23 November 2008

Ilsan-Munsan: End of Road Trip

I had until noon today to return my car to downtown Seoul. I decided to get out to the northwest, to the suburb of Ilsan, before dawn, to beat the rush hour traffic and get some things done before the deadline.

My initial route across Seoul was identical to yesterday's, with a drive along the Olympic Expressway to its western terminus. There, I crossed Haengju Bridge into Ilsan, and headed for my paternal grandmother's grave. When she was first buried there three decades ago, the drive meant navigating the crooked two-lane main street of Ilsan, then a rural township, before taking a one-lane dirt road for several kilometers into a remote Christian cemetery. In the 1980s, the dirt road was paved. In the 1990s, Ilsan became a ward of the city of Goyang, and underwent massive development, though the street patterns of the older town core remained the same. But now, everything has changed, and I had trouble navigating; the original 2-lane Haengju Bridge was closed off, and after taking a six-lane double bridge across the river, I followed an entirely new network of multi-lane thoroughfares, with no signs and no marks on my paper atlas to guide me. Fortunately, my GPS did show the cemetery, and I came to just outside its front entrance, where I could finally pick up the one-lane road again. The cemetery itself, now located in the neighboring city of Paju, is no longer remote either; it is now surrounded by many residential developments and some workshops.

Even the cemetery looked a bit different this time too. The access road was reconfigured, to squeeze more graves into what used to be the parking spot for my grandmother's grave. But I did manage to find the grave anyway - clearly marked but in need of some TLC. I gave my grandmother the traditional two-and-a-half bow, removed a few shrubs around her, and gave her a brief message. As I never got to even know her (even though I feel that I might just as well be her reincarnation), there wasn't much I could say, certainly no promises of taking her back north. But I may have to do just that anyway; cemetery signs said that in order to prevent the Korean Confucian filial piety from taking up too much land for cemeteries, one can be buried at the cemetery for only 15 years at a time, with 3 contract renewals allowed. This means that after at most 60 years, the body must be dug up, cremated, and re-interred elsewhere. That gives my grandmother less than three decades remaining at the cemetery, and I hope to indeed take her back north when the contract is up. A newer banner at the cemetery also indicated that due to zoning changes in 2007 which ignored input from the cemetery management, the cemetery is unable to accept new graves, and will have to close when all the current corpses are moved out.

In any case, I was glad to be with my grandmother to greet today's sunrise, even though it was cloudy. I then got back on the modern street grid, in order to take northbound Jayuro (Freedom Highway), a wide freeway that is designated as part of Provincial Road 23. As I headed north, I followed the river shore, lined with barbed wire fences and outposts; I could even see North Korean territory right across the water. And signs indeed indicated that I was heading for Panmunjom, the immigration checkpoints, Kaesong, and Pyongyang. (Of course, the signs are using the standard South Korean-style romanization, indicating the place names as Panmunjeom, Gaeseong, and Pyeongyang.) More monuments indicated that the Freedom Highway was leading me into a prosperous, peaceful coexistence of the entire Korean people. I really felt quite emotional as I drove north.

The freeway ended in Munsan. I headed for the pavilion of Imjingak, the northernmost point I can travel to in this area without special permission. I followed the signs - which put me on a bridge taking me straight into the restricted area; fortunately, a legal U-turn allowed me to stop and enter the pavilion.

If I continue north (the bridge is part of National Highway 1), and I hope to make that happen sometime in the future, I have two paths available. The first, following the original Highway 1, goes through Camp Bonifas and Panmunjom before entering Kaesong; it's no longer used, except for Panmunjom tours (which I took in 2004). The second takes an immediate left turn upon entering the restricted area, goes through South Korean immigration at Dorasan Station, then follows a modern four-lane road into Kaesong's new industrial park, where North Korea maintains its immigration checkpoint; I can then continue into Kaesong. North Korea has built the Pyongbu (Pyongyang-Busan) Expressway from Panmunjom through Kaesong to Pyongyang, and I can take that to Pyongyang and well beyond (though not quite all the way to China). The second route was used by South Korea's President last year, and continues to be used by bus day trippers into Kaesong, though North Korea will close the crossing next month.

