Sunday, August 30, 2009

Soccer on Sunday at Sangam

Last week, I met a nice chap in Itaewon who works for Turkish Air Lines named Ahmed. Needless to say, I meet a lot of folks over here from all over, in many lines of work. But as we got to talking, I realized we had at least one big thing in common--FC Seoul. I support the team, and he is a friend of Senol Gunes, the coach, who is also Turkish. So he supports the team as well.

I mentioned I was planning to go to the game at Sangam on Sunday, though I wished they played more on Saturday, on account of I have to work on Mondays. To make a long story, uh, less long, Ahmed offered me free tickets to the game, in the W section, behind the team benches. Good seats. He offered me two tickets, so I accepted, even though I was unsure who would take the second seat. Co-worker Jerry responded in about five minutes to my multi-text, and I had to turn down two more people. Anyway, here is a photo of three happy campers--well, happy considering our team lost 0 - 2 ...

Despite losing, FC Seoul is atop the league by a 4 point margin over second place Jeongbuk Hyundai Motors; with the win, Ulsan advanced two slots to 11th place. The season is heating up, though the play-offs are still two months off. The video below shows three scenes: part of the pregame festivities; the opening volley at Sangam Stadium; and the best chance at a goal from FC Seoul, at least that I caught on my camera.

Obviously, one goes to a soccer game for the game, but there is more to it than that. When Jerry arrived at the GS25 convenience store beside the stadium where we agreed to meet, he was surprised to find me in conversation with an older Korean gentleman. It is part of the lot of a good ambassador to hold a conversation with a local, at least briefly, as long as it is not disrupting your life. It wasn't, since I was drinking a beer and waiting, and the man was very interesting: before retiring, he had a career in animation, and had spent about three years traveling in the US and Canada, painting as he went.

Another part of the pre-game fun is "FC Seoul Park", a relatively new feature, with flag drawing, a kicking contest, mini-games for the kiddies, and the like.

Thanks again, Ahmed--p.s., I ran your phone number through the wash, so I can't ring you to say thanks more personally!

Saturday, August 29, 2009

North Korean Thaw

First, the DPRK released the two US journalists it kidnapped and imprisoned for 141 days; then, a few days later, it released a Hyudai Asan employee it had held on charges of trying to convince a North Korean woman with whom he worked at the Gaeseong joint manufacturing complex to defect (after he signed a confession).

Last week, Pyongyang sent emissaries to Seoul on the occasion of the funeral of President Kim Dae Jung; it notified Seoul yesterday that it will release the eleven fishermen it has been holding for a month, since their boat "strayed into North Korean waters."

And now, Donga Ilbo announces Koreas to Hold Family Reunions Next Month:
South and North Korea agreed yesterday to hold reunions for families separated by the Korean War from Sept. 26 through Oct. 1, the first such agreement in nearly two years.
Chief delegates of the two sides signed the agreement after a second session of talks at the North’s scenic resort area of Mount Kumgang, where the reunions will take place.
A hundred South Koreans will meet long-lost kin in the North Sept. 26-28, while the same number of North Koreans will do the same for three days from Sept. 29. Both sides will exchange lists of people wishing to meet relatives before setting the final candidates Sept. 17.

Certainly welcome news, all of it. Anything to lower the temperature on the peninsula (or raise it, in the Cold War milieu) is a good thing.

The reasons: who knows? Coming right on the heels of a fair amount of aggressive posturing, and aggressive acts, for that matter, perhaps it's an attempt to defang the outcry for action against the North. It didn't prevent UAE from confiscating an arms shipment headed to iran two weeks ago. Nor did it stop Russia from deploying its advanced S-400 missile system along its border with the DPRK.

Perhaps it is an attempt to keep pundits on their toes, keep the world guessing about what is going on in this most secretive of nations. Dunno if it is related, but there is an interesting story at the Daily NK about the cessation of the propaganda in the North surrounding the rise of Kim Jung-il's third son, Kim Jong-un:
Kim Gil Myung (pseudonym), who trades between Dandong, China and Shinuiju, North Korea, met with a Daily NK reporter on the 20th. "The succession project (regarding Kim Jong Woon) has completely stopped,” he said, “Since the start of August, I have not heard any news about General Kim (Kim Jong Woon) during factory lectures. Officials have not provided a specific reason, simply saying that a decree has been issued from above." ...
The North Korean authorities previously went to great lengths to imply the might of Kim Jong Woon, even attributing the second nuclear test and attendant missile launches to him. "Channel 3," a cable broadcast inside North Korea, had also been concentrating on the song "Footsteps." But all such efforts apparently came to an abrupt halt in August.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

How Government Works

On the walk to school yesterday, I noticed that the railing on a section of the sidewalk along the main road to Gimpo Airport had been removed. They just finished putting it in a few months ago, when they were reorganizing the bus flow.

