Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Korea 2012 - The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and Joint Security Area (JSA)

One of the essential experiences that I had to do during my time here in Korea was a tour of the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, on the border of North and South Korea. It is ironically one of the most militarized regions on Earth and, considering the ties between the United States and Korea, it was something I needed to see.

I went with a tour organized by the USO here in Korea. The tour costs 97,000KRW (or around $95) and takes you to the DMZ and the Joint Security Area. It's the most comprehensive tour out there, and if you're ever in Korea I would suggest booking it. You can contact them through their website.

We left Yongsan around 9am and and travelled about an hour north to the DMZ. It was a strange experience for me because, even though I've been here for 10 months, I've never been on this side of Seoul before. At one point I was going to be teaching in Paju, a city that basically straddles the border. As we got closer to the DMZ, the populated areas seemed to drop off completely...instead being replaced with farmland and military bases. The highway was strung with barbed wire and guard posts were everywhere.

Just before we reached our first location outside the DMZ, we had to cross a military checkpoint on a bridge crossing a frozen riverbed. My dad cracked some jokes that this place resembled the zombie apocalypse and, all joking aside, I couldn't help but notice the similarities. Compared to the rest of Korea, this place was dead. Really dead. Winter definitely took its toll on the landscape, and you could see giant chunks of ice in the river bed. The river seemed to snake from mountains that were blanketed in dead trees. It was eerie, and it would only get more strange.

This bridge was lined with metal barriers and spikes that required the tour bus to zig-zag on this otherwise empty 4-lane highway. Looking back, I don't recall seeing a single other car on the road once we hit that point....just a lot of barriers randomly placed on the highway.

Just before the DMZ was our first stop: the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel. The North Koreans dug tunnels under the DMZ in case they decided that a sneak attack on Seoul was a good idea. So far, 4 of them have been found. The 3rd Infiltration Tunnel is about 73 meters underground and spans for just over a kilometer. If North Korea had the opportunity to use this tunnel, they could funnel 30,000 troops in an hour into South Korea.

When you go in, you enter via the visitor center. Hard hats are a good idea, as I found myself hitting my head regularly on the hard granite ceiling. Along the walls of the tunnel you can see where the North Koreans painted the tunnel black so that it could be labeled as a 'coal mine'. Also along the walls were the dynamite holes that clearly pointed towards Seoul, proving that this was intended to funnel people into the country.

Photos were prohibited, although I did sneak a picture of the entrance ramp.

Outside of the visitor's center I saw the stark reality that we were in a war zone. The two countries are still technically at war. A common site in the tourist areas was this barbed wire fence blocking us from the miles of land peppered with land mines. These mines are technically owned by the United States, although we have tried to turn them over to the South Korean government for many years. If reunification does happen, one of the issues that will arise is how to deal with the millions of land mines within the DMZ. Many have said that this area should remain uninhabited, using it rather as a natural reserve for animals. Many endangered species have taken refuge here already, and in the future this place might be known for it's immense natural beauty rather than the border of a divided nation.

This area isn't completely devoid of hope, however. Just after lunch (where we also got to try some North Korean beer), we went to Dorasan Station. Dorasan Station is a train station that is the 'gateway' to North Korea. There is a railroad track that does cross the border and, up to 2008, it was used to transport goods from an industrial complex just north of the border. Since then, it has been shut down.

Inside, however, you can see that it is ready to resume operations at a moment's notice. Tourists now can get tickets with the Dorasan stamp. I was particularly taken by the sign that said "To Pyeongyang" that lead to the platform outside. To me, this represented the view that most Koreans have about this situation. They see North and South Korea as one Korea. They are one people, one family. That family looks forward to the day that they can be unified again. I don't believe it's a matter of if, but a matter of when.

After visiting Dorasan Station, our bus made our way to Camp Bonifas for a briefing and preparation for entering the Joint Security Area, or JSA. Here we saw a brief history of the Korean War and the state of the peninsula today. In the JSA, United States troops and Republic of Korea troops (also known as ROKs) are stationed to protect the armistice agreement signed at the end of the Korean War. Only the very best soldiers are stationed here, as they are face to face with the North Koreans on a daily basis. Here we were provided with a military tour guide after signing an agreement saying that, if North Korea engaged in hostilities during our tour, the United States and Korea would not be held liable for any harm that may come to you.