This diagram shows the transportation links from Munsan to Kaesong. The border is in dark blue, and kind of hard to see. The red is the railroad restoration, which is now complete (in fact, a South Korean passenger train went to Kaesong last year, and freight trains continue to make the run daily). The dots along the line indicate the reopened railroad stations, except for the yellow dot, which is a station right on the border and therefore will not be reopened. The bold gray line is the old Highway 1 going through Panmunjom; thinner lines also indicate the new road through the industrial park.

In 2004, Imjingak was quite a sorry building, boasting a utilitarian architecture from the industrial era. Now, it's been completely remodeled. As it's still early, I can't enter any of its spaces and shops, though I'd like to because it's quite chilly right now.

The second floor houses a restaurant offering various dishes native to North Korea. Cold buckwheat noodles (naengmyon) are my favorite.

The Korean War saw sixteen UN member nations send combat troops to defend South Korea, and their monuments are scattered all over the nation. And I am glad to find this monument, which honors the American troops who fought here. The US led the multinational coalition, and provided (and lost) the most troops. I wished for a continued healthy relationship between the US and South Korea, even though I feel that in the future, it will be more cultural and economic while being less military, and will involve the center and the left of the political spectrum instead of being a puppet project of the far right.

This is a monument dedicated to an event that few people remember now. In September 1986, as Seoul was gearing up for the Asian Games just a few days away, a terrorist bomb went off at Gimpo Airport, killing six civilians. This monument memorializes the six, and declares that South Korea is dedicated to lasting peace, something no terrorists will ever derail. I don't know who really was behind the bomb, although blaming North Korea was a common practice at the time. North Korea did bomb a Burmese cemetery in 1983 in an attempt to take out South Korea's President scheduled to visit there (he got late and missed the detonation, but his Cabinet was almost wiped out), as well as a Korean Air flight in 1987.

There are lots of other monuments nearby, some from the Cold War/military dictatorship era, some from more modern times. The earlier monuments feature strong anti-Communist, McCarthyist messages that are simply no longer used today.

Most South Koreans expect an American to have blond hair and blue eyes. But it bears remembering that Americans of all races and ethnicities fought to defend South Korea, and some of those subgroups have their specific memorials here. This memorial lists the names of the Japanese-American soldiers who died in the Korean War. This is important, because it shows that the Japanese-Americans overcame ancestral Japan's historic animosity toward Korea, and fought to their deaths to defend South Korea on behalf of their real home, the US, despite America's own betrayal of the Japanese-Americans through forced internments earlier.

An American paratrooper division also has this memorial. I love the name - "Rakkasan," which means parachute in Korean.

This monument marks the railroad termination point. Rail lines were all cut at the DMZ, when the cease-fire was signed on July 27, 1953. According to the monument, it's 444 kilometers to Sinuiju on the Chinese border, 208 kilometers to Pyongyang, 384 kilometers to Hamhung, and 908 kilometers to Najin (now Rason) near the Russian border.

Of course, as I mentioned a few photos ago, the real rail line is behind me, and fully connected to North Korea now. Only the lack of political will prevents actual through train service.

This is a steam locomotive, a Mika type, that was prevalent on Korean railroads before the cross-border services stopped. The coal carriage toward the back carries the old logo of Korail, used through the 1980s.

This altar is familiar to me. It is for those who fled North Korea, still have family members there, and unable to visit them (or even communicate with them), want to do some ceremonies here to wish for a day to meet them again. I bowed here too, as I do have some unknown distant relatives in North Korea.

The seven reliefs in the back (the center one is not visible here) showcase scenes from the five provinces of North Korea: North and South Hamgyong, North and South Pyongan, and Hwanghae. At least those are the five that existed before the division, and officially recognized by South Korea's government. In reality, North Korea now has nine provinces: in addition to the two Hamgyongs and the two Pyongans, Hwanghae has been divided into North and South provinces as well, Chagang and Ryanggang have been carved out of the Pyongans and the Hamgyongs, and portions of Gangwon Province do lie in North Korea (Kangwon as romanized by North Korea). North Korea also has a few directly governed cities (chikhalsi) which are equivalent to South Korea's metropolitan cities, and equal to provinces; while the list of such cities vary, currently they include Pyongyang and Rason, with Namp'o and Kaesong having formerly been on the list as well.

