Land Of The Morning Calm
After 19 hours of flying my wife and I were chomping at the bit to land and meet up with our son. It had been at least a year and a half since we last saw him and we were more than anxious to see him. For the last eight months, he has been stationed at Osan Air Base in South Korea. He is presently assigned to the 51st Fighter Wing (Maintenance Group) as an IT Systems Administrator. So needless to say when our beautiful Boeing 757 (our home for the past 14 hours) landed we were delighted and grateful to have come so far without even a hint of trouble. In fact, I’ve had more problems arise on a simple five minute trip to the grocery store than travelling on this 19-hour adventure. Although we appeared and felt much like the zombies you see in the movies, adrenaline flooded our bodies much like water breaking through a dam when we laid eyes on our son, who was waiting for us in the terminal. After some long warm emotional hugs we headed out to our lodging which was a short walk from the terminal. It was only but a few minutes sitting in our room catching up with our son that the weariness and symptoms of 19 hours of travel brings sank in hard. He must have sensed our sluggish, pathetic behavior and decided to call it a night and took off to his barracks. Needless to say we slept late into the next morning to recoup from the jet lag and the 13 hour time difference. So although our clock in lodging displayed 10 a.m. Tuesday , Osan, South Korea time it still felt like 9 a.m. Monday, Salisbury time. No doubt a big adjustment to overcome and an adjustment that seemed to linger for a couple of days. Either way our son was going to give us the grand tour of Osan Air Base and then a tour of Pyeongtaek, South Korea which is located near the base. Actually Osan Air Base is located near Songtan station which is in the city of Pyeongtaek, South Korea – 40 miles south of Seoul. Osan Air Base is the most forward deployed permanently based wing in the Air Force (sometimes referred to as the “Tip of the Spear”). Osan Air Base was built in 1952 and along with Kunsan Air Base to the south are the two major U.S. Air Force installations in South Korea. The base is equipped with A-10 Thunderbolts, and F-16 Fighting Falcons.
The “Battle of Bayonet Hill” took place on Osan Air Base on February 7, 1951. Captain Lewis Millet led a bayonet charge of his soldiers of Company E, 27th Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division up the hill against an unknown number of Chinese Communist Forces (CCF) entrenched on its crest. Company E routed the CCF, and Captain Millet received the Medal of Honor.
After a day of getting familiar with the base and its history it was time to venture off base to explore the surrounding community of Songtan. More specifically the area immediately outside the main gate is commonly referred to by foreigners as “downtown” or “the ville” but is officially known as Shinjang shopping mall. Here you will find many bars, dance clubs, small shops and restaurants. This “downtown” area is unique from many shopping strips in South Korea because of its relatively large American/Foreign presence. Subsequently, most stores, restaurants and establishments are bilingual (English/Korean) and many merchants accept US dollars as well as South Korean Won.
Before interacting with any of the local merchants our son gave us a crash course on some South Korean etiquette and phrases to better converse with the shop/store attendants. The South Koreans are one ethnic family speaking one language. The Korean language is spoken by more than 65 million people living on the peninsula and its outlying islands as well as 5.5 million Koreans living in other parts of the world. The fact that all Koreans speak and write the same language has been a critical factor in their strong national identity. Modern Korea has several different dialects including the standard one used in Seoul and central areas, but they are similar enough that speakers/listeners do not have trouble understanding each other. Some of the everyday phrases that my son informed us would be most useful were; Ann Yong Haseyo (Hello), Kamsa Hamida – or as I would say it – Come Saw Mida (Thank You), Chai ga (Goodbye), Ige Eolmayeyo (How much is this), and several others.
In addition to my brief lesson on the Korean language, I also learned that Korea is referred to as the “land of the morning calm”. In 1934 A.D., an emperor of the Ming Dynasty of China gave Korea the title of ‘Chaohsien’ meaning morning freshness. The title was most suited to South Korea because of its spellbinding natural beauty of picturesque high mountains and clear waters and its splendid tranquility, particularly in the morning which further confirmed the title on South Korea as the ‘Land of the Morning Calm’.
We had been in South Korea for a couple of days and we still hadn’t obtained any South Korean currency. The conversion rate for that particular day was 1,142 Won which was equal to one US Dollar. The Won was first used as Korea’s currency between 1902 and 1910. In 1945 Korea became divided, resulting in separate currencies, both called Won, for the South and the North.
