Overlooked London: The HMS Belfast

The United Kingdom used to have the largest navy in the world and it still packs a major punch today. One ship from the glory days is the HMS Belfast, docked on London’s South Bank near London Bridge. This World War Two light cruiser also saw service in Korea and is now open to the public under the auspices of the Imperial War Museum, one of the best war museums anywhere.

Clambering up and down the nine decks and into turrets and engine rooms is lots of fun, and the video displays and signs tell you all about the history of the ship and life on board. One interactive display, the Gun Turret Experience, puts you in the middle of a WWII battle. In the Operations Room you can control an entire fleet at sea.

If you go in the winter, visit in the afternoon and catch the early sunset over the Thames, its bridges, and both its busy banks. Watching nightfall from the prow of this historic ship is a memorable experience.

The HMS Belfast is undergoing remodeling and will be even better when it reopens on May 18.

Check out more London attractions most tourists miss in our Overlooked London series!

Top photo, courtesy Steve Parker, shows the HMS Belfast as it appears today. The bottom photo, courtesy the Imperial War Museum, shows the ship bombarding the coast of Normandy in support of the D-Day invasion.

Photo of the day – I break for tanks

Road signs are designed to be universal so that anywhere in the world drivers can be aware of local driving rules and potential hazards. Yet this sign in South Korea isn’t something you’ll see on most roads, setting the speed limit for trucks as well as tanks at 20 kilometers per hour. Flickr user BaboMike guesses it’s a remnant from the war, as tank traffic isn’t so common these days.

Seen any unusual signs on the road? Add your photos to the Gadling Flickr pool and we may use it for a future Photo of the Day.

Shanghai: New route from China to North Korea

It isn’t exactly a wide-open commercial route, but at least the door is slightly ajar. Korean Air charter flights will start flying from Shanghai to Pyongyang on August 6, 2010, when the first group of tourists will take advantage of this (rather slight) liberalization of North Korean travel rules.

The goal, of course, is to “help to further promote cooperation and exchanges between China and North Korea in trade, tourism and culture,” according to People’s Daily Online.

It doesn’t look like the move is coincidental, as this is the 60th anniversary of the start of what we call the “Korean War,” though on the other side of the border, it’s given the moniker, “the War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea.”

August is a great time to go to Pyongyang, given the Arirang Festival, which usually runs until October. And since North Korea is now a new destination for the Chinese tourist travel market (since April 12, 2010), the locals can take full advantage of this unique opportunity.

[photo by yeowatzup via Flickr]

Spend a weekend in Pyongyang

If you didn’t get a shot at the last short trip that Koryo Tours organized into North Korea, you have another chance coming. This rare breed of travel company – which brings westerners into the most isolated country on earth – is planning an excursion for September 24 – 26, which will include the sights of Pyongyang and the opportunity to witness the Arirang Mass Games spectacle.

The “mini-break,” as Koryo Tours is calling it, starts and ends in Beijing (so you’ll need a double-entry visa for China) and includes all fees, accommodations, transportation, guide services and flights for the Beijing-to-Beijing roundtrip – you’ll have to arrange your own travel to and from Beijing. Along the way, there are two chances to go to Arirang, not to mention Juche Tower, the Korean War Museum’s interesting take on history, Kim Il Sung Square and the Pyongyang Metro. U.S. citizens are permitted to join in on the experience.

So, if you’re looking to cross into the unknown, make your reservation by September 14. At €850, it’s an absolute steal. If you have any misgivings, Koryo Tours says, “A fascinating, safe and unique experience is guaranteed.”

Spy games: A look at North Korea’s covert operations (part 1)

In celebration of the latest James Bond flick (granted, it was Die Another Day that featured blatant stereotypes about North Korean goons) and a longish piece in this week’s Harper’s on North Korea’s propaganda machine, I thought I’d give a history lesson into a period of time when North Korea was even crazier than it may seem today (for instance, did you know some 30 North Korean spies managed to get all the way to Seoul and almost assassinated the South Korean president?).

