I went to North Korea — almost

SEOUL, KOREA–This city is huge. Next only to Tokyo, it owns the title of “the world’s second largest metropolitan area” with 24.5 million people. About half of the entire population of South Korea reside in the Seoul National Capital Area — an expanded version of the City of Seoul, much like Metro Cebu or Metro Manila.

Seoul is expansive and vast. In the three nights that we stayed here, we traveled to several places. In almost each stop, traveling time takes 30 to 45 minutes — and the roads are eight-lanes-wide. Traffic exists, but not much. Vehicles move. Everybody here moves. Fast.

Apart from meeting prospective business partners (the Philippines has about 120,000 Koreans), we visited, last Tuesday, the most popular tourist site of the peninsula: North Korea. No, we did not step inside the most confined and repressive nation on earth — that’s disallowed and would mean lifetime imprisonment (and possibly torture; remember Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in Die Another Day?). But we — Dondi Joseph, Joe Soberano, my dad Bunny and myself — did get the chance to be as close as possible to this nation that’s oddly (or shall I say, wrongly-named) “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.”

We went to the DMZ. That’s the De-Militarized Zone, about 40 minutes from hotel in Downtown Seoul. At the DMZ, we watched a video of the war between the two Korean sides in 1950 that claimed about four million lives. We traversed the 3rd Tunnel, walking down over 300 meters below sea level. The location was called the Joint Security Area. As is expected, the “38th Parallel” is the most militarized border in the world.

The day prior to DMZ, we had a whole day of business gatherings with the PHL Ambassador to South Korea, Luis Cruz. Dr. Bernard Villegas spoke. So did the officials of KEPCO, one of the world’s biggest energy firms — and one who has three power plants in our soil, including two in Cebu (Naga).

Food? Since I love spicy dishes, I’m at home here. Kimchi, “shabu-shabu,” and many more that perspire you while you sit and dine… these abound here. After the DMZ experience, our four-person Cebu group got hungry. It was 2 P.M. Scouring through the inner roads, we found a small, home-like restaurant. It was our best meal here; seafood soup, mackerel fish (much like our “buwad”), beef Bulgogi with noodles — it was perfect.

John, Bunny, Dondi and Joe

Rotary? Since Joe Soberano (the president of the Rotary Club of Cebu) and I (the president of the Rotary Club of Cebu West) were together, we had Rotary work to perform. The Rotary Club of Goyang, an organization of over 100 members, has an existing sister-club relationship with RC Cebu. Joe, Boni Belen (an RC Cebu past president), my dad and I joined their meeting two nights ago. It was formal. Everybody wore a suit. From 7 to 8 P.M. inside RC Goyang’s own office space, Joe sat at the presidential table and gave a speech. The Philippine anthem was played. We proudly placed our right hands on our hearts. After the serious Rotary ceremonies, it was off to dinner at a Korean establishment.

We had three types of alcohol (soju, their famous wine; another type that I couldn’t decipher; and Cass beer). We had crabs, duck, some form of octopus, plenty of kimchi, and an overdose of spicy dishes. From the seriousness of no-smiles of the Rotary meeting, the dinner was boisterous. The Koreans, no doubt — as reflected by their work ethic and status as a First World Nation — know both: they work hard and are serious, but they also relax, drink and revel in the opposite, fun-side of life.

Sports? Sadly, I can’t report much. I did see the Olympic Stadium, built when this nation hosted the 1988 Games. We also passed the FIFA World Cup Stadium. Too bad I did not get a chance to step inside both. Baseball is No.1 here. While I previously mentioned that Football was tops, I believe the game of mitts, backstops, bunts and sacrifice flies, is the top game here.

In all, the “Soul of Asia” is terrific. If only their cable TV showed the French Open, it would be near-perfect.

From the War Memorial of Korea

Former Pres. Fidel Ramos’ actual military gear that he wore during the Korean War

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