Part of a trip concentrating on East Asia (China, Hong Kong, Japan, North and South Korea), continuing in South Asia (Bangladesh, India) and ending on the Arabian Peninsula (Oman, United Arab Emirates).

South Korea

– visited October / November 2015 –

In the summer and autumn of 2015, I was able to visit all the major countries of East Asia in one trip, allowing me to understand their historical and political interconnectedness. South Korea is shaped by the troubled relationship with its North Korean brethren and its history with Japan, where the troubled past is spilling over into the present. I am a big fan of South Korea. It is a country with history, beautiful landscapes, friendly people and tasty barbecues. In contrast to the Korea further north, South Korea is accessible. But sometimes South Korea also leaves me speechless.

A short dive into history: In the 17th century, Korea had, while still being ruled by the Joseon dynasty, effectively become a tributary state of China. Ironically, it was freed from these shackles by Japan. As the First Sino-Japanese War concluded in 1895, the victorious Japanese forced China to recognize the full and complete independence and autonomy of Korea. That was of course only the prelude to stronger Japanese influence. Despite the efforts of the Korean Empire (1897-1910) to modernize, Japan forced the signing of the Japan-Korea Treaty in 1905, relegating Korea (again) to the status of a protectorate. In 1910 Japan annexed Korea, ending its independent history. Korea underwent a period of modernization, European-style transport and communication networks were constructed but were seen as mostly benefitting the Japanese rulers. Japan set out to suppress many traditional Korean customs, including eventually even the Korean language itself. Korean names were supposed to be changed into Japanese ones. As Japan embarked on the Second Sino-Japanese War, which would later blend into the Pacific part of World War II, Koreans were expected to share the burden of the military campaigns. Less as soldiers but as forced labourers either in Japan or the war theatres. A special point of contention is the topic of the so-called “comfort women”, Korean women that were forced into providing sexual services for Japanese soldiers.

Koreans regained their independence in 1945, less by their own actions but by the military power of the United States of America that forced Japan to surrender unconditionally. It had been agreed at the Cairo Conference in 1943 that “in due course Korea shall become free and independent” but for the time being, Korea should, similar to Germany, Japan or Austria, be controlled by a four-power trusteeship. Geopolitical shifts led in the end to the establishment of two occupation zones divided at the 38th parallel. The northern part was occupied by the Soviet Union (who had sent the first forces to Korea on the 14th of August 1945 exactly one day before Japan surrendered) and the southern part by the US. As Korea had had no strategic significance in the war effort against Japan, the first US troops only landed at Incheon on the 8th of September 1945 and with scant preparation of what would await them. With the Soviet Union and the US unable to come to an agreement, two governments were established but on the 12th of December 1948 the Republic of Korea (the Southern government; still the official name today) was accepted as the sole legal government of all Korea by the United Nations General Assembly. 

In June 1950, the army of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (still the official name of North Korea) crossed the 38th parallel and proved highly superior to the forces of the South. The US had by that time withdrawn all combat forces. By September 1950, North Korea held about 90% of the Korean peninsula and only a small area in the south-east, around Busan, remained in the hands of the Republic of Korea. The UN Security Council had meanwhile passed Resolution 83 recommending “Members of the United Nations furnish such assistance to the Republic of Korea as may be necessary to repel the armed attack and to restore international peace and security in the area.” The Soviet Union had not exercised its veto power as it was boycotting the Security Council in this period. With military forces from around the world arriving (mostly from the US though) the tides of war turned. By October 1950 the line of control was back around the 38th parallel and the fateful decision was made for the UN forces to cross that line. By November 1950 only the north-western and north-eastern corners of Korea remained under North Korean control. This development led to the intervention of the People’s Republic of China. By the spring of 1951 the line of control was back around the 38th parallel and after two more years of fighting (without much gain) the combatants were exhausted enough to sign an armistice. There has never been a peace treaty so the armistice is still in place.

Nowadays South Korea is a functioning democracy but that has not always been the case. From 1948 to the late 1980s it was (mis-)ruled by autocratic or military regimes. Actually, South Korea provided me with one of the first political epiphanies of my early adult life. I was reading a book written in the 1970s where the author constantly distinguished between the “communist” and the “free” Korea. My sympathies lay with the “free Korea” but on the last pages I suddenly had to read that in South Korea, and that was one of the few occasions where the word “free” was not used, the opposition leader had recently been released from jail. I threw the book against the wall and learned to question deeper. Democracy only returned with direct presidential elections in 1987. Up until the early 1970s, North and South Korea had fairly similar GDPs per capita, that only changed when the South began to pursue an export-oriented economic development, while the North turned further inward.

