacked the Southern part during the Korean War (1950-1953) which recessed the separation. Afterwards, the countries worked for a peaceful reunification which did not occur until today.

 

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JSA and DMZ

Since I was more than four months in South Korea, of course visiting the borderline of its only neighbour country was on my bucket list.
The DMZ is the Demilitarized zone, four kilometres long and de facto the borderline of North and South Korea. In 1953, both countries signed an armistice agreement which says that soldiers are not allowed to cross the line and do not attack each other.

 

“Don’t worry the man in the back is here to protect you!”

DSCN7507JSA is the abbreviation for Joint Security Area and is directly at the borderline. First of all, we got an introduction to the JSA and it’s mostly Don’ts from American soldiers, who are still based at the border from South Korea. Actually, before I went on the tour I already got a whole list of clothes which are not allowed to wear at JSA. Forbidden are shorts, ripped jeans, t-shirts, flip-flops or also sportswear. They really pay a lot of attention that North Korean soldiers don’t find a reason to feel provoked.

First, we crossed the freedom house in rows of two on the South side. Our tour guide led us to one of the blue houses. These are conference rooms who are used by the two Korean countries to negotiate with each other. In the middle of this room is a long table who markers the exactly borderline. The room has two entrances, one on the South Korean side, one on the North side. A Korean soldier guards the door to prohibit that North Koreans can enter the conference room. Tourists are allowed to go on the other side of the table. Yeah, I was at least for five minutes in North Korea. The American soldier who guided our tour told us that the people on his side of the table are still in South Korea – and save. But we others would not need to worry, the soldier on the door would protect usDSCN7505. To be honest, I wasn’t worried before he told me this. But this sentence really emphasized the seriousness of the situation. It feels kind of surreal. The poor Korean soldier next to the North Korean door was our favourite background motive for the next twenty tourist photos. But he looked really so cool with his sunglasses (all South Korean soldiers were sunglasses – and yes, even if the sun isn’t shining).

 

Souvenirs from North Korea
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North Korean soldier

We were only allowed to take photos from the North Korean side with the Panmun-gak (the building of North Korea) but not from the Freedom house on the South Korean side. This is kind of ironical since I heard that you can also visit JSA in North Korea. There it’s only allowed to take photos from the South Korean side. Along the blue houses stand the soldiers from North and South. At which the North Koreans mostly hide in the building. But we were lucky and could see one North Korean in front of the other building. I used my zoom to take a look at some North Korean soldiers. It felt a bit crazy to stand there and observe them. But the American soldier assured us that they also observed us from the other side and made probably some photos from us. – Weird thought.
After the visit of the directly borderline, we went to a small museum and a souvenir shop. There you can buy souvenirs from North Korea. They sell different things, among other things also money and 29133736_10156172574074709_4692789260267290624_oalcohol. I bought an old 100 KRW banknote with the face of Kim Il-sung on the top, the father of Kim Jong-un, the actual leader of North Korea. I heard that if you visit North Korea you never get the North Korean money but pay everything in US Dollar to your guide who pays for you in the local currency. So it is really interesting that you can buy North Korean money here in South Korea.

 

From the South Korean side - The blue houses of JSA
A North Korean soldier infront of the Panmun-gak
 
Inside of the conference room in one of the blue houses
In the museum of the JSA visitor center
 
Panmunjeon and Bridge of No Return

Former Panmunjeon was a village in Korea. Today there is the inter-military complex of JSA. Almost 65 years ago North Korea, China, and the UNO signed the armistice agreement to end the Korean War in 1953. The building where the agreement was signed is still preserved and today stands in a province of North Korea. The borderline and JSA kept the name and is still called Panmunjeon. Close to Panmunjeon is also the Bridge of No Return which is a bridge between the two countries and has its name from the former Korean War. The bridge was used to exchange the prisoners and prohibit them to return ever in the other country.

 

Freedom vs. Peace
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View to the Peace Village

A few people still live close to the border. On the South Korean side is this the village Daeseong-dong, also called freedom village. There live mostly farmers who already lived there before the Korean War or are directly progenies of the former residents. The village also has its own school. The inhabitants profit by special benefits as the exempt from taxes. Soldiers guard them and they have a curfew which forbids to leave their houses after 11pm. On the other side in North Korea is the closest locality Kijŏng-dong, also called peace village. Our US-soldier and tour guide explained to us that they call it propaganda village because the houses would only be dummies and they do not believe that people would live there. North Korea claims that families live in the peace village and there would be also a health center, kindergarten, and schools.
In both villages are flagpoles. After South Korea built its flagpole, North Korea also built one. This flagpole was higher and until a few years the highest in the world.

