K-Pop, rom-coms and Korean dramas like Endless Love: Winter Sonata paint a picture of a carefree, beautiful South Korea. But behind the popular images of pretty boys, high fashion, lush landscapes and beautiful architecture is another narrative: the Korean War.
The war began in 1950, after 135,000 soldiers from the communist North Korean People’s Army crossed the boundary in the 38th parallel and invaded the southern Republic of Korea. The Korean War became the first war that the United Nations played a part in; 16 countries sent troops and 41 countries sent equipment to aid the South. The Philippines was among the first responders. If you check the back of our P500 bill, you’ll see Ninoy Aquino with an article he wrote as a war correspondent in South Korea.
The war never officially ended. It only went into a ceasefire in 1953, after over two million Koreans died from both the North and South. Today, the tension runs like an undercurrent, surfacing every so often when the North threatens the South.
Walking around Seoul, you can usually see young men in uniform back in town for a day off. They’re my age — riding the train, holding hands with their girlfriends — yet are required to serve two years in the military before they turn 30.
During our most recent trip to South Korea, my parents and I spent a day at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the buffer area that puts four kilometers between North and South Korea. It is the most heavily militarized border in the world. Many believe it is also the tensest.
Tunnels and Train Tracks
I first visited the DMZ as a 19-year old exchange student. I remember the escort soldier warning us: stay out of areas marked for land mines, don’t touch the fences, don’t take photos in prohibited areas. He pointed towards a hill on the other side of the border: “That’s already North Korea.”
How surreal it was to see how close the North was, yet know that life there was so different from that of the South.
Back in the present day, our tour guide Sunny is speaking into a microphone as we drove through Gyeonggido Province on the way to the border: “It’s very sad. My grandmother has siblings in North Korea, and she’s already accepted that they’ll never see each other again.” On the way, we pass by Imjingak, a “unification park” with memorials for the war such as the Freedom Bridge, a pond shaped like the Korean peninsula, and an old steam locomotive that appeared to have bullet holes in the sides.
Across Imjingak is Mangbaedan, where people who originally lived in North Korea visit and bow towards their old hometown during New Year’s Day. Imjingak is a relatively relaxed place, with minimal security. The same could not be said about our next destination: the Third Infiltration Tunnel.
Discovered in the 1970s, this tunnel was proof that the North planned to invade the South even after the signing of the ceasefire. The South Korean military has discovered a total of four tunnels, though they believe there are over ten more tunnels that have yet to be found. We deposit our cameras in lockers, pass through metal detectors, put on plastic helmets and make our way down to connect with the Third Infiltration Tunnel, which is 240 feet underground.
The tunnel itself is made of granite, though North Korea painted it black and called it an innocent “coal mine” when it was discovered. It’s a tight fit — as a tiny, 5’2 Filipina, I can pass through it with little difficulty; behind me, the tall Europeans in our tour group hunch over. It’s hard to imagine how 30,000 North Korean soldiers per hour were expected to pass through this.
At the end, we see a concrete barrier. This is as close to North Korea as we’ll physically get. As we prepare to make the 240-foot climb back to open air, we found an unexpected bit of lightness: a small spring had been discovered by the South Koreans and turned into a turtle-shaped fountain. Visitors drink here before the ascent.
One of the areas that you can visit even without a tour guide is the Dorasan Station, the northernmost train station in South Korea. It was built by contributions from 13,000 private individuals and companies to symbolize the hope for reunification. There are literally no other buildings in the vicinity of the station, only fields and mountains as far as the eye could see. We look out and feel a bittersweet mix of sadness and hope.
Seoul: A Legacy of Recovery
When people ask why I keep going back to South Korea, I joke that it’s because I get mistaken for a local and can easily blend in. But if I were to give a serious answer, it’s that I’m fascinated by the dual nature of the Land of Morning Calm: tradition and modernity, peace and war, destruction and recovery.
It’s not just at the border that conflict has left its mark, but even within the capital city of South Korea: Seoul. Right in the middle of Seoul is Gyeongbokgung, a sprawling palace whose name translates to Greatly Blessed by Heaven.
Backpacker wisdom taught me to avoid guided tours. But signing up for the free tour of Gyeongbokgung was one of the best choices we made. Lee Chun Seon, our guide, planned the Gyeongbokgung tour of US President Barack Obama!
Ms. Lee tells us that the buildings of Gyeongbokgung have a bitter history and underwent restoration several times. The Japanese demolished hundreds of structures during their occupations. Even the King himself abandoned Gyeongbokgung after Japanese assassins dragged his wife from her sleeping quarters, stabbed to death, and burned.
I asked our tour guide Lee Chun Seon if she changes her tour sequence when Japanese tourists are around. She says: “We give the same tour to everyone. The Japanese government does not talk about the war. What they did is not in the textbooks, so the people do not know. But when ordinary Japanese people hear about what happened in Korea, they apologize.”
Happier parts of Korea’s history are immortalized as well in Seoul. In the cultural district of Insadong, several hanbok cafes let visitors rent elaborate costumes in the Joseon Dynasty style for photo shoots.
A small restaurant called Miss Lee Star Cafe serves meals in silver lunchboxes like those used in 1970s South Korea. We opened each box to find rice, kimchi, luncheon meat, and egg. We closed these boxes and shook them like good little Korean children in order to mix all the ingredients together.
Insadong is a modern place with a traditional vibe. For that time-capsule feel, we walked to the nearby Bukchon Hanok Village. I don’t remember the route we took once we were in Bukchon, only that we’d wander around until we hit a dead end and then switch directions. We didn’t mind — getting lost is fun in a place so beautiful.
Several subway stations away, the National War Memorial of Korea is a museum with a graveyard of tanks and airplanes and an airy corridor with plaques of fallen soldiers’ names. Inside, they remember battles from an era long past with a replica of the armored “turtle ship” that the royal navy used from the 15th to 19th century.
Again, there’s a bittersweet feeling at this memorial similar to DMZ. While we’re free to enter, climb aboard battleships and sit inside tanks, we also remember that not too long ago, these weapons witnessed war. South Korea is lucky that they can be retired.
I believe we travel to seek out stories, whether it’s to know a place for the first time or to see a familiar place with fresh eyes. Thanks to the popularity of South Korea’s cultural exports — dramas like Jewel in the Palace, music from Psy and unbelievably gorgeous girl groups such as 2NE1 and Girls Generation — Seoul is now a hotbed for tourists. But beyond its modern attractions, what makes South Korea’s capital city unique is how their history is on display for all to see.
What I love about Seoul is that “old Seoul” actually moves within “new Seoul,” from palaces a stone’s throw away from the central business district, to nostalgia cafes frequented by teenagers, to wartime memorials that look to the future.
Battles have leveled the city many times. Yet here is Seoul, a giant in the industries of technology, music, and tourism. Perhaps this is the greatest achievement of South Korea — not that they’ve built all these fancy monuments, but that they’ve risen from the ashes to rebuild anew.
[Entry 36, The SubSelfie Blog]
About the Author:
Cristina Gratia “Ceej” Tantengco is a courtside reporter for ABS-CBN Sports. She was a digital producer for GMA News Online and the travel show Biyahe ni Drew. She is also the editor-in-chief of the travel and lifestyle website KamustaMagazine.ph. This is her third time in South Korea. While still a student at Ateneo, she won three Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards. Learn more about her through her personal blog.