Monday, August 24, 2015

Goodnight, Jeomchon.

This has been one of the craziest and most overwhelming weeks of my life. After I got back from Vietnam I got a job interview, then I got a job...then I changed my flight to an earlier date, finished packing my things, completed paperwork, and said goodbye to many important people and my life in Korea.

I am exhausted in every sense of the word.

It's time to leave Korea. I know it's time to move on, but that doesn't make it any easier to leave. My life will never be this way ever again, and that's something that sits heavily with me. There are no words to describe what these past two years have meant to me, or how much it breaks my heart to close this chapter.

I never predicted that life would take me here, but I'm so immensely thankful that it did.

"I am not the same having seen the moon on the other side of the world."--Mary Anne Radmacher

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Visiting the DMZ

When I decided to come to Korea, pretty much everyone had the same reaction. Responses were generally along the lines of "Oh, I hope you don't mean North Korea!" or "Aren't you afraid of North Korea?"I decided to come to Korea at a time when tensions were a bit higher than usual and it seemed like Kim Jong Un's threats to destroy the United States were in the news daily, so I suppose I can understand why when I said "Korea" people automatically only thought about the North instead of the relatively unknown South.

When I  too first started to learn about North Korea, the oppressive country along with its obsessive cult of personality seemed unreal. Admittedly, I think I spent a great amount of my life completely ignorant to North/South Korea in general. It wasn't until I was in grad school and teaching a current events class during my internship at a high school that I started to really learn more. It was during this time when Kim Jong Il died, and all the headlines in the news were not only about his death--but about the future of the country. It was after this I started watching documentaries and reading about this isolated country, but still, I never imagined I'd be living in the country directly south of it. 

When I did decide to come to Korea, I knew I wanted to visit the DMZ, but unlike the festivals that only stay for a weekend or two, it was something I knew I would pretty much be able to do whenever, so I didn't make it a priority during my first year. As my time in Korea started to come to an end, I knew it was time to finally check this very important thing off of my bucket list. I originally signed up for a tour in June, but it was canceled due to MERS, so I rescheduled for July. 

I signed up for my tour with Koridoor, which was recommended to me by others as the best director of tours because they go through the USO and you get the most access to the JSA.

The tour left from Seoul early in the morning--we had to check in at 7 AM. After we were all accounted for, we made our way to Camp Bonifas. Upon our arrival we were all given a "Visitor Declaration" to sign, which essentially entailed signing our lives away.

They then gave a short presentation explaining the history behind the Korean War and the formation of the DMZ. Our guide was a solider, and while he had his whole presentation memorized perfectly, he talked super quickly, and I found my brain struggling to process everything he was saying.

After the presentation finished we got on another bus, which took us to the JSA (Joint Security Area). We had to line up in two single file lines, and as soon as we entered the Freedom House, the large South Korean building in the JSA, we were given strict instructions not to gesture, point, or do anything that the North Koreans could interpret at antagonizing or threatening. We were also told not to take pictures until we were told it was OK. We went outside in our straight lines and were told a bit more about the buildings we saw. It was a bit strange because I had seen this image of the DMZ so many times, but there it was, in real life right in front of me.

We could see the blue United Nations buildings where meetings between the North and the South are held, as well as the tall North Korean in the background. There was a South Korean solider standing guard in front of us, and a North Korean soldier standing guard on the North Korean building.

We had a few minutes to take pictures, and people almost immediately started gathering with their friends to take selfies, at which point I partly lost faith in humanity. Don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with taking a selfie, but in the middle of the JSA just doesn't feel like the right place or time.

The Korean soldiers stand in a taekwondo pose. Both the North and the South keep soldiers who are bigger and more intimidating looking at the JSA. The line between the blue buildings marks the official separation between the North and the South. 

A North Korean soldier.
After out time to take pictures was finished, we moved inside of the blue conference room. Although North and South Korean soldiers used to move around the entire JSA area freely, following the Ax Murder Incident in 1976, the JSA was strictly divided between the North and the South. Even when we entered the conference room, we were told that the line in the middle of the conference room table in the line between North and South.

We were given more time to take pictures, but with so many people in such a small room, it was a bit crowded. We were also allowed to move to the North Korean side of the room, which means that I've technically now stepped into North Korea.

The microphones on the table record everything in the room. They also mark the line between North and South Korea. 

Everyone in this picture is standing in North Korea

Guarding the door to the North. When I took this picture I was technically standing in North Korea. 

