There is more to South Korea than the high-tech hub of Seoul. There are still – just – remnants of the capital’s long history from before the peninsula was divided in 1945, as well as a dignified commemoration of the Korean War, along with the modern shopping and nightlife facilities you would expect. Our main reason for coming was to see the DMZ and the heavily-militarised border with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, to compare the experience with what we had recently been through on the other side. But first we started with a relaxing time on the beach at the Republic of Korea’s main summer holiday destination for its own citizens.
It is a two hour flight from Beijing to Jeju island, right at the foot of the peninsula. This is by far the largest island in the area, and though not a remote tropical paradise, it is a pleasant place to decompress.
The airport is near the capital, Jeju-si, in the centre of the north coast, a big city with not much to see or do so most people head straight down south or out east. Taxis are numerous and cheap. To drive yourself, you will, unusually, need an international driving licence; your domestic driving license will not get you a hire car.
Moving east from Jeju-si, it is only 15 minutes to Hamdeok Beach. With plenty of boutique places for sleeping, eating, drinking and making merry, in a relaxed vibe, this is the best base to explore the island.
A little further along is Manjang-Gul, the main access point to the world’s largest system of lava tube caves, formed as the molten rock retreated back to the earth’s core after massive volcanic explosions up to 100 million years ago. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is 7.4 meters long in total and ranges in height from an easily-walkable 2m all the way up to 23m. A 1km section is open to tourists thanks to a collapse in the ceiling, and at the end of the walk is the outstanding feature, the world’s tallest column of lava, at 7m.
On the east coast are the twin towns of Seongsan-ri and Sinyang-ri. They are close to the foot of an extinct volcano called a “tuff cone” that protrudes into the sea. It is just a 20 minute walk up the steps to the summit of the butte, furnishing excellent views across the ocean to nearby Udo island and the beaches around the coast.
Most lunchtimes you can catch a display by female freedivers, or haenyo, who impress by disappearing as much as 20m under the sea to hook abalone, clams, octopus and squid. They have an average age of 65 and some are in their 80s. They have traditionally brought back seaweed as a substitute for rice, which will not grow on the island.
This is also the place to buy your replica “grandfather stone”, phallic statues of old men that since 1750 have been carved from rock to ward off invaders. Forty-five massive originals still exist, but there are lava reproductions in all sizes all over the island guarding entrances to everything from restaurants to petrol stations. They are undoubtedly the best souvenirs in South Korea.
From Jeju-si, it is a 45 minute drive south to the second city, Seogwipa, across the 1950m Mount Hallasan in the middle of the island. This is South Korea’s highest peak, a volcano that last erupted 5,000 years ago and so is technically classed as still active. It is popular for hiking and when the cloud clears offers good views all around.
In the summer months, Jeju is packed with South Koreans from the mainland, which has an adverse effect on availability and prices, and the most popular place of all is Jungmun Beach on the south coast. There are very few foreigners here, which makes it an interesting destination in itself.
There is a lovely stretch of white sand where South Koreans float in the deep blue sea on colourful rubber rings and do their best to cover themselves head-to-toe to avoid any of the sun’s rays. More popular still are the pools of the luxury hotels in the hills that overlook the coast. The biggest and blingest is the Lotte and the grandest is the Shilla.
Home to 10 million people, Seoul is one of the richest, most technologically advanced and culturally dynamic cities in the whole of Asia, often topping world league tables on issues like sustainability and the quality of life for residents. It is less than 250km, yet a million miles and many decades away from Pyongyang. Incheon international airport is on the naturally beautiful though heavily industrialised coastline, an hour’s drive west from the city.
Flowing east to west, several hundred meters wide, the Han River scythes Seoul into its northern and southern halves. There are twelve contiguous green areas on both banks that make up Hangang Park, one of the most beautifully designed river fronts I have seen in a major metropolis. Through it there are landscaped pedestrian paths, running tracks and cycle lanes that course the whole length of the city. There are places to rent bikes all along the river. You can stroll, jog or ride while watching the many water-skiers and wake-boarders on the river.
On the south side at the far eastern edge of the city is the brand spanking new 123-floor, 555m-high Lotte Tower, the tallest building in any OECD country and the sixth biggest in the world. The top floor observatory should be opening very soon.
It looks down on the 1988 Olympic Park, where you can rent four-wheeled bikes to journey around the well-kept lakes and sports venues; this is easily one of the most relaxing ways to pass an hour in the hurly-burly city centre. A few kilometres away is the Olympic Sports Complex that hosts the track-and-field stadium, now the home of a minor football club, and the Jamsil Stadium, ground of the LG Twins and the Doosan Bears baseball teams. Baseball is South Korea’s main sport and the crowds behave more like rowdy English football fans than genteel US ball-game watchers.
The central southern part of the city near to the river is stylish Gangnam. Here you will find Apgujeong and Cheongdon-Dong luxury shopping streets and a hectic whirl of restaurants and bars amid the terrific skyscraper architecture.
The central northern part, spread around the N Seoul Tower, is what is known as downtown. Although the tower itself is in fact quite stumpy, because it is set on a hill – Mount Namsan – it is the iconic image of the city and gives a spectacular panoramic lookout, especially from the toilets. Is there a better view from any urinal in the world?