The inter-zone and station buses now travel the center lanes of the main roads in my area, as part of a plan being phased in throughout the city. This meant the construction of islands for the bus stops, and sidewalk railings to funnel bus passengers to the crosswalk--or at least discourage them from making a dash across three lanes of traffic to catch a bus. (Scroll halfway down this post and you can see a couple shots of the new bus stop.)

Anyway, I pointed this out to Mr Hwang, and he gestured to this large Hi Seoul banner that was strung up overhead. "It says, they are replacing walkway with new bricks," he told me.

I looked at the sidewalk. The pavers were straight, even and in good shape. I looked back at him and smiled. "Yeah," I said, "just look at these bricks. They just lay there, and don't do anything!"

He got it, and laughed.

"Seriously, though, why are they replacing them? There's nothing wrong with them."

"It is coming up end of year," he pointed out. "So government must spend--"

"Ah," I said, "they must spend their budget, or lose it in next year's appropriation." We nodded, wise in the ways of the world. "It's the same in America. Still, they could just buy more books for the library," I suggested. I like libraries.

Cut to the end of today. I have classes back to back with Miss Lee 이정헌 on Thursday, and we usually spend some time deconstructing the week's first grade lesson. Miss Lee, incidentally, turned up this week with a new hairstyle and some new clothes, a fact noticed with approval by the 1500 teenaged boys of Young-il HS.

At the end of our debriefing, she tells me, "By the way, if there are any books you want for your students, you can tell to the school librarian, and she will order them for you to be purchased for Young-il High School Library."

Yeah, I have looked through the English section of the school library, and it took two minutes. So, I start to list some things we might get, and point out I'll take a few days to work up a list. Readers are invited to make suggestions via the comment form below.

She says that's fine, and adds, "Right now is the good time of year to place the order with her, because--"

"Ah!" I said. "She must spend all the budget money before the end of the year."

"Yes, how did you know about this thing?"

I smiled. "I think America invented it."

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Year 2 Begins

Today was the first full day of my second year in Korea!

It was also the second day of the new fall semester. The chapter in the second grade (that's high school juniors) textbook is titled "Korean Culture through American Eyes". Back in early planning, I knew one thing I wanted was for them to talk about American soldiers in Korea; I got a photo an anti-US forces protest on my visit to Gwanghwamun Plaza earlier this month:

But I am glad I toured the DMZ last week, as that allowed me to really put the lesson together. The starter is what we call a pre-test: I have them write down three facts they know about the DMZ--very common so far are that it has lots of mines, it is an untouched nature preserve, and there are no weapons or people there. That last is not really true. Anyway, I then give them a slide show of my trip, and they are actually very interested.

After discussing the status of forces with them, in the last portion of class they are to work in groups to discuss the reasons for and against US troops being stationed in Korea--their output should be two lists, about which I and the co-teacher will converse with them as we go around.

As always, especially with the second grade, this kind of thing is very hit-or-miss. Some groups are articulate and thoughtful, a few groups do not do a damn thing. Teacha, me English-ee no! I don't waste much time with them, preferring to give the ones willing to try the benefit of my time and conversation.

This is a kind of political discussion, so I tread lightly, but it is interesting to see how sharp some of them are. Some even pointed out that one reason for US troops to leave is that many Koreans do not like foreigners. One popular reason (not that the students themselves hold the view, necessarily, I asked them to list reasons that some people put forward) is that US troops cause pollution. This is due, I think, to an episode in 2000 where a USFK mortician dumped 20 gallons of formaldehyde down a sink, where it was eventually released into the Hangang. Now, that clearly violates anyone's safe handling rules, though 20 gallons is but a drop in the mighty river--still, US soldiers are seen by some Koreans as actively polluting the water supply.

Also, some people seem to feel the US soldiers cost the government of Korea too much money--as if they are on the ROK payroll or something. Or as if the US isn't the one putting up most all the armament and materiel amassed along the border--it is. On the flip side, it is almost universally felt that Korea needs USFK because America is strong and Korea is not--if US forces leave, the North will attack the very next day. Hard to argue that.

Anyway, an interesting week is underway!