Our son informed us that on weekends the streets are crowded with local residents, tourists, shoppers, and general partiers clogging the streets and enjoying the festive atmosphere. During our walk – through the Shinjang area I noticed quite a few American fast food businesses such as Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonalds, Baskin-Robbins – just to name a few. The Shinjang area is predominately made up of small shops and open air markets. Some Americans (to include my son) are eager to buy custom made clothing at prices somewhat cheaper than in the U.S. from the skilled artisans who line the mall. In addition, there are leather workers, jewelers, painters, and hanji shops which cater especially to the Americans. Hanji is the traditional paper of Korea made from the inner bark of the mulberry, a tree native to Korea that grows well on its rocky mountainsides. My wife and I found out early that it was proper custom to haggle with the shop owners to obtain the best deal, and the merchants were usually willing to do the same. We were told later that many of the shop owners are superstitious and if they don’t make a sale to the first customer of the day their sales for the rest of the day would suffer.
Songtan is considered to be a major bedroom community for Seoul and Suwon workers. There are many large multi-story apartment buildings that house these commuters. As you travel away from the base, Songtan appears as any other city in Gyeonggi-do, with high-rise apartments stretching to the south. Cityscape gives way to rural farmlands immediately west and about two miles east of the base. From the downtown bus station, buses travel to many South Korean cities to include; Osan, Suwon, and Seoul to the north; and Pyeongtaek, Cheonan, and Daejeon to the south.
The communities surrounding the base reflected quite a vast and diverse infusion of cultures. Merchants selling rugs/carpets from the Middle East, South American coffee shops, Belgium chocolates/candy stores, New York and Chicago style pizza restaurants, African art shops, a multitude of European clothing boutiques, and various food items/stores/restaurants from all over the world.
In our travels in the local Songtan area I could not resist noticing the ever present display of the South Korean national flag. It is well represented as it is flown on flag poles on most businesses and displayed in windows showing their pride and patriotism. The South Korean flag is called taegeukgi. The symbolism of the South Korean flag derives from the philosophical system (yin and yang forces) that predominated in the Confucian orient. The circle in the center of the flag is divided into two equal parts. The red half represents the proactive cosmic forces of the yang. Conversely, the blue half represents the responsive cosmic forces of the yin.
The two forces together embody the concepts of continual movement, balance and harmony that characterize the sphere of infinity. The circle is surrounded by a trigram in each corner. Each trigram symbolizes one of the four universal elements: heaven (upper left 3 long bars), earth (lower right 6 short bars), fire (lower left – 2 long and 2 short bars) and water (upper right – 1 long and 4 short bars).
We had been in South Korea for a couple of days and still have yet to have any authentic Korean food. Korean cuisine has evolved through centuries of social and political change. Originating from ancient agricultural and nomadic traditions in southern Manchuria and the Korean peninsula, Korean cuisine has evolved through a change in interaction of the natural environment and different cultural trends. Korean cuisine is predominately based upon rice, fish, vegetables, and meats. Korea is a peninsula set in some of the world’s best fishing waters, so it is no wonder that seafood, fresh and dried, is the primary protein source for the Korean people. Traditional Korean meals are noted for the number of side dishes (banchan) that accompany steam-cooked short grain rice. Kimchi (fermented vegetable dishes usually made with Napa cabbage, Korean radish, or sometimes cucumber, commonly fermented in a brine of ginger, garlic, scallions, and red chili pepper) is served often, sometimes at every meal. Ingredients and dishes vary by province. Many regional dishes have become national, and dishes that were once regional have proliferated in different variations across the country. For my first Korean meal I decided to order seasoned beef bulgobi (marinated strips of tender beef cooked over hot coals or stir-fried, also pork and chicken can be used), kimchi, doenjang (soybean paste), rice, and for dessert I ordered tea and cookies or hangwa (which is called dagwasang).
Later in the evening our son took us out to one of the local night clubs to introduce us to a sample of soju (Korea’s most well-known distilled liquor). As a bonus he would go on to give us a – what, where, why, who, and when briefing on traditional liquor in South Korea. I wasn’t sure if I should be impressed or concerned about all this information pertaining to alcohol. He informed me that for the most part, Korean traditional liquor is made by fermenting various grains. The fermentation process is a critical part of the entire liquor making process for it decides the scent and taste of the final product. Depending on the weather and region it is produced, traditional liquors vary greatly. Fruits and herbs can also be added in order to enhance taste. There are Makgeolli (traditional rice wine), Gwasilju (fruit wine), and Soju.