Another major North Korean geographical tendency, while at it, is naming places after key people, which is new, as Koreans traditionally rarely, if ever, name places after people. Ryanggang Province has counties that now bear the names of Kim Il-sung's parents, at the orders of Kim himself. In North Hamgyong, the port city of Songjin was renamed Kimchaek, after Kim Chaek, a People's Army general who died in the Korean War. An engineering school in Pyongyang was also named after him.

And sure enough, a commuter-class trainset from Seoul heads north, presumably for Dorasan Station, South Korea's last stop on this line, just a mile or two away to the north. This train is empty, however, and destination signs on it say that its official termination point is right here, at Imjin River.

Imjin River station. It's 52 km from Seoul and another 209 km to Pyongyang. Seriously, when will through train service ever start?

For now, any travel beyond this stop involves some paperwork, as it involves entering the restricted area. The office on the right provides the necessary forms. I need to fill it out with my name, national ID or passport number, and contact information, and return it along with a ticket to Dorasan Station. Afterwards, I can take a Dorasan-bound train, which runs once a day, and tour the station. It's also possible to hop onto a tourist coach at Dorasan Station, and visit some nearby sights, including a North Korean infiltration tunnel.

Honestly, I am not in a hurry to visit Dorasan Station. After W visited there in 2002, it's just not appetizing at all. In fact, I do believe that the station has many exhibits covering W's "historic" presence there.

I got back on the Freedom Highway, and drove back south. This section of Freedom Highway ranges from four to eight lanes, and has very light traffic; it still lives up to its reputation as the Korean Autobahn, as the speed limit may only be 90 km/h but many people push well beyond 130. The four-lane sections are being widened to eight lanes; hopefully there will be enough inter-Korean traffic in the near future to actually make use of the extra width. It'd be wonderful if North Korea opens up, and South Koreans drive to Kaesong for day trips and Pyongyang for overnight trips. It'd be even more wonderful if North Korea's economy picks up, and North Korean masses can buy their own cars and drive south to Seoul.

I am back in Paju. It's still early, so I am wandering around town. Paju has an English Village, a setting which is intended to offer an immersive English-speaking experience, in a setting similar to a village in England. Most signs show English first, and some do not show any Korean at all. The village is closed today for Monday, but I'd love to check it out in the future - if only to offer a chance for the Korean locals to practice their English skills. Admission is free after 6PM.

The entrance to the English Village has this wonderful (if less than authentic) rendition of Stonehenge. As I prepare to turn in my rental car and put an end to my South Korean automotive odyssey, I love to keep getting reminders of my only other Old World road trip, which ended at Stonehenge ten years ago.

It's now 9AM. Odusan Unification Observatory, near the English Village, has opened, and now I am hiking up a gentle but lengthy trail to the observatory, after paying 2,000 won to park at a nearby drive-in cinema.

The above view shows the eight-lane Freedom Highway stretching north. To the left of it, along the river shore, can be seen some fencing and military installations.

This relief map shows the geography of the area. I am at the observatory, which is located on a hill at the end of the blue arrow.

From the lower right, Han River flows from Seoul. From the upper right, Imjin River comes in. The two merge here and flow left to the Yellow Sea.

The bottom left landmass is the city of Gimpo, South Korea. The right landmass is, again, my observatory, part of the city of Paju, South Korea. The upper landmass is part of Kaepung County, North Hwanghae Province, North Korea. The closest point, Maegol Village at the end of the red arrow, is just a two-mile swim away from me.

And that's the great view of Maegol Village that I am getting. So close, yet so far.