The South-East   

Busan is South Korea’s second-most populous city and a major port. There are at least two daily ferries to Japan’s Fukuoka which is only about 200 kilometres away. I arrived on one of these ferries. It is dinner-time and I soon learn to enjoy a Korean barbeque. I already had one in Pyongyang but did not realize back then, that this was a Korean speciality. In Busan restaurants specialized on barbeques are frequent. Usually, the grill is in the table and you barbeque the meat yourself which you eat together with vegetables, salads and sauces.

Busan is beautifully located at a bay with the mountains rising in the background. You can visit the Jagalchi Fish Market and have a swim in the morning and then go for a hike, looking back on the beach, in the afternoon. I am fortunate enough to visit during the Busan International Fireworks Festival, watching the show happening along Gwangan Bridge from Gwangalli Beach. Tongdosa (one of the three most important Buddhist temples in Korea) and Beomeosa Temples are a day trip, from the second temple I head into the mountains again. The United Nations Memorial Cemetery is a reminder of the Korean war. More than 11,000 UN troops from 21 countries were buried here.

I visit the Modern History Museum. I am very curious as I think Busan, being the interim capital during the Korean War, would have a lot of interesting history to offer. I leave disappointed as most of the museum is dedicated to bashing Japan with very little other information offered. The sting of the colonial rule still sits deep. I am aware that Japan has dealt with its past very poorly, never offering a real apology. On North Korea, who shares the same colonial history with Japan, I wrote that “the thorn still sits deep and the wound is carefully kept fresh and raw”. I have a similar feeling in this museum, it seems less an honest discussion of the colonial past but an attempt to find accusations that can be levelled against Japan. I will find even more of that at the National Independence Hall later on my trip.

Many people I speak with have a more positive attitude towards Japan, they love to visit for the newest trends and styles and for them Japan is one of the closest countries to get to. They consider Japan to be just a little bit more sophisticated than South Korea and from my experiences I have the same feeling. I love the convenience stores in East Asia and in Japan they have a bigger selection and just a bit better choices. Onigiri bought in Japan can be flawlessly removed from the packaging, in South Korea often some of the seaweed remains stuck between the plastic.

I move on to Gyeongju, once the capital of the kingdom of Silla (57 BCE – 935 CE). The kingdom has left the Royal Tomb Complex or the Cheomseongdae observatory for visitors. Other sites are the Anapji Royal Pond Garden, the Bunhwangsa Pagoda or the Bulguksa Temple. I rent a bike to get around. Nearby Yangdong Folk Village is a World Heritage Site. It is a traditional Korean aristocracy village from the times of the Joseon dynasty.

A short overnight stop in Daegu only. At times South Korea’s development has been too rapid. When North Korea opened a metro system in 1973, it was the first of the Koreas to boost this form of transportation. Pyongyang is stuck at 16 stations but South Korea, by now, has more than 500. In the Deagu Subway no one had thought seriously about fire precautions and this cost 192 people their life as a depressed arsonist tried to commit a public suicide in February 2003. Most of them perished in a second train that was allowed to enter despite the station already being filled with smoke, then the power supply was cut off, preventing the train from fleeing the station and as the train driver escaped with the master key, the doors could not be opened anymore, leaving people trapped.

Haeinsa temple was first built in 802 and is, as Tongdosa, one of the Three Jewels, the principal Buddhist temples in Korea. The temple is home to the Tripitaka Koreana, Buddhist scriptures carved onto 81,258 wooden printing blocks in the 13th century. You can get close to them but you are not allowed to really see them. I have arrived for a temple stay. For a certain fee, I will receive the clothes of a monk, have a room for the night, eat with the monks and am supposed to take part in their rituals. A popular experience offered at many temples. During the day, the temple is full of visitors and I head into the mountains, conquering one of the peaks of the Gayasan National Park. As the day closes, the visitors leave and the temple remains in all its beauty. The rules are easy, most important is to keep silence, to put your hands together while walking in the temple and to greet the monks (put your palms together and do a half bow) when meeting them. I am good at bowing since I visited North Korea. After dinner one of the monks starts to beat the temple drums. Its majestic, the loud booms are echoing on the temple grounds, otherwise there is complete silence and there is little light in the darkness. I allow myself exactly one picture of the ceremony. I even enjoy the praying session, sitting cross-legged is uncomfortable and I am never sure if I do the right movements, but the whole atmosphere is peaceful and dignified. There would be so many beautiful pictures to take, but cameras are off-limits. The dawn service starts at 3:20 A.M. and by the time the tourists arrive, I am ready to leave.        

