Sabbatical 8

DMZ, Secret Gardens, and a Wealth of Friends (April 24-28, 2015)

After our “second honeymoon” week in Busan, we took the KTX bullet train to Seoul Station (SS), checking in to our SS Guesthouse, right across the street, in preparation for a final “whirlwind” weekend in Korea. Our final days were full of rich, deep, relational connections, as well as more adventures. After we had settled into our guesthouse, we met up with Hyun Jin (“Jini”) for the first time since we had arrived in Korea. She had stayed with us in the fall of 2014, and the wait to see her again was getting unbearable! We had met few people in our life who had the ability to be as emotionally present as Jini, regardless of who she was with. I particularly loved watching the way she would interact with the kids of VEV during her time with us. She helped serve in kids’ church, on church work bees, and other community activities, and of course, spoke to VEV one Sunday on what it was like to be a second language English Student in Canada. 

During her stay with us, Jini told me the story of how that every morning since she could remember as a little girl, her mother would wake her and her brother, gently massaging their arms, necks, shoulders and backs, soothing them with her voice. Jini’s mother always wanted them to face each new day with love and affection. This morning ritual occurred from Jini’s childhood to her teen years. The impact on her relational and emotional intelligence was evident. There was no describing the joy we felt to be with her again, and to be able to look into her smiling eyes. Of course, she treated us to another delectable Korean dinner, courtesy of her parents, who had already paid for our car rental on Jeju-Do.  

The next day was an emotional contrast to the previous, but with the same degree of intensity. Courtesy of our “angel,” Kyung Jin, we were treated to a whole day tour of the DMZ (Korean Demilitarized Zone). The DMZ is a 5 kilometre buffer zone that runs east to west between North and South Korea – the only remaining location of the Cold War, which ended for the rest of the world in 1989 at the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain, but not for Korea.  The border between North and South Korea runs right down the middle of this buffer zone, from sea to sea. We found it hard to grasp the magnitude of what this small strip of geography represented. Canada’s daily newspapers feature stories that describe the unimaginable heartbreak, grief and loss that have occurred due to this border. (See “Reunited Koreans Let the Tears do the Talking,” from the National Post, Wednesday, October 21, 2015). 

The DMZ, heavy with barbwire and guards on both sides, was set up because North and South Korea are still officially at war. Even though the Korean War occurred from 1950 to 1953, an armistice, or ceasefire, was declared, but there was no peace treaty. This meant that war could again flare up at any moment. There are still incidences of conflict that occur every few months. On our trip to the DMZ, the level of tension and security was very high. We were always accompanied by armed soldiers. Our ID’s were check and re-checked, with guards carefully scrutinizing us. We were strictly admonished to adhere to a dress code –no shorts, t-shirts, etc. as well as follow a specific code of conduct. Most South Koreans do not ever take this tour as they have to go through much more red tape and security clearances than foreigners. We had to sign the most unusual waiver form I have ever signed, stating that the tour company was not responsible if we were shot, wounded, bombed, kidnapped, etc. The tension was palpable as we approached the DMZ. Barbed wire and armed guards were everywhere.

We stopped at a bridge that was called, “The Bridge of No Return.” Why? At the end of the Korean War, 13,000 prisoners of war were returned to the South from the North. 90,000 POW’s were returned to the North. None of them knew that it would be the last time they would be able to cross that border. Family members were separated. Many would never see their loved ones again. The photograph on this blog shows a place we visited at the DMZ where South Koreans remember lost family members. Thousands of ribbons and mementos were posted. Every ribbon represented a broken heart, a missing family member, and a story of unimaginable pain. (I highly recommend the movie, “Ode to My Father,” which captures this story so well. You can view the trailer for it here). 

