‘All for one and one for all, united we stand divided we fall’ – The Three Musketeers.
This Chinese New Year, I went to Seoul – the capital of South Korea. It is situated in the North-West of South Korea and is the fourth most economically powerful city in the world. It is populated by over 10,000,000 people and covers an area of 233 square miles. It is a wonderful city full of friendly people, crazy foods and so much shopping. I spent five days exploring this interesting place and finding out what it had to offer.Our hotel was in Myeongdong, a commercial area most popular for its shopping and street food (which we naturally took advantage of). Nearby was Namsan Park which held the N Seoul Tower; at 236m it marks the second highest point in Seoul. We spent half a day trekking up to the tower and then going up the tower itself to take in the breath-taking views of the city. I could not believe how vast it is.Other days were spent exploring two of the five grand palaces Seoul has, Changdeokgung and Gyeongbokgung includes both impressive architecture and botanical gardens, museums (I love to catch up on my history and Korea’s is so interesting) and a temple, not forgetting trying out Korean delicacies (Josh enjoyed them, I was less impressed).South Korea is hosting the Winter Olympics this year and we coincidentally had booked to visit Seoul during this period. I am never one to not take advantage of a brilliant opportunity so we purchased tickets to see the Men’s Alpine Combined. This was a freezing (I wore 3 layers and 4 pairs of socks and still had to keep my toes moving) but terrific day. I never cease to be amazed at the talents and strengths of those participating, the human body is so impressive. I loved being submerged in the various nationalities and general support of everyone around us. The Olympics is an amazing international event that really does bring people together. It is such a warm and positive atmosphere to be a part of.Obviously, despite all that Seoul offers, a huge pull of South Korea is the chance of gaining a small insight into North Korea. It is a country of unknown to the rest of the world and particularly with North Koreans joining the Olympics this year, we were eager to discover more. We booked on a popular tour that takes us to the border of North Korea. We were picked up in the early hours and driven the hour or so out into the no-mans-land known as the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Only 2.5 miles separate North and South Korea and this zone has served as a buffer since the 1953 cease-fire agreement between the United Nations and North Korea. This area is quite safe for travellers however can only be visited with an organised group and guide.The tour began at Imjingak Park to see Freedom Bridge. This became a focal point in 1952 during the Korean War and was a major link site between the truce site of Panmunjom and Seoul. The United Nations command soldiers used this bridge to return from their captivity in North Korea.From the bridge we went onto the DMZ to explore the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel. In 1975 this incomplete tunnel was discovered by South Korea, the North having built it with the main purpose of invasion. It is said that this tunnel could accommodate up to 30,000 men per hour. This is one of four known tunnels that North Korea dug though it is believed there are many more that have not been found. On our visit we were able to walk down the tunnel to a thick wall set with door and window that accesses underground North Korea. Our last stop was the Dora Observatory where you get a glimpse into North Korea, both with the naked eye and through binoculars. You can see the North Korean fake town they set up to portray a false idea of how North Koreans lived and Gaesong (Kaesong) city (the real version).This tour was fascinating, our guide provided us with the worn out history of the North-South divide dating back since before the Korean War. Between 65-75% of families were divided and very few have been reunited since. Whilst since the war South Korea has thrived, you can still see the effects of their history. Our guide told us stories of refugees being found in the river in their desperation to escape the hardships of their country. In 2017 there were over 31,000 North Korean defectors registered, generally the majority of defectors are women.
One day we happened to come across a huge protest lining down Gwanghwamun Square and controlled by multiple police scattered around the protestors. The protest was rallied against South Korea’s current President, Moon Jae-in, people carried South Korean and American flags and pictures of Kim Jong Un with his eyes scratched out. A Korean man and woman approached us to explain that they were unhappy with the communication the President was having with North Korea and felt he favoured their interests, this was particularly highlighted for them with North Koreans participating in the Olympics. The couple claimed that the media were also not covering this issue. Interestingly it was predominantly the older generations that were protesting, perhaps demonstrating how much the past has stayed with them.It was wonderful to view a peaceful protest that was tolerated; in China this would never happen. Even as an expat you can feel the power of their government. The more I learned about North Korea and the history between these two countries, the more grateful I felt for my British passport and the freedom to simply speak my mind.
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