June 2006

The Seoul Survivor story continues ….

Today was an exhausting day, hauling large quantities of presents around to get them packaged and then posted. I had offered to find something for Stewart in the Electronics Market and when he responded with a request for an MP3 player similar to an iRiver, I went back there (yep, caught the subway, as it was around 5 pm and a taxi would have taken just as long and cost 10 times as much) and found him a 1GB Vallio VE-100, which is vastly superior to the iRiver (which is made in China), is made in Korea and was cheaper.

Julie was rewarded for work well done by being presented with 3 medallions from her seniors, today being her last day. She has only ever received one of these in her career, so this was a real credit to her work.

Tomorrow is a USO tour to the DMZ and then straight out to the airport for the overnight flight home. Without a doubt, this turned out to be the absolute highlight of the whole trip. The bus heads north on the Freedom Highway, which (in theory) goes right through to PyongYang, the capital of North Korea. The first checkpoint is just before the Freedom Bridge, which is the end of the train line and the furthest north that South Koreans can go without special permission. An ROK  (Republic Of Korea) soldier came aboard and checked all of our passports. Just as well we were leaving that day and had them with us, or we would have forgotten to bring them! Photography is forbidden from there on, apparently something to do with – you might accidentally photograph the South Korean defences and have it find its way into the hands of the enemy. Remember that although a cease-fire has been agreed, a peace treaty has never been signed and the two countries are still technically at war.

Next stop was Camp Bonifas, a JSA (Joint Security Authority) base run by both US and Korean soldiers, where we offloaded from the bus, formed a line and our passports were then rather more carefully inspected before we got back on the bus. A short trip to the parking area, where we transferred to a JSA bus and were introduced to our US Army tour guide, followed by another short trip to the lecture hall where we were briefed on the history and situation at the DMZ, and what we would expect to see, including the first of several reminders not to make any gestures towards the North Koreans, as we would be being scrutinised through binoculars for the whole time that we were in the open. Then it was back into the bus to enter the DMZ itself. The first point of interest was the scope of the defences on the southern side of the DMZ, which of course is the first line of defence for South Korea. It consists of (from the back) a 10 foot high anti-tank wall, a mine field and a double line of razor wire fencing. The area between the 2 fences was raked, so that any footprints will show up, and they place white rocks in the fence itself, so that if the fence is disturbed, the rocks will fall out and be noticed by the regular patrols. At this point, photography is still forbidden. The consequence of non-compliance is possible confiscation of the camera and at the very minimum, removal of film or deletion of any digital pictures. It’s easier to just comply!

Next stop is Freedom House, which is the large building that faces the North at Panmunjom, which is where talks take place between the 2 sides. As we had 2 busloads, we formed up in 2 lines for each busload and while the other line headed straight out into the meeting house, we lined up on the top step to take photos, then the 2 parties swapped over. The ROK soldiers on guard duty are all black belts in a martial art, are taller than average and have an exemplary record. They remained in the martial arts ready position for the whole time that we were there. The US soldiers must also have an exemplary record to be posted there. Our guide was armed with a 9mm Baretta with 2 extra magazines. The inside of the meeting house is just like you see it in all of the photos. An ROK soldier stands at the head of the table, basically guarding the UN flag, while another stands at the northern door, protecting us from any entry by North Korean personnel. To move around into North Korean territory, (the other side of the table) we had to go via the foot of the table.

Next stop was Guard Post 3, where we were surrounded on 3 sides by North Korea and of course still under surveillance. From here, the Propaganda Village, with its massive flagpole and 300 Kg flag, was visible, although shrouded in haze. At one point, I heard their national anthem playing in the distance. There is also one village on the south side inside the DMZ, whose residents must prove their local heritage to be able to live there. In return for living in such a dangerous area, they are allocated a much bigger plot of land to farm and the men are exempt from Military Service. Women may marry into the village, men may not. We also stopped briefly at the Bridge of No Return, for a quick photo from still on the bus. Then the photo ban was back on as we headed back out via the Gift Shop (of course).

