Sunday, April 27, 2008

Best Day in Korea So Far

and it might not be topped either.

Wow!!! Today was an incredible, once in a lifetime experience. The Olympic torch was in Seoul today. You have probably heard of protests in other cities along the relays route, but South Korea has its own beef with China other than the Tibet issue.

A brief lesson: It is illegal to leave North Korea without government permission, therefore if you leave you are committing an act of treason. If you are from North Korea and you seek refuge in China, and are caught, you are sent back to Korea to face disciplinary action, which in some cases is execution. In addition to those refugees from the north that are living in Seoul many South Koreans have relatives that are still there, and others are just sympathetic to the cause. There are also many other foreign human rights activists in Korea that are upset about China's treatment of North Korean refugees. The South Korean government's view is that politics should not have anything do with the Olympics or the torch relay.

So, here is what we have, probably 1000 human rights activists(both fighting for Tibet's freedom and those in support of the North Korean refugees, mostly scattered along the route with signs, but many protesting in a group across the street from the starting point of the relay, about 5,000 Chinese supporters, mostly Chinese students studying in Korea, and the government (who wants a smooth relay) in the form of 8,300 police and riot officers on hand along the route (2,500 of which were at the starting point). So, of course we were there, the starting point is literally 2 blocks (about a 4 minute walk) from our apartment.

The wide opening you see through the middle is the barricaded path about 3 meters wide, and out side the barricades was another 5 meters of empty space on each side being guarded by police. We were positioned just a bit above blue bus in the bottom right hand corner. (AP Photo)

You could feel the electricity in the air as you walked through the crowds and it was a surreal experience to see our normally peaceful, if busy, neighborhood transformed into what seemed like a battle zone in just a matter of hours. We made it to the front of the police barricade nearest the torch route through the park. Seriously, the very front... notice the policeman we are pressed up against. It was amazing how many people we ran into in the crowd, here's Lindsey and I, and we also several groups from other campuses that we met yesterday.

On the Peace Gate side of the street the Chinese students did not tolerate any hint of an adverse opinion... like this guy, who was definitely shoved around a bit, even though his sign's message isn't technically pointing any fingers.

Our view as the torch passed by. It's directly to the left of the woman in the tan coat's head and disappointingly small.

After the torch left the police let down their guard and about 500 Chinese supporters rushed across the street to go chant and yell at the human rights activists, whose protest was largely blocked from view by the police buses set up along the curb in front of our coffee shop. We stayed safely across the street:
But this AP photo shows what was going on in the crowd. The riot police had everything under control in a matter of minutes, but we could see a few bottles, flag sticks, and rocks being thrown through the air.
An activist and a chinese supporter, in front of our coffee shop. (AP Photo)
Human rights activists. We have seen this group out on numerous occasions. (AP Photo)
Obviously having this entire even take place so close to our house and being in the midst of it forced me to think about both sides of the issue in a way I probably wouldn't have before. The sign below echoes the sentiments of the Olympic organizers in South Korea "Go Olympics. No Politics." but that statement isn't entirely accurate.

The first Olympic torch relay was for the 1936 Berlin games, and the path of the torch was planned carefully by the burgeoning Nazi government to promote itself. Now, I am in no way directly comparing China to Nazi Germany. However, the route of this Olympic torch does seem to be designed to tout China's increasing power in the global community. And the torch is going through North Korea next, something that hasn't happened in a long long time. Then there's the business with taking the torch to the top of Everest (in Tibet), something that's happened... never. So, politics are a part of this event whether anyone wants them to be or not. Is this right? Who knows. I appreciate the Olympics as a time when countries can come together in a positive way. I also think that, like just about everything else in the world, it's been way over-commericalized. I'm also still not sure what I think about the Chinese government in general. Being at the relay, though, provided much food for thought. (Alison)
As things started to die down we decided that we wanted to get some lunch. So we met up with one of our co-workers who was somewhere else amongst the crowd, and we brought along Martin, our new Irish friend that Jordan met while waiting for the torch. After lunch we charged our cameras and headed for City Hall, where the torch would end up 4.5 hours after it left the Peace Gate around 2:30 pm. The scene there was much more cheerful, less tense.

In this video you will see many things.   The men in police uniforms are obviously police.  The men in blue jumpsuits are also police, they ran down both sides of the street, I'm not sure if they were there the whole way.  The men in the middle in yellow are basically surrounding the torch  bearer, there had to be three dozen or so of them.  You will then see the last torch handoff before the torch entered Seoul Plaza, which was filled with about 5000 people or so.
You will here lots of chanting, they are yelling "China" in english and chinese.

Jordan, Lizzy and I(Sam) then went to this stream that runs through the middle of the city.  The story is that this area used to be a sewage dump, then they just paved it over, and it was just this concrete area in the middle of the city.  Then about a decade or so the current president of South Korea(who was then the mayor of Seoul) decided to make this beautiful stream.  Right now it is decorated for Buddha's birthday, which is in two weeks.  Along the way we passed traditional korean percussion group.  It was cool and you could tap your toe to it.  But we continued moving, but then witnessed a very fun sight when we were walking back on the other side of the stream.

Brief korean culture lesson:
Korean's have addictive personality, they smoke and drink constantly.  That said, its not uncommon to see tipsy or just flat out drunk people, mostly men anywhere you go.  Also, an ajjuma is a middle to older aged women.

So when we came back by, this group of couples decided to break it down and dance to the music.  It was quite a sight.  The ajjumas were dancing and the old men were dancing.   Then three foreign guys about our age decided to join in.  They joined hands with the ajjuma and danced with them.  The video is very dark, but you might be able to see.

We then went to Bennigan's for dinner.  It's funny, the menu was a bit different.  Bennigan's and Outback are considered higher end restaurants here in Korea, and the menu reflects that.
All in all, it was a pretty good day.


Allison said...

Wow! What a crazy thing to experience!

Sarah Fox said...

You guys were there to see a piece of history taking place. Crazy! It's really interesting to hear your take of the whole event too.