 

German history meets Korea

DSCN7519Our group also visited the last train station Dorsan in South Korea right infront of the borderline. Theoretically, Dorasan connects South Korea with North, practically, there are no trains leaving the station from here. But a big sign in the entrance hall says “To Pyongjang” and we could buy train tickets for around 1 Dollar. We also could go to the tracks. Our tour guide told us that the station was built to connect both countries in case of a reunification and could immediately send trains to North Korea’s capital. From this station, we could also listen to some music from North Korea coming out of loudspeakers. That felt really weird.

DSCN7543The station of Dorsan also represents some history. There is a piece of the Berlin Wall. On both sides are boards. On the left side with the dates of the German reunification (41 years, 4 months and 11 days), on the right side an electronic one which counts even in seconds the division of Korea. Our guide told us that they would stop the counting immediately if Korea would become one country again. A small wagon shows old newspaper articles and photos of the reunification of Germany plus some relicts from the former DDR (German Democratic Republic, East Germany). The German reunification reminds the visitors of the train station that also the reunion of Korea seems possible.

 

The last station in South Korea
 
 
 
 
A look over the border to North Korea
Telescopes for a better view
The peace village of North Korea
 
At the 3rd tunnel
Peace and Destroying (3rd tunnel)

DSCN7585Also part of the DMZ-Tour is the visit of the 3rd tunnel. This tunnel was built by North Korea together with three other tunnels which cross the DMZ. In the beginning, they denied that they built them but the walls proof that dynamite blows up the earth from North to South. The 3rd tunnel was discovered in 1978. South Korea believes that North Korea built these tunnels to send their men fast to South Korea in case of another war. It is evaluated that around 30,000 soldiers could walk within an hour from North Korea to Seoul to start an surprise attack. But the tunnel was never finalised. The UN charged North Korea for breaking the agreement between the two countries.

DSCN7577We got a yellow protective helmet for visiting. First, we needed to go downstairs. The tunnel is around 70 metres under the earth and at some points so small that even I needed to move in my head.  Nowadays, the tunnels are blocked by cement blocks but visitors of the 3rd tunnel can walk forward until one of the blocks and look through a window until the next one. It was a weird feeling to walk in this narrowed tunnel system under the earth and so close to the border. South Korea believes that they are probably more than the four secret tunnels underground just they did not find them yet.

 

 

 

Traditional Korea

South Korea is still full of traditions and folkways. Seoul by oneself has five old King Palaces and different Hanok Villages, where the old Korean traditions are still alive.

 

 

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Hanok Village

The different Hanok Villages offer the opportunity to visit old traditional Korean houses, to take  a look at the architecture and also a look inside of the rooms. The houses are preserved from the past and more than 100 years old. dscn7868We were in the Namsangol Hanok Village. The entry is free. This village shows again the combination out of traditional and modern life in Korea, around the beautiful houses are skyscraper. I was really surprised, how small the rooms and houses were. At the entrance gates are everywhere warnings that you should pay attention because the gates are so low. Even for me, it was a problem (and I really don’t know many people who are smaller than me). The architecture is totally incredible and beautiful. You will feel like you travelled back in time. The location is so nice that also many fresh married couples come to the Villages to take their wedding pictures.

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Samul nori

In the village, they also had little straw huts which remembered to tipis. In the past the function of the straw huts were to keep the Kimchi (traditional Korean food made out of Chinese cabbage), I was told, it worked similar to a fridge. In the center of the village, they have small games. At one game you have to throw arrows in a vase. – Really not so easy. But if you succeed the reputation from all bystanders is safe. We were also lucky and watched an old traditional dance, Samul nori. I already wrote a lot about this traditional music and dance in my last post (click here to read the article My first week in Seoul). But this time they also had headgears with long white ribbons and when they moved their heads the ribbons danced around their heads. That was really pretty.

 

In the Namsangol Hanok Village
Girls wearing Hanbok
 
 
 
 
 
Dancers of Samul nori
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
The straw hut for Kimchi
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
In the village of Bukchon
 
 
 
 
Feel like a Korean princess

Hanboks are the traditional Korean clothes. In Korea, you can borrow these clothes and wear them. To borrow the clothes you have to pay between 10,000-20,000₩ (circa 9-18.20$). Depends on which dresses you want to wear and how long you want to borrow them. dscn8051One of the most important holidays in South Korea is Chuseok (추석), it is a family celebration. And at these days the whole city was full of Koreans wearing beautiful Hanboks. Chuseok means loosely translated autumn evening. It is equivalent to Thanksgiving and takes about three days.

