Seoul, South Korea Arson and Axe Murders

[This post is from February 29th. I’m bumping it up temporarily.]

I got to the South Korea dancing spot on time, for once. It’s the big, ancient gate that used to serve as the entrance to the city. I got there before any of the invitees, so I pulled out my book and waited. World War Z. Great book.

It got closer and closer to 6pm, the designated dancing time. Still no people. 6:15, 6:30, I’m feeling a little hurt.

Do South Koreans hate my guts? What’d I do?

Killing time, I stumbled upon a nearby plaque.

"Domdaemun (the East Gate) was built in the year…"

Hang on. Domdaemun. East Gate. East Gate? That doesn’t sound right.

I can vaguely recall what I wrote in the invite. I pull out my guide book.

"Domdaemun. East Gate."

"Namdaemun. Southern Gate."

Crap. I’m at the wrong gate.

In my defense, they look and sound an awful lot alike. When I scanned the map, my eyes landed on Domdaemun, which was close enough to the word I was looking for.

I mean, the thing is, it’s a giant, ancient gate. There aren’t very many of them. One is unlikely to assume one is at the wrong one.


I was about to head back to the hotel in shame when it occurred to me that there might still be a few stragglers waiting at the right location. I hopped in a cab, raced over, and even though I was an hour late, there were still a good 20 people holding out hope.

We danced.

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Despite my sincere and sustained apologizing, they made me feel even worse by showing me a video of the much bigger crowd that had only just left, dancing in front of the gate and screaming "Where the hell is matt?"

Like an arrow to my heart.

So anyway, the bulk of the crowd was an English class that had been corralled by their American teacher, Joshua. They invited me out to a Korean barbecue restaurant.

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They introduced me to Korean rice wine, which has a deceptively benign taste.


Afterward, we went out to a bar/clubby place that played surprisingly good jazz.


They also had a cocktail menu that was positively ribald.


The evening was a great opportunity to interrogate a bunch of teenagers about their culture and their take on some of its finer points.

As a gamer, I’m familiar with their reputation as the most fanatical players in the world. The stories of kids spending weeks in front of their computers, dropping dead on their keyboards from malnutrition, tales of violent real-world retribution for slights committed between rival online gangs, special police task forces assigned to deal with it all. Weird stuff, and apparently not far from the truth.

I asked the girls what they think about it and got a pretty familiar answer. They play games too, but they recognize the need for balance and they struggle to get their boyfriends to go outside every once in a while.

We talked about North Korea and their feelings about reunification. I know the older generation has some deep emotions on the subject. I was surprised to learn the kids don’t really care much. The primary concern for the kids I asked was the financial burden, which I imagine would be similar to what West Germany went through. In fact, it would probably be much worse for South Korea, dealing with a sibling nation that is so astonishingly backwards, when they themselves are on a rocket sled into the future.

Things wound down. When I got to my hotel room, I sent out an apology email with a photo that I think says it all.


I invited everyone back in two days to try again.

Got up at the buttcrack of dawn the next day to go on the USO tour of the Demilitarized Zone. Turned out it wasn’t running that day, so I went back to my room and slept through most of the day. Eventually I crawled out to explore Seoul a bit.

Crazy space architecture.

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South Korea is way into fancy light displays. The shadow of Samsung looms large.


I am unwavering in my conviction that the event depicted in this sculpture never actually happened.


I find this one ever-so-slightly more plausible.




Not at all brilliant.


This is a great example of the generation gap I mentioned earlier.


Dog clothing.

What could possibly better illustrate the shift in thinking? For their parents, it was once perfectly commonplace to eat dogs. Now their kids are dressing them up and carrying them around town as accessories.

This got me thinking: imagine if your mom wanted to eat your dog.



The guys who made this ice cream cone for me were unnerved by the cavalier manner with which I brandished my frozen treat. They warned me of impending disaster.


I wandered around the electronics district hoping to find some good deals fresh from the factory floor. Sadly, the day for that sort of thing is past. Mega-retailers have closed that niche. There’s nothing worth buying on the streets of Seoul that you can’t get cheaper at Best Buy.

…at least nothing I could find.

This ice skating rink is in the middle of the city.


I really liked the lights, so I danced in front of them. Not terribly interesting, but not much of a bother to dance in front of either.

And besides, it’s my job, right?

Okay, Demilitarized Zone. This is going to take forever.

I mean, good God it’s a fascinating situation. Truly bizarre. Unlike anything I’ve ever seen or heard of. I’m exhausted at the thought of trying to document everything I learned. So for your benefit and mine, I will strive for concision.

The Demilitarized Zone is a band of terrain about 4 kilometers wide and 250 kilometers long, running roughly east-west between the two countries at 38 degrees north latitude. It is the mostly heavily guarded border in the world. It was designated in 1953 at the end of the Korean war, the consequence of a monumental stalemate — a fault line dividing two radically opposed social philosophies.

The fault line metaphor is extended to the point of absurdity by an educational video they show you as you enter. The version we saw was in English, but clearly translated from Korean and geared toward a Korean audience. In other words, it is totally insane.

The video starts with a little girl wandering through the forest. She becomes frightened when the screen suddenly turns red and sirens blare. She drops to the ground for cover, but then the ground splits open and she is swallowed by a massive fissure. Another victim of the Demilitarized Zone.

Holy crap!

The video goes on to make several strange and confusing statements. My favorite:

"Today, the Demilitarized Zone is home to many extinct species."


This is the building on the North Korean side of the DMZ. You can see a teeny tiny man at the top of the steps. Here’s a better shot.

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He’s watching us. When the tour group steps out of the building on the South Korean side, it’s his job to take photos of all of us and stare at us through binoculars.

