Published: November 11th 2006April 2nd 2002
Hey guys. The title of my latest adventure may sound a bit ominous, but it is not as far from the truth as you might think. Surely, the profession of armed guard must number among the most popular in South Korea. Combined with 2-year obligatory military service for all men, I got the impression that there is neither back alley nor grand boulevard without a cop watching your back, or perhaps eyeing you suspiciously because of an ill-timed word or gesture. In fact, there is reason for such paranoiac behavior, although somewhat diminished with the passing of time:
namely the presence of communist spies. In a page taken right out of the Cold War, there’s a bounty of $10,000 to $50,000 for the discovery of a commie from the North trying to wean state secrets from their
much disliked neighbors in the south.
My friends and I were, of course, unsuccessful in producing a genuine Cuban cigar smoking, crypto-savvy, Marxist theory ranting Red although it did make the subject of amusing fantasies. At the end of our trip, we finally were forced to accept the painful truth that one could have been under our noses the whole time, and we never would have known it. They speak virtually the same language and have the same facial features, which renders them virtually
indistinguishable from the average South Korean.
That is not to say that there weren’t any interesting moments during our traveling. We found ourselves surrounded by controversy on one occasion, mainly because our trajectory coincided nearly exactly
with the itinerary of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi of Japan, a choice bit of irony. Walking around a city built two thousand years when the Shilla people ruled most of the Korean peninsula, we came upon
protesters decrying the PM's arrival and lambasting Japan for hundreds of years of domination and violation of South Korea’s sovereignty. The Koreans like to protest like no one’s business and a trip to
the South certainly wouldn’t have been complete without a sighting of dozens of them waving a huge banner proudly condemning someone or another. However, it did create a bit of an awkward moment when
we asked the children among the protesters why they were striking. Not sharing a common language, they responded by swiping their hands across their throats, at which point we decided it would be prudent to
remain silent about our secret identities as English teachers in Japan.
Being the huge fan of Communist dictatorships that I am, I would have liked a chance to cast my gaze on the fabled DMZ, home to 37,000 U.S. soldiers and just as many South Korea ones. Unfortunately we
didn’t have the time to make it to Panmunjeon, the so-called truce village, the only spot on the 37th parallel that is not off limits to non-combatants. In Panmunjeon, you can see the very room where the two
sides endlessly attempt to hash out an agreement to end the Korean War. So far, no luck. As for North Korea proper, well it’s basically forbidden to us Americans and probably will continue to be so for some
time to come. Imagine a country in which everyone wears a badge that indicates their social status complete with a photo of the Dear Leader, their first president or the Great Leader, their current one, can’t go anywhere without permission and are bombarded with endless anti-U.S. propaganda. It would make for interesting stories, if nothing else.
The country I did go to, South Korea. turned out to be a virtual clone of Japan, complete with skyscrapers, fast food joints, and flawless public transportation, and as such was not all that
interesting. The uncertainty of everything from getting around to figuring out where to go, one of the charms of visiting the developing world, was lacking. Still, we were privy to many memorable moments over the course of our journeys. The food was quite tasty,
nearly always containing kimchi, or spiced vegetables. Our best meal was a Korean barbecue. The meat was cooked at the table, and then we proceeded to grab a leaf of lettuce, add a slab of meat, rice, vegetables, kimchi and smash it all together. The various side
dishes were served in tiny bowls that they replaced faster than we could finish them. Our hotel was situated on the top of the aptly named Hooker Hill, which I thought lent a little intrigue to our journey although my friends thought otherwise. We visited the
War Remnants Museum, unsurprisingly anti-North Korean, and were even treated to a music and dance performance of dozens of South Korea’s soldiers spanning every branch of the armed forces. We finished our tour with a glimpse of the presidential Blue House. Wherever we
went, Big Brother was watching, but as long as we didn’t contemplate any crime to the establishment and/or take any forbidden photos, we were safe from the dungeons.
It took a mere three hours by hydrofoil to get to the port city of Pusan, South Korea so I definitely will be back to climb the pristine mountains, pick up some more tips on spy catching, and perhaps obtain a
glimpse into the most secretive society on Earth, the totalitarian regime of the North.