A look into North Korea- Odusan Unification Observatory

We are all guilty of taking what we have for granted. We ignore what is on our own doorstep in favour of what is further afield. For four years I have been living in Paju, home of the DMZ.  Apart from the major attractions like Heyri Art Village and the DMZ itself, I have simply passed by the tourist signs and ignored all other attractions on my way to the Premium Outlets.

Slightly ashamed of this behavior, my friends and I decided to rectify the situation by dedicating our entire free day to truly discovering Paju. What we expected was a fortress and a few tombs. What we didn’t expect was to find ourselves standing just 2km’s from North Korea.

 Odusan Unification Observatory was first on our list.   According to the internet this was a fortress but it soon became apparent that it was an observatory we were looking for. It’s pretty well sign posted coming from Geumchon and we found that the GPS in my car was pretty much useless in getting us there.   The car park (2,000won) for the observatory is the same one as for Kart Land and the drive-in movie theater, a little away from the entrance itself.  

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                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Statue of Jo Min-sik

From there, we took a free shuttle bus on a mere 5 minute ride to the top. The day couldn’t have been any more perfect. Sunny with a nice breeze, the sky was clear and the landscape was breath-taking. The entry was a mere 3,000won and for the lack of crowds alone, it was totally worth it. The Peace statue and Unification Drum are two of the first things to be seen.

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This observatory is the place where the Han and Imjin rivers meet and flow into the West Sea. It’s also the place where the Goguryeo and Baekje Dynasty fought in the time of the three states. Built on the ruins of the fortress it is a place of great history and  impressing from the outset. This is the Unification Wishing Drum, a hard find behind all the buses but none the less beautiful.

 

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The centre provides information in many languages and there are plenty of exhibitions and pictures explaining the Korean war and significant historical events.A short movie on the Observatory and it’s location in relation to North Korea is shown in Korean on the 3rd floor and English, Japanese and Chinese on the 4th. Usually not very entertained by these sorts of things, I found myself glued to the screen with interest. Not surprising, we were the only ones in the theater!

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                                                                                                                                                                                    Where to sit? Janet and Pratishka enjoying the show.

Between the observatory and North Korea was a mere 2km stretch of water. It’s 2 km’s at the furthers point and less than 500 metres at the closest. The water at high tide is around 5 metres but during low tide the distance is almost walkable.

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What is most fascinating from the observation post if the sheer difference between the two countries. On one side you see and hear hundreds of cars travelling along the Jayuro and the high-rise apartment buildings lined up like lego pieces. On the other side, propaganda houses, mountains and fields. No noise, no signs of life to the naked eye, almost as if you were staring at a picture.

 

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Using the binoculars, it was clear that the unfinished and run down propaganda houses were very much in use. Luckily, I spotted two people walking along a country lane. Both wearing black, they were the only signs of life. No vehicles, idle or otherwise, no animals apart a bird or two. Quiet, eerie, incredible.

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North Korea

Looking out at what is undoubtedly the most secluded country in the world, I was filled with the realisation that this was as close as I am ever going to get. To stand just 2km’s from North Korea brought it home to me how close I really do live to this fascinating country. This observation post, that is ignored by so many and indeed by myself for so long is one of the finest destinations I have been to in Korea. And it was right on my door step. To get here took less than 20 minutes from my apartment.  An educational and eye-opening day, the small crowds make any visit here enjoyable and one to remember!

How to get there?

From Seoul; Take bus number 2200 or 200 at exit 2 of Hapjeong station. Get off at Seongdong Sageori, walk for 10 minutes and take the shuttle bus.

From Paju; Take the Gyeongui Line to Geumchon Station. On the opposite side of the road to the station, catch the 900 bus which brings you to the shuttle bus pick up. 

I had the pleasure of sharing this great day with my good friends Pratishka and Janet. To read about Janet’s thoughts of the day, check out her blog here, http://janetnewenham.wordpress.com/2013/08/15/stunning-views-of-north-korea/

Life in Paju- still the same.

When first I came to Korea, I couldn’t understand why there were soldiers everywhere.  At first I put it down to living in close proximity to the border. Then I realised that it was actually just because military service is mandatory here. So over the past four years, I’ve become accustomed to seeing tanks and soldiers and training exercises on a regular basis.  

