Mar 30 2004

Published by at 12:00 am under Blogs

Seoul, South Korea, March 23, 2004


No GSM service, No English

As soon as an outsider arrives in South Korea you notice two things. Barely anyone speaks English and there is no GSM roving signal. Both are simple examples of the recent history of the isolation of South Korea from the rest of the world. This is not because of lack of technological sophistication of this far east country. On the contrary it is one of the more advanced technological countries. Its cell phone system is almost entirely domestic. S. Korea and Japan are the only developed countries that have a non GSM service. The educational system in Korea is also very well developed. High school students study from 8am till 9pm and then go home and study. The rumor in Korea is that High School students rarely get more than four to five hours of sleep. Travel and connections with the rest of the world is also rather new. Koreans were not allowed to travel outside south Korea until 1987.

South Koreans have a love hate relationship with both the United States and with Japan. They can’t deny the role that the US has had in saving their country from the onslaught of the northerners and their protection of the country every since the Korean war of 1950. Koreans in the south are also clearly financially benefiting from their special relationship with America which has had tens of thousands of troops on their peninsula ever since. But one can’t help but get the feeling that in South Korea there is a strong anti American feeling. Although they want its military protection, South Koreans feel the US has been around way too long and that it has made it more difficult for better relations with North

Korea. The feeling with neighboring Japan is much sharper. While in many ways the two countries are similar, the 35 year brutal occupation of their country by Japan which ended when Japan surrendered to America at the end World War II remains very sensitive to most Koreans. South Koreans also feel that America handpicked a number of

South Korean Borders with the North, March 24, 2004

Visiting the DMZ

We arranged to join a group of tourists to make the trip to the northern border of South Korea. The demilitarized zone between the two Koreas is under UN control in an area called Joint Security Area (JSA) since we entered from the south, the Americans and south Koreans where in charge. There are limitations of who can come to this area. Our south Korean colleagues who had invited me were not allowed there.

After an hour drive from Seoul we reached a check point where we our passports were supposed to be checked. I wanted to compare this checkpoint with the one I usually go through with the Israelis. There was no comparison. The US soldier in charge was joking about how the soldiers handpicked to this area are paid less than those stationed in the south of south Korea because of the standard of living. I had the same impression all day, with US soldiers acting relaxed. One asked to drive us around, was reading a novel as he waited for us to return to the bus.

What was familiar was the way tour guides try to use the fact that they have a captured, largely ignorant audience under their control to push through their version of propaganda.

The funny thing was that the guide kept on using the word propaganda in reference to what the north Koreans were doing, “like notice those propaganda villages,’ or look over at the mountain to see the propaganda sign etc. At one time the guide was telling us a bout a far away sign and summarized its contents by saying it was an anti American sign. Playing ignorant, I asked the guide whether the anti US sign was in southern Korean territory or in the northern one. She looked at me rather confused and insisted it was in the north.

The most amazing site during the entire visit to the DMZ was that of South Korean literally meters away from the north soldiers near the border. Standing in a powerful pose, these soldiers with helmets and sunglasses are frozen with clinched fists. Interestingly the northern soldiers, while standing still didn’t reflect that uptight getting ready for battle pose that the southern soldiers reflected.

Like all tours we were taken for a ride, financially. After we were finished with viewing the sites and locations out tried to sell us the pictures of those of us in the bus stuck inside a nice brochure about the location. The price about $25. We were unable to bring the price down and in the end we were bought the souvenir brochure. The bus driver also made a stop at a gift shop where we were told prices inside this US military zone are tax-free. Yet one more gimmick to get us to spend money, which we did.

Seoul, March 25, 2004

Never met an Arab

Today was the day for my lecture. In the morning I was taken to the Honkyoreh newspaper for an interview and lunch with the editor. He gave me a nice silk tie and we talked about objectivity in media. When one journalist asked me why I write for a right wing Israeli paper (the Jerusalem Post) I told him that I write wherever anyone asks me to write as long as they don’t change my words. I explained to them that this Israeli paper wants to show some kind of balance by having me write for them. They  thought this was nice but were surprised when I suggested that they publish articles for someone from North Korea.

My lecture was scheduled in the evening but we had an early meeting at a local café with the moderator of the lecture and a translator. When I met him I discovered that I was the first Arab that he has ever met in his life, even though he said he was a poet and that he is well read on the Middle East conflict. He explained to me how their country was  living under pro US dictators for years and that until 1987 when they had the first democratic elections, most South Koreans were not allowed to leave the country.

Since I had to speak through a translator, we agreed that I need to cut a lot of my 4,000 word speech. By the time I started speaking I had cut my speech by more than half because I realized that I will put people to sleep. When the moderator introduced me I was shocked one more time by the fact that most of the 300 Koreans that attended the lecture, like my moderator had never met an Arab in their lives. They had been shocked to hear about the assassination of Sheikh Yassin, because among other things, the Sheikh had written an article in their magazine. The question and answer period went on for a long time. One particular man stood up in the back and said that he sells products to an Israeli importer who told him that what he buys in Korea is mostly for the Palestinian market. He wanted to know why there was problems since this Israeli clearly was doing good business with Palestinians. I explained to him the situation, the fact that we are stuck to buy things from Israeli importers because we have no independent ports and the Israelis are allowed much more freedom to move around.