Gangwon Province

Gangwon Province lies in the north-eastern corner of South Korea. Near Samcheok, I visit Haesindang Park or I should rather call it by its common name, Penis Park. It is full of phallic statues meant to represent joy, spirituality and sexuality. The small “Village Folk Museum” exhibits sexual art objects from different ages and cultures. The park spreads in hilly terrain along the coast. A two-metre high barbed-wire fence, shaped like an inverted pyramid on the top to make surmounting it even more difficult, separates the land from the sea. Lights are installed to illuminate the sea in front of the fence. At the museum the Sea of Japan, okay I should be nice to my South Korean hosts and call it the East Sea is accessible but the whole area can be well-illuminated at night. And someone is supposed to keep watch. We are, as the crow flies, 170 kilometres away from North Korea but the fence is a protection against North Korean intruders. Sounds ridiculous? A waste of time and energy?

The Tongil (Unification) park about 40 kilometres north along the coast provides an answer. It exhibits three naval vessels: A South Korean (and formerly US) navy ship, a rickety refugee boat from North Korea (that is not what the fence is supposed to protect against) and a North Korean submarine. The submarine had been there, one day, suddenly, in 1996. It had landed a three-person special operations reconnaissance team three days before that were supposed to spy on nearby naval installations and an airport. The attempt to collect the team in the cover of darkness failed one day, and on the next day, the submarine ran aground and could not be freed anymore. In the morning it was there, visible for all to see. What would have happened if this incident would have taken place between the two Germanys? I can imagine nothing else than the East German sailors getting out of the submarine, saying hello, saying sorry, being given some symbolic punishment and thereafter living happily ever after in their new homeland. Not so in the Korean context. The 26 infiltrators tried to destroy sensitive equipment and left the boat. Eleven of them, the submarine crew, were killed by their own comrades apparently for running the ship aground. The other 15 split up in groups and tried to make their way back north, meaning the attempt to cover about 100 kilometres of ground before reaching, and crossing the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), one of the most heavily fortified borders in the world. The manhunt was on. Over the next 49 days, one North Korean was quickly captured, thirteen were killed and one is unaccounted for. Twelve South Korean soldiers and four civilians lost their lives. 27 soldiers were wounded. North Korea claimed all the time that the submarine had just had an engine failure and ran aground. As the year closed, they finally changed their mind and expressed “deep regret” over the incident. In return, the cremated remains of the infiltrators were returned to the North.

How to deal with North Korea? That is a question worth asking in South Korea. The border is not as peaceful as we all would like it to be. North Korea has announced at least six times (1994, 1996, 2003, 2006, 2009) that it would no longer abide by the armistice. Attack tunnels have been built under the DMZ, skirmishes happen, some years are free of confrontations, other are a bit rougher, there are, on average, about 10 incidents per decade. Remember, there is still no peace treaty only an armistice, the two Koreas are still in a state of war. In the early 2000s, there was hope that the Sunshine Policy, instigated by South Korea could break the deadlock. It was based on three smart principles:

  • No armed provocation by the North will be tolerated
  • The South will not attempt to absorb the North in any way
  • The South actively seeks cooperation and promotes reconciliation

Progress was difficult. Yes, a summit meeting in June 2000 (the first since 1953) led to a joint declaration, a few meetings for relatives were arranged, in 2002 the Mount Kumgang resort was opened (Southerners visiting northern mountains) and in 2004 the Kaesong Industrial Park (Southern companies producing in the North) was opened. But the talks were also often stopped (by the North), the deals became more and more unequal (South giving money or aid) and talking did not even prevent exchanges of fire (2002: six dead South Koreans, number of dead North Koreans unknown). North Korea’s withdrawal from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in 2003 was not made into a topic by the South but the beginning of nuclear and missile tests in 2006 led to the suspension of aid shipments. In 2008 the shooting death of a South Korean tourist ended the Mt. Kumgang project.