During this part of the tour our military guide discussed the region and what their duties were. One of the more interesting places within this area is Daeseong-dong village, or Freedom Village. It's a full city of 250 people within the DMZ that is protected by the US and ROK forces. The residents are taken care of by the Korean government and provided with many acres of land for farming and agriculture. In exchange, however, they are required to abide by a strict 12am curfew and must live within constant sight of North Korea.

We reached the JSA and I have to tell heart was racing. I'm sure you've seen pictures of the blue UN buildings straddling the border. When you're there in person, the place is much more ominous and tense. On the South Korean side, there is a building with steps leading up to the hillside where the UN buildings are located. You wait just out of sight of the North Koreans as you are briefed on etiquette within the JSA. All visitors are kept in 2 single file lines. Photographs are only permitted when told by an MP. There is to be no communication or contact with the North Koreans, which includes hand gestures or waving. ROK soldiers all have a bubble of about 6 inches around them. If you cross that bubble, they will stomp their foot twice. If you don't leave, they take you down - tae kwon do style.

Once we cross that threshold and see North Korea, you immediately notice that the North Koreans are staring at you. They are checking you out, determining if you are a threat. You can see their soldiers eying you with binoculars and pacing on the steps on the other side. The ROK soldiers don't bring any comfort either. They are trained to show no emotion. Even though you know that they are on your side, they look stoic and robotic as they patrol the South Korean side. ROK soldiers also stand next to the blue UN buildings with half their body in cover. This is to give them an advantage if fired on. Basically...if anything went down, this would be ground zero.

As tense as it was, I found the place insanely fascinating. It might be the idea that I could never go into North Korea, and so I wanted to get as close as possible. It's a piece of living history, and a source of immense sadness and the hope of a brighter future for a country that I've called home for the past 10 months. I felt drawn into their issues, and I want nothing more than to see a united Korea.

On our way out, we stopped at two more locations. One was a guardhouse overlooking North Korea and Propaganda Village. This is a village visible from Freedom Village and, at first glance, looks clearly more prestigious and lively than the South Korean side. But, with modern day optics, the ROK and US Soldiers were able to tell that all these buildings are fake. The buildings are shells with no windows and a single light located on the top floor. The giant flagpole, purposefully built larger than the one in South Korea, is sometimes the only thing lit at night. The flag is also taken down by North Korean soldiers when it needs to be changed, with no villagers ever in sight.

As strange as this was, the second stop had a much more emotional impact on our group. We stopped at a place called the Bridge of No Return, a single unguarded bridge crossing a river that divides the two countries. At the end of the Korean War, there were many prisoners of war on both sides. These prisoners were set free and given a choice: they could choose where they wanted to live. This bridge allowed them and their families to choose to live in either North or South Korea. They had to abide to one condition: their choice was final, and they could never return to the opposite side.

Think about that for a second: you were involved in a war and had the choice to choose a country to live in, knowing that you could never go back to the other. The other side could very well be a place you call home. You could have family or friends who live on that side of the river. Maybe you farmed on one side and lived on the other. Before the war, this was just a quiet place to live. Now you had to make a decision. Which one do you choose? At the time, there was no evil or good side. Both sides were utterly destroyed by the war and in desperate need of reconstruction. What happens if you picked the 'wrong' one?

I couldn't imagine the decision these soldiers had to face after fighting a war that claimed the lives of many of their countrymen. This was a sad place for many could feel it.

After visiting the DMZ, Korea felt immensely different to me. This place knows war. They've lived with it for over 50 years. In that time, one side came from ashes and built an economic and political power that now plays a major role in the world and the other side faced famine, human rights issues, and isolation from the modern world. I knew why South Koreans are so proud of their nation and their people, and why they are afraid of foreign involvement. I love this country, and as a foreigner I'm insanely proud of what these people have accomplished.

They do have a tough road ahead of them, but the biggest hurdle has already been crossed. If you ask any Korean in South Korea, they'd tell you that they are all one people, one Korea. The process of reunification is already in the works. Economic and social policies are taking shape. The culture itself is ready to accept North Korea with open arms. That's huge, and shouldn't be understated. When that day finally comes...and it will...I will be celebrating with the Koreans. They deserve it.

Dorasan Station has it right: it's not the last station from the South, but the first station toward the North.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Break the Chains - Part 1: Follow the Money

AOTOS has taken a bit of a serious turn this month. This is due to the current projects I've been working on that, for the most part, are tackling very serious issues. These issues become more prominent when you travel on the fringe of the well-beaten path, and so they do deserve more attention than they're getting. We'll hit some lighter subjects in March. I promise.

