Tuesday, November 29, 2011


Hanging over the hustle and bustle of Seoul is the nearby border with North Korea. It can be hard to believe that a brutal dictatorship exists so close to a vibrant modern state. We couldn't come all the way to South Korea without a trip to the DMZ, or Demilitarized Zone  that separates North from South.

As we got closer to the border fences, pillboxes and watch towers begin to appear. This bridge is one of the only links between the two states, a recently built railway that was hoped to bring the sundered halves closer together.

The first real stop on the tour was at a museum that looked at the history of the Korean war, and the cross border tensions since then. It didn't have the more recent spats listed, but it gave a good overview of things. There was also a video presentation that stressed the nature reserve aspect of the DMZ over the soldiers, pillboxes and landmines aspect. It was fine, but it did seem a bit Pollyanna considering the history and the tensions.

After the museum we got to visit Infiltration Tunnel #3. This is the third of four tunnels that have been found piercing the border. The North Koreans claim it is a coal mine, and planted coal dust to back up their claim. However, the way the tunnel is fashioned and the way it slopes (up towards South Korea) show the lie. It was built for use in a surprise attack. It is estimated that there are many more tunnels that have not been found. Sadly for me, photography was not permitted within the tunnel. In this way, the tour was very highly regulated. Passports were required, and photography was strictly limited. If you were seen taking photographs in a forbidden area, guards would accost you and make you delete the file.

Then it was time to journey to an overlook where we could peer into North Korea itself. We were there on a very clear day, and got excellent views of the hills surrounding a North Korean city whose name escapes me. We also got to view what were once the tallest and second tallest flag poles in the world. Each side kept building their flagpole taller, until South Korea stopped bothering. Here again, photography was only allowed to a certain point. From the edge you could see South Korean military fortifications, and they wanted to ensure no agents could photograph the troop dispositions. 

Our last stop was Dorason station. It is a brand new train station that has never been used. It was built to service the same train line the bridge was built for, but relations between North and South soured, and regular service never began. It was eery walking around a shiny but empty train station. 
While we did not get to see the Joint Security Area and the actual border line on this tour, we did get an excellent glimpse of the fractured recent history of the Korean peninsula. It was a fascinating day, and a sobering one as well. A true peace treaty was never signed, and as we have seen in the news there are still flashes and flare ups. While we may hope a resurgent Korean War will never happen, our trip to the DMZ reminded us that it is certainly possible. 

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Alloy of Law

I interrupt the (ir)regularly scheduled Korea trip posts for a quick diversion.

I have been a big fan of fantasy author Brandon Sanderson's work since I read his Mistborn Trilogy some years back. The story was conceived as a way of turning most of the Tolkienesque tropes of fantasy on their head. In this setting, the grand quest to rid the world of evil failed, saddling the known world with a thousand years of dark lord dictatorship. The books were fun, interesting and fresh, and I really enjoyed the world Sanderson created. While the ending wrapped up the trilogy quite nicely, there is always room for more stories. Hence, The Alloy of Law.

This newest book in the series is a stand alone tale set three hundred years after the end of the trilogy. Unlike most fantasy worlds, where things stay generally medieval for centuries, here is a much more dynamic world. Railroads are proliferating, and a general wild west/ steampunk vibe has been very successfully overlaid on the rules and history of the series. The Alloy of Law was written as a bit of a break between other more epic fantasy novels and is a much shorter, fluffier book than we might be used to in the genre, and even from this author. There are no world spanning conflicts, no epic armies clashing. Rather there is a solid central mystery complimented by fun characters, interesting dialogue and a chance to revisit a very interesting setting. As you can probably tell, I really enjoyed The Alloy of Law, and I am very much looking forward to more stories in the Mistborn universe.  

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Gyeongbokgung Palace

The largest and grandest of Seoul's several ancient palaces is Gyeongbokgung. Sadly though, much of the Palace is less ancient than you might think. Much of the palace was destroyed by the Japanese colonial efforts prior to the Second World War. Quite a bit has been restored and rebuilt though, and the whole thing is very impressive. 

We were lucky enough to arrive right at the height of a ceremonial changing of the guard. What most interested me was the military bands horns, they sounded a lot like bagpipes without the bags! The colorful flags and costumes where perfect for setting the mood as we got ready to explore the palace.

This particular building was one of the few left standing, and was built as a party pavilion. I can see the appeal, with the lake side location and gorgeous mountain views. Sadly, I don't think it is being rented out anymore. 

What was being rented (for free) were costumes. Wear a guard costume, and experience Korean Culture. Or just horse around and pretend to be in a fighting game. We had a lot of fun in our allotted time, and a great many very goofy photographs were taken. 
The general architecture and layout of the palace was very interesting, East Asian for sure, but still unique. The basic layout reminded me of a smaller scale Forbidden City, though far less elaborate in color scheme than China tends to be. In fact, it was like much of Korea seemed, a bit of a halfway point between Japan and China. Which, geographically at least, it certainly is. Poor Korea was caught between those two quite often throughout the years. 

The grounds of the palace also contained a museum of Korean history and culture that was very well done. I learned a lot about a country that I must admit I have often overlooked.