Friday, September 30, 2011

A Glimpse of North Korea

Six years ago when I was working my first job out of college at AMVETS, I was tasked with writing an op/ed about our National Commander's recent trip to Taiwan and South Korea. Naturally, our public relations team sought to use this trip to maximize attention for the organization. After he returned, I interviewed him and the organization's director about their experiences, and from the interviews and loads of independent research, I traveled the distance from only knowing that a Korean War memorial existed in Washington, D.C., to understanding how unique and still volatile this line is between South and North Korea. Excerpts from the article (written 6 years ago now) follow in italics, with comments from my recent visit interspersed. 

Recent pronouncements, coming out of Pyongyang about North Korea's nuclear weapons capability only add to unease. And with good reason. The North's surprise attack on its neighbors to the south in June 1950 has hardly been forgotten. The bloodshed that left more than 33,000 Americans dead and another 92,000 wounded also saw the South Koreans suffer hundreds of thousands of casualties of their own. Despite the 1953 armistice, the fear persists that forces from the North could come streaming across the Demilitarized Zone at any moment.
The op/ed was published on May 18, 2005 in the Stars and Stripes newspaper. I didn't know anything about the overseas military-focused publication at the time, but now, six years and one OCONUS tour later, I see it every time I check out at the NEX. My research on the Korean War is what prompted me to want to go to Korea in the first place, specifically to travel to the DMZ and see this buffer space between war and peace for myself. So on September 22, Jen and I loaded up on a tour bus and made the hourlong trip from Seoul to the border with North Korea. 

View of bustling Seoul from the Sky Tower
The Koreas that once shared a common government, history and culture are now worlds apart. Alive with production, South Korea continues to grow economically stronger. Its capital city, Seoul, bustles with skyscrapers, shopping, theater and industry. Indeed, many American veterans of the Korean War who have returned after half a century of capitalism marvel at the sprawling metropolis that replaced a once-desolate area. I was amazed at the city's productivity and the positive attitude of its citizens, despite their close proximity to the communist North --- a scant 25 miles.

When we arrived at the border, we were given lots of instructions... when and when not to take pictures, where and where not to take pictures. We were granted permission to take any pictures we wanted of North Korea, but none of the South side of the DMZ. Our first stop was the Joint Security Area (JSA), which is essentially the meat and potatoes of the DMZ tour because it's the place where you can see North Korean soldiers. Here we received a briefing by a US Army soldier who explained the history of the area and showed detailed maps of the JSA and the areas we were going to see. At no point did he hold back from opportunities to tell us how ridiculous North Korea had acted over the years. 

As history has proven, regimes that exploit military power, rely on propaganda and enforce censorship often seek to compensate for their weaknesses. North Korea's weaknesses create untold difficulties for its citizens---something that's difficult to imagine in a country with a constitution similar to ours. Because of collectivized agriculture, 16 million of the country's 23 million inhabitants are dependent on government handouts for their food. Incongruously, Kim Jon Il's regime continues to support a 1.2 million-member military and boast about its nuclear weapons. 
One such story of ridiculousness was the flagpoles on the border towns. In South Korea, there is a town at the DMZ called Freedom Village which we drove by. There are very strict requirements as to who can live here, and it's a very successful farming community, growing rice along the lush acres of otherwise untouched land that span the DMZ. South Korea put up a flagpole in the town 100m high. A short while later, North Korea put up a flagpole 160m high in their border town (called Propaganda Village) and now flies a 600 lb. flag from it. Apparently it takes 25 NK soldiers to raise or lower the flag. Also, the reason this town was named Propaganda Village is because there used to be information blasted over a louspeaker at all hours of the day, even when there were only half a dozen or so people living in the town.

The hardship of such policies on the North Korean people is evident. At the DMZ, South Korean troops called my attention to a convoy of trucks carrying rice from the south to the North as part of a humanitarian effort totaling more than $250 million a year.

We are in North Korea!!!
Once the briefing was over, we loaded up in unmarked buses and headed to the actual Joint Security Area. Our first stop was in a conference room, which marked the official line of the DMZ. On one side of the table you were in South Korea, and in the side Jen and I were standing on, we were technically in North Korea. Behind us, a Republic of Korea soldier is standing watch R.O.K. ready. Jen and I had fun taking pictures of us with the South Korean soldiers... until we discovered that if you looked out the window, there were North Korean soldiers just outside!

I could feel a certain nervous energy emanating from the barbed-wire fences at the DMZ.

