Tagged: History

Japanese Maple or Marijuana?

Today, we saw for the first time bandannas selected by one of the Korean teachers for the kinder students to wear during their song and dance, “Summer Nights”.

japanese red maple leaf

“Don’t you think these look a lot like marijuana leaves?” I asked one of the Koreans.

“What!? Really!? No it’s maple leaf.”

Given the violent history between Korea and Japan (the Japanese forcibly occupied Korea for 35 years), a Japanese maple seems an almost equally odd choice of design. One of many things I’ll never understand about this culture. What do you think?

Japanese Maple Leaf

A Japanese Maple Leaf

in Life

Learn Hangul, the Korean Language… slowly

Three months now of studying Korean, and according to my Korean teacher, I am a master of incomplete sentence structure. It’s hard. Verbs are especially difficult to get a hold of because the form is changed to suite necessary and nonsensical formalities of everyday Korean conversation. For instance, moak da (목다) means eat, but to be used correctly in a statement it must become moak sum nee da (목릅니다) or moak eh yo — the latter being a more informal pronunciation. Different verbs have different endings, and I am still very unclear on the science behind when to use what.  Verbs always come at the end of a sentence, and most formal endings sound like ‘nee da’ or ‘eh yo’.  Therefore, watching Korean television or listening to the radio, it sounds a lot like they are just repeating themselves.


I have been alright.

Take care of yourself.

Give my best regards to your wife.

Welcome. Please make yourself at home.

Learning to read Hangul (the Korean alphabet) on the other hand was very easy. One could master Hangul with only a few hours of studying if they really wanted to. Outside of Seoul, it is almost essential to learn to read if you plan on venturing beyond the very limited establishments which cater to western culture. Sometimes you may not know what your saying, but the world will be less overwhelming and a lot less foreign. In Hangul, symbols which represent certain phonetic movements of the mouth are combined to form sounds and (eventually) words.

ㅏ= a

ㅁ=/m sound/

ㅁ + ㅏ= 마   /ma/

ㅑ= ya

ㅂ=/b or p sound/

ㄹ=/l sound/

ㅂ+ㅑ+ㄹ = 뱔   /byal/

Get it? The beauty of Hangul is its control over pronunciation. Much attention must be given to how you actually speak Korean. If a word is not pronounced correctly, it may take on a totally new meaning and leave you red in the face. The language is therefore more uniform in sound than English. For example, my friends in Maine will say “Where’d ya pahk the caah?” In North Carolina, they might say “Where’d ya’ll park the car?” How exactly you say the words doesn’t matter because the meaning remains constant. In Korean however, new kew seh yo? (누구세요) means who is it? When my accent kicks in it sounds more like new dew seh yo (누두세요) which means who is your shoes. A simple error completely changes the meaning of the sentence. See my problem?

While the western alphabet had to evolve for thousands of years to become what it is today, Hangul was individually created in 1443 by King Sejong as “the proper sound for instructing people”. Sejong’s main goal for creating Hangul was to combat illiteracy and give the uneducated people “something that they wish to put into words”.  An excerpt from Fifty Wonders of Korea Volume 1 does a beautiful job of elaborating on King Sejong’s invention.

“[…] The basic consonant symbols were schematic drawings of the human speech organs in the process of articulating certain sounds, while the other consonants were formed by adding strokes to these five basic shapes. The vowels were formed according to the three fundamental symbols of Eastern philosophy. The round represents heaven. The flat represents Earth. The upright represents Man.

ㅇ     ㅡ    ㅣ

history of hangul

The DMZ Tour at Panmunjeom Joint Security Area

There have been two Korea’s since the end of World War II; The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North) and the Republic of Korea (South).  This past weekend on our trip to Seoul, we toured a small part of the Demilitarized “buffer” zone (DMZ) between the two countries. It was Friday he 13th, and just days before the front page headline was North and South Korean Warships Exchange Fire. Really though, it did not seem like a big deal.  They run tours through the Joint Security Area at Panmunjeom all the time, and we were just one of at least 10 other tour buses passing through that morning.