This is a sizable village, and one of many border villages that North Korea maintains for propaganda value. And while the vast majority of the border villages are empty, this one actually is believed to be inhabited. It features some infrastructure, from schools to a Kim Il-sung paraphernalia museum. On a good day, it's even possible to see farmers and children out and about, nearby signs tell me, if I use this observatory's high-powered telescopes.

As I walked around the observatory, I could see some South Korean schoolchildren's poems. One of them in particular lingered in my mind; a boy was looking forward to playing some games with his future northern friends, and taking a train trip to Kaesong, Pyongyang, Mt. Paektu, China, and the rest of the world. I share his sentiment.

The observatory has an excellent museum of North Korea-related items. In fact, I think I learned more about North Korea here than by taking an actual tour into North Korea, which currently does not allow me to get an idea of North Korean life at all, much less interact with locals.

The above is an agreement, dated to February 19, 1992, in which both Koreas agreed in principle to non-aggression and cooperation. It's not a treaty, however, so it's largely symbolic. A real peace treaty is still sorely needed.

Here is another agreement. It was signed on October 4, 2007 in Pyongyang, by President Roh Moo-hyun on behalf of South Korea and Kim Jong-il on behalf of North Korea. This is a North Korean document in its font, spelling, and conventions; however, it uses the terms "South-North," "Republic of Korea," and the southern spelling of Roh's name, to reflect southern conventions and the inter-Korean spirit.

This August 5, 2007 agreement set up the details of President Roh's Pyongyang visit in October 2007. It's in two identical documents. The left document is done using South Korean conventions. The right document is identical but uses North Korean conventions. Both documents, however, use official titles of both the signatory officials and the two Korean governments.

The agreement is interesting as it states the proposed dates of Roh's Pyongyang visit as August 28th through 30th, 2007. However, North Korea suffered a serious flood shortly thereafter, and Kim Jong-il unilaterally re-scheduled the summit for October 2nd through 4th. Reports do say that damages were still evident in early October, and that the Pyongbu Expressway (its South Korean name is the Kaesong-Pyongyang Expressway, and the mutually agreed neutral name is the West Coast Expressway) wasn't in the greatest of shapes; Kim Jong-il was heard apologizing for the latter to Roh.

This is the most important of them all. This is a South Korean document which spells out the June 15, 2000 joint declaration between the two Koreas. This was the culmination of President Kim Dae-jung's three-day visit to Pyongyang. Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-il both signed this document.

Another exhibit area shows various products being manufactured at Kaesong Industrial Park. Most of its tenants are small South Korean businesses drawn by Kaesong's cheap labor costs. However, it looks like the neoliberal Samsung empire also takes advantage of Kaesong labor. These are Samsung radios and telephones made in Kaesong.

South Korea would love to sell some of these products in the US, and pushed for that provision when it negotiated its free trade agreement with the US. But it didn't make it in. The US considers Kaesong products to be North Korean, and therefore subject to embargoes.

This display details the legal procedure for South Korean nationals visiting North Korea. Namely, approval must be granted from both Koreas, and an invitation must formally be issued. Normally, South Koreans, visiting Kaesong and the Diamond Mountains on a tour operated by the Hyundai Asan Group, have all of these taken care of as part of their tour application; however, a 14-day advance reservation is required to allow for processing and approval.

Americans are normally not allowed in North Korea, but if they wish to take a Hyundai Asan tour, the same South Korean rules apply.

Most other nationalities can take the Hyundai Asan tours themselves, or fly directly to Pyongyang from another country and tour other parts of North Korea - though under strict control of the government guides.

North Korean political/military badges. Quite a sight - especially the center image of Kim Il-sung. The lower left red flag pins are reserved strictly for the Communist Party elites.

National ID cards for North Koreans. These are samples of the new 2004 issue. The redesign is to put those who illegally fled the country at a disadvantage.