After leaving the conference room, they lined us up so we could get shots of the whole JSA compound, at least the side facing North Korea (still no shots of South Korea allowed). The blue buildings are the United Nations'. The conference room we were just in (blue building on the left) is where peace talks or discussions between both sides are held. As you can see, for a place called the "Demilitarized Zone" there's nothing demilitarized about it. Throughout the day, North and South Korean soldiers face off against each other, as if they're just waiting for someone to do something malicious and start up the war all over again.

No question it was a strange thing to be ogling and taking pictures of. The US Army guide of ours reminded us it's a misconception that the Korean War ended in 1953. Technically there was an armistice signed that merely stopped the fighting at the 38th parallel and designated the 2.5-mile wide strip of land running the length of the Korean Peninsula as a buffer zone where no one was allowed to enter. So essentially, it's still considered an active war zone, particularly because North Korea apparently does not recognize many of the things supposedly agreed upon in the the armistice. Our guide gave example after example of how childish (making offensive gestures at dignitaries through the windows) and difficult to work with the North Koreans have been over these decades of disagreement.

North Korea has also posed a challenge to the United States in collecting the remains of our military personnel missing from the Korean War---8,000 are unaccounted for. Speaking with forensic scientists at the U.S. Army's Central identification Laboratory at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii, I learned it was not until 1996 that the North Koreans would allow the U.S. military to search for remains on their soil. So far, about 220 sets of remains have been recovered.

After leaving the JSA, we next got out of the bus at a spot where the DMZ border curves and you are surrounded by North Korea on three sides. Again... do you smile in pictures like this? As I looked out over the border area, I couldn't help but think about all of the millions of people on the other side who were living in a world where freedom doesn't exist. No questions it's moments like this that make you truly appreciate what America stands for. This trip to Korea in itself is such a great example of that freedom. I do not need to ask permission of anyone to leave my hometown to travel wherever I so please whenever I so desire. I can talk to whomever I want, ask whatever questions to get more information, worship the God of my choice however I so choose, and say in this very public space whatever the heck I want... all without having to fear anything at all. And having grown up this way, it's hard for me to imagine a place where freedoms like these aren't automatically granted. A place where, in fact, they don't exist at all.

Many wonder, as I do, if there is hope for revolution in a country as isolated as North Korea. After 60 years of being subject to the whims of the Kim dynasty, two oppressed generations of North Koreans have every reason to think the rest of the world lives just as they do. It raises the question: How can a people want freedom if they have no idea what it is?

As we left the DMZ for our Korean lunch and the rest of our last day in Seoul, I definitely had a greater appreciation of America's involvement overseas. Had we and the half a dozen other nations not chosen to become involved, this beautiful city and thriving country would likely have been overtaken by North Korea and, subsequently, extreme communism. A whole extra nation of people would be holed up as prisoners in their own land. And it's true, we lost tens of thousands of our own in this conflict; but it does make you stop to truly consider the worth of such extreme sacrifice in exchange for freedom. I am left wondering if North Korea will ever experience a revolution toward freedom in our lifetime... and if so, what the cost would be to get there. Time will tell. Until then, war stands still at the 38th parallel. Watching... waiting...

Writer's note: Special thanks to my editor and former boss Dick Flanagan for turning my research and interviews into something still worth reading six years later.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Discovering Seoul

I have to be honest. When we first moved to Guam, I knew I wanted to travel as much as possible, but there weren't very many Asian countries high on my wish list of places to see. For whatever reason, Asia never really interested me much, probably because I didn't know that much about it. Or it didn't interest me as much as, say, Europe, or Central America. Fast forward one year and five Asian countries later, and I'm finally starting to get it. It's amazing to see how different each country is from the next. Korea was no exception. Last week six girlfriends and I traveled from Guam and Japan to South Korea for five days of touring and shopping.

Korea was a great destination for a group trip like this. It was relatively easy to get to. We had access to the Dragon Hill Lodge, a very affordable and nice hotel on a U.S. Army base right in Seoul proper. Not to mention, Seoul had a lovely variety of things to do and see... everything from museums to markets to palaces to... war zones! Everything you'd want in a tour destination, really.