When visiting South Korea it’s hard not to pay a visit to Seoul. In fact our son had become quite an aficionado on the city of Seoul as he had been travelling to Seoul every weekend for about two months before our visit to South Korea. Seoul is the capital and largest city of South Korea. Seoul is considered a megacity because it has a population of over ten million people and it is one of the largest cities in the world. Nearly half of South Korea’s entire population lives in the Seoul national capital area (which also includes Incheon and Gyeonggi and makes it the second largest metropolitan area in the world). Seoul is considered a global city and it is the center of South Korea’s economy, culture and politics. Many years ago Seoul had been known by a number of different names. But in 1945, Korea gained its independence from Japan and the city was renamed to its present name of Seoul. In 1950 North Korean troops occupied the city during the Korean War and the entire city was nearly destroyed. On March 14, 1951, United Nations forces took control of Seoul and since then, the city has rebuilt and grown considerably.
Seoul is known for its population density which is about 44,776 people per square mile. As such, much of the city consists of dense high rise apartment buildings. The city is situated in the northwestern part of South Korea. Seoul itself has an area of 233.7 square miles and it is cut in half by the Han River which was previously used as a trade route to China and helped the city grow throughout its history. The Han River is no longer used for navigation however, because its estuary is at the border between North and South Korea. Seoul is surrounded by several mountains but the city itself is relatively flat because it is on the Han River plain.
Our trip to Seoul consisted of a short walk from the base to the Songtan station where we would board a bus and travel 40 miles approximately 50 minutes (of course – depending on traffic) to Seoul. With so much to see and so little time we had to pick out some highlights and perhaps not so highlights of Seoul. The first thing that stood out to me about Seoul was the enormous size of the subway system network servicing the city. In fact the Seoul subway map is quite large and extensive, requiring a considerable amount of time to study before jumping on-board.
Another sight that peaked my interest was the observation of ancient Korean architecture fused together with present day Korean construction. One vivid example of this is Gyeongbokgung Palace, which is located in the northern part of Seoul, this royal palace was first constructed in 1394, later burned and abandoned for almost three centuries, and then reconstructed in 1867. It was the main palace of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) and the most comprehensive and grandest of the five palaces of the period.
We were fortunate to observe the royal changing of the guard ceremony which was held in front of the main gate of the palace. This ceremony was a great opportunity to experience a rare traditional scene in Korea, as the ceremony is reenacted exactly as it used to be held, with guards wearing colorful royal uniforms, carrying traditional weapons and playing traditional instruments.
Also within the grounds of the Gyeongbok Palace is the National Folk Museum of Korea. The museum has three main exhibition halls, with over 98,000 artifacts. My favorite point of interest in the museum was the “History of Korean People” exhibit. This exhibit featured materials of everyday life in Korea from prehistoric times to the end of the Joseon Dynasty in 1910. The “Life Cycle of the Koreans” exhibit depicted the deep roots of Confucianism in Korean culture and how this ideology gave rise to most of the culture’s customs.
Clearly seen from the Gyeongbok Palace is the Blue House or Cheongwadae (pavilion of blue tiles). The Blue House is the executive office and official residence of the South Korean head of state and Park Geun-hye – President of the Republic of Korea. The Blue House is a complex of buildings, built largely in the traditional Korean architectural style with some modern elements.
While walking towards the center of Seoul we came across a large statue of an individual standing high above a large concrete foundation.
This imposing statue was of Admiral Yi Sun-sin. Admiral Yi ( April 28, 1545 – December 16, 1598) was a Korean naval commander, famed for his victories against the Japanese Navy during the Imjin war in the Joseon Dynasty, and is well respected for his exemplary conduct on and off the battlefield not only by Koreans, but by Japanese Admirals as well.
It is well documented that his most remarkable achievement occurred at the Battle of Myeongnyang. Outnumbered 333 ships to 13, and forced into a last stand with only his minimal fleet standing between the Japanese Army and Seoul, Admiral Yi delivered one of the most astonishing defeats in military history.
In close proximity to the memorial of Admiral Yi was yet another massive statue, this one representing King Sejong or Sejong the Great. Sejong was a 15th Century Monarch and was the fourth ruler during the Joseon Dynasty. His reign lasted from 1418 to 1450. He reinforced Confucian policies and initiated major legal amendments. He also oversaw the creation of Hangul (the Korean alphabet), encouraged advancements of scientific technology, and instituted many other efforts to stabilize and improve prosperity. He dispatched military campaigns to the north and installed SaMin policy to attract new settlers to the region. To the south, he subjugated Japanese raiders and captured Daemado (island located between Korea and Japan). Both memorials of Admiral Yi and King Sejong also include impressive museums which are actually located underground – beneath the actual statues.