 

 

 

King Palaces
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Deoksugung Palace

In the Joseon Dynasty Seoul had six palaces. Today five of them are still preserved: The Gyeongbokgung (the biggest), the Changdeokgung, the Deoksugung, the Changgyeonggung and the small Unhyeongung Palace.  In my opinion, visiting a Kings Palace is a must-see in South Korea. The entries are really low (between 1,000-3,000₩, ~0.90-2.70$), Unhyeongung Palace is for free. Also, the architecture here is really beautiful.

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Me with the Aekjeongseo Sayak (key master) and the Seungjeongwon Juseo (delivers the King’s orders)

The roofs are painted in vivid colours. Furthermore, the Gyeongbokgung and the Deoksugung Palace offer free little shows for tourists. There they show the changing ceremony of the royal guards. There you can see the different persons of the king guard and get a feeling for Korean history. If you are a big fan of the Korean architecture and palaces you should think of buying the “Integrated Palace Ticket” it offers the entry to four Kings palaces including the secret garden and the Jongmyo Shrine. The ticket costs 10,000 Won (~9$) and is valid thee months after purchase (you save around 4,000 Won when you use all tickets). Furthermore, people who were a Hanbok get always free entry.

 

 

The king guard infront of the Deoksugung Palace.
The main entrance of the Deoksugung Palace.
 
 
 
 
 
The colourful roof of the palace.
 
Western architecture in the midst of the traditional Korean houses. The Seokjojeon Hall, you need to register before if you want to visit the rooms.
 
 
The Deoksugung Art Museum
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
The king guard march to the main Gate.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 

My first week in Seoul

South Korea and Seoul itself are full of new experiences, differences in culture, language script, food and even the everyday life. It’s a country full of opposites. The new-age Korea with all of its high modern technic versus the old traditional Korea with all of its Palaces and Hanbok .. This post is about my first week as an exchange student in Seoul.

 

 

Facts about South Korea and Seoul

The official name of South Korea is Republic of Korea. The official language is Korean and the official script is Hangul. In 1910 Korea was ruled by the Imperial Japan and after World War II it was divided into North and South Korea. Since then, North Korea is the only borderline to South Korea. The capital of the Republic of Korea is Seoul. It is also the largest city of the country and the 16th largest city in the world. Circa 50% of the population from South Korea live in the metropolitan area of Seoul.

 

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My first week in Seoul

Finally, my semester in Seoul started. I arrived after 18 hours with a little stop in Abu Dhabi in Seoul with seven hours time difference to my home country. Lucky me, I hadn’t to fight with a jet lag since I am in Seoul and the weather is also very nice. Something between late summer and early autumn.

 

 

I am studying at the EWHA Womans university which is really beautiful and even a little tourist attraction in Seoul.  dscn7825Rents and especially deposits are really high in South Korea, which is why I am happy to stay in a dormitory (if you want to read more .. click here to read my post Curfew. Woman’s University. Visa. And lots of preparation.) The running costs for a living are really high in Korea what makes the country so expensive in the relation to Germany (and many other countries in the world). Also, the food prices in supermarkets and Convenience Stores are high, especially, fruits and vegetables (for example, 5 apples cost approximately 6,000 ₩, these would be 5.45$). In my opinion, some restaurants are not so expensive in Korea and I love that you always get free water and can refill it as often you like. The cheapest way to eat is properly the street food (you pay something between 1.80-4.54$). Also really in common is to order food. Even McDonalds has his own delivery service. At public places as Han River it is easily possible to get 40 flyers for different delivery services. But I will write an own post about food in Korea.

 

 

Learning a new language script

Hangul (한글) is the official script in Korea. Although it looks really complicated, it’s not so difficult to learn. My university book for Korean classes said it’s the 12th widely used language in the world and ahead of Italian and French (sounds unbelievable, I know).

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King Sejong who invented Hangul

Hangul was invented in 1443 by King Sejong, the fourth monarch during the Joseon Dynasty. The new language script should help ordinary people easier to write and read. Because before Hangul, Korean was written in Chinese characters. One says a wise man could learn Hangul in one day, a stupid man could learn it in ten days. I have Korean classes twice a week, so I learned Hangul in seven days ;). The modern Hangul has 24 letters and 27 digraphs. But also if you don’t speak the Korean language, especially Seoul has many English speaking people who will try to help you and the metro signs and the station announcements are also in English.