After we made our way out we got back on the bus and made our way to a point where we could look out into North Korea. We were surrounded by the beautiful mountains within North Korea, and we could also see a series of buildings called "Propaganda Village" by the South. No one lives in these buildings, they actually don't even have floors and they have windows painted on. These buildings were only made to tempt South Koreans into coming to the North. There also used to be speakers that would blast propaganda, but that stopped around 2004.

There also was a huge North Korean flag--it's actually one the largest in the world, weighing in around 600 pounds. The North Koreans built this particular flag to be larger than the South's, which waves on the other side. Our tour guide told us on days with bad weather the North Korean flag has to be taken down because it's so heavy that it could become damaged under its own weight if the weather conditions are poor.

Propaganda Village and a very large North Korean flag. 
At this point I also looked at my phone, only to notice it was slightly confused about my location--it said my current location was North Korea. I also didn't have service, which our tour guide told us was due to blockers put up by the North. They don't want any waves transmitted by the South to make it into the North, so they try to block it all.

After we had time to take pictures, we got back on the bus, where we could see the memorial for the Ax Murder Incident of 1976. As I mentioned already, North and South Korean soldiers used to roam freely around the JSA. However, in 1976 there was a tree that had grown too large and started to block the view from one of the checkpoints, so workers were dispatched to chop it down. When they went to work, North Korean soldiers approached the men and told them to stop working. When they didn't, more North Korean soldiers appeared and began attacking the workers and UNC soldiers with axes and clubs. Two US soldiers were killed during this incident, and as a result the tensions between the two countries were heightened and the permanent separation of the forces at the JSA was put into effect. 

We also drove by the bridge of No Return. Following the Armistice Agreement in 1953, POWs were exchanged between the North and the South along this bridge. Soldiers had to choose which side they wanted to go to, and once they made their decision they could not turn back. It's an incredibly eerie thing to think about--now we would think the choice would seem so easy, but at the time soldiers had no idea what the futures of these two countries would be like. The number of families separated during the Korean War is heartbreaking--many never imagined that they wouldn't be able to cross the border of their once unified country ever again.

After we drove by these places, we were on the bus for a bit before coming to our next destination. Our tour guide told us about the Daesong Village, which is also called the Freedom Village. Following the Korean War, the North and the South were each allowed to keep one village within the confines of the DMZ. The North's village is the Propaganda Village, and doesn't actually have any residents. In the South however, there is the Daesong Village. This is a farming village, where people live tax-free, but live under a strict set of rules. The people who live there have ancestry tied to the land, and are able to make much more money than farmers elsewhere in Korea. However, they have to be back in the village by sundown, and must spend a minimum of 240 days a year within the village. Before I came on this tour, I had no idea that people actually lived within the DMZ, so it was interesting to learn more about this village--it's probably not the first place I would want to call home.

Next we visited Dorasan Station. Dorasan Station is the northernmost station in South Korea along the railway that once connected North and South Korea. The railway was restored and in 2007 trains ran from South Korea to the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a complex which is in North Korea, but has some South Korean and North Korean workers. This train took materials from the South into the North, and then brought the finished materials back to the South. However, in 2008 the North put a stop to the train and it has not run into North Korea since then. 

A map showing how the train can connect the South with the North

To Pyeongyang. So weird to see that on a sign.

Plans for how railway could connect Korea with China, Russia, and Europe. During the tour our guide told us that even though South Korea isn't technically an island, in many ways it is. The only way to get out of the country is by boat or plane because without North Korea it isn't connected to any other countries.

Seoul-->Pyeongyang. That's a sign you don't see everyday. Maybe one day the two cities will actually be connected by railway.

Ajummas enjoying their selfie stick

An empty station.

While we were visiting this station it really made me think about the fact that this used to be one country. I've traveled around South Korea so much in the two years I've been here, and I couldn't help but think about where I would have been if the country never had been separated. If Korea was one country, would I be saying "Oh, I'm going to Pyeongyang for the weekend"? Or would I even be living and teaching in the northern part of Korea? While you're living in South Korea it's so easy to forget about what really lies to the North. Being here was a reminder of just how close, yet tragically untouchable it is. 

Next we stopped for lunch, where I had lunch with a US soldier who is stationed in Korea, along with his wife and teenage daughter, who were visiting for a bit. It was actually kind of funny to have lunch with a family--I realized how long it's been since I've around a family dynamic.