The N Seoul Tower is easily reached from the nearby cable car, which is right next to Namdaemun all night market, the largest in Korea. This is a good place to go for cheap street food: you just point at photos and hope for the best, though sadly we did not find any dog options here.
Slightly to the west is Gyeongbokgung Palace (“the palace greatly blessed by heaven”). Amid modern government buildings, high-tech offices and official residences, with picturesque Mount Bugaksan to the rear and Mount Namsan in the foreground, this is the historic heart of high-tech Seoul, though these days the Palace looks a little incongruous. Gyeongbokgung was to be the principal home of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). But after completion in 1395, it was razed when the Japanese invaded in 1592. Left derelict for 270 years, it was finally reconstructed in 1867, only to be destroyed again after the Japanese occupation that began in 1910. Although it was rebuilt in the 1990s, it lacks a certain historic authenticity.
Just to the east, however, is the charming Changdeokgung Palace. This was built as a second home for the Joseon Dynasty but as the primary residence was destroyed it became their main seat right into the twentieth century. It is pleasant to wander about the old buildings, but the real pleasure is to be found in the splendours of the Secret Garden. To access the landscaped parks and tranquil lakes, you have to book onto an enlightening 90 minute guided tour.
Between the two main palaces you will find the Bukchon Hanok Village. This is a delicious salad of coffee shops, tea houses, and fashion boutiques, all with original brown tiled roofs, set in narrow streets of buildings more than a century old.
Near here is the Bukak-San City Gate. It is said that this is where you get the best views across Seoul from the old city walls. These walls go back 600 years when they were built to protect the capital of the Joseon Dynasty. These days there are about 12km left and theoretically you can walk all the way along them. (This might take some pre-planning though; we couldn’t make any taxi driver or the hotel staff understand where we wanted to go. So while we saw some ancient ramparts from the car window we did not actually find out how to get to them. Apparently, there is a signpost on a side-street in Bukchon, so if you see that I would suggest following it.)
Below the N Seoul Tower towards the river is Yongsan district and this is the home of the Korean War Memorial and Museum. Seeking to answer the same question as the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum in Pyongyang – who started the Korean War? – here we get a slightly different answer.
After the country was divided by Russia and America along the 38th parallel in 1945, Kim Il Sung agitated with Stalin and Mao to support a North Korean invasion to reunify the peninsula. That finally happened in June 1950. There was immediate success and the DPRK even took Seoul. But the US fought back and seized Pyongyang. After three years of see-sawing stalemate in which more than 1.5m were killed, a peace treaty was signed. (This museum includes a photograph of North Korean officials signing the agreement; this is missing from the walls of the building where the deal was done at Panmunjom on the North side as Kim Il Sung himself was not personally present.) Chillingly, the exhibition concludes by pointing out this is an “unfinished war”.
Of course, our main reason for coming to the Republic of Korea was to see the other side of the De-Militarised Zone, a 2km strip of land either side of the 248km border. It is just 52km from N Seoul Tower to the DMZ, and another 168km on to Pyongyang. The border town of Panmunjom Truce Village is the home of the Joint Security Area, where the DPRK troops in the North and the US army in the South patrol their respective sections.
You can do either a half-day DMZ tour or a full-day JSA tour. (When we were there, US army manoeuvres were considered so heavy, in response to recent missile test launches in the North, it hugely restricted our freedom and so we never made the border itself.) In either case, you need to take your passport with you, and you need to book onto a guided tour, up to a week in advance. We chose to go with Panmunjom Travel Centre.
The tour starts about 10km before Panmunjom with a military check at Imjingak. This is where you get a close-up of Freedom Bridge, where PoWs travelled by train to be exchanged after the armistice agreement in 1953. Then you drive across the river – at Reunification Bridge – and into Paju. Here there is a ten minute film largely about how the DMZ has provided sanctuary for birds and wildlife.
Four tunnels under the border were discovered by the US between 1974 and 1990, allegedly dug by North Korean forces preparing an invasion. (In this part of the world, it is very hard to know what to believe.) It is possible to enter the third of these. It is 73m deep and 1.6km long.
Also here is the Dora Observatory. This has excellent panoramic views: the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea flag flies from a high pole on the left, and the Republic of Korea one flutters from a similar pole on the right; in the centre are the border posts in the small village of Panmunjom, the very fulcrum of many Cold War spats, sitting strategically between the historic interests of China and Russia in the North, and America in the South, splitting two totally different worlds; behind are the heavily wooded rolling hills familiar from M*A*S*H.
We can easily see Kaesong, 8km into the DPRK, where we stayed just ten days or so before. This is one of the planet’s most potentially inflammatory flashpoints, and for us a cause for reflection on the sadness of the lives of the people just a few kilometres and a world away.
None of the 50 million citizens of South Korea are allowed to go to the North. And of course very few of the 25 million people in North Korea can leave at all, never mind visit the South. After a tumultuous few weeks, so rich with experiences that they will take a long time to digest, we leave, hoping to come back one day when this border no longer exists.