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  • Writer's pictureMartijn

Traveling to Korea?

India, Myanmar, Bhutan, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Japan and South Korea are all on our wish list, I wonder how many we will be able to visit, with our plane or by other means (we are told a few of these countries do not welcome "General Aviation").

While sanitary measures are being relaxed in Argentina (and especially for Diego Maradona's funeral as some of you might have seen in the media- what a disaster...), Asian countries appear to be among those with the strictest rules. Either foreigners can't enter the country altogether, or they have to go into quarantine in a hotel for 14 days, with a surveillance camera pointed at the door, getting all meals delivered wrapped in plastic, rooms disinfected once a day, regular temperature checks etc... This happened for example to Justin Jin, a Chinese photographer based in Brussels who traveled home to visit his family and is awaiting the end of the 14 days as we speak. He tells his story on Instagram (check out his journal on @justin.jin) with humor, showing for example the "Happy Holidays" sticker on the banana he was served while being basically locked up at his own cost and seeing a bustling city through his window. I "met" Justin because he makes beautiful pictures for National Geographic which I am following in preparation of our trip. Their pictures give us a lot to look forward to.......if of course we are able to travel more or less where we want to. I am hopeful that the vaccine will help us but of course we are not there yet, and remain very FLEXIBLE!

I am especially looking forward to traveling to Asia because, apart from China, it is a region I know very little about. This is why I recently dove into the book "The Girl with seven names" by Hyeonseo Lee, a young woman who escaped from North Korea at the end of the 90's and arrived in South Korea after more than ten years of hiding and wandering. Unless the two Koreas magically re-unite in the next 12 months, we are of course not thinking of going to the North but Hyeonseo's journey through China to South Korea placed me right inside of Asian culture, with the North Korean dictatorship at one end and the super-modern South Korean pop culture and rebellion at the other.

In North Korea, she took me with her in her efforts to survive in the midst of propaganda, censorship, political prisoners, torture, intimidation, surveillance, secret police (the Bowibu), smuggling, corruption and famine (in the 90's!).

Many of the above tend to be prevalent in communist regimes but a few facts and anecdotes caught my attention:

- North Korea has a caste system called Songbun. A family is classified as loyal, wavering or hostile, depending on what the father's family was doing at the time just before, during and after the founding of the state in 1948. If your grandfather descended from workers and peasants, and fought on the right side in the Korean War, your family would be classified as loyal; If however your ancestors included landlords, or officials who worked for the Japanese during the colonial occupation, your family would be categorized as hostile. Within the three broad categories are fifty-one gradations of status, ranging from the ruling Kim family at the top, to political prisoners with no hope of release at the bottom.

- in schools and in workplaces, there are weekly "life purification time" or self-criticism sessions, introduced by Kim jong-il in 1974. Everyone takes turns to stand up, accuse someone and confess something in front of the whole class/all colleagues.

Once Hyeonseo reaches South Korea, she realizes that there are really many cars and avenues; when she watched South Korean soap operas back in North Korean, she thought the cars and lights were capitalist propaganda and that the producers had put ALL the cars in one street to pretend the whole city looked like that!

In her new country, she shows the challenge of survival in an economy that has changed at vertiginous speed, from a strong bossy state system to a free and socially diverse system with all kinds of tensions and where the "old way" of doing things is slowly becoming unacceptable. Have you seen the movie Parasite?

However, the "old way of doing things" is still very present: apparently South Korea is the worst place to be a working woman because you earn less than 2/3rds of what men do and on top of that you need to tend to the house and perform the very demanding "kids coaching" because of the extremely competitive education and state exam system. Do South Koreans ever relax?

All this just makes me more curious about Asia, but because I am not South Korean, I haven't even started reading about the other countries yet. In the mean time, any insights are welcome!

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