After lunch we went to the Dora Observatory, where we were able to look out to North Korea. It was a bit foggy, but we could still get a decent view. Our tour guide told us that we could tell where North Korea's territory begins because it's where there are no trees. North Korea cut down all of the trees on their side so that they could better spot defectors.

Next, we made our way to the Third Infiltration Tunnel. First we went into a theater where we watched a short video about the history of the DMZ and the infiltration tunnels. The video ended with a strange propaganda twist about the "Beautiful DMZ" and its unique ecological systems, which was just a bizarre ending and left us all wondering "what the heck was that?" Not totally uncommon though, as South Korea isn't exactly a stranger to this kind of "Korea is the best!" propaganda.

We made our way outside and put on helmets before going into the tunnel. The infiltration tunnels were found after a defector from the North informed the South of their existence. It's believed that there are as many as 20 tunnels, but only four have been found. When confronted about the tunnels, the North said that they were coal tunnels, but the tunnels are in fact granite. However, the North did put coal on the inside of the tunnels to try to disguise their true purpose. Nice try, but it didn't really fool anyone.

We weren't allowed to take pictures of the tunnels, but it was quite the workout to walk down and all the way up again. It's definitely eerie to think that there are so many other tunnels like this that haven't been found yet. 

Korea can make everything cute.
That was the last stop on our tour, and by that point we were all exhausted! It was a very busy day, but well worth the exhaustion. Overall, I enjoyed the tour, although at times I felt like our tour guides rushed through the information too much. You can tell they've given these tours so many times, but I often felt like I didn't have enough time to process everything they were telling us--but maybe I've just been living in an all-Korean environment for too long and I've lost the ability to comprehend English quickly. 

The other weird thing about this tour was the fact that there were gift shops everywhere. The DMZ has such a serious feel to it, but at the same time, it's a tourist spot, and you're dropped off in many gift shops along the way. It just seemed weird to me to be pondering this serious situation between these countries one minute and to be asked to buy a t-shirt the next minute. 

When I got back into the center of Seoul and got back on the subway, I couldn't help but feel a bit disillusioned by everything around me. The conflict between these countries is at a standstill, but it isn't finished. There are millions of people suffering in North Korea, but you would never know it by life in Seoul, where materialism rules. As I looked around, I could see plastic surgery advertisements, women putting on their makeup and staring in their mirrors, and people gazing into the screens of their smartphones. There's no hint of the reality of the country, and I can't help but wonder how often, if ever, people in South Korea really think about the North--I know I don't on a daily basis. 

I wonder how much of this conversation I miss because I can't speak or understand Korean. I wonder if I have been oblivious to it, or if it's really just not an issue to most people. The topic has come up a few times--mostly last year with my high school students, but since then I've heard very little about North Korea from any of my Korean students.

I can't help but wonder if younger generations feel differently about the situation than the older generations. When I see elderly people in Korea I often wonder what they have lived through. Korea's history is extremely depressing, there's no way around that. From the Japanese colonization which tried to destroy countless elements of Korean culture, to the Korean War, which separated so many families and killed a significant percentage of the population. However, as time goes by since all of these tribulations, I wonder if the young people in Korea feel less connected to the their counterparts in the North than the generations before them.

Although the two Koreas share a language, the differences between how the people in the North and in the South talk are increasing as the South adopts many English words for things, but the North doesn't. Even language aside, I wonder if it will ever be possible for these two countries to reconcile. There's no doubt that the North Korean regime won't last forever. It will crumble one day, but will Korea ever be a unified country again? That remains to be told, but this far down the road, I think it would be extremely difficult. To be honest, I'm not sure how people who have been cut off from the world for over 60 years could integrate with a modern society like South Korea's. I'm not sure how a society that has been consumed with fear and paranoia would adapt to freedom and the intense pressure of education in Korea when almost everything they've ever known isn't true. Additionally, there's the gigantic financial burden that would be required for reunification. It's no secret that people in the North are starving and malnourished,often living without electricity, and in general completely devoid of modern amenities. Integrating North Korea to the modern world will be an enormous financial undertaking, and it it's left to South Korea, it would be a huge increase in taxes for generations to come--a difficult pill for any society to swallow, especially one as obsessed with appearance and material wealth as the South. 

