By David Rich
Korea crackled from my first day there.
I fortuitously arrived on the annual extravaganza of Chusok (also Chu Suk), the annual mid-September Thanksgiving/harvest festival giving Koreans an excuse to pig out, dress up, visit relatives and frolic around their national shrines. This is a story about two Koreas, North and South, which are so dramatically different.
The foremost fiesta exploded at the Gyeongbokgung World Heritage Palace in Seoul. I stumbled on it crammed with thousands of Korean kids in colorful costume, the cutest little tykes anywhere.
The dozens of guards, a king for a day, teenaged kids and regular folks cavorted in silken rainbows all over the sprawling Chinese-style Palace. They filled successive courtyards ornately decorated around reflecting lagoons.
As an out-of-control photographer, I grabbed more arresting photos than any other day of this singularly manic hobby. Amazingly, I found that crackling days in Korea follow like one, two, three.
Visiting the Demilitarized Zone
My first impulse in Seoul required visiting the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), 155 miles (200 km) of rolled razor-wire forming the most pristine plant and animal sanctuary left on earth. This mile (2 km)-wide strip has excluded the world‘s more dangerous predator –man– for 50-plus years.
Predators from the north instead tunnel underneath, with three tunnels revealed by stoolies out of an estimated 200 still undiscovered. Tunnel #3 entered South Korea thirty-one miles (52 km) north of Seoul, 250 feet (73 m) deep, prepped to expel 50,000 troops an hour on command of the Great Leader.
Accordingly, the South Korean Army requires two years of military service by its draft-age youngsters. North Korea conscripts women for 8 years and men for eleven years, the best years of their lives because only then do they regularly eat. I had to go see this Axis of Evil up close.
For citizens of a certain rogue nation, the one whose president labeled North Korea a member of the “Axis of Evil,” and for residents of South Korea, the only means of visiting the North is to join a tour. Six hundred people are allowed daily penetration up the east coast to the Kumgangsan (Diamond) Mountains.
I signed up pronto. After days of red tape, I was allowed in along with two Aussies, a few ethnic Koreans holding passports from the rogue nation, and 590 South Koreans. The autumn day of our entry rivaled October in New England.
We lined up at the North Korean border, holding passports aloft in one hand and visas in the other, surrendering binoculars, cell phones, and cameras with zoom lenses over 135 millimeters.
A Closely Guided Tour
North Korean soldiers lurked everywhere, sealing off intersecting roads and making certain our caravan of 22 buses didn’t stray from the rather straight and very narrow, perfectly paved road lined with a chartreuse fence backed by 220 crackling volts.
Occasionally, in the distance, we spotted farmers dressed in navy blue with matching hats, toting archaic wooden implements.
No photos were allowed except when hiking high in the Diamond Mountains far away from the locals.
Except for giant billboards showing the Great Leader surrounded by adoring children and hundreds of rock carvings touting “self-sufficiency,” the tour was like not even leaving South Korea. We were sequestered in Hyundai Asan’s plushly antiseptic village specially built for rich tourists from decadent capitalist countries.
Meanwhile back in the South, captured North Korean spies awaiting repatriation to the Great Leader had tears in their eyes, anxious for the freedom to follow the dictates of the North’s founding Workers’ Party. Crackling crazy.
The highlights of the real South Korea are phenomenal for a country the size of Indiana or, if you prefer, Portugal. South Korea is packed with 48 million hard-working people idolizing education and teachers above doctors and lawyers, a singularly rational nation.
The South is an economic powerhouse harboring a wide range of fantastic food, captivating motels, colorful festivals, fascinating islands, historical sites sprinkled with ancient temples and the people in all the world most friendly to those from the world’s number one rogue nation.
The food not only includes often-derided kimchi, and fermented vegetables in dozens of choices, but a further potpourri of food in a wide variety of spices.
The options range from hundred-item buffets offering all-you-can-eat for $5, the freshest raw seafood (split seconds from the tank to your plate), seafood actually cooked, dozens of main soup dishes surrounded by small bowls of various kimchis, to my favorite, stewed pullet stuffed with garlic, onions, chestnuts, and ginseng.
The World’s Most Exciting Entrée
Then there’s the bonus food, the world’s most exciting entrée. If you choose to gorge on pure excitement, order blowfish. One wrong snip by the chef and you’re history. Except perhaps for Russian roulette, nothing crackles with more excitement than blowfish.
Korean motels sprout turrets that would have made Walt Disney blush, most featuring curtained garages for lovers sneaking in and out. Except for my patronage they may be mostly populated by the testosterone-laden bus drivers sporting immaculate white gloves while cutting through expressway traffic like driving Porsches.