Three IDs exist, as follows:
  • Citizen card (시민증), for Pyongyang citizens (AKA privileged elites)
  • Public card (공민증), for non-Pyongyang citizens (shown above)
  • Foreigner card (외국인증), for ethnic Koreans from China or Japan, and for foreigners
In South Korea, district offices are responsible for issuing Resident Registration Cards for those with South Korean nationality and residences, and immigration offices are responsible for issuing National with Foreign Residency Cards for South Koreans who have permanent residences overseas but are currently in South Korea on a long-term visit. But in North Korea, the police issues all IDs. North Korean IDs also list the bearer's ethnicity and blood type.

A very nice selection of North Korean banknotes, all issued since 1992.

The left column showcases high-denomination banknotes. They became necessary because the North Korean won has been severely devalued. The official exchange rate used to be pegged at 2.16 won to a US dollar, to mark Kim Jong-il's birthday (February 16), but it's now 153 won to a US dollar, reflecting reality. Nevertheless, black market rates may be much worse, to a point where the North Korean won may be worth even less than the South Korean won, which currently has dropped to 1,500 won to a US dollar. As North Korea is forced to adopt some aspects of the market economy in desperation, food rations are getting expensive and smaller (partly because there is no food to go around at any price), and staying fed can be anywhere from excruciatingly difficult to downright impossible.

The bottom right banknote is a 1-won example. It features a girl selling flowers. It is based on the story of a real Japanese colonial era girl who was forced to make a living selling flowers, when a vicious landlord took away her parents' livelihoods. However, in North Korea, the story takes a twist as a popular "revolutionary drama," as she joins her returning older brother in a fight for Communist revolution. Her story is a very popular revolutionary drama now.

More exhibits. The top has a boarding pass and a paper ticket from Air Koryo, North Korea's government-owned civilian airline. The middle left shows commemorative coins. The middle right are normal coins in circulation. The bottom pieces of papers are tickets: bus ticket on left, train ticket on right.

Some North Korean fashion. The left shows a skirt suit. The middle, a shortened traditional dress, is a college women's uniform. The right, another shortened traditional dress, is a cocktail dress. In between the three female mannequins can be seen two jackets from schoolgirl uniforms. Along the bottom are underwear and lingerie items. The far right is a male labor uniform.

North Korean beverages. The left shows me that even in North Korea, I can drink cola - though it certainly won't be Coke or Pepsi due to the US embargo. Its brand is Ryongsong, after a Pyongyang district. The middle is a can of Kumgang Beer, named after the Diamond Mountains. The right is a bottle of Ryongsong Beer.

North Korean school supplies, including pencils, crayons, textbooks, and backpacks.

Due to a shortage of paper and shrinking budgets, North Korean textbooks tend to be printed in small fonts on low-quality paper, with very few photographs and pictures, and little to no color. Even then, two students normally must share a textbook. When it comes to textbooks covering the life and ideology of Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, and their family members, however, the textbooks use high-quality paper, bigger fonts, and lots of colorful visual aids. In addition, the names of Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, and their family members must always be written in boldface.

Some current North Korean magazines. It's possible for me to actually go to a reading room and read them. However, I must show an ID and have my visit logged.

And for the first time ever, I get to read an issue of Rodong Shinmun, the official propaganda newspaper of the Korean Workers' Party. The slogans next to the title are striking; the left one extols Kim Il-sung and his self-reliance ideology, while the right one praises Kim Jong-il and his directives.

This is the November 2, 2008 issue. It says that Comrade Kim Jong-il ("Supreme Commander of the Korean People's Army") spent time watching a soccer game.

Here's another issue of Rodong Shinmum, dating from October 3, 2007. It says that the Great Director, Comrade Kim Jong-il, greeted President Roh Moo-hyun as he arrived in Pyongyang. It's noticeable that while Roh gets to be referred by his official title as the President, he's left at just that - President. Not the President of the Republic of Korea, not the President of South Korea, not the President of the Southern Half of the Fatherland, or whatever.

Nearby, there was a TV monitor showing some North Korean TV. I was not allowed to photograph the screen, however. I was informed that it's pre-recorded TV, edited by authorities to cut out blatant ideological propaganda and anti-South Korean rants. I was able to watch a historical drama in progress.