A highway built for 1001 cattle

As we drove along the river just outside of Seoul city, our tour guide mentioned that South Korea used to have a real problem with North Korean spies sneaking through the forest and swimming down river to infiltrate Seoul. “See the mountains?” she explained. “They are naked because we cut down all the trees and put the barb wire in this river. Now, there are no more North Korean spies.” Her next story was about the highway itself. Former CEO of Hyundai, Chung Ju-Yung, apparently stole a cow from his parents before fleeing with it to South Korea. With the money he got from selling the cow, he was able to get his start. After decades of success, Chung decided it was time to give back what he had stolen. He arranged to have 1001 cows sent across the DMZ and into North Korea as payment (with interest). But there was no major highway leading to the DMZ, so Chung had to build one first. The length of highway with which we were traveling was originally built for this purpose. I’m not sure how true this really is, but it makes for a good story.

Freedom Bridge

Freedom Bridge. Was this used in that James Bond movie with the guy that had diamonds in his face?

The Joint Security Area in Panmunjeom is not actually in the Demilitarized Zone, but on the South Korean border of it. Our guide explained that tours within the actual DMZ were possible for 47 nationalities only. However, last year a tourist was shot near the Bridge of No Return, so viewing of that area has been suspended.

Kaesong City

Kaesong City, North Korea

North Korea

As close as we could get to North Korea.

The most interesting portion of the trip was walking through the Third Incursion Tunnel at the Joint Security Area. North Korea had been digging tunnels under the DMZ as planning for what I presume would have been a massive invasion of the South. The first three tunnels were discovered in the 1970’s. The first tunnel was discovered by accident by a South Korean patrol, and North Korea responded with machine gun fire. Knowing that the North was tunneling under the DMZ must have made South Korean officials shit them selves.  The fourth tunnel wasn’t discovered until 1990.  According to a North Korean Defector, there are probably 20 tunnels, and one of the jobs of the South Korean military today is to continually drill and comb the DMZ for these. They must also sweep the wooded areas surrounding the DMZ for land mines. Our tour guide mentioned that Korean soldiers were “disappointed” to be given this job. An understatement, I’m sure. Anyways, tunnel 3 is 490 feet underground and will take a visitor 150m into the DMZ. The remaining 1000 meters or so has been thoroughly blocked from accessing. There was not enough room to stand up straight or fully extend my arms.  Imagine all the poor bastards who broke their backs building the thing in preparation for a day that would never come. Now, instead of advancing the revolutionary cause, their hard work helps line the pockets of South Korean tour companies.

Dorasan Station

to Pyeongyang

Our last stop on the tour was a state of the art train station. Abandon and never been used, Dorasan Station is the single rail link between North and South Korea, built in preparation for the fabled reunification of the peninsula. A mural above the lobby shows two hands stretched towards each other with a bright future in radial focus — the dark past gradually fading away.

Pepero Day (빼빼로 일)

Pepero, yet another product from the all encompassing Korean conglomerati known as Lotte, apparently has it’s own day. November 11th, Armistice Day in other parts of the world, is Pepero Day in South Korea — the tastiest and most ridiculous holiday of them all.  South Koreans buy and give away hoards of the chocolate dipped cookie sticks to their friends and family as a celebration of love and friendship. According to a 2006 Wall Street Journal report on the holiday, 66% of Lotte’s annual Pepero sales occur in the two months prior to November 11th. Lotte of course denies having anything to do with the holiday’s creation, inferring that Pepero day is the result of natural forces within the free market system i.e. a shop owner in Busan noticed some school children bought all of his Pepero, so he decided it was a good idea to order more. The rest is history, I guess. Now Lotte makes special packaging, key chains, pens and other shwag readily available to promote the event.

If the company had nothing to do with the creation of this ‘holiday’, why is it named after their particular brand? I was given a few bootleg Peperos today, so competition is definitely out there. Maybe Koreans see Pepero as a brand parity; it stands for any kind of elongated chocolate covered product. Regardless of what it means or why it exists, I received tons of Pepero gifts from my students today — the most absurd being two 18″ long sticks that were 1″ thick in diameter. Just what every kid needs… sugar and a sword shaped object.

Pepero Sticks on Pepero Day Korea