On the rather plus side, Korean motel rooms are fully contained and spiffy with constantly clean sheets, available anywhere and everywhere for $25 to $40 an entire night. You don’t need a guidebook or the ability to read Korean to find a comfy place to overnight: head for any fancily adorned multi-story building topped by a sign with flames rising from a half-moon hearth. Satisfaction guaranteed.
The Mask Dance Festival
The Andong Mask Dance Festival, ten admission-free days on five continuous stages, and a similar festival of 17 days in Gimhae fulfilled this photographer’s dream of costumed fantasies in a perfect pirouette.
Dancers from Asia (Mongolia, Taiwan, India, Japan, Thailand, and Jordan), South America (Venezuela) and Europe (Turkey) seemed to perform for me alone. The Andong festival’s most fabulous costumes rose two stories showered by a Taiwanese Sherwin-Williams.
The original mask dances were spawned in Korea’s hermit empire. In the olden days locals, with their identities protected by masks, satirized corrupt politicians. Now South Koreans no longer need masks to criticize what they consider perpetually corrupt politicians.
In the North, everyone belongs to the glorious Workers’ Party where criticism is unheard of and masks are accordingly unnecessary. However, I did catch a breathtaking performance of the world-class Pyongyang Moranbong Acrobatic Troupe on the North Korean tour, with photos verboten.
Ulleungdo and Jejudo
I spent days on two of Korea’s fascinatingly diverse islands. Ulleungdo Island supports 9,000 people less than a hundred miles (160km) off the east coast, a relative speck at 100 square kilometers (36 sq. miles), while the semi-tropical island of Jeju lies half that distance off the South Korean coast. Jeju is Korea’s biggest island at 2500 square kilometers (900 sq. miles) with almost a million people, busily exporting tangerines. Both islands demand exploration.
Jeju’s biggest industry is tourism among its 300 volcanic cones surrounding Hallasan Mountain, the central volcano at 1950 meters (6100 feet). Ulleungdo survives on the literally millions of squid caught daily, a refuge of peace and quiet, hikes among rampant pine and bamboo forests, in many ways similar to Saba in the Caribbean, though seven times larger.
Ulleungdo requires a series of 200-meter (630-foot) spiral bridges to escape the fishing villages below its nigh-sheer cliffs. Both Ulleundgo and Jejudo (and Saba) are scuba divers’ paradise. The fantastically-shaped volcanic spires, lighthouses, and rocks surrounding both islands are every last one named with equal imagination. Their motto could be cleanliness first; a month before my arrival a typhoon washed away the majority of cars, 56, from one small Ulleungdo village.
Temples, Tombs, and Castles
If islands aren’t your thing, visit the sprawling World Heritage city and complex of Gyeungju. Its temples, gardens, grassy humped tombs, castles, rock carvings and pagodas were executed back when Cleopatra was instructing Julius Caesar on hip-hop.
This amazing outdoor museum was completed before the fourth century C.E. when Europe was entering the dark ages, 900 years before the discovery of the Americas. This is when the Korean peninsula was first united for almost a millennium under the Silla dynasty.
Notwithstanding the remarkable attractions of this smallish country, the best of its best is its people. The Koreans have elevated their tiny kingdom to an economic powerhouse. Plus they made me feel more welcome than the average iconoclast deserves. The Remarkables I met included:
–a pool hustler with 18 years of residence in Los Angeles, semi-retired to Ulleungdo Island,
— a deep sea free-diver precipitously retired after his bosses’ untimely underwater demise, now running a bar next to a U.S. Army base,
— a former Korean Navy Seal who walked nine weekends from the west to the east coast, on his 17th day nearing the border with North Korea, where I joined him for a couple of hours long stroll,
— the senior vice-president of Hyundai Asan running one of Hyundai’s eight operations, tourism in North Korea (His daughter was studying for a high school final examination that would determine her fate in life.),
— the Gimhae high school teacher, the highest prestige profession in Korea, who rescued me off a local bus, found me a fabulous motel with steam room and spent the next day showing me the local sights.
— the 28-year-old professional university student who drove me off the ferry onto Jejudo Island in his hopped-up jeep and hosted a feast that evening, thanks to his girlfriend’s credit card, and
— the Ethiopian Jew from New York City introducing an internet payment system similar to “Paypal” in Korea, who I’d met last year in China.
It’s utterly fantastic to meet people who love rogue-nation citizens better than any other on the planet. Crackling Koreas.
- “I Can’t Believe We Live Here!” - September 27, 2023
- Litter Robot 4, Family Tree DNA and Other New Finds - September 24, 2023
- Washington DC: The National Mall at Cherry Blossom Time - September 17, 2023