Another said that when he was in school his teacher had told them that during the 1967 war American Jews went to fight for Israel but Arabs did not. He said that this was a well known story by all Koreans. I explained that my relative who was studying medicine in the US did return to help with medical expertise but that few Palestinians were living in America.  A young man stood up and said that he and friends had created a solidarity group with Palestinians. He asked what Koreans could do to help Palestinians. I gave them a few details and then suggested that they boycott products made in Israel. This seemed to have resonated because afterwards I was told by many that they were touched by my talk and that they plan to work on supporting Palestinians including boycotting Israeli products.

Seoul March 26, 2004

Since the Bronze Age

Before leaving Seoul we made a last minute shopping visit. We were recommended to go to the mall next to World Cup Stadium. As promised this was a big mall with lots of things to buy, but like all of Korea almost no one to speak English even among those in the information desk and in the check out counter that says “for English speaker.” When we returned I found a message to call the Korean Broadcasting Corporation (KBC). An Arabic speaking Korean answered and wanted me to appear on their weekly radio program. I was interviewed by an Egyptian journalist who kept on talking (off the microphone) about how beautiful Korean women were. I discovered that the KBC broadcasts in 120 language in various formats including short wave and internet streaming. After the interview they gave me a book about the history of Korea written in Arabic. I started leafing the book only to discover that only a short portion of the books talks about the present. The book talks about the country’s five thousand year history going back to the bronze age.

We learned a lot about the current problems in South Korea. Our friends insisted that the trouble facing the president were not serious. Nightly candle light demonstrations were taking place against the group of parliament members who are trying to impeach the president over a small problem. The minority government was unable to stop the impeachment but everyone was hoping that the Supreme court would stop the impeachment in June. Meanwhile parliament elections were scheduled for mid April and the polls showed that the president’s party was expected to make major gains.

Bangkok, Thailand, March 27,  2004

Driving on the left and riding tuk tuk

On the way back to the Middle East we made a three day stop in Bangkok, Thailand. This was rather interesting and much different than Korea.  Upon arriving in Bangkok one notices that this country even in March is hot and humid. Thailand has also been affected by the British who ruled this part of the world. Cars drive on the left and English is spoken much more than in Korea. Shopping is king in Bangkok. A visit to the local shopping mall can yield almost any product you can imagine, whether original or imitation. In addition to the malls, Bangkok is full of street shoppers. In fact an important part of life in Bangkok takes place in the streets. In addition to street vendors, you can see plenty of food carts that serve anything from dried foods, to hot food, from fish products to meats and of course soups of all brands. No matter at what hour you walk the street there will be someone eating, drinking or sleeping. Late at night dogs stand guard protecting the stalls of their owners.

A big tourism item in Bangkok is massage parlors. The ones near our hotel were specialized in feet massages. They also features glass fronts, maybe as a sign to the public not to confuse them with other kinds of massage parlors.

Transportation has various forms. In addition to taxis, buses and trains, Bangkok has the famous tuk tuk vehicles. They are three wheel open cart drawn by motorcycles. They are inexpensive and maneuver well in traffic jams. But the noise and smoke that they emit make them useless except for short trips.

Everyone has told us that textile and especially silk is rather inexpensive in Bangkok. We were sent to a specialized silk company named Manhattan Company and ended up buying a table runner and a silk shawl. We later discovered when we went to the malls that we were again taken for a ride by the smooth talking salesman.

Before leaving Bangkok we wanted to do some sight seeing and were recommended a tour of Buddhist temples. The temples features gold statues of Buddha in various sizes and  positions (standing, laying down) was very fascinating, but the heat was so overwhelming that we decided to cut the trip short and returned to the hotel after seeing two temples.

Thailand seems to be having major problems in the largely Muslim south. While we were in Bangkok the investigation into the disappearance of a prominent Muslim human rights lawyer was capturing the headlines. The government had decided to spend $300 million in projects in the poverty stricken south, but this apparently didn’t convince many of the governments’ lack of genuine interest to the conditions of the Muslim population that lives in the south. While we were in Bangkok, we heard news about an explosion in the south. The prime minister decided to cancel an international trip and headed to the south to try and deal with the problems there.

March 30, 2004

Home sweet home

After eight days in Korea and Bangkok we were happy to return home. Our trip back to Amman was rather uneventful. The Royal Jordanian flight was full of passengers trying to return to major locations in Europe and America.

The far east is clearly an interesting part of the world which few Arabs seem to have paid much attention to. For most Arabs it is rather a virgin undiscovered territory, its people low key and easy going. If given a chance many Arabs will enjoy its rich culture and its shopping opportunities as great as those in major European capitals.

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