The only down side to traveling with a bigger group is the variety of logistics that emerge. This trip began as an idea when my friend Mary and her daughter Annika (right) were visiting us in Guam after the Japan tsunami in March. We both talked about how much we wanted to go to Korea, so we tossed out the idea, "Hey, let's go in September when both our guys are gone." We both really wanted to go to the DMZ (more on that later). A week before the trip when we were booking the tour, we discovered that due to the fact that it's a war zone, kids are not allowed on the tour (okay, this rule kind of makes sense). But it meant that in order for Mary to get to go, someone would need to stay back with Annika that day. I was more than happy to so she could get a chance to go, but it meant that Mary and I didn't have as much time to hang out. On the other hand, I got some serious bonus time with Annika. "Miss Jen" (who you met during my Thailand/Hong Kong travels) and I started out our trip by taking her to Children's Grand Park, a garden and zoo. Definitely not my usual travel stop, but a nice change of pace!
If everything is bigger in Texas, then it must be said that everything is cuter in Korea. No, seriously. Everything from the icons in the bathrooms to laundry clips in the drug store to this here butterfly made of flowers... everything is so stinkin cute! In addition, Mary was explaining that Asian cities tend to go over the top in creating fun things for kids. Seoul was no exception, as this was just one of two free zoos (and this was supposedly the smaller one).

Annika had a great time looking at all of the monkeys, tigers, and foxes at the zoo. Miss Jen and I had a great time sipping smoothies and strolling around in the perfect weather. In my top three list of favorite things about Seoul was our luck with the incredible temperatures for the week we were there. Seriously guys, it was 75 and sunny four days in a row... and at night it was chilly enough to merit light jackets and (get this) scarves! Apparently the week before it had been hot and rainy (sounds familiar), so we must have just hit it just right.

We left the park and found this super cute street full of restaurants, bars & cafes. We were really close to the University of Seoul, so I'm guessing that's why nothing on this street was open even as of 11a.m. Looked like they were still cleaning up from the night before. I guess college students are the same everywhere.

We stumbled upon what must have been the equivalent of a dollar store... but better because it's in Korea... so everything was cute! Almost everything in the store was 1,000 won, which, on that particular day, converted to about 91 cents :) Jen and I stocked up on journals, stationary, craft supplies, stickers, pens, and all other basic necessities. This is the type of stuff that is really expensive on Guam and not NEARLY as cute. In a word... jackpot!

After having such a whirlwind trip to Thailand and Hong Kong, I was fully intending to go at a slower pace this trip, so it would hopefully not take an entire week to recover from like last time. So the fact that a two year-old's day includes naptime was right up my alley. We went back to the hotel for lunch and sleep and to wait for the girls to get back from their tour. Due to a glitch with the travel desk (the first of many), the tour got back three hours later than they told us, so Jen and I peaced out and headed to the North Seoul Skytower for sunset views. (And yes, we brought Annika with us... stroller and all up the steepest hill I have ever seen)
Sunset over Seoul 

We met up with Mary and jetted off to a neighborhood called Myeong Dong, aka the shopping district! If there's one thing Koreans love to do, it's shop, as was evident based on the insane amount of people who were out shopping at 10pm... and 10am the next morning... and 3pm the next afternoon. Okay, so we were not shy about hanging out in the shopping area, but it was pretty impressive that it was always so busy. Great to pop into my favorites, like H&M, Mango, and of course, Zara! Would have been even better if they weren't packed full of fall and winter clothes... completely worthless in my neck of the woods. Mary was in a good spot, though. The Japanese yen to dollar conversion has been terrible in recent months, so by that standard Korea was full of bargains. 

Day 2: Some people slept in, while others (Jen, Bligh & I) headed off to some museums. We started at the National History Museum of Korea, which was essentially an art & artifact museum. Which in Asia essentially breaks down to pottery and buddha statues (which, let's be honest, all start to look the same!). There was one good find, though... the room full of etched calligraphy. I loved what the description had to say about calligraphy, which many of you know is one of my hobbies.
Calligraphy is the art of fine handwriting by which the artist expresses his or her inner state by the rendering of lines and forms. In Korea, calligraphy has long been one of the major arts that a true intellectual should master. To be a good calligrapher required in-depth knowledge about a wide range of areas such as literature, art, history, and philosophy, since spiritual depth was prized as as well as artistic beauty... In Korea, calligraphy was developed as the art of "creating something new from the old law. Calligraphy as an art aimed at future progress based on what was great in the past. Today's calligraphy lovers in Korea believe that this art form should continue to play a leading role in the creation of the "new." In other words, calligraphy is even more awesome than I thought.