Over the last couple of weeks I've been working with a church in Seoul, Korea on an ambitious project to tackle human trafficking in Korea and around the world. Now, before the anti-religious camp starts crying foul, understand that this is not a religious issue. At all. It's a human rights issue. People are standing up and fighting this issue from so many different levels, and seeing that happen has given me hope that, if we put our religious differences aside, people can truly make a difference in this world.

So what's the big issue? Well, for those who don't know what human trafficking is, the definition from the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, Punish Trafficking in Persons defines human trafficking as:
(The) recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.
In short, it's the exploitation of people. Most people tend to associate human trafficking with prostitution (about 80% of reported cases of trafficking are sexual in nature) but it applies to a whole range of people that are exploited for a multitude of reasons. One of the unfortunate side effects that come with traveling is you do see the faces of human trafficking face-to-face. You can see how broken and downtrodden the exploited are, and I couldn't call myself a decent human being if I didn't try to do something about it.

Now why should you care? Well take a look at the definition again and see for yourself. This is the modern day form of slavery. Yes, that thing we abolished a couple hundred years ago. That thing that was so terrible that we purposefully keep it out of history books that our founding fathers had hundreds of slaves. In the world today, there are an estimated 27,000,000 people slaves. That number is a conservative estimate, as it is impossible to get a concrete number because of the illegal nature of this crime. Oh yea...and about half of those people that are trafficked are under 18.

That's a small overview of the issue at hand here. If you want more information, check out this group from San Francisco called Not For Sale. There, you can learn more about human trafficking in its modern form with more concrete research and data. Also, you can learn more about what you can do and, if you're so inclined, even intern with them and make a physical contribution to their cause. I also like and respect this organization on the basis that, of the $1.2million in funds they brought in, only $100,000 went to funding their staff and administration. That's dedication, and Non-Profits like this should be celebrated.

One of the facets of Not For Sale's campaign is something called smart activism. If you know me and you've talked with me in the past 4 years or so, you know I talk about what it means to be an 'activist' all the time. A big problem that my generation faces is what I like to call 'slack-tivism'. Tackling issues becomes something of a trend rather than an effort from the heart. It's cool to protest Wall Street corruption or march for cancer. People may know a lot about the cause that they are fighting for, but often use that knowledge to 'raise their voice' and not really do anything substantial after that.

Slack-tivism comes in other forms too. One of my favorites that I like to talk to people about is TOMS Shoes. Many college students have heard of this program: buy one pair of shoes, and TOMS will donate a pair to a child in need. Sounds good, right? And, as a slack-tivist, I can buy a pair and 'know' that I helped another person and satisfy my soul for the time being. I can tell my friends that I helped a child in need.

There are 3 issues with this model:
  1. Who makes the shoes? TOMS Shoes are made in China, using business practices that are common with our industrialized world today. That means there are people who are living in poverty making shoes for other people living in poverty without really helping their own situation substantially.
  2. What does it help? If you've been to Africa, you know how important shoes are. You also know how shoes will wear and tear in time. Kids without shoes isn't the problem. It's a symptom. The problem is poverty, and TOMS doesn't fight poverty. It's like the 'give a man a fish' story. If you give a man a fish, he'll need another fish tomorrow. If you teach a man to fish, he can provide for himself for a lifetime.
  3. It promotes slack-tivism. Young people will buy a pair of shoes and have the misconception that they fought poverty. That's the only step they will take to make a difference on this issue.
Now, it sounds like I'm bashing TOMS (and to a degree, I am). TOMS does something wonderful that shouldn't go unnoticed: it makes people think. If every person that buys a pair of TOMS is thinking about poverty, there are bound to be solutions that come out of an awareness of that magnitude.

What I'm saying, and what Not For Sale is saying about smart activism, is to tackle an issue with as much knowledge as you can get. Yes, that require research and time. But right now, if you're reading this, that means you have the time and the resources (the internet) to educate yourself before deciding to act.

And now we've come to the 'act' part. How can you help fight human trafficking? In the next few posts, I'm going to give you some ways you can help break the chains that shackle millions around the world. Today's theme:

Follow the Money

I want you to think about the things that you buy, in particular the brands that you purchase. Shoes, computers, even food. Think about each company that you give your money to. Now, do you know much about that company? Do you buy for the brand name or for the price? What motivates you to buy one product over another?