2010 was a rough year. The Northern Limit Line, the disputed maritime border in the Yellow Sea, is often a point of confrontation. In January artillery shells were fired near a South Korean Island, in March the ROKS Cheonan was allegedly sunk by a North Korean torpedo (46 dead), in November South Korea’s Greater Yeonpyeong Island was hit by artillery (4 dead) and fire was returned (number of casualties unknown). In December 2010, the Sunshine Policy was officially declared a failure. I do not have the impression that North Korea is seriously interested in improving the relationship, to me it leaves the feeling behind that if offered something the North is ready to take but if there is only a scant possibility of changes within North Korea there is a complete rejection. The months before my visit had been rich in tensions. On the 4th of August 2015 two South Korean soldiers were injured by a landmine that had allegedly been laid in their path on the southern side of the DMZ by North Korean forces. As I visited Panmunjom, standing in the North and looking to the South ten days later I was concerned that the South had restarted the propaganda loudspeakers (which had been silenced in 2004) as threatened. On the 20th of August the loudspeakers started to operate. The North reacted with a rocket and artillery shells. The South fired at the origin of the rocket. Both sides moved troops, the North threatened war. On the 24th of August the situation was finally defused, the North expressed sympathy for the landmine victims and the South deactivated the loudspeakers.    

To make the dimensions (and risks) clear. South Korea has an active military force of 600,000 with a reserve force of about 3 million. North Korea has 1.3 million active soldiers with 600,000 reserves. Paramilitary forces in the South stand at 3 million, in the North they number 5.8 million. Altogether 14.4 million Koreans have an affiliation with a military force. According to these statistics, the two Koreas are the most militarized countries on earth. In the South 13% of the population have a relationship to the military, in the North a whopping 30%. In any possible military confrontation, South Korea has a strategic disadvantage. Whereas Pyongyang is about 100 kilometres from the border, central areas of Seoul are only 40 kilometres from enemy lines, in fact, the Seoul Metropolitan Subway System is just nine kilometres away from enemy territory. That brings about 25 million South Korean’s into or close to the range of North Korean artillery. Yes, North Korea is poor and things are lacking, but one of the reasons why North Korea is poor, is that many resources are directed to the military. They have plenty of tanks, plenty of artillery and plenty of munitions. In the 1990s, as tensions rose about North Korea’s nuclear programme, the US military simulated a war between the Koreas (including the US). Their assessment was sobering: South Korea would win the conflict but the first three months would cost 500,000 South Korean soldiers their lives. North Korean and civilian casualties were not numbered but supposed to be enormous.

If there should ever be war between the two Koreas it risks being very bloody. Next door to the Unification Park is the Korean Air Force Museum. A short introduction to Korean history. Only the titles have been translated into English, but they raise questions, I would love to be able to read the panels. Why is the Japanese invasion from 1592 mentioned but not the much more consequential Chinese invasion from 1636? Because it fits better into the narrative that Japan was always bad? We come to the part explaining the capabilities of the modern-day Korean Air Force. A graphic catches my eye and on a closer look makes my heart miss a beat. It shows how all is supposed to work, information is collected and flying between satellites, reconnaissance and fighter planes. South Korean bombs hit the North Korean artillery; parachutists are dropped behind enemy lines. But South Korean bombs also hit apartment buildings. The lines are clearly drawn and the bombs fall on buildings that do not even look remotely like military targets. That would be a war crime. It’s only a graphic but if there is no resistance against showing a war crime in a graphic, will there be any resistance to committing that crime in reality? Nearby and superb HASSLA Art World (“In the artist’s garden, a fun adventure unfolds even if you are lost.”) brings me to other thoughts. The day ends in Jeongdongjin, where an eccentric has built a hotel in the shape of a cruise ship. It proudly stands on a hill overlooking the sea. The wide beach is supplied with plenty of lights.