Another exhibit board nearby detailed the features of Pyongyang's subway system, the only one of its kind in North Korea. To guard against nuclear radiation, the stations come with thick steel doors. They are also dug very deep in order to serve as bomb shelters. And there is no heating or air conditioning. And of course, I've already known that the Pyongyang Metro is the only subway system in the world that names its stations after ideological concepts (Glory, Revolution, Red Star, whatever) rather than geography. Pyongyang Metro opened in 1973 as Korea's first subway system, ahead of Seoul Subway in 1974, allowing North Korea to claim a short-lived victory in the Cold War rat race; however, it remains at two very short lines, with no expansion since 1987, and its current primary purpose is little more than a tourist trap for foreign visitors.

If I walk into a South Korean bookstore and ask for a map of Korea, I'll get something like this. The entire Korean peninsula will be referred to by South Korea's official title - Republic of Korea. However, the administrative divisions will show current boundaries for both Koreas. The inset shows the 1944 provincial boundaries for North Korea - the only boundaries officially recognized by South Korea's government.

Some North Korean cigarettes. The labels are quite predictable: Hana (One, as in one Korea), Pyongyang, Yonggwang (Glory), Pulgunbyol (Red Star), and Haegumgang (Maritime Diamond Mountains). The lower left is named Cheomseongdae, however, even though Cheomseongdae is located in Gyeongju, in the far southeast of South Korea, and having never fallen under Communist control.

Now, it's time for me to become a North Korean elementary student. I have entered a typical classroom. In the back of the room, I can see this poster, which asks me to be at the ready at all times, in order to become a trustworthy member of a great Communist society. This poster is not real, but a reproduction by former North Koreans who have defected south. Flanking it are notebook pages from North Korean students; due to paper shortages, North Korean students tend to use one notebook for all subjects.

Of course, it can never be a North Korean classroom without portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. Of course, I am also expected to always refer to Kim Il-sung as the "Great Leader" and the "Eternal President," and Kim Jong-il as the "Dear Leader" and the "General." I must also write their names in bold.

Never mind that Kim Jong-il never served in the military, and certainly doesn't deserve the label "General."

I am reminded, at this point, that my grandmother, whose grave I had just visited a few hours before, was from the Jeonju Kim clan - the same clan that these bastards hail from. I see some family resemblance, certainly. Evil as these bastards are, they are my distant relatives, and I won't deny that - even though due to my family's properties, they forced my family to either flee or die. We chose to flee south, and I am glad that we did.

The classroom has this calendar. And even though it looks too nice to be North Korean, it really is North Korean. I flipped to the December page to be sure. The only holiday on it is the 27th, which is Constitution Day in North Korea. I normally expect the December holiday to be the 25th - Christmas, which is a holiday in South Korea as well as back in the US.

It's time to actually study. The subject is Korean, and here is a second grade textbook, a 2002 issue obtained and reproduced in 2005.

The lesson for today (right page): something that happened in South Korea. A young second grader, just like myself, is in trouble for his parents' failure to pay monthly school tuition. Even though the student begs the principal for mercy due to the financial difficulties of the family, the principal won't budge; he asks a lowly scum like him to leave class immediately. The moral of the story: in capitalist South Korea, money trumps everything - even your right to have an education.

Of course, this is propaganda. In the real South Korea, elementary school is compulsory and free. And even when it's time to pay tuition, economic hardships can be accommodated in some form in almost all cases.

In North Korea, education funding is a severe problem. Most schools are left to fend for themselves when it comes to supplying essentials, like desks and chairs. The central government does supply some equipment, like pencils and notebooks, but they are of such low quality as to be utterly worthless. Bribery is often expected when it comes to a student's future prospects for college and beyond.

Boys everywhere in the world (maybe except the US) love soccer. North Korean boys are no exception. However, soccer terminology in North Korea differs significantly. The South Korean terminology (in blue) uses standard international vocabulary, mostly in English, but the North Korean terminology (in red) is all translated into awkward Korean, and even in cases where both Koreas use Korean words for a soccer concept, the terminologies still differ.