Here's a fine example: I like Adidas products. I grew up playing soccer, and we bought solely Adidas footwear, jerseys, and protective gear. I have a loyalty to them because they make a quality product. Sometimes it might be more expensive to buy, but the quality makes that extra couple of bucks worth it.

Unfortunately, Adidas hasn't been known for their ethical treatment of workers. Many people remember back in 2005 concerning the reports of the inhumane conditions at their factories. Since then, however, they have made a conscious effort to clean up their company. Adidas since then has been producing much higher quality products and are more transparent in their business practices. Their factories have been revamped and their employees are being compensated fair wages again, and in 2011 made the list of "World's Most Ethical Companies" published by Ethisphere.

Another company is Apple computers. If you've tuned into the news anytime in the past month or so, you've probably heard about Foxconn and the slew of issues that Apple has in the manufacturing of its iPad.

As a media professional, I love Apple products. I love the quality they provide. Ethically, however, I don't think I can support a company that puts profits over human rights. Apple has a phenomenal amount of money. They can make the iPad very profitable, affordable, and manufacture it in a way that doesn't hurt the people that are working at these factories.

Unfortunately, most of the electronics we purchase today are manufactured by people who are financially bound to work in these horrible conditions. This is financial exploitation not just by the companies, but by us as consumers. When we purchase these products, we are promoting these business practices. We are dependent on these products now too. The electronics industry will need some creative thinkers to help solve the problems that they face. As of now, groups like Texas Instruments and Microsoft are the only ones taking a stand. Support them!

Here are some actions that you can take on a daily basis that will, over time, make a difference in the lives of the people that are exploited financially around the world:
  1. Buy quality products. Believe it or not, many of the quality products out there are actually made very ethically. One of my favorite products is Merrell footwear. Their shoes are phenomenal, and their Barefoot shoes are some of the best shoes I've ever worn. After 8 months of heavy use, they still are in pristine shape. They cost more, yes, with an average pair costing about $80. But they will last me much longer than other shoes and I can safely say that their parent company, Wolverine World Wide, produces those shoes at an ethical factory in China. You don't have to buy the cheapest thing to save money. 
  2. Reward ethical companies without boycotting unethical ones. You can boycott if you want, but it's much easier to reward those companies that are known for their high ethical standards. Forbes did you the favor and outlined some of the most ethical companies of 2011.
  3. Know what your buying. Not For Sale makes this easy for you too, with a group called Free2Work. Their job is to grade companies on an A-F scale based on criteria that includes wages, employee conditions, and transparency. If you want to buy a child a present, consider Lego (which got a B+) over Matell products (which got a D). 
  4. If you buy something regularly, find out where your money ends up going to. I buy New Zealand Kiwis because I know that the Kiwis picked in New Zealand are often picked by backpackers traveling. Often, it's as easy as looking at the sticker. 
If we continue to reward ethical companies, more companies will strive to emulate them to chase down those profits. It's already working too! In the graph on the right, you can see that it does pay to be ethical. The black is the returns for the S&P 500, and the green is for the World's Most Ethical Companies.

Doing the research and taking small steps to change the way you make an impact on the world is what smart activism is all about. Look at the word itself! You're actively doing something that can positively affect the world around you. It's smart because you aren't devoting all your resources to a cause. You don't have to be protesting on the street or working at a non-profit to make a difference. Every little step we take in changing these behaviors that indirectly exploit an individual on the other side of the globe will bring us closer to ending human trafficking. 

You have the power. You have the technology. And I know you have the time. We all do. Don't make excuses and consciously change how you consume. It benefits you too. 

Thursday, February 9, 2012

It's Over 9000!!!!!

I couldn't help myself...

We just passed 9000 unique viewers last night! Thanks guys for reading!

Monday, February 6, 2012


This Thursday my 3rd graders will be graduating from Wawoo Middle School and moving onto high school. For many, this is much like the step Americans take from high school to university. You take entrance exams and have fallback schools. This is that first big step into the direction you want to move for the rest of your life.

The kids have been coming into my room all week to chat and say goodbye (and practice their wrestling skills before they have to 'study'). We both know that the chances of us seeing each other again are slim. It's sad but I'm glad to see them go. I'm not a trained teacher, but I know how a teacher feels when they see their students go on to bigger and better things. You wish the best for them and are so proud. It's parental, and for a 23 year old guy that's a feeling I'm not use to. I love it.