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Korean War Memorial Museum

So, it is an impressive edifice, but my favorite part of the Korean War Memorial was The Statue of Brothers, an installation on the west side of the grounds depicting the Korean War as a struggle of brother against brother; mainly for this very cool mural on the inside. My appreciation of art is quirky, I'll admit, but looky:

I like this mural a lot!

this is the inside view of the 'crack' between the brothers
My second favorite part is all the planes, armored vehicles and stuff in the large outdoor park, where Sherman tanks rub shoulders with P-51s, all right in front of you for touching and climbing on:

The museum itself is quite extensive, with separate sections for each period of warfare on the Korean peninsula. The bottom floor has a big hall with a recreated geobukseon or turtle boat of Admiral Yi, which is an armored boat that prefigured the Monitor by 250 years.

The rest of the bottom floor charts Korean history through the Three Kingdoms period to Joseon and the Japanese colonial period. A collection of artifacts and weapons shares space with enormous paintings depicting famous battles. This was something else I liked here.

Detail of War between Scylla and Tang: Battle of Maesoseong Fortress
The Japanese Pirate Expedition in Joseon dynasty
Two things I did not like: 1) the corporate insignia on many displays, even though this is becoming more common everywhere:

2) the children's play area--war is a significant idea, and one about which children should become educated, but moon bounces and the like are antithetical and demeaning to the proper purpose of a war memorial.

The Korean War area covers the third floor with loads of information about the UN countries involved, a few nice multimedia presentations about signficant battles, and a series of dioramas (Korean museums love dioramas) about the war's impact on Korean civilians.

On the whole, an informative but poorly arranged/signed museum (maybe in part because it has so much material), which is certainly worth a look. If you are arranging a DMZ tour, as I was, at the Camp Kim USO Office (Samgakji exit 10, straight ahead), the War Memorial is literally across the street, and cost 3,000 won to enter.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Last Vestige of the Cold War

It all started after Japan conceded at the end of WWII (The Big One, as Archie Bunker used to say) and the US and USSR accepted separate surrenders north and south of the 38th parallel for the Japanese occupation of Korea. The US installed Rhee Syng-man, and the Russians elevated Kim Il-sung as leaders of their respective occupation zones, then on 25 June, 1950, the North Korean People's Army invaded the South--the rest, as they say, is history.

The war which followed lasted three years and cost some two million lives; the "armistice" that ended the fighting resulted in an uneasy stalemate along a "military demarcation line" which vaguely follows the 38th parallel , a two kilometer wide demilitarized zone on either side of it, and a tense stalemate that has periodically resulted in violence.

And a surreal tourist opportunity.

We took the USO Tour from Samgakji, departing at 7:30 AM. The first destination was the JSA at Panmunjom, which is where armistice negotiations took place, and where today, North and South forces come face-to-face. This is also where we get the weird, "Here I am in North Korea" photo ops next to the stone-faced ROK soldier, and the shots of elite troops standing half-exposed at the building corners in case their DPRK counterparts decide to mix things up a little via sniper bullet.

I was trying to look as tough and stern as him, in a taekwondo position the US troops call "rock-ready", while being slightly worried he would see though my pose, but instead I just look constipated. It was supposed to be meta, but things don't always work out.

The blue buildings are UN JSA facilities, the gray ones are run by the DPRK. The one below is called the "recreation building" even though, as our guide explained, there is no equipment inside, and it only seems to be used when dignitaries from the south are in attendance; North Korean soldiers seem to delight on those occasions in making faces through the windows or shooting the bird. For this reason, US forces call it the "monkey house".

Stop number two was the forward observation post atop a hill inside the DMZ, manned by ROK forces. It has an observation deck outside and a large glass wall inside looking out to the DMZ and the villages of Gaeseong (the site of the original peace talks, and presently home of a North-South economic cooperation zone), Daeseongdong (Peace Village, a South Korean farming community) and Kijeongdong (Propaganda Village, known for its jamming tower and 160-m tall flagpole sporting a 30-m wide NK flag that weighs 600 lbs).

Even though they have a giant window, a landscape model and a 10 minute multimedia presentation, you are not allowed to take photographs, except behind the photo-taking line on the observation deck:

So, the photos you get look like this:

Well, I accidentally got a picture through the window before anyone said anything, not that it's some great big hairy deal:

The folks who live in Daeseongdong--Peace Village--have a pretty good set-up: they don't pay taxes, they are exempt from military service (all Korean males must serve for a little over two years before turning thirty), have an allotment of 17+ acres, and earn an average of USD 82,000.

The last stop on the tour was the 3rd tunnel of aggression, one of four tunnels discovered so far that are NK attempts to infiltrate the south. God knows how many more are there which have yet to be discovered. The idea is to have secret, rapid-access routes to Seoul and then surprise the ROK with a wave attack. One suspects this modus may be discontinued what with the development of nuclear bombs (thanks, Dubya).

