Tag Archives: south korea

Who Still Faxes?

The more time I spend in South Korea, the more I realize that the two Koreas aren’t so different deep down. On the surface, they seem like different worlds. South Koreans enjoy a first-world standard of living that includes almost all western amenities (except clothes dryers, damnit). North Korea, on the other hand, is famous for two things – starvation and crazy. But the most recent incident in the ongoing feud between the two nations shows that they are more alike than appearances indicate.

In response to an anti-North Korea demonstration, Pyongyang sent a fax to the South Korean defense ministry on Thursday. The fax warned of, “a merciless retaliation without warning.” I can’t decide what’s more funny, the fact that they sent a fax, or that the fax warned of attack without warning.

Evolution of the Fax Machine

The incident should have ended here. South Korea is far more technologically advanced than North Korea, their GPD is 80 times larger, and they have a sizable chunk of the world’s most powerful military camped out in their front yard. Dignifying such craziness with a response would be akin to arguing with a kid on the internet.

Well, that’s exactly what South Korea’s defense ministry did. Instead of having a good laugh and adding the fax to their “crazy” file, Seoul responded in kind. According to a defense ministry spokesman, South Korea answered with their own fax, “vowing to respond sternly to any provocation.”

Because they look so different on the surface, it’s easy to forget that these two countries haven’t been separated for very long. Despite the south’s rapid evolution, episodes like this serve as a reminder that the two countries aren’t quite as different as they would have us believe.

Until next time.

-Taft

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Weekend in Gyeongju

I had an excellent weekend! I finally visited a city that I have wanted to see for over a year now. Gyeongju (경주), a small town to the east of Daegu, is only an hour away by train or bus. It is a historically significant area because it was the nation’s capital during the Silla Dynasty (668AD – 935AD). The Silla were the first to unify all of the Korean peninsula under a single ruler.

I’ll only cover Saturday night in this post. We saw too many cool things to cover the weekend in a single post.

We took the slow train (무궁화) from Dong-Daegu Station (동대구역) to Gyeongju Station (경주역). It took almost exactly an hour and cost 5,000 won ($4.75) each. We arrived mid-afternoon, so I was worried that we might not have time to see much. Fortunately, the train station is in the center of town and directly across the street from the historical district. The historical district is littered with signs that talk about the history of many of the buildings.

This is one of at least a hundred identical signs that are all over downtown.

This is one of at least a hundred identical signs that are all over downtown.

We began with Hwangseong Park (황성공원), an ancient royal burial ground. The park was filled with huge man-made mounds in which tombs were constructed for royalty and other important people. They were similar in appearance to the burial mounds at Bullo-Dong in Daegu, but their sizes varied much more and the Gyeongju mounds are spread farther apart.

Burial Mound - Gyeongju Korea Burial Mounds - Gyeongju Korea

An interesting fact I learned about the burial mounds was that Sweden plays a small role in their history. Only a few of the 100+ burial mounds have been excavated. Nearly 100 years ago, the Swedish crown prince (later crowned King Gustav VI) and a group of Swedish archaeologists assisted in the excavation of the tomb of an ancient Silla King, where they discovered an original Silla crown.

King Gustav plaque - Gyeongju

After the burial mounds, we decided to get dinner at a restaurant downtown. I wanted to try something interesting, so my friend suggested that we eat Hae-Jang-Gook (해장국), a mildly spicy and salty soup made with buckwheat tofu and vegetables (this is a unique Gyeongju style of Hae-Jang-Gook). It didn’t look appetizing when it hit the table, but it was absolutely delicious.

Hae-Jang-Gook

The restaurant at which we ate Hae-Jang-Gook was small and old. All of the walls were covered in mold and the menu was a piece of wood with three options engraved in it. We spoke to the old woman who owned the place and she told us that she has sold the three dishes in that space for 50 years. She pointed out her prize possessions, three framed photographs of her being interviewed by various reporters after winning an award for her soups.

해장국 Restaurant - Kyungju해장국 menu - Kyungju

The old woman spoke to us periodically as we ate. She thanked me several times for visiting Korea and for eating at her restaurant. My friend spoke to her every time, so she assumed that I didn’t understand what she was saying. As we left, she slapped me hard on the back and (in Korean) said to my friend: “He looks strong. Is he rich?”

We finished the night out at a place called Ajapji (안앞지), or Anap Pond. The pond was built nearly 1,500 years ago by the Silla king Munmu. It was repaired and turned into a historical site in the 1970s. Thanks to the underwater lights in the pond, Anapji is a popular nighttime destination for tourists and locals alike. As soon as we walked through the main gate, my blood pressure went through the roof. There was a constant stream of people pushing and shoving their way along the path surrounding the pond. The congestion was magnified by the groups of people standing in the pathway taking pictures.

