The Kimchi-ite: Living And Traveling South Of North Korea

One of the top stories this past week on CNN, BBC, Fox News, Reuters and so many other major news organizations was that of North Korea‘s plans for a nuclear test. However, in South Korea, no one seems to care. It was certainly not the biggest story for Korean news outlets, sometimes even buried under stories about a coming cold front, the president-elect’s cabinet choices and advice on how not to get your cellphone stolen from a sauna. People often worry about whether or not it is safe to travel to less talked about South Korea because of the psychotic neighbor to the north. The truth is that even with today’s threats, which are only the most recent in a long string of hostility, South Korea remains one of the safest travel destinations in the world. When traveling throughout the country, rarely will there be an instance of theft or physical abuse. But obviously, travelers are not so much worried about pickpockets and scam artists when curious about the Koreas, but instead are much more worried of World War III breaking out.However, many feel safer in Seoul, roughly 30 miles from the North Korean border, than in the United States. And that is taking into consideration that the Korean War technically has not ended and also that the world’s largest artillery force is likely pointed at the capital right this minute. Much of that safety can be attributed to how ill equipped North Korea is and how well allied South Korea is.

I have asked my Korean friends how they feel about the situation and many reply that it is extremely complicated and they are numb to it all. They have grown up with this constant threat of North Korea. Very rarely does a month go by without some sort of threat to South Korea or the world at large. Most feel that these threats are empty and are simply ways for the nation to intimidate other countries into giving them food aide.

There is a feeling of sadness and sympathy for the people of North Korea. Their situation is dire and there is little anyone can do about it. In many ways, South Koreans don’t feel as though North Korea is a neighbor. Even though it is the only country South Korea shares a land border with, there is no real communication or travel between the two nations, making ties to nearby Japan and China stronger.

All of this is not to say that any report of danger in a foreign country is false, but it’s always important to consider a local perspective. The truth is, there are risky and dangerous aspects to almost all facets of travel. Whether it be the threat of attacks from North Korea while checking out a palace in Seoul, an imminent hurricane while at Miami Beach or having your camera stolen from your hotel room.

Be sure to check out all the other Kimchi-ite posts here.

[Photo credit: U.S. Army Korea Historical Image Archive]

Former chef to North Korean dictator dishes on change prospects with Kim Jong-un

It looks like Kim Jong-un will follow in the footsteps of his father, Kim Jong-il. This succession plan, of sorts, will extend the Kim dynasty in North Korea to a third generation, separating the top dog even further from the supposed revolutionary exploits of the country’s first leader, Kim Il-sung.

With new blood, of course, the question of change is inevitable. Under Kim Jong-il, there have been brief, constrained flirtations with some activities that could be described as capitalism, particularly in the depths of the famine that struck the nation. Marketplaces for privately grown or procured goods opened, resulting in a black market in plain sight that was subject only to occasional government intervention.

So, can we look for Kim Jong-un to loosen the family’s (allegedly) merciless grip on the country? One man doesn’t think so.

Kenji Fujimoto (not his real name) used to be a personal chef to the current dictator, and despite the pseudonym, sunglasses and bandana – all to conceal his appearance and identity, for security reasons – he somehow finds the media when it’s time to comment on his former employer.

Fujimoto told reporters in Seoul last week not to expect too much too soon. The Wall Street Journal does report that there is long-term hope, however:

Kim Jong Eun, the dictator’s third son who’s emerged as his likely successor, will ultimately have to open up the country, above all, to feed people, Mr. Fujimoto said. But the younger Kim won’t be able to do so in the near term because of his fragile standing in the party.

“He will have no choice but to continue policies set by his father at least for several years,” Mr. Fujimoto said. “So it’s not until a decade later when a policy change, if any, would materialize.”

The chef escaped from North Korea in 2001, without being able to take his wife and two children. He has since written four books about his experiences in the DPRK.

Fujimoto watched the next leader grow up, telling the Wall Street Journal, “I’ve seen him since he was seven, and he always took the lead when he played with his brothers, and his strong leadership disposition was clearly visible.”

[photo by yeowatzup via Flickr]