This list is set up so that one day, children from both sides can play a soccer game together - and hopefully figure out how to communicate while at it.

Other displays elsewhere in the classroom show differences in country names, as used in the two Koreas. For example, South Korea uses Poland, an English label, while North Korea uses Polska, the Polish native label.

A few more captions also state that schoolchildren outside Pyongyang are sometimes known to whine, saying "Are Pyongyang residents the only humans in our country?" Residency in Pyongyang, the capital, is a privilege reserved strictly for the party elites, and schoolchildren in Pyongyang are often invited to cultural events, recreational activities, and other opportunities that are simply never given to students from elsewhere.

Here's a reproduction of a typical North Korean living room, showcasing objects used by several different social classes. The television set is supposed to show live footage from Kaesong TV, but it's off for now.

Of course, on the right wall (not pictured), there are Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il portraits, as required by law. The posters and the calendars are from this year (2008, or Juche 97 in North Korean calendar, which starts with 1912, the birth year of Kim Il-sung, as Juche (self-reliance) 1).

In North Korea, all housing is government-owned, and rented to the residents. There are a variety of housing types, from single-family rural homes to urban high-rises to everything in between. Housing shortage is severe, however, and many families end up sharing a crowded housing unit. In some cases, illegal black markets even exist for desirable housing.

It was very nice to get a very good look at North Korean everyday life. Very interesting due to the differences, and very poignant due to some continuing similarities between the two Korean societies, but certainly very sad due to the all-pervasive personality cult and the propaganda.

Now, it's time for me to leave a message for posterity, in a back room. Above, then-President Elect Kim Dae-jung left a message of hope in late 1997. I can leave a message of my own, to be placed in a time capsule and opened ten years after Korea is reunified.

I left a message, in both Korean and English, along the lines of below. I also made sure to identify my parents as former North Koreans who fled south during the war - and put down their hometowns under the current North Korean administrative labels. (I also made sure to identify myself as an American.)

Korea must be reunified. If not, at least the spirit of co-operation must continue and expand. I've driven a car across this beautiful land for the past week, and it saddens me to know that even though I can drive close to Kaesong and the Diamond Mountains, I can never actually drive to either place. The next time I drive, I want to continue on to those places, and on to Pyongyang and my parents' hometowns. I look forward to a post-Kim Jong-il era in North Korea, which will arrive before we know it, where the regime respects its people and works willingly for co-operation with South Korea for a brighter future.

I have come outside to proceed to the basement gift shop. Here, I can watch across the Imjin River into North Korean territory again. And I also get to listen to this song, titled Rimjin River. (Rimjin is the North Korean pronunciation of Imjin.)

The song is sung in the voice of a male South Korean, then a female North Korean. There is a saying in Korea - 南男北女 (Southern Men, Northern Women) - which connotes that the men are better in the south, and the women are better in the north. This is always reflected in inter-Korean relations; when two generic people are picked to represent the two Koreas, South Korea always gets a male figure, while North Korea gets a female figure. When the two Koreas field a joint team in international athletic competitions, the flag of unified Korea (a blue Korean peninsula on a white background) is carried by a South Korean man and a North Korean woman.

This transwoman is American by upbringing, but South Korean by birth and North Korean (and indirectly Chinese) by parentage. I guess I'll take the ancestry when it comes to my temperament. More strongly than ever, I feel an obligation to travel to North Korea in the future, when the political atmosphere improves. I must go there and do my part to ensure freedom, peace, and prosperity for both Koreas and the rest of the world. Of course, I voted for Barack Obama as the next President of the United States, and I hope that it is a big first step in making all of this happen.

To carry this spirit forward, I bought a spoon and chopsticks set made in Kaesong, manufactured by Living Art, the first South Korean company to set up shop there. This set, costing me 24,000 won, is labeled the Unification Set, and its packaging showcases images of five old postage stamps - three South Korean, two North Korean. This photo, and the following photo, were taken at my apartment after my return to Seongnam.

As I purchased this set at the observatory, knowing that Kaesong is only a few more miles to the north as the bird flies, I felt very special.

