Seoul - They call Seoul the Miracle on the Han. And there is no better place to see the scale of the miracle than from the tower built on a hill in the heart of this thriving metropolis of more than 10 million.
For a week I had been a guest of the Korean Journalists’ Association attending the World Journalists’ Conference with 80 others from 50 countries.
With only a few hours to go before the 17-hour journey back to Durban, I spent an hour watching Seoul from the 360 degree glass windows.
What I loved most was the thick, snaking Han River that, for 600 years, has been the lifeblood of the capital.
Seoul, the miracle, is the new city built out of the ashes of the 1950-53 civil war. Sixty years ago the Koreans had nothing.
Although the country has no mineral resources, its position, as the gateway to eastern Asia, meant it was easy prey for foreign invaders. Divided in two with the communists in the north and the capitalists in the south, the Koreans rebuilt the south with their hands, heads and hearts.
Through national will power they have created a highly skilled, technologically advanced country that is leading the globe in
technological development. The north remains a hostile no-go zone.
Seoul is not far from the border with North Korea. The journalists’ conference was to focus on the tension between the north and the south and, on the second day, we were taken to the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) – the border where soldiers from the north are facing off with a UN peacekeeping force in the south.
The DMZ, it is said, is one of the most dangerous places on Earth.
The trip to the DMZ, which stretches 248km across the peninsula, took an hour through a patchwork of rice paddies. As the bus
drew closer the atmosphere became menacing.
First were the rolls of barbed wire and then the military check points with their barking young soldiers in camouflage kit and sunglasses.
We were given media armbands then shepherded into a briefing room for a presentation from an American soldier on how it
worked in the DMZ.
“Do not make hand signals at the North Korean soldiers.”
“Do not try to talk to them.”
“Do not attract their attention in any way.”
“They are armed.”
“They are hostile.”
The South Koreans have two multi-storey buildings, Peace House and Freedom House, facing the border.
The North Koreans have a big one too, Panmungak, a grey Stalinist structure, barely 100 paces away – also facing the border. Between
them are prefabricated buildings built over the dividing Military Demarcation Line. It is in one of the prefabricated buildings that the two sides sometimes meet.
Each has a door from their side and inside is a wooden table with chairs lined up, facing each other.
Here they negotiate – when the north is prepared to talk.
The soldiers on the North Korean side stand to attention watching their southern counterparts who stare back with fists clenched at their sides, a Taekwondo defence position.
We posed for a picture with North Korea behind us – the world’s media witnessing first-hand the hostility between brothers.
The border away from the buildings is marked by small white posts.
The bus slowed to show us the Bridge of No Return that crossed a stream from south to north. The vegetation is thick and lush with birdsong giving the area a surreal beauty.
The area is mined, a legacy of the long-ago war, so no human movement has disturbed this 4km-wide wilderness for six decades.
Through binoculars we could see a settlement on the North Korean side. It was Propaganda Village, we were told. It was built to give the impression of a fearless, perfect life.
At night a janitor switches on the lights and then does his rounds again in the morning.
On the South Korean side there is a village too where the residents are exempt from tax and are given other state benefits for not
fleeing the border.
And then there are the flagpoles.
On the border a huge South Korean flag hangs limply – reflecting it from the north is a flagpole twice the height, its flag invisible in the grey haze.
Korea is the last divided country on Earth. South Korea’s new President, Park Geun-hye, has said it is her ambition to see the two parts joined. For the old Koreans, whose memories of war and lost family will never fade, unification is an impossible
Young Koreans have none of the same baggage. For them North Korea is a foreign country which, if joined, will be a tax burden.
Their beautiful Seoul, that smells of sesame and where well-dressed youths dance all night, would be overrun with impoverished
refugees that would bring with them crime and need. They don’t want that – or them.
We left the DMZ and its soldiers for lunch at a folk restaurant where we sat on cushions at wooden tables laden with food. There was Kimchi (fermented and spiced vegetables), steamed rice, Miyeokguk (seaweed soup), Galbijjim (braised ribs) and Gangjeong (candied rice puffs). In the evening the mayor of Seoul hosted another dinner and the next day we were on a bullet train to Gyeonju in the south-east.
Close to Gyeonju is the World Heritage Site of Yangdong Village.
Here we were given a glimpse into the Korea of ancient times. The village was at its peak in the Joseon era from 1392 to 1910 and today descendants of the same families till the same patches and rest under the same trees. The walk through the village is a step back in time. Later we were whistled off to the Bulguksa Temple, one of the jewels of Korean antiquity.
That night in Seoul I walked alone through the evening markets, stopping for a bowl of noodles and to buy Kkultarae (string sweets) for the children at home.
I also wanted to find Choco Pie, the biscuits that, I was told, were one of the most popular black market items smuggled into North Korea.
Seoul at night smells of fish and garlic and the streets are packed with people shopping and socialising.
There are stalls selling juice squeezed from fresh lemons and sugar cane and others grilling calamari and mealies on the coals.
Everyone has the latest gadget in their hand.
The younger journos spent the night dancing, but I wanted to see Gangnam, made famous by the K-pop artist Psy, so had taken the
tube across the Han just to have coffee on the other side.
In the morning, before it was time to go to the airport, an Australian reporter and I took a taxi to the tower where we took the cable
car and then a lift to get to the top. As we were making our way down, three elderly Korean women picnicking on a blanket on the hillside gesticulated wildly for us to come over.
They couldn’t speak English, but they wanted us to sit down. They poured us coffee in paper cups from their flask and grinning widely they asked, “Korea beautiful?” Oh yes, I said, digging out beaded flags from home to give them in thanks.
How could I tell them that in one week I had fallen in love with this faraway place?
Every Korean I met wanted me to be happy. They were polite and gentle, cultured and sophisticated.
The food is like nothing I have ever tasted, the history is fascinating and the landscape is unspoilt.
But there is a sadness lingering on the wind and one can’t help wondering how the north-south saga that has sliced these beautiful people in half will eventually end.