14 November 2008

Seoul: Odd photos

First, news update regarding North Korea's stepped-up threats against South Korea.

AP via Yahoo!

Not only will the border be sealed next month, but the Red Cross hotline between the two nations has been cut off, and North Korea's army asks South Koreans to leave the Kaesong Industrial Complex, which indeed sits on military land. The analysis says that North Korea wants to test the strength of the US-South Korean alliance, now that there will be a liberal administration in the US at odds with the hardline conservative one in Seoul. Almost all agree that North Korea is probably just bluffing, however, as North Korea does need the industrial park to continue functioning, for the South Koreans to pump more money into the park, and for the jobs there to continue to exist. I look forward to President Obama showing decisive leadership on this matter, something that's been lacking from both W and 2MB.

The analysis further says that the North Korean military will really get defensive and nervous once Kim Jong-il is dead. However, once a new leadership takes over in the North, certainly without the benefit of the personality cult that Kim Jong-il and his late father enjoyed, it will have to open up and deal with South Korea and the world, like it or not. At that point, I am confident that the border will re-open, and that I will have a bit more leeway if I decide to visit North Korea; once I decide that I will be able to make a difference in making peace come to the Korean peninsula, I will certainly visit North Korea in a heartbeat. (I hear that the cultural relics in Kaesong are great, anyway!)

Speaking of visiting North Korea, I, as an American, am limited to organized trips leaving from South Korea at this time. Three programs are in existence for now as follows.
  • The first, the scenic Diamond Mountains via bus, has been going on for ten years, though after a North Korean guard shot dead a South Korean tourist last summer in an apparent act of misunderstanding (and lots of ensuing name-calling between the two sides), it's been suspended. My road trip this weekend will take me very close to the Diamond Mountains, while still staying in South Korean territory. Private vehicle visits to the Diamond Mountains have been planned, and a test run was indeed made earlier this year, but all of that is now up in the air.
  • The second is the Kaesong day trip by bus, which still runs for now, but will shut down if North Korea goes ahead with its border sealing. Future plans would include possible Kaesong tours by rail from Seoul, as well as even an extension to Pyongyang.
  • The third is Mt. Paektu, a holy mountain for the entire Korean people, located on the Chinese border. Plans called for renovating Samjiyon Airport near the summit, so that South Korean airliners can land there and drop tourists off. There was an initial agreement to start the flights and tours this past May, but due to delays in airport renovations and the North Korean fury over the South's new 2MB government, this seems to have gone up in smoke.
  • Another agreement stipulated that for this past summer's Beijing Olympics, the two Koreas would run a joint train of spectators to Beijing. South Korea did prepare a special trainset for the occasion. It would've started off in Seoul and picked up the northern passengers in Pyongyang before heading for China, and would certainly have been a historic run. Of course, this didn't work out either, as North Korea seems to have no interest in dealing with 2MB.
Now, the photos from today. Only two, but worth sharing.

After mailing Christy's Happy Buddha off and buying a Hong Kong guidebook (Hong Kong is only two weeks away!), I decided to head for King Sejong Memorial, located between Korea University and Kyunghee University.

This sign full of flags belongs to a taekwondo academy run by Korea University's affiliates, and is located across the street from the memorial. The flags are a very interesting mix. I can see current Vietnam and the defeated South Vietnam together. I can also see the US and Cuba. And most interestingly, I can see both Koreas.

Yes, it is legal to use North Korea's national flag in South Korea, though it's subject to strict special rules. I'm surprised to see it in this context, nevertheless. Of course, using South Korea's national flag in North Korea is a guaranteed stint in the gulag, unless it involves South Korean government representatives on an official visit (which certainly won't happen again anytime soon, the way things are deteriorating).

I am on the memorial grounds. This is the tombstone marking the grave of Ju Si-gyeong (1876-1914), a key proponent of increased usage and respect of the Korean alphabet. Ju himself is not buried here, however; after being initially buried in northwestern Seoul, his grave has been moved a few times, and currently he is buried at the National Cemetery as a patriot. The tombstone continued to stand at his previous grave, however, and came here only a few months ago.

Of course, the memorial itself honors King Sejong, who is best remembered for inventing the Korean alphabet in the first place, way back in 1446. The story of his determination to create a whole new script, in order to raise literary levels for his people and over the strong objections of the cultural conservatives, is a major inspiration to the world. Particularly, it is a strong contrast to the policies of the American neocons and neoliberals, who are busy killing education and making American people dumber so that they can be more easily manipulated. Befitting its status as the only artificial alphabet to ever find widespread acceptance, the Korean script has a very scientific approach and is easy to learn and use.

I also learned that Sejong married at age 11, and was coronated at age 19!

The memorial's museum is smallish, cut-rate, and is of interest only to hardcore linguists. No photos, as they are not allowed. However, I still managed to take a look at a special exhibit of typewriters, word processors and laptops, dating from the Japanese era to the 1990s, showing the evolution of Korean typing. The typewriters were from a dozen or so well-known manufacturers, including IBM, Brother, and more. Most typewriters were capable of handling both Korean and Roman alphabets, though there were some that could handle Korean only. The typewriters came with several different layouts of Korean characters, including 2-set (이벌식), 3-set (삼벌식), 4-set (사벌식) and 5-set (오벌식); while 2-set is the most commonly used (and I use it myself to type Korean), and 3-set is well-known (and supported by both Windows and Macintosh) if seldom used, I had never even heard of 4-set and 5-set layouts, much less seen them, until today.

As I toured the exhibits, I also found myself chuckling as I remembered an interview that I did with my novel protagonist Sarah Radcliffe, which I wrote in the form of a fictional dinner right here in Seoul. In it, I had Sarah chuckle every time I whipped out a 10,000-won banknote, which features King Sejong. The reason: Sejong was known for having a lesbian daughter-in-law, and Sarah, after reading about that fact in my blogs, makes fun of my hardcore lesbianism whenever she sees a 10,000 in my hands.

Next to the memorial lies the fairly grand grave of Emperor Gojong's concubine, but it's of interest to only hardcore history buffs, and I skipped it. I finished up by walking south to Cheongnyangni Station, the smallest of Seoul's three rail terminals, to catch the subway train back to my apartment. While Seoul's two other terminals - Seoul Station and Yongsan Station - are now modern multistory structures built with private funding, Cheongnyangni is still a small, cut-rate station, with the Lotteria fast food joint as the only dining option, and its modern privately-funded new station building won't open until 2010.