The set itself. The spoons and all handles have a map of the unified Korean peninsula. This will surely be something to cherish for a long time, next to my Kwan Yin statue, my Gyeongju souvenirs, and my upcoming Hyundai Genesis. And given that North Korea is kind of PO'd right now, and trying to shut down Kaesong Industrial Park and expel the South Korean managers, this may end up as a historical artifact that I may never get another chance to purchase again. I hope the US Customs won't take it away from me, as it is considered North Korean product under US law and therefore subject to embargo. (Fortunately, the certification label shows only the manufacturer's headquarters address and telephone in Incheon, so I could probably talk my way out.)

North Korea is currently PO'd for two reasons. First, the United Nations has just adopted a new annual resolution for North Korean human rights, and this year, South Korea is a co-sponsor. Second, some former North Koreans who have defected south continue to send balloons north, filled with leaflets critical of the Communist leadership as well as facts on the declining health of Kim Jong-il. North Korea is currently asking South Korea to stop these defectors; South Korea did try to discourage them under the Roh government, and even a more "defector-friendly" 2MB government is asking them to stop as well, but there is no legal basis for South Korea to actually stop them. In the long term, I do see great opportunities for the two Koreas to work together, but for now, things are starting to look really bad, and the border and industrial park closures look like they'll go ahead as planned.

Other news items from South Korea today say that 2MB is still in Peru, wrapping up the latest Asia-Pacific Economic Council (APEC) summit. 2MB just had his final summit with W, before the upcoming Obama takeover; 2MB touted his North Korean policy, to which W responded, "that's why I like you." This makes me puke. The Korean people deserve much better leadership than both their current pathetic excuses of leaders - Kim Jong-il and 2MB. On another report, South Korean college grads get their starting pay at 120% of the prevailing wages, much higher than levels seen in Japan (75%) and the US and the UK (95%); while it is an argument to bring the wages down, it's also an argument that the average South Korean is overworked and underpaid. Union-busting in public schools goes on, while nasty fights loom ahead over the fate of the proposed comprehensive real estate tax repeal that will greatly benefit the rich. Meanwhile, the falling won has caused many importers to cut back/stop Japanese products, as the yen is now twice as expensive as it was a year ago, making Japanese products (anything from household tools to Nissan cars) far less competitive. The economy is tanking, and South Korea needs a strong leader who will revive the economy; 2MB, who would rather spend precious government funds on US politics, is not that leader.

I returned to the Freedom Highway, driving back toward Seoul. It was 11 AM by now, and the rush hour traffic had died down, at least on freeways (tollways remained jammed, however). Upon entering Seoul, the Freedom Highway became Riverside North Expressway (City Route 70), and I continued along it all the way to Yongsan, arriving at the rental car office right on time for the return. Other than for the extra day of rental, I did not get charged for anything weird - like strange new damages (none), refueling charge (tank was full), or extra kilometers (I had unlimited kilometers). Good thing I had unlimited kilometers, as I had driven just a few kilometers shy of 2,600 over nine days - something commonly done in the US, but absolutely unheard of in South Korea.

I'll miss driving around South Korea, but on the other hand, I won't miss Seoul's traffic and manic taxi drivers. I was saddened AND relieved to return to walking around and taking mass transit. My subway fare to Seongnam turned out to be 1,400 won - that's 500-won distance surcharge over the 900-won base fare. At least Seongnam has two decent subway connections to Seoul; the first is SMRT's Line 8, which connects downtown Seongnam to Seoul's Jamsil district, and the second is Korail's Bundang Line, which connects the affluent Bundang Ward to Seoul's Teheran Road business district. The two lines intersect twice in downtown Seongnam, and both lead to the heavily traveled Line 2. Bundang Line also connects to Line 3, while Line 8 hooks up to Line 5. In the future, Bundang Line will extend - north across the river to Wangsimni for even more convenient connections, and south to Suwon for connections to southbound Line 1 and a few future lines.

Now, I need to move on to the next stage of my travels - my first-ever visit to Hong Kong, coming up this weekend.