Another impressive palace located in Seoul that we decided to visit was Changdeokgung. Like Gyeongbokgung Palace, Changdeokgung (often referred to as the “East Palace”) is one of the five grand palaces built by the kings of the Joseon Dynasty. Changdeokgung was constructed in 1405 as a secondary palace of the Joseon Dynasty. After Japanese invasion in 1592, it was rebuilt and served as the main palace for about 270 years. Korea’s last emperor, Sejong lived here until his death in 1926.
The Huwon (rear garden), also called “Secret Garden”, consisted of 78 acres and was loved by many kings because of its natural beauty. This 340,000 square-meter expanse of tree-shaded pavilions, carefully tended flower gardens, tranquil lotus ponds, and quaint little bridges was once a favorite rendezvous to which royalty and courtiers come for relaxation, entertainment, and intrigue.
As the most well preserved palace of the Joseon period and the perfect harmony with nature, it was registered with the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage list in 1997.
Today there are 13 buildings remaining on the palace grounds and 28 pavilions in the gardens, occupying 110 acres in all.
Interior of palace (throne)
There are 25 districts or Gu in the city of Seoul. The districts are similar to London’s or New York’s boroughs. One such district that seems to be the most popular and draws the most attention is the Gangnam area. Of course the YouTube sensation “Gangnam Style” sung by Psy has catapulted Gangnam to one of the number one talking points of Seoul. Gangnam means south of the river (Han). The Gangnam district is actually the geographical center of both Seoul and the entire Korean Peninsula (North and South Korea).
While in Seoul we saw many traditional outdoor market places and modern shopping arcades and department stores offering everything from daily necessities to luxury goods. South Korea has excellent handicrafts, including superbly made ceramics and furniture. There were no shortage of merchants selling clothing, leather goods, fabrics, jewelry, brassware, furs, sporting goods, embroidered goods, curios, and ginseng products.
Many foreign visitors confine their shopping to the It’aewon district, near the Eighth U.S. Army main post in Yongsan, but to get a true taste of the traditional – style shopping opportunities available, you must be sure to visit the huge market complexes at Myeongdong, Namdaemun, and Dongdaemun (fashion district). It was well worth the trouble to brave the crowds just to get to see the amazing variety of goods on sale in the thousands upon thousands of shops that line the alleyways of these vast marketplaces, which are among the world’s largest bazaars.
One landmark in Seoul that cannot be mistaken is the Namsan Tower which is located on the top of Namsan Mountain. The tower also known as the Seoul Tower is the highest point in Seoul at 1,574 feet above sea level (tower itself is 777 feet in height). The tower serves as a broadcast transmission site and as an observation point that is popular with both tourists and the locals. The tower is just as impressive at night as a multitude of lights on the tower glisten brightly illuminating the sky making it visible from far away. In fact it is easy to see why Seoul is often called the city of lights by travelers as we observed countless neon signs and brightly lit streets.
In Seoul the visitor will find a concentration of cultural remnants of the Joseon Dynasty and plenty of opportunities to see performers of traditional music and dance as well as such modern attractions as amusement parks, art galleries, riverboat tours, some great shopping, and much more.
Near the end of our trip in South Korea we decided to sign up for a tour of the DMZ. Never before have I had to read three pages of rules, regulations, instructions and much more that pertained to a tour. To ensure not to draw any attention and other reasons not specifically explained to us, there is a strict dress code enforced before departing on the tour. In addition there is even a well prepared itinerary illustrating where and when photos are permitted. The Korean Demilitarized Zone is a strip of land running across the Korean peninsula that serves as a buffer zone between North and South Korea which runs along the 38th parallel. The north side of the DMZ is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, also known as North Korea and the south side is the Republic of Korea, also known as South Korea. The tour began with a visit to the Imjingak Park. The park included “The Bridge of Freedom”, which was named when 12,773 Korean prisoners of war returned from North Korea in 1953. Also in the park is the “Bell of Peace” which represents the peace of mankind and unification of the Korean nation for the new millennium. To commemorate the 21st Century, the bell weighs 21 tons and has 21 stairs. The park is a unification and security tourist spot where people hope for unification and remember the pain of a divided land.