Next we cabbed it (cabs are super cheap!) to the Korean War History Museum, of which two of the three floors are dedicated to the Korean War. I was excited to go to this museum ahead of going to the DMZ so I could learn more about the war. I have done a lot of reading about the war itself and how it ended, but never really had a great understanding of how the war started. Did China really just surprise attack South Korea in order to gain the peninsula? Unfortunately the room with the exhibits showing the lead-in to the war was under renovation, so we didn't get those answers just yet. A great museum, though, and well worth the time.
A lot of the exhibit space was used to recreate scenes from the various aspects of the war, creating a three-dimensional visual experience instead of using just words and photographs. They also had a huge section of the third floor dedicated to the suffering of refugees and the stories of survival and perseverance that helped the South Koreans recover into the strong-willed, independent, thriving nation it is today. Just walking around Seoul and you can't help but feel how capitalism, political independence, and, essentially, freedom have driven this society to be the clean, safe, productive, efficient society it is today.
Mary's picture of Seoul's beautiful buildings... everything looks so new and fancy!
After our morning museum (and shopping) tour, Jen and I joined the rest of the group and all six of us went on a cultural insights tour to Changdeokgung Palace and several popular markets we had yet to hit. It was great to finally have the group all together... until they put us in separate vehicles. At least we were all together at the palace :)

The great part about being on a tour is that you actually learn about what you are looking at. We had the sweetest tour guide who spoke excellent English and even came armed with a box of traditional Korean treats. She told us quite a bit about the palace. One of the things I remember is that each of the rooftops of the various palace buildings on the complex have these little critters on the corners. Apparently the more critters lined up, the more important the building was. For example, the building above is the main palace where the king would conduct official duties. It had the most number of critters. The building to the right was the king's office, so it did not have as many critters. Interestingly, the house the king built for one of his concubines only had one critter.

Chinese letters over the doorways of the palace
We also learned about the Korean language, which I found fascinating. Being in Thailand, Japan, China, and now Korea, you see all these different pictorial alphabets and wonder... how did these come to be?? They are so similar yet so different. Tower of Babel? Evolution over millions of years? Something in between? Our tour guide said that the Korean writing system (called hangul) was actually invented in the 1400s, by a king, Sejong the Great, who wanted language to be more accessible to the common person than difficult hanja, which was based on Chinese characters. The language took about 200 years to catch on because Chinese had such a reputation for being the language of nobles, dignitaries, etc. But hangul is now the script of the modern Korean language.

Someone wants treats from my bag and is using hugs to win me over... smart girl :)
 If you're ever in Seoul, head to Insadong, 
the cutest street full of handicrafts, teas, pottery, and yummy treats.

You have my permission to skip Naedemong Market, a wholesale market that is absolutely ginormous, sells everything you can imagine, and yet it's somehow all junk. I couldn't find a single thing worth buying! No question the markets in Asia all start looking the same after a while.

We capped off our our second day in Seoul with dinner at a Greek restaurant. I know this sounds ridiculous, but again, one of the great things about being off Guam is having more food choices. Greek food is just something we don't have (at least not a good version of), so this place, Santorini, right in Itaewon in walking distance from our hotel, was so refreshing and delicious. And let's be honest, Korea isn't exactly known for its savory cuisine or rich, enticing ingredients (Exhibit A: Kimchi). More on that later. I went to sleep on this second night excited about the day ahead... my turn to head to the DMZ, the ultimate reason for our trip to Seoul, and one of the spots on my Asia travel wish list.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

How To Eat Local on Guam

Every once in a while you find yourself in a new place experiencing new things and it changes your life. Sounds dramatic, but I can honestly say that happened the day I took a Thai cooking lesson in Chiang Mai. As I looked out over the sea of familiar and unfamiliar looking produce, I realized how many of the unfamiliar things I have seen at the local produce stands on Guam. Especially here where produce is shipped in from 9,000 miles away (sometimes farther - scary!) I like the idea, in theory, of eating produce that was grown on island (why on earth does the commissary sell mangos from Mexico?!). But I've always brushed the idea aside since the kind of stuff grown here is so foreign (round green eggplant?) or unappealing (bitter melon?). If I bought the stuff, I would have no idea how to even begin preparing it let alone know how to make a fabulous meal out of it.

Enter Thai cooking class. Apparently all it takes is a little demo, a little Q&A, and magically some of this tropical island produce moves from the "unknown" column to the "I can rock that" column. In a bold step after coming back to Guam, I found myself at the local produce stand in one of the major off-base grocery stores. I bought a bag of long beans (above), a papaya (massive), and a bag of boonie peppers. I also picked up a strange brown bud the produce dept. guy told me was a banana heart (I have to give this Chamorro man props for not responding, "It's a banana heart, duh."). I followed up my question with "What do you do with it?" and he told me, "You cook it with beef strips and coconut cream. It is delicious. Ask your local friends and they can give you a recipe." I bit my tongue as I actively refrained blurting out "Or Google?" So yes, I googled. And I got this absolutely incredible blogpost for a recipe for banana hearts in coconut cream. I will refrain from reposting the recipe (which we substituted beef tenderloin instead of pork, as the grocer recommended), but here are some pictures of this unexpected little treat:
Peel off the bud leaves... reminds me of a magnolia bud
Once the bud leaves are peeled away, slice down the length of the heart, 
then turn long strips sideways and chop into chunks (which fall apart easily)