I've also been thinking about how, 6 years ago, I graduated high school. I was a big nerd back then. My group of friends were and still are some of the greatest people I know. You fool yourself and promise that you'll stay friends forever, but even in 6 short years you're surprised at how many people have fallen out of contact. Fact is, some people move faster than others. In high school (and college too) you're grouped by your age. You move at the same pace. Once you graduate, the pace you set for your life is completely up to you. That freedom is paralyzing, intoxicating, and exhilarating all at the same time. You can do anything you anyone you want to be.

As my kids graduate now, there is so much I want to tell them. I want them to know how amazing life gets. I want to warn them of the mistakes I made. I want them to always carry a towel with be prepared for anything and everything. Most of the advice I got at my graduation was crap. It was cliche after cliche wrapped in Eve 6 songs and self-pats on the back. That's probably why I was able to beat the Elite 4 on Pokemon Silver while my fellow classmates graduated...these words were useless to me.

Yet here I am, 6 years later and wanting to regurgitate the same old words of years' past. Turns out, some of what they had to say was true. I picked up some more along the way, and I feel like I'm finally at a point where I can give some advice.

So, for my students at Wawoo Middle School, here's 12 things I learned in life so far that have guided me to where I am today. Some are worn out cliches, yea, but that doesn't make them any less true. I hope they help you along the way.

  1. Labels are for suckers. You'll find people (and maybe yourself at one point) who want to categorize and place people and experiences in some kind of hierarchy. All that does is limit you to the status quo. Don't just accept your lot in life - challenge it.
  2. Time doesn't slow down. It gets faster. Every older person I've met so far has told me the same thing and, even at 23 years old, I can feel the years rolling by. Don't waste it.
  3. Keep moving. At times, you will want to settle down and remain stagnant. Everyone slows down at  some point. The ones that achieve greatness, however, always are heading somewhere...even if their final goal is somewhat hazy. Also, literally moving all the time will keep you healthy and active. Take the stairs instead of the escalator. Walk to the store instead of driving. Enjoy being young and fit while you can.
  4. Compete for the right reasons. There are so many competitions in life. Careers. Social status. Love. It's all a competition. There are 7 billion people on this Earth who want the same things. But you should be competing for yourself...not for someone else. That leads me into the next one:
  5. Play the game how you want to play it. This is the game of life. There are no rules, no restrictions, and no mulligans. Don't buy into the hype that you have to do things a certain way. You always have a choice to go down a completely new path.
  6. Dive into the places most fear to tread. You want to go travel for a year at a time? Do it. Want to try a different career just for the hell of it? What's stopping you? You like a girl at the bar? Tell her how beautiful she is! Someone once said "Do the things you fear, and the death of fear is certain." When you're fearless, you can do anything you set your mind to. 
  7. Never dismiss good ol' fashioned hard work. Sometimes you just have to keep your nose down and work. Your chance will come, and if you're working hard you'll be ready to seize it once it does. Just don't mistake hard work for over-working yourself...otherwise you might miss out.
  8. Breathe. No, seriously. Right now, take a deep breath. Close your eyes and do it again, this time through your nose. Feel that? Feel the air flowing into your lungs and your heartbeat slowing down? That's you. That means you're alive. Everything else comes second. Take the time to remind yourself when life comes bearing down on you.
  9. Try your best to love everyone at first sight. This one is more difficult and took me a while to accept. Once you start approaching people with love, you'll start to realize how beautiful each and every person is. That's when relationships are formed and you start caring. We weren't meant to travel through life alone. 
  10. Crying is not weak or pathetic. Tears just mean you are capable of the deepest of human emotions. Embrace them.
  11. Stop feeling sorry for yourself. Don't make excuses for not living the life you want to live. If you are in a dark place, find a friend to lend a hand and pull you out of your rut. You always deserve better, but don't let yourself be your worst enemy! You're wasting precious time and thoughts on feelings that will get you nowhere fast.
  12. Life is hard. It is suppose to be. The people who have it easy haven't truly lived, mostly because they aren't willing to risk failing. Everything you want in life...every inch you take must be fought for with sacrifice and hard work. And if you fail, get up and try something new. It's only when you're on your knees looking up that you find out what you're truly made of, and you can use that will and determination to get the things you want in life.
Thanks for the wonderful year guys! We've created some wonderful memories together. Good luck in high school and on the crazy road life takes you. I'll see you on the other side!