The Wikipedia page says photos are forbidden in the tunnel, but I don't think that's so: I took several pictures, as did some of my fellow travelers. The round, steeply sloped tube is the tourist access--okay going down, not a cakewalk going back up:

The tunnel itself is close and cold, slightly sloped downward toward the north, well-lighted, and floored with good rubber mats. Hardhats are required, for good reason. There is a little dipping fountain of "DMZ Spring Water". It was really nothing much, but I can say I was there:

Sunday, August 16, 2009

New Zealand: Choice Eh?

Note: Later posts about New Zealand appear below this post.

Well, I am safely back from the land of Kiwis. Truly a unique place. Its variety of geological phenomena is exceeded only by the number of Kiwi draft beer brands we tried, or maybe the number of syllables in a typical Maori place name:

Andy at sign with Whakarewarewa full name
Within a couple hours of arrival in Auckland, one thing that struck me was how multicultural New Zealand is. I should point out that this is after a year in Korea, the most homogeneous culture on the planet, where 97 or 98% of the population is Korean. The whole of NZ is like Itaewon: plenty of Europeans with English and Aussies, of course, but Germans, Dutch and the like, as well; but also Middle Easterners and Asians, from Turkish to Indian, Chinese, Japanese, and of course Korean. The native Polynesians of New Zealand are the Maori, whose language, we were told, is similar enough to, say, Hawaiian, that they can understand one another. They all speak English, and it is distinctly odd to encounter exotic-looking people who talk as if they are direct from Jolly Olde!

Maori tribal erformance photo op in Whaka
Andy and I criss-crossed the North Island in Mitzi, a two-door subcompact with 1000 cc's under the hood and the steering wheel on the wrong side; everywhere we went, the scenery was simply amazing. Below is some footage I took out of the window while traveling from Matamata, the center of sheep country, to Auckland, whose 1,300,000 people represents one-third of the total population of 4.3 million. The population may be small, but the countryside itself is deceptively large--and mountainous, which makes travel a little more time-consuming. Still, the roads are in good shape, and well-marked, except for certain symbol signs that neither of us were familiar with. This sometimes made it feel like a foreign country ...

Geological riches abounded. We saw the remnants of ancient basaltic lahars and rhyolitic domes; glacial features like eskers, moraines and drumlins ...

drumlin glacial hill on Alexander Farm
... lagoons, arches and stacks formed by pounding ocean waves ...

stacks in Bay of Islands
... moist subtropical rainforests ...

old kauri tree stump on bush walk, Paihia
... rolling meadows spotted with sheep ...

lovely NZ meadow
... and even a geyser.

Andy at geyser at Whaka
It is winter right now in the southern hemisphere, but temperatures on the North Island during the week were a pretty reasonable 8-10 C (46-52 F). However, it was windy pretty much all week, and rained on us off and on: the dolphin discovery tour we arranged for Friday morning was cancelled due to the downpours in Paihia, with little promise of improvement for the rescheduled booking on Saturday. Luckily, the clouds parted for a while, the sun came out, and this is what the Bay of Islands looked like during our island walk at about 11:30 on Saturday morning:

Bay of Islands island walk, at lookout #2
Choice, eh?

I took about 380 photos during the week I spent in NZ, and I expect I'll upload one-sixth to one-fifth of them over the next several days, along with my inimitable commentary. My traveling partner Andy will be uploading his photos and comments as well, over at the fine Literaryhero blog; but while he typed up his stuff on a daily basis for a blow-by-blow account, I will be organizing my reminiscences by topic. I will be pre-dating the posts and linking them below, so they will appear underneath this post which serves as an introduction. You can tell when a post is completed because the link will turn blue and be underlined. The topics I plan are something like this:

Be that as it may, I'm sure you'd like a few more photos of the lovely land before I sign off, and I'd love to show you a few more. So, here is Andy in the Rotorua Domain, which is what we believe is Kiwi for city park, either interfering with a kinetic sculpture or playing on a new-fangled jungle gym. Either way, New Zealand is a well-developed nation that rates highly in quality of life and education, human development, literacy, and so forth:

Speaking of sculptures, here is one I liked outside the Rotorua Museum (more on that later), called 'Waitukei' by artist Lyonel Grant:

Below, two photos of very different bucolic scenes on the North Island:

After our boat ride, we were headed back to Auckland (for the third night) when the heavens smiled upon us in the form of a rainbow--as we drove along, we could almost see where it ended, just over the hedge: