September 21, 2005

Going Home Again Part II

Ok, as everyone knows I went to Korea for the first time in my life just a week and 1/2 ago.

My mom hadn't been back since 1983 and hadn't been to her birthplace since 1951. It was a whirlwind trip wherein I learned a lot about my family, my heritage and the plight of refugees from the war.

There wasn't a family member or family friend that we visited that didn't have a story of intrigue, despair and loss to tell me.

My Korean isn't very good but my mom was there to help me interpret.

I stayed in the area surrounding the DMZ. Normal Koreans and foreigners barely ever visit. if you were born there you can get a pass, and you can accompany someone without a pass. So, there I was. Minutes from North Korea and the ever watchful eyes of the North Korean and South Korean military.

A few places truly were inspiring and I will try to paint the picture for you here.

The first is the DMZ itself. It is quite literally the line drawn in the sand. It is a roughly 2 mile plot of land that spans the width of the country. On the southern border of the DMZ is an 8 foot tall fence with rolling barbed wire at the top and live grenades hanging every 2 to 3 feet. Just inside that border fence is another barbed wire fence. It too contains live ordinance. You cannot get close to the fence, in fact, you cannot stop your vehicle as someone may shoot you. My photos are from the back seat of a car. You aren't to photograph that area either. You can see the barren, abandoned road within the DMZ that stretches up into the mountains and to the North Korean lookout point.

There is one spot you can stop (but no pictures). There is an observatory which you can climb and look out across the DMZ. I went there. It is less than a mile from my aunt's home. At that site is an abandoned rail station whose train used to take Koreans all over the North and South and into Russia and China.

When it stopped running 55 years ago, the train was left right where it ended its last run. There it sits in ruins today. It is a reminder of what the North Korean's used that train for in the early days of the war.

After the forced occupation by Japan ended, the North Koreans entertained thoughts of unifying the country. To that end, they set up the National Labor Party Headquarters - a vast stone building which stands in ruins as a tribute to the lives lost there. It is 1/2 mile from my mother's village and 1/2 mile from the train depot.

The North Koreans would round up peaceful villagers with the threat of putting them on the train to North Korea. In reality they would place these individuals on the train until they were herded to the Headquarters to be executed. When the area was liberated by the American military, what the soldiers found were trenches behind the building filled with executed, peaceful villagers. Why were they executed? To prove a point - to show that the North was mighty and strong, and to force those peaceful villagers to follow their lead. Young Korean's with sympathy for North Korea have completely forgotten the horrors of those days.

Why this spot and the train depot were so important to my trip was because of what they meant to my aunt, my uncle and their friends. My uncle explained that everyday as a teen, before he fell ill, he saw the North Koreans round innocent villagers up. His friends, neighbors, and some family were never seen again. On occassion, the North Korean soldiers would return to their village to tell them that a body could be gathered from the headquarters for burial. That is how they knew what happened to those particular friends and neighbors, the rest are simply lost. They lived with the fear that they were next.

Indeed, my uncle's best friend, who lives nearby, told me that at 15 years old his entire village was rounded up at gun point. They went to the depot, where they were told to go, but he got scared and snuck away in the middle of the night. He never saw another soul from his village again. I heard these tales time and again. These buildings stand so North Korean/Communist atrocities will never be forgotten, yet somehow they have been.

I also visited a folk village and museum and an old palace complex. It was all really fun, because while the Folk Village was early 19th Century, my aunt remembers living that way as a child. They didn't have straw roofs, but all the other particulars were exactly as they had been in the distant past. Korea has only recently, in the last 30 years, modernized.

Ok, so, believe it or not I was actually searching for the little mud buildings with dirt floors that you see on certain episodes of MASH. Let me tell you, that is as completely inaccurate as one could imagine.

In Korea, (at least not since the Bronze Age) there were no mud huts with dirt floors. The Koreans ate, slept and did everything else on their floors. So, dirt was not used. Instead, their floors were made of wood with an elaborate heating system underneath so that the floors were warm. It is really neat. I visited one of the old homes, still being lived in, yet long-since modernized. It was just like the folk village except it had electricity. It was really cool.

And the food! Man, it knocked me out! I had the best food while I was there. All these older Koreans I met were floored cause I'd eat just about anything they placed in front of me. Oh how I miss the food!

That's all for now. I should get around to posting pics. soon. . .

Posted by Oddybobo at September 21, 2005 10:14 AM | TrackBack

Yay pictures! And thanks for continuing to share the story. What an amazing experience.

Posted by: Richmond at September 21, 2005 03:11 PM

Good story.

Just please tell me there won't be any kimchi in it :-)

Posted by: Harvey at September 21, 2005 08:11 PM

It sounds like you really enjoyed your trip.

Posted by: Contagion at September 22, 2005 10:40 AM

Sounds like a very interesting and educating trip. Hope you had fun too. I'll definitely stop back by soon to see the pics.

Posted by: Jay at September 22, 2005 12:22 PM

Yay! your back and what a tale to tell! Thanks for writing about your experiences. It brought tears to my eyes. I've been Seol, but have never travelled to the DMZ. Just from the stories of others and historical pictures do I know of the bldgs you talk about.

My heart went out to man who lost everyone in his village. He stands as a lone testimonial of the ruthlessness of the communists. Wow, you also must have heard of the squabbline over the energy/nuclear power negotiations. That would be interesting to read about too.

Anyway, glad your back and sharing your history w/us.

Posted by: michele at September 22, 2005 01:30 PM

It's stories like these that make you marvel at the human spirit--how people can endure such brutality and sorrow yet emerge with warmth and kindness--with their humanity intact. Thank you for sharing your story and theirs.

Posted by: Pam at September 23, 2005 12:08 AM

Oddy- Thanks for sharing part of your families amazing story. I'm sure you will charish your trip for many many years to come. Can't wait for the pictures. :)

Posted by: imara at September 26, 2005 04:29 PM
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