Yesterday, I woke up late.  I got ready for school in about 6 minutes, had my breakfast made in two but still managed to enjoy twenty minutes of Poirot on television.  (Don’t judge me, there aren’t exactly a huge number of English tv dramas showing at 8 in the morning). My day at school was a struggle to stop children crying, fighting and falling asleep while actually teaching them a few words in English. 

On my way home, I realised that not only was there no petrol in my car and no food in my house.  Two stops later and both situations were rectified.  The rest of the day was spent practising music,catching up on some tv dramas and cleaning my kitchen.  This is actually pretty much how I’ve spent every other Tuesday for the last four years.  

Tuesday, April 9th, a pretty normal day, except for the fact that in the last 15 hours or so, I’ve been swamped with emails and messages expressing concern for my safety. I blame this on a sensational headline on RTE News ( it must have been in Ireland because it was my Irish friends and family that were emailing).

Everyone wants to know what it’s like living so close to the border. I wasn’t going to write this blog until the following questions were sent to me. Motivated by nothing other than helping people to understand how this is affecting  daily lives, I’ve put the answers in this blog. I’m not a journalist.  I’m not involved in politics in any way.  I’m just a regular Irish girl, living and teaching in South Korea and the answers are the honest truth about how the whole situation affects me and my daily life.

Q1. Are you worried about it?

No. This isn’t the first time that North Korea have threatened and it won’t be the last time.  The threshold for worry and panic here is a lot higher than in other countries.  I have started talking about it more and the possible outcomes and implications but to say I’m living in fear of an attack would be a gross misrepresentation of the truth.  As with every potential situation, citizens here are being encouraged to remain vigilant and prepared should an emergency situation arise.

No amount of reporting and big headlines changes the fact that I’m doing today what I’ve been doing every other day for four years and tomorrow looks like it’ll be the same.  My school wouldn’t be too happy if I decided I wasn’t going to show up tomorrow and neither would anyone elses place of work.  Away from the headlines and the news stories, everyone is actually just living the same as they were before the media took such a great interest in inter Korea relations.

Q2. Are you even thinking of coming home?

No. Yesterday, North Korea did indeed advise foreigners in South Korea to leave.  As of the time of writing this (April 10th), I have no immediate plans and see no need to return to Ireland.  Foreigners here have jobs, lives and responsibilities that will continue despite threats. Like all responsible expats, I will be closely monitoring and heeding any advice from the Irish Embassy in Korea and making decisions accordingly. 

Q3.  Should Mammy and Daddy Browne be as worried as they are?

 No, definitely not.  I recommend that Mammy and Daddy Browne stop reading CNN, BBC or any other major news source that is getting great air time and page coverage out of all this and spend that time skyping me so they can see how normal and continuously boring everything still is. 

It’s good to be informed and normal to be concerned but people shouldn’t believe everything they read or hear in the media. 

Q4. Has anything changed in your daily routine because of the current situation?

Yes.  I’ve stopped reading CNN.  

Q5. Why don’t the foreigners just leave?

This is my favourite question.  It makes it seem like foreigners have nothing to do but sit around wondering whether North Korea are going to bomb us or not.  Really, we have jobs, lives, responsibilities.  And there are the foreigners here who have families. So far, those jobs, lives and responsibilities haven’t changed in the slightest so you can see that leaving isn’t exactly top of our agenda. Did I mention how my school wouldn’t be too happy if I decided I wasn’t going to work tomorrow?

Q6. What signs of imminent war are there over there?

I’m sure there are loads, but not for the life of me can I find any in Geumchon. 

 You can see that my life is the same old same old . I’ve got to go now because I’m busy planning whether to go shopping after school or go home and get my washing done.The greatest concern in my life this very second is that one of  my best friends in Korea is leaving (because her contract is finished) so tonight we’re going for a goodbye Galbi and a glass of wine.   Then there’s the weekend to continue planning not to mention the fact that I need an accordion, a new computer and a fringe (not all in that order). And when I’m finished with all that, I’ll keep busy with the very exciting life I outlined above.  As ever, if you have questions, leave them below.