While at Imjingak park my wife Kathie dedicated a ribbon to her uncle who had served in the Korean war (2nd Infantry Division – known as the 2nd ID). She wrote a short message in his honor for his service. After we signed the ribbon we then attached it to the DMZ security fence solely dedicated to the military personnel who had served in the Korean War.
Our next stop was the DMZ tunnel number three or third Infiltration Tunnel which was discovered in October 1978. The tunnel is a mile long, six feet high and seven feet wide. It penetrates 0.3 miles south of the military demarcation line at a point 2.5 miles south of the Panmunjeom (an abandoned village on the defacto border between North and South Korea, where the 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement was signed), running through bedrock at a depth of about 240 feet below ground. This tunnel was capable of moving an army of 30,000 fully armed North Korean soldiers to pass through within an hour, it was evidently designed for a surprise attack on Seoul. The tunnel is only 1.2 miles from a key outpost defending the Munsan corridor leading to Seoul. This is the largest tunnel among those that have been discovered up to the present.
The Dora Observation Point which is located in Paju (Gyeonggi-do) and at the northernmost point of the military demarcation line of the western front was our next stop in our day long tour of the DMZ. From the observation point, we were able to see North Korea and its various locations including Gaeseong, Songaksan, Kim Il-Sung bronze statue, cooperation farm (Geumamgol), and propaganda village.
After lunch we then traveled to the Dorasan Train Station, which is at the northernmost portion of South Korea. Dorasan is a desolate train station at the border that eerily speaks volumes about the current situation on the Korean peninsula. On December 1, 2008 the North Korean government closed the border crossing after accusing South Korea of a confrontational policy. The Dorasan Station is the northernmost international station located approximately a half mile from the southern boundary line of the DMZ; it is an uncompleted station of reconciliation between North and South Korea. It not only is a symbolic place of division but also, with the completion of the Gyeong-ui (Seoul – Sinuiju) Railroad line connection hereafter, has another historical meaning as a gateway of interchange between the South and the North. The guidepost at Dorasan Station indicates that there are 205 Km (127 miles) to Pyeongyang (capital city of North Korea) and 56 Km (35 miles) to Seoul contains the hope and expectation that Korea will not be divided forever. There is also a strong desire for the eventual advancement to China, Siberia and even Europe via Pyeongyang. There is even a design on the station building representing the shaking of hands and a Yin – Yang symbol.
The last stop of the day and certainly the most intriguing and dramatic was the Joint Security Area (JSA). This area is the only portion of the Korean DMZ where South and North Korean forces literally stand face to face. In fact the day we visited there was one North Korean soldier observing us with binoculars appearing to watch every little move we made. The South Korean soldiers stand on guard in a Tae Kwon Do posture – always at the ready. The JSA is often called the “Truce Village” in both the media and various military sources.
The JSA is used by the two Korea’s for diplomatic engagements and, until March 1991, was also the site of military negotiations between North Korea and the United Nations Command (UNC). Both the U.N. and North Korea operate six guard posts and 35 security guards reside inside. Since the axe murder incident on August 18, 1976, by North Korean soldiers, security guards are forbidden to cross over to the opposing side’s area.
This tour was unlike any tour I’ve ever been on. Like many tours, it contained a great deal of information, facts, statistics, culture, history etc., but it was a tour that deeply saddened me. It was a very somber experience, and included moments of tension and even some uneasiness. But there does seem to be some subtle undertones of hope that maybe someday in the future, there might be a unified Korea.
South Korea is a vast museum exhibiting a rich cultural legacy that dates back millennia; at the same time it is a country that has modernized rapidly in recent decades and is full of fresh vitality. Even in the big cities you’ll find that amidst the high-rises and bustling traffic the essence of dynastic South Korea lingers on around the old palaces, pavilions, and city gates, and the sense of a distant era still pervades the atmosphere in the smaller villages of the countryside and at mountain temples.
Our trip to South Korea had come to a close and it was time to say goodbye to our son. We thanked him for being such a grand host and wished him well. It was so comforting and rewarding to see how he has grown spiritually, physically, and mentally since he’s been in South Korea. He has become a stronger person and we join our son in thanking South Korea for our experience there and can only wish that the entire peninsula (North and South) not only be known as the “Land of the Morning Calm”, but as a unified land of the morning calm.
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