Disproportionately terrible picture of an incredible entree
Toss into a wok with ginger, garlic, tenderloin strips, chilis, vinegar, and coconut cream. What results is an incredible melting of flavors, new and old, into something so unique I can't quite describe it. The banana heart adds a nuttiness to bring down the supersweetness of the coconut cream. It is reminiscent of the heavenly combination of bananas and walnuts in banana nut bread, except with with beef and ginger, and a fiery background of chilis, all sopping into sticky calrose rice. In a word, it is heaven. And it's just a shame they haven't figured out a way to do scratch n sniff blog pictures, because this picture doesn't even come CLOSE to depicting the decadence. Banana hearts = total win.

Next up was the papaya. I needed a papaya to make green papaya salad. Problem was the first papaya I picked was a ripe one. I googled to find out how to pick out a green one (rule of thumb: the harder the better) and headed back out to the commissary, where I found another table of local produce.
Ripe papaya... which I tried to still use (since it cost $9)
by making it into a fruit juice... and failed miserably (too gritty... ick)

My second papaya was perfect! FYI - friends make cooking local a lot more fun. 
This is Ashley hacking away at the green papaya, making the base for the salad.

And this is Jen about to attack the long beans (they are 2-3 ft. long each!),
also for the papaya salad.

When we were done, our papaya salad looked like this... and tasted just like Thailand! Papaya salad is bitter and sweet and limey and crunchy and peanutty and spicy and overall so refreshing and delicious. Again, I can't think of anything else from my palate that I could compare this one to. Recipe for those who do not have access to my Thailand cookbook: Here

Round off the beef & banana hearts and papaya salad with fresh lumpia
and peanut sauce. Recipes are from the Thai class I took on Guam last month
Quite the feast! Everything was sooo delish. 
I was so happy we had leftovers so I could enjoy more of it the next day too... yum!

Someone please invent scratch n sniff internet
One last adventure in cooking local came on Thursday. I picked up all the items to make my favorite penang curry at my (other) friend Ashley's house. One of the key ingredients I remembered from my class was kaffir lime, which is a tricky one because it's actually not a lime at all, or at least that's not the part you use. You use the leaves, which if you ever tear one off and smell it, you will realize what makes restaurant quality Thai curries so insatiable... fresh kaffir lime. It's a limier, mintier version of basil, but again, that doesn't do it justice. I knew I hadn't seen kaffir lime in the produce section. Or at the local market right off base (Agat Kimchee Market - where I got palm sugar, red curry paste, rice paper, and some other fun essentials for our meal). So I took a guess, and on a whim I stopped by the home center. Just. My. Luck. There was a kaffir lime plant in the nursery just waiting to become my secret ingredient to perfect Thai curries. (Okay, not so secret, huh?).

As we ate the savory curry mixed with chicken and *local* eggplant over rice, I couldn't help but marvel at how amazing it was that little old me had created such an incredible mix of flavors. It really tasted like the signature dish I get at my favorite Thai restaurant. Unbelievable! Thank you Mr. Kaffir Lime, our newest edition to the Herb Jungle.

So what have I learned about how to cook local on Guam? This is my advice:
1) Try local produce. DO IT!! No, really.
2) If you don't know what you are looking at, ask someone. If they can't tell you a recipe, google can (duh).
3) Try a new grocery store if you can't find what you are looking for. And what you can't find in the produce section you may find in the garden center... even better!
4) Cook the way the locals do... together with other people. It makes the process a lot more fun, especially when you are experimenting with new flavors. Plus you can celebrate your victories together, over a fabulous meal of course.
5) Don't be afraid to fail. We had NO idea what the beef/banana hearts dish was going to taste like, but we went full speed ahead and were handsomely rewarded for taking the risk. (Not gonna lie, we also had a backup pizza in the freezer... just in case!).

Tips for Guammies: pick up local produce at the commissary, Payless (it's NOT a shoe store here), Agat Kimchee Market, Tuesday night Agat market, roadside stands (this is getting technical). How great that it will have traveled 20 miles (at most) from garden to fridge, instead of 9,000! Well worth paying more for (explain that one) for the amount of good being done for both the planet and your taste buds.

Tips for USA friends: Come visit! (duh)