Next, we went into a UN controlled area and entered a building which is the only place on earth where North and South Korean leaders ever meet and talk to each other. We had the opportunity to cross the border into North Korea under the watchful guard of a North Korean soldier. We also were taken to a high vantage point to get a more panoramic view into North Korea. The South Koreans have intercepted a number of tunnels infiltrating the South from the North. We had the opportunity to tour one of them – a very well designed tunnel that could have facilitated the rapid movement of a high volume of army troops. The whole day felt like a day of tears and we arrived back in Seoul emotionally and spiritually drained, trying to take in what we had just witnessed. This experience continues to weigh heavily on our hearts to this day.
Our return to Seoul provided some relief to the deep grief we had experienced on our tour to the DMZ. That night, we were thrilled to meet up with Jessica Shin’s parents, Munchal and Yeiri, in Seoul. We were again treated so royally, and I was beginning to wonder how much more we could take! The Shins had all attended VEV over a decade ago while Munchal was involved in highly covert missions to China. They are now missionaries to Japan – such beautiful, godly people who have given their lives so sacrificially to share the good news. Their daughter, Jessica was a teen in our youth group when they attended VEV, and she has now emerged as a strong and gifted Christian leader. As we met with her parents in Seoul, we were all anticipating Jessica’s upcoming wedding back in Vancouver in July - our first VEV wedding at St. David of Wales Church! Just before our sabbatical, Kathleen and I had the privilege of doing the premarital counselling for Jessica and her fiancé, Peter, mostly via google hangout, as he is a university professor from Michigan! 

On Sunday, we again saw Jini along with another friend, named Daegyu, whom we had met previously through her in Vancouver. Jini gave us the sad news that the Flames had eliminated the Canucks from the Stanley Cup playoffs. We couldn’t have received this news from a more comforting messenger. Last fall, thanks to a generous gift from Gary and Kirsten Veldman, I had taken Jini to a Canucks game so she knew well the impact of this news on us. We were able to move on with our lives when we visited the Choenbokdong Palace later that afternoon, the location of the exotic Secret Garden, another historic and beautiful Choson dynasty home and grounds, in Seoul. We enjoyed a very romantic and beautiful tour through these expansive gardens at the height of the April spring blossoms. This tour was so popular, we had to book it weeks ahead. 

That night, we met up with Yeon Kyung and Jihyun, friends we had made last fall through, an initiative in Vancouver that connects host families with international students and visitors. These gracious and gifted exchange students at UBC were now attending top universities in Seoul. When they found out we were coming to Korea, they insisted on seeing us, and treated us to samgyetang, a whole boiled chicken with rice, another Korean delicacy, followed by tea and dessert at a traditional Hanok teahouse. We are the wealthiest people on earth. 

On our last afternoon in Seoul, Kathleen took a break while I again met up with our friend, Daegyu, in Gangnam. We strolled beside the Han River, drank beer (allowed in parks in Korea), enjoyed the sites on another beautiful spring day, with the Seoul skyline nestled among rolling hills and mountains to the north. The towers of Gangnam and Yoiddo sprang up to dizzying heights to the south and west. We walked, talked, laughed, told stories, and I enjoyed listening to Daegyu share his dreams.  

That night, we met with our most recent homestay student, Jaeyong, and his father who treated us to exotic seafood on Korea’s west coast. We ate eel for the first time, accompanied by mackerel, all the Korean side dishes, and of course, soju. Afterwards, they drove us back to Seoul Station, crossing what some of the locals call “suicide bridge,” where so many young Koreans have taken their lives, due to the enormous academic pressure they face and the limited opportunities to really get ahead financially due to such fierce economic competition. All of this, ironically, was within view of Yoiddo Full Gospel Church, and the towering Bank of Korea, both symbols of economic and spiritual success and power. Signs all along the bridge-fencing begged youth not to take their lives –assuring them that they were loved, valued, and precious. 

We arrived home that night to a love package from Kyung Jin, full of Korean tea and snacks to take to our VEV family back home in Vancouver. We had no idea how we were going to fit these gifts into our luggage, but we knew we had no choice. As Kyung Jin accompanied us to the airport the next day on the train, we shared our stories, and showed her all our pictures from the past few weeks. She was as eager to hear as we were to share! She had been so thoughtful and caring for us the whole time, but we had hardly seen her since the first week, although she was in constant contact, always helping us so generously. She was our “beautiful angel of Seoul.” God had used her to make our trip so restful. I had been so tired but I didn’t have to worry about any travel details.  Kyung Jin was there for us each step of the way. She had been the first to meet us at the airport three weeks earlier. She was the last to see us as we embarked on our flight for Beijing. We prayed, hugged, and cried. We were lost for words that could adequately convey gratitude. "We love you Kyung Jin. We love you Korea. Farewell for now.” 
Wade Pallister