But first, some blatant plugs for additional readings. Be sure to check out former Gadling blogger Neil Woodburn’s excellent series, “Infiltrating North Korea,” from last year. I also reported from North Korea for The Washington Post and The Christian Science Monitor this August. And if you’re truly as obsessed about all this stuff as Neil and I, check out for part 2 tomorrow.

Anyways, so the North Korea of today, with its Lone Ranger worldview and its detachment with reality, can be traced back to the North Korea of the late 1960s, when it embarked on an unprecedented military and propaganda campaigns. But while the DPRK temporarily caused a fallout in US-ROK relations, the North failed to unify the peninsula as its heavy-handed military forays, following the “Vietnam Model”, only solidified South Korean anti-communism sentiments. Yet perhaps the most important detail of all rests in not what was, but what might have been. Quoted in the summer of 1968 in the New York Times, a top US official exclaimed, “Few people realize how close we came to war.”

Although the period 1967-1969 saw massive turmoil in Vietnam and China, the forgotten conflict on the Korean peninsula left an equally lasting legacy. North Korea permanently escaped the orbit of its two stronger communist brothers, China and the USSR, with Kim Il Sung exploiting the momentary power and attention vacuum in an attempt to become the head of the “anti-imperialist small states.”

Life is stranger than fiction. In one of the most daring covert operations of the Cold War, thirty-one North Korean agents crossed the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) on January 17, 1968, on a top-secret mission to assassinate Republic of Korea (ROK) President Park Chung Hee in his own bedroom. As Lieutenant Kim Shin Jo, the only captured agent, later explained, success “would agitate the South Korean people to fight with arms against their government and the American imperialists.”

Although the commandos managed to reach within 800 meters of Park’s residence in Seoul, the Blue House, they were eventually detected and a national manhunt mobilized to track down the fleeing intruders. This audacious guerrilla operation was just one of a series between 1967-1969 when Kim Il-Sung reneged on the decade-old ceasefire.

With international attention diverted to China and Vietnam, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) renewed its military offensive as a means of forcing a US-ROK split, with the goal of hastening national unification. Although Kim saw this campaign as a diversion from the country’s stalling economy and an opportunity for him to be crowned leader of the “anti-imperialist small states”, the reunification efforts ultimately failed because he did not anticipate the extent of anti-communist sentiment in the South.

Known as the “Second Korean War,” this period of aggression is often treated as an ephemeral blip on the geopolitical radar. After all, the real war had ended 14 years earlier when the peninsula became locked into a seemingly permanent stalemate. There were, granted, the occasional clashes; statistics for 1966, a typical year, included 50 North Korean DMZ crossings, 35 UN casualties, and 19 exchanges of fire.

So why was it that the very next year, military intrusions increased ten-folds to 566, UN casualties quadrupled to 122, and exchanges of fire increased six-folds to 117? The jump in border conflicts-and a new breed of well-coordinated covert operations, from the Blue House assassination attempt to the capture of a US spyship and an attempted amphibious invasion-turned out to be part of a coordinated DPRK offensive against the ROK and US. It was anything but a blip.

The escalation of conflict between 1966 and 1967 saw the sharpest jump in casualties and clashes, and arguably marked the beginning of the “Second Korean War.” One of the first major incidents was the North Korean attack and sinking of a South Korean naval patrol boat on January 19, 1967, which killed all 40 crew members.

In a trend that would continue throughout the conflict, the DPRK shifted blame to the opposing party, in this case, complaining to the United Nations Command, “Your side has used South Korean fishing boats as a shield to cover up your espionage activities … and to find a pretext for unleashing another war in Korea.” The ROK subsequently relented and restricted its own fishing boats to below the 38th parallel, a victory that emboldened the DPRK for its boldest covert operation to date.

Part 2 tomorrow!