A few months ago I read the book Without You There Is No Us by Suki Kim. Kim taught English at a university for the children of elite officials in North Korea. It's a fascinating, yet depressing read that gives a glimpse of the bizarre reality of a country where even the brightest science and technology students don't even know of the existence of the internet. But what was most striking about this book was the way it made me think of my own students I taught last year. While I taught high school and she taught college, there were so many similarities and I couldn't help but think about where my students would be today if a few generations ago their families didn't end up in the South--what if their families had suddenly one day found themselves stuck within the northern side of the border, as was the case for many during that time.

It's also my students I think about when I think about there being an end to North Korea. As I said before, the North Korea regime won't last forever. However, I just pray that when it does fall, the outcome is peaceful and not another war. The future of this country is the future of my students. All South Korean males already have to serve in the military for twenty months, but I cringe to think of what the reality could be for them if conflict arises between these two countries once again. 

Even after I leave Korea, I'll always be closely watching the situation between these countries. Like so many, I would love to see peaceful reunification, or at the very least a more open North Korea where people are healthy, free to speak their minds, and allowed to learn about the outside world.

The things I won't miss

Life in Korea isn't all rainbows and butterflies.

This time of year always sucks because it's INSANELY hot (think high 90s with crazy humidity), but also because we are still required to be in school. It's not a regular schedule though--instead we're required to do camps during this time, which are basically way more work than just teaching regular classes. We are with the same group of students all day, and have to plan dozens of "fun" activities. The kids usually don't want to be there, and it's just as bad for teachers too because right at the point where we're burnt out from the regular semester, we're required to put in a TON of work into these camps.

Today was the second day of camp at one of my schools. My CT gave me a ride to school this morning, and despite the fact that we had twenty minutes in the car together, he waited until we were walking in the building to ask"How about teaching 3rd and 4th grade today instead of 5th and 6th grade?"  Apparently 5th and 6th grade needed to practice a song for a competition this weekend. I spent yesterday with 3rd and 4th grade, and the plan was today I was supposed to have 5th and 6th grade. I was only prepared for 5th and 6th grade today. Since you can't really say no in Korea, I went to the 3rd and 4th grade room, where after ten minutes I was then told to go to back to 5th and 6th grade. Typical Korea.

I taught my lessons pretty much as planned, until about halfway through the craft project, when my CT told the students to go somewhere else. They were gone for the rest of the class before they started to come back. Then my CT came again and told them to go somewhere else. I looked out the window and saw them playing outside with water balloons. So much for the rest of the project I was doing with them.

Now, usually during camp teachers leave after camp is finished. EPIK teachers are supposed to stay the whole day unless the Vice Principal of Principal says it's ok for us to leave. The majority of the time the Principal thinks it's ridiculous for us to sit there all day when there's nothing going on and will tell us to go home. The school I was at for the past week and a half before this let me go everyday with the rest of the teachers, which I greatly appreciated. However, when my CT asked the Vice Principal at this school if I could go home, she sad no.

Since the cafeteria isn't open during school breaks and bringing your lunch isn't a thing in Korea, yesterday I had lunch with the VP and some of the office staff. This is the way it is in Korea. If lunch isn't provided by the school in the cafeteria, they order food or go to a restaurant. However, today I was waiting to be told it was time for lunch (there isn't a set meeting time, but they just call or go around and grab everyone), but as the time went by, I started to figure that I had been forgotten.

After 1:00 I went downstairs and asked about lunch, and they said "oh, we already went to lunch." Now, here is the part that shocked me. At any of my other schools they would have been embarrassed and ashamed for forgetting me, and would have at the very least apologized for not telling me.

What did this school do?

They pulled up the map of where the restaurant is an tried to give me convoluted directions of how to get there (when they without doubt drove there). Remember that it is probably close to 100 degrees and humid outside, not exactly the best weather to wander around an area you don't know. So, instead of apologizing they told me to walk there and go eat lunch by myself and come back and sit here and do nothing until 4:30. Needless to say, I wasn't impressed.

I could understand if they forgot me in other circumstances, but the fact that the VP explicitly said I need to be here ALL DAY, then didn't even make an effort to tell me about lunch...just rubs me the wrong way.

There are so many Koreans who have treated me amazingly well during my time here, but there are times like this that just fill me with so much frustration.

Thankfully, this is my last day at this school. I was only at this school for six months, but I feel like it has given me a full year's worth of aggravation in that short time.

Another thing I'm thankful for is the fact that it's my last day before vacation. I'm off to Vietnam for the next week and a half, then once I get back I have more camp and the enormous task of packing up all my stuff before heading home. But one thing at a time...everything after vacation isn't quite within the grasp of my mind yet.