I visit the Son Sungmok Film Museum in Gangneung which proudly proclaims that there are many film museums but none would be comparable to it when it comes to quality and quantity of the exhibits. South Korea is sometimes prone to hyperbole. I miss a chance. The 2018 Winter Olympic Games will be held in PyeonChang. That is ridiculous because PyeongChang is nothing more than a hotel and a golf course. South Korea pursued the Olympics as a development plan. All the venues had to be constructed from scratch, it would be very expensive but at the end of the day there would be a winter sport destination where previously there had been none. It goes even further. Gangneung, 40 kilometres away, is the closest bigger city to PyeonChang and the train station has just been levelled, trains are no longer running. A hole in the ground opens where the station was. The old line, which took five hours to Seoul, is being replaced by a high-speed service that will cover the distance in just two. I do not visit PyeongChang, which I regret, as there is not even public transport to get there. And by the way, the writing PyeongChang was introduced du prevent people confusing it with the North Korean Pyongyang.

From Sokcho I head towards the border. I had seen concrete stele erected next to the roads, to allow to block them in the case of war, for the first time in North Korea. The Southern variant is even more massive and painted in camouflage colours. At one point a massive concrete cuboid, I estimate a length of 20 metres, a height of 4 metres and a depth of 8 metres which would give it a weight of 1500 tonnes. It has been painted with a beach scene. If this is lying on the street, it will really be blocked.

Hwajinpo Lagoon is famed for its beauty. At one point after 1945, the strong men in the North (Kim Il-sung) and South (Syngman Rhee) both had summer houses here. The houses are gone but a museum remains. Time is short and I don’t make it closer to the border viewpoint. At night, the beach in Sokcho is illuminated in all colours.

South Koreans love their nature and they love to hike. Better not to go to a National Park on the week-end, otherwise it might well be overrun by people dressed in outdoor clothing. I have hit the right time of the year, the autumn colours in Seoraksan National Park are supremely beautiful. Sinheungsa temple with its Buddha statue adds a cultural touch.


Seoul is a megacity with 9 million inhabitants and the greater Seoul area counts 25 million people. You can ride for hours on the metro system. I thought the “Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum” in Pyongyang was as grand as a museum on the Korean war can get but the War Memorial of Korea is even grander. Exhibitions, military equipment, 4D cinemas. A small display of military discipline is taking place in front of the museum.

The National Hangeul Museum is dedicated to the structure and evolution of the Korean alphabet (Hangeul) and the National Museum, with more than 3 million visitors per year one of the major museums in the world, has superb artefacts. The Museum of Korean Contemporary History touches the topic of possible “Implications of German Reunification for Korean Unification”.

I visit nearby Suwon and a Korean friend has organized free tickets for the Everland Resort, South Korea’s largest theme park, for me.

National Independence Hall

I head south from Seoul to visit the National Independence Hall; this visit became inevitable after I had learned the fate of the former Japanese General Government Building in Seoul. Constructed under Japanese rule in 1926 it was the largest government building in East Asia and had been erected on the grounds of the former Gyeongbokgung Palace of the Joseon dynasty. It served as the seat of the National Assembly of South Korea after independence was regained. Damaged in the Korean War it was only restored in 1962 serving various government functions. From 1986 it housed the National Museum of South Korea. On South Korea’s Liberation Day (15th of August) in 1995, celebrating 50 years of independence, the demolition of the building was started. Recognizable parts were hauled 80 kilometres south to be displayed as a victory against Japanese imperialism at the National Independence Hall: “The historic lesson was worth the expenditure. As a reminder to following generations of this lesson, some remnants of the building are exhibited in this park. The 2,400-ton, 17 kinds of debris of the old building, including cornerstones and the symbolic pinnacle, have been dumped in a 4,198m² pit, symbolically in the west where the sun sets, to represent that anti-peace colonialism and vandalism and all its noxious consequences should be buried forever.”

The exhibition is bad. The general problem I have with some South Korean history museums is that the engagement with their own history, and maybe also the bad sides of it, is very superficial while there is a lot of finger-pointing what bad things other countries have done. The National Independence Hall takes this to extremes trying to prove how other countries (all neighbours of South Korea) would “falsify history”. These neighbouring countries are not without blame but the National Independence Hall also tries very hard to push its line of history as the one and only possible reading of the past. This often is a recipe to repeat the bad parts of that past.       

I head further south to Jongeup with the plan to visit Naejangsan National Park in its most beautiful autumn attire. Heavy rain on the next day prevents a visit.