Visitors are instructed not to make eye contact with the North Korean guards or gesture to them in any way.


That line of concrete just behind the South Korean border guard is the actual, technical border dividing the two countries. The buildings on either side are for meetings and negotiations.

This scenario begs the question: what would happen if you just ran for it.

Good question.

If you’re on the South Korean side and you head north, the South Korean guards will do everything they can to stop you. If you make it across, there’s nothing they can do. The North Koreans will (probably) not shoot at you. They will welcome you into their country, take you in for questioning, and try to figure out some use for you.

Apparently there’s a German guy who believes he’s destined to save the North Korean people, and every year or so he shows up on the tour and tries to get across. He has yet to succeed.

Now if you’re coming from North Korea and you want to head south, the situation is very different. In 1984, a Soviet tour guide named Vasily Matauzik made a run for the border. Several North Korean guards followed him across, guns blazing. South Korean guards fired back Eight North Koreans were shot and three were killed. Of the South Korean guards, one was wounded and another was killed.

Vasily Matauzik lived. He’s a professor in California now, or something like that.

I’m not sure how to feel about the guy. He got a bunch of people killed, but can you blame him for doing whatever he could to get out of there?


This was taken inside the meeting room. The border runs along the center line of the table and between the legs of the South Korean guard. He is frozen in a modified Taekwondo stance designed for immobility. Visitors are instructed not to touch him and not to walk between him and the table. However, you can cross the border on the other side of the table and wander around in about 100 square feet of what is technically North Korea. Another South Korean guard is posted in front of the door leading out into North Korea.

I asked permission from the USO tour guide, handed the camera to one of the other visitors, and danced in front of the door.

…so I got a North Korean dancing clip.


This is called the Bridge of No Return. It’s where the two countries orchestrated their prisoner exchanges at the end of the war and in the years after. It is so named because a prisoner, once given the choice of whether to cross it, was told he could never cross back into the country where he was captured.

The dramatic tension of this decision eludes me. I’m guessing it was a tougher choice for the North Korean soldiers than the South Koreans.


A tree used to stand where this picture was taken, very near to the bridge on the South Korean side. In the summer months it blocked the view for South Korean border guards, so in August of 1976 they decided to trim it. This led to what is called the DMZ Axe Murder Incident. I’m going to get the details wrong, so if you’re really interested, just click on the link for the full story.

A team of 18 soldiers and workers from the Joint Security Force (our side) went out to take care of the problem. While they were working, some North Korean soldiers walked over and yelled at them to stop. They didn’t stop. One thing led to another. The North Koreans grabbed some axes and clubs and attacked. Here’s a photo.


They killed one US officer who was overseeing the action. Another US officer survived by crawling into a ditch and hiding.

A tense political stand-off ensued with conflicting versions of events. Three days later, the UN initiated Operation Paul Bunyan.

A convoy of 23 vehicles raced up to the tree unannounced. Sixteen men armed with chainsaws jumped out under the protection of two armed platoons and a 64-man special forces company.

Cover for the operation was provided by 20 utility helicopters and 7 cobra attack helicopters. B-52s circled overhead, escorted by F-4 and F-5 fighter planes, while the aircraft carrier Midway waited on standby near the shore.

The tree was successfully chopped down.


Someone put a plaque up.


What you’re looking at there is the tallest flagpole in the world. Mounted atop it is the second largest flag in the world (the biggest is apparently in Maryland). It stands in the center of Kjong-dong, a city near the border on the North Korean side. We were able to see it from a hilltop viewing station that offers a pretty substantial glimpse into the country.

Here’s what’s amazing about Kjong-dong: it’s empty. No one lives there. It’s a fake propaganda city that was built as a rebuttal to a farming village on the South Korean side. South Korea had a village, so North Korea had to have a city. South Korea put a really big flag in their village, so North Korea had to have an even bigger one.

This is what it boils down to. This is what South Korea is up against. A sociopathic infant.

The tour took us into one of the North Korean tunnels. We couldn’t take pictures, unfortunately. Throughout the 1970s, South Korea kept finding tunnels being built under their feet by North Koreans in a hair-brained effort to mount a surprise invasion. The plan was to get one of these tunnels far enough across the border that they could emerge in an unwatched patch of forest and pour hundreds of thousands of infantry through the tunnel before anyone noticed. They never even came close to success, and let’s ignore the glaring impracticalities of trying to invade a country on foot…it still scared the bejeezus out of South Koreans, and that’s fair enough.

The tunnel was hot, wet, narrow, and low-cielinged. All along it we could see holes in the rock where the diggers stuck their dynamite. About 600 meters in, we hit a concrete wall with a tiny porthole. On the other side of that wall is a very big gun pointed at North Korea, followed by a mine field, followed by another concrete wall, another mine field, and one more concrete wall. Beyond that, North Korea. If North Korea ever tries to use the tunnel again, it’s not likely to work out well for them.


Howsabout some DMZ rice? Sounds delicious.


As we left, a helicopter landed with a bunch of good old-fashioned cheerleaders coming to entertain the troops. I was surprised to hear the troops still go for that sort of thing. Seems kinda quaint, doesn’t it?

I got back to Seoul in time to get to Namdaemun for the make-up dance. A good crowd turned out a second time. I expressed my continued apologies and gratitude. We danced.

And then, 12 days later, the 600 year old structure of Namdaemun was burned down by an arsonist.


I know from all the emails I got afterward that Namdaemun means a lot to South Koreans as a symbol of their country. To dance with joy in front of it just moments before its untimely destruction stirred some real emotion in people. I don’t know what to say about that other than that I will, of course, be including the clip in the video.