We went to Seoul, South Korea for a very short visit—just a day. What we saw filled us with both sadness and admiration.
Saturday morning we embarked on a tour of the DMZ.
I did so with much trepidation, but am glad we went. I had all kinds of opinions—many misconceptions—of US involvement in the country of Korea. It is evident, though, that the South Korean people are grateful to Americans for their help in the Korean War.
The DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) divides the Korean Peninsula in half on the 38th parallel. It is 151 kilometers long and 4 kilometers wide (2 K on each side of the line). Without human intervention, the DMZ has become a refuge teeming with wildlife. When you look at the lakes and rivers in Korea, the first thing that is apparent is the lack of boats. The bodies of water that I saw were pristine and blue.
The DMZ was formed in 1953 at the end of the Korean War. There was never a peace treaty—just an armistice—so it remains fortified; in fact, it is the most fortified border in the world. That being said, there has not been activity to match that distinction. There have been incidents and shootings, but nothing of note since 2006. What surprised me was that the North Koreans have been planning attacks even though the war supposedly ended. As late as 1990, the South Koreans found a tunnel that was being dug for underground attack to Seoul! Four of them have been found coming from different places along the border. The third one that was found is open to tourists. We walked through part of it. It is very scary to think that while the innocent people of South Korea are going about their business of developing their society, someone is secretly planning to end their progress. It made me realize how I lived my whole life until 2001 without having to deal with that constant fear.
The sad thing to see is how much the South Koreans are hoping for and expecting reunification. Families have been divided. A week after we were there a reunion of chosen families was held and, only after having been there, did the poignancy of that event affect me. Be sure to note the sign at the railroad station about the future Transcontinental Railway. I wonder if the citizens of North Korea have similar hopes.
I know that there is a definite competitive outlook in the North. The white South Korean flag was raised and, later, the North Koreans raised their red flag to be higher than the South flag. Stories I heard about life in North Korea, however, make it sound similar to Eastern Europe when it was part of the Iron Curtain. I was in East Berlin when the wall was still up and it sounds so much the same as what I saw—very few cars and people walking around in military uniforms with no real jobs to go to. The majority of people belong to the military. That’s why we see so many people marching on the news clips!
Seoul was a very pretty, clean city. The people were friendly and there are many Americans there because of our military bases right in Seoul proper. Leather goods are the main attraction for shoppers. The food was OK, but for me, can’t compare to Chinese or Thai cooking.
After our tour, we returned to Seoul, bought a leather backpack, had a long wonderful lunch, and took a taxi to the Foreigner’s Cemetery on a hill overlooking the Han River. This was our most important mission. My husband’s mother was born in Korea to missionary parents and her mom died when she was 14 years old. (She just turned 96 a few days after we were there.) She wanted Joe Allen to visit her mother’s grave. We were so worried about not being able to find it but we got there and it was the very first one we saw! A man offered to take our picture and walked away. He came back a few minutes later and told us that this was one of the most thrilling days of his life! He was so happy to meet descendants of the Christian missionaries who changed the lives of many Koreans. It turned out that he is a pastor in Seoul and comes to visit the cemetery and adjoining church with his children whenever he can. (This was a Saturday evening.) “Mission accomplished.”
Korea remains, though, primarily a Buddhist country. While Joe Allen was working, I went to see a temple the next day and it was quite interesting. The pictures show pretty much of what I saw. Again, the people were warm and welcoming, but my time was short as we had to hurry to the airport.
It was a short, but satisfying and informative visit for us. I would love to go there and have a week stay at a temple in the mountains as many tourists do. I would love to explore the streets of Seoul as I do here in Shanghai. For now, I’ll take what I can get and enjoy it. This was one of those trips that reinforce my feelings of gratitude for my place in this world.