We fought our way around the pond, skipping some of the popular stopping points because they were basically tourist mosh-pits. The worst was a gazebo near the entrance with several artifacts and a large model of the original buildings surrounding the pond. We found a few places off the normal path around the pond where we snapped some decent pictures.

Anajpi Scale Model - Gyeongju Anapji at night - Gyeongju

We finished out the night at a quiet bar near downtown. We needed the rest for a Sunday full of hiking to some amazing sights. More on that later.

Until next time.

-Taft

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I’m Just Not That Worried

It finally happened yesterday – my family asked me if I am concerned about the developing situation between North and South Korea. My friends have been fielding nervous phone calls from parents and grandparents for weeks now, but I knew that I would be the last to receive such a call. Not because my family doesn’t care, but because we are simply not worriers. We save our hand-wringing for much more trivial things.

But I think the latest round of news reports about North Korea moving missiles and advising foreign embassies to evacuate was the push they needed to make the call. I told them what I tell everyone who asks me about North Korea: “I’m just not that worried.”

The recent flurry of ominous news reports, when taken out of context, might leave one with the impression that North and South Korea are seconds away from starting World War III. The reality here in South Korea is quite different. I’ve seen more panic the day before a 1/2″ of snow in North Carolina. There’s no shortage of bread or milk here. In fact, it’s such a non-issue among my Korean friends that I haven’t heard a single South Korean talk about it.

UnThere are two reasons that South Koreans generally aren’t worried about North Korea:

The first is the fact that, in Korean culture, image is much more important than action. Most Koreans, including North Koreans, seem fairly certain that Kim Jong-Un is trying to extort money from the west in exchange for peace and build a reputation within North Korea as a strong pro-military leader.

The second reason most South Koreans aren’t concerned is the history of North Korea’s provocations. This report, made for Congress in 2003, shows a long history of threats and small incidents without any major international confrontations. If you take the time to read the entire report (settle in – it’s boring), you’ll notice some patterns. For example, North Korea tends to threaten South Korea shortly after presidential elections in the south.

It’s also worth noting that it can’t be lost on Kim Jong-Un that starting a war and staying in power are mutually exclusive. It’s a safe bet that he is currently trying to push South Korea, the United Nations and the USA to their limits without actually stepping over the line.

So I’ll take my que from the South Koreans and just relax. I’m just not that worried.

Until next time.

-Taft

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Kimbap Selling People

I have become something of a kimbap connoisseur over the past year. For those who don’t know, kimbap is a Korean dish that looks like a sushi roll. In my old neighborhood I had a favorite kimbap shop that I visited every day. When I moved a few weeks ago, I began looking for a new place to frequent. I found a decent kimbap shop near my school a few days ago. The woman who runs the restaurant is very nice and the food is good. The best thing about this place is the name.

image

Like many Korean businesses, this name doesn’t leave much to the imagination. 김밥 파는 사람들 translates to “Kimbap Selling People.” Frankly, I find Korean business names refreshing. With the exception of some nightclubs, you know exactly what a place is offering before you step inside. If the name isn’t something like “Toast” or “Noodle Restaurant” (both near my apartment), then there is a giant dancing cartoon pig or chicken painted on the sign. The only exception to this, according to one of my new roommates is a 보신탕 (dog soup restaurant). The signs for these places don’t have dancing cartoon dogs – just pictures of lush meadows and rolling hills. This makes me wonder what I’ve been adding to my ramen noodles lately when I steal his mystery meat from the freezer. Until next time. -Taft

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The New School

What a change from last year! I’m enjoying my new living arrangement. Elementary school is wonderful so far and I’ve spent the past couple of weeks exploring two new neighborhoods. This is a big turnaround from my last semester at my old school, which I simply did not enjoy.

I decided to wait a while before taking pictures of my new school. I was a bit hesitant to stroll around an elementary school with a camera before people knew that I am a teacher. I know that I’m thinking too much like an American in this situation, but I don’t love the idea of neighborhood thinking I’m a pedophile casing the joint. I finally felt comfortable enough to snap a few photos yesterday after lunch.

Sinseo Elementary School

This is my new school: Sinseo Elementary School (신서초등학교). The building on the left is one of the two main school buildings. The one on the right is the new gym. The old gym, which was located on the fifth floor of the third building that you cannot see, is directly above my office. I learned earlier this week that it is still in use when I heard what sounded like stampedes followed by blood-curdling screams all afternoon. The gym teacher told me later that the fourth graders were playing tag.

My new office isn’t particularly nice, but I don’t mind. I’m as far as possible from the rest of the teachers. The administration office, principal’s office, main teachers’ office and faculty room are in a separate building. I have all of the privacy I could want.

New Office

The only downside to all that privacy is the fact that I might bleed out next time I smack my head on the low-hanging TV that is inexplicably located directly over my office chair, always waiting to split my wig. Fortunately, pain is an excellent teacher, and I’ve significantly reduced the number of times I smack my gourd each day.

Until next time.

-Taft

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