 

 

The view from my university to the city
On EWHA Campus
 
 
 
 
 
At the Han River (Hangang)
We got 41 flyers for ordering food at the Han River.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
The City Tour Bus of Seoul
 
Soju is the most popular alcohol in Korea, one bottle of it is even cheaper than a can of beer.
 
 
The pavilion at the Namsan Tower
 
 
An underground museum explains the story of King Sejong and Admiral Yi Sunshin. This statue shows the Admiral.
In the underground museum
 
Cultural Day in Korea

Since 2014 Korea has the cultural day every last Wednesday in the month.dscn7426 Then is the best time to visit museums and cinemas, because the cultural day offers discounts, sometimes even free entries and extended opening hours. Since I arrived in End of August, we have been using this day already to visit the Seoul Museum of History. The museum shows the history and culture of Seoul from the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) to the present day. It represents the living of the people in Korea, also during Korea under Japanese Control until the late 90s.

 

Seoul Museum of Histroy
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Samul nori – Traditional Korean Dance and Music

Samul nori is a genre of traditional Korean music and dances. Me and my roommate were lucky to see such a dance performed by Korean students at our university. Samul nori uses four different percussion instruments. They have a small gong (Kkwaenggwari), a larger gong (Jing), an hourglass-shaped drum (Janggu) and a barrel drum (Buk drum). The students were dressed in beautiful Korean dresses, called Hanbok. They had two students, which were dressed differently from the others. They had the small gongs and provided the rhythm.dscn7540 Some students from the audience ran to the dancers and clipped some banknotes under their hats. There was also a little ceremony in the beginning. We didn’t understand what they were saying (because it was in Korean), but one girl had a mask of a pig. Pigs count here as lucky charms. Some girls stand in a row, got something to drink, then they kneeled down and after standing up they gave some little papers to the pig mask. Perhaps they wrote down their wishes or something similar.

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Namsan Tower
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Namsan Tower

The official name of the Namsan Tower is N Seoul Tower and it is one of the most famous attractions in Seoul. It’s a TV tower and has its name from the hill Namsan. When you go to Namsan Tower you can choose between using a cable car or many, many stairs. I would recommend the stairs because of the view. The tower is circa 237 meters high and gives a nice few over the city. For people which try to save money, I think it’s not absolutely necessary to get up the tower because the view is already really good from the bottom of the Tower. There is also one viewing platform which is adorned with many love locks.Actually, there is a little shop for love locks in the Tower.

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The view from Namsan Tower.

The entrance for adults is 10,000  (circa 9$), but the viewing platform is just inside and around the windows are many bright shining stalls which make it really complicated to make a good picture. I liked that the windows have flags from different countries which show how far away the capital of the particular country is. Nonetheless, it was a really nice view from the Namsan Tower and I didn’t repent to spend the money.

 

Deposit and free trips for foreigners

Why is it good to be a foreigner? South Korea is really interested in introducing their country to foreigners. They want to make K-Pop more famous in the world. So as a foreigner, you can visit some concerts which are especially (and actually only) for foreigners and (that is the best) for free.dscn7810
I was lucky to join a free trip to Jeollanam-do Provine deep in the South sponsored by the Korean government. It was a free trip also just for foreigners, two busses full of exchange students. We went to the Great Battle of Myeongnyang Festival and the Korean Minhwa Museum with traditional Korean paintings (also a section with erotic paintings). But the best was the trip to the little island 가우도 (Ga-u-do). It is really near to the mainland and connected by a bridge. We saw fisher boats and at the beach were beautiful shells and tiny crabs.
Sometimes foreigners also get deposit for free time activities. So that is the reason why it is good to be a foreigner in South Korea.

 

Free trip for foreigners to Jeollanam-do Province in the South.
At the Great Battle of Myeongnyang Festival
Many stalls with food and spices.
Beondegi (번데기) is a typical dish for Korean cuisine. Beondegi are steamed and  boiled silkworm pupae.
The bridge with thousands of flags of the Battleship Festival.
 
 
 
 
Traditional Korean music
 
In the Korean Minhwa Museum with traditional Korean paintings.
The tiger is one of the favourite motives of the Minhwa paintings.
A modern Minhwa painting.
 
 
At the islands of 가우도 (Ga-u-do). One bridge link the island with the mainland.
 
 
Fishing in the East Sea (Sea of Japan).
 
Tiny crabs between the stones at the beach.
 
And an important message in the end.