The location for our Korean style lunch is the only restaurant in the area and they were doing a roaring trade! As we left, I omitted to pick up Julie’s purse as I left and she had a minor panic for a while. The tour guide had picked it up on his sweep through. Strangely, I was not concerned, because the whole time I was in the country, I felt quite safe. More about that later.

Next stop was an ROK Observation Post, where the briefing was conducted by an ROK soldier in perfect English, complete with a London accent! I has a commanding view of the border area and beyond. We were allowed to take photos, but only behind the yellow line, which was about 6 metres back from the wall and all you can see from there is a row of bums and binoculars. Final stop was the “Third Tunnel”, one of the many infiltration tunnels, of which only 4 have been found, that the North Koreans have dug under the DMZ. The walk to the entrance of the tunnel is 350 metres at a 12 degree slope and since what goes down also has to come back up, and photographs are not allowed, I elected to go down just 50 metres, sit in the cool for a while and come back out. The crowning glory at this place was the 6-screen movie and slide show about the DMZ and its flourishing wildlife, which would have been great if it hadn’t ended with a blatant rah-rah gee-up segment on the re-unification process, which made it sound like peace was already established. I thought my comment, “And I thought it was the North Koreans that had the propaganda” was pretty caustic until I heard some of the Army people have a go.

Muggins briefly takes the driver’s seat.

This tour certainly highlighted the sadness and tragedy of dividing a country by ideology the way it has been done, especially after the bitter conflict of the Korean War. Families are divided and only a small number get the chance to re-unite, and then only for a few days, each year. The cooperation process has started, with an industrial zone already established just over the border on the Freedom Highway, the train line capable of re-opening, and a large Customs and Immigration site currently under construction. As for re-unification, I don’t believe we’ll see it in my lifetime, although I will be happy to be proved wrong. I think the best we can hope for in the short term is a formal Peace Treaty and an opening of the border for travel and tourism.

Overall, I am impressed by South Korea and the spectacular progress they have made in just 40 years. In that time, they have become a world leader in the electronics field. The whole city of Seoul is free of litter and amazingly clean. Numerous people offered to help us when we looked confused at the subway stations. Transport is generally easy if you’re not traveling in the peak times. Subway trains run frequently and you can usually get to your destination with just one line change; taxis are plentiful and at a reasonable cost, although it helps if you know exactly where you are going. The only downer was the weather, which is hazy most of the time, being mostly due to the lack of strong winds to blow away the pollution.

Here, we peel off briefly for SFC Harris’s trip to Thailand.

It’s good to be home again.

From Seattle.

Mid-month. Wow, we’ve been back 2 weeks already. Julie contacted CASA on the Monday morning, was summoned there in the afternoon and started the following day, albeit at a reduced rate of pay. Since then, she has registered with a few head-hunters and on Thursday last week, went for an interview at 3:30 at Brindabella Park, which is in the airport precinct. By 5:30 the head-hunter was on the phone, offering her the job at a MUCH better rate – it’s a temp for a month and we are hopeful that it will pan out to longer term. It’s with General Dynamics, who supply land vehicles to Defence, and lot of the work is exactly what she did back at Boeing in Seattle.

Meanwhile, I have finished from Boeing and started with the Kaz Group, doing the same job and sitting in the same seat and getting the same pay! Although I was impressed by the half-day induction (in the Telstra Executive Briefing Area of the Telstra Tower, on the same level as the big microwave dishes), in which the main message was that they don’t just sell what the customer thinks he wants, they sell a solution that develops dynamically as they work with the customer, his staff and their own people, which means that what they sell is actually achievable.

I attended the annual Organ Donor and Recipient Thanksgiving Service. Apparently what I had to say lightened the mood at little, at the same time as being quite “profound”.

Julie is coming home from work excited, which is just wonderful. She loves the job – it’s a lot like the job she was doing at Boeing and the boss has never seen what a real OA can do for him, so it’s going really well. At this point, we just sit back and wait to see if an offer of permanency comes up.

Took the birthday girl to dinner.

Speaking of permanency, it’s been 2 years since we first submitted the visa application and we have now submitted an application for a permanent resident visa.