As you might know, Seoul is a bustling place; buses, cars, people, machines and who knows what else all battle for our attention nearly 24 hours a day. Sometimes you have to lock yourself inside and hide from it all, other times when the weather cooperates you can find some refuge in the pockets of nature that have fought off the encroaching development.
South Korea’s famed “Sam-Il Day” or 3-1 Day was just around the corner. The national holiday celebrates the March 1st Movement, commemorating the day that Koreans leading the movement against Japanese Colonial rule met in a restaurant in Seoul to read and sign the document declaring the countries Independence.
To mark this ocassion I carved a stamp and headed off to the National Cemetery, whcih is similar to The Arlingtin Cemetery in Washington D.C. The grounds cover about 350 acres (roughly 1.5 Sq. Km.) and there as a good bit of elevation change as you move towards the back of the site. There are several distinct areas and even a Buddhist temple, a monument to fallen Police officers, Student volunteer soldiers who lost their lives, the generals, National heroes like the guy who invented Korea’s written language, and the guy who is credited with composing Korea’s national anthem, Ahn Eak-tai, who ironically has since been listed as a pro-Japanese collaborator. It also is the location of Korea’s first president and the former “President”, Park Chung Hee, who took power by a military Coup. He is the father Father of the now President Park Geun Hye.
There is also a museum and gallery which I didnt have time to visit. Entry to the Grounds is free and hours depend on season, with there being longer hours in summer months, as is usual.
As I made my way around the park taking notes on where to hide my treasure I felt so relaxed. Apart from the ocasssional hiker or visitor there were very few cars on teh narrow roads cutting through the various sections of the cemetery. As I neared Park Chung Hee’s burrial site a chrome trimmed, black car with tinted windows slowly passed me, walking with my camera bag, tripod and two cameras hanging from my shoulders.
The car stopped just ahead of me and two guys got out, their formal attire was not surprising in this city but that I was greeted with excellent English caught me off guard. The shorter and of the two extended a hand and introduced himself as the hopeful future senator of one of Koreas provinces. He asked if I was a journalist and exclaimed that I was so lucky to be in the moment to meet him on this ocassion. After the fact I realized it was HIM that was the lucky one to have a “photographer” on site in that special moment.
He graduated from the elite high school Park Chung Hee founded, or had named after him. in any case, he had come to bow infront of the Presidents remains and say a prayer for good luck in the elections. He asked me to take a few photos. and invited me to coffee at the cafe… that’s how serious korea is about coffee; a cafe in the cemetery.
At the time I was invited I had no clue about who this guy was really. I knew he was a lawyer who practiced in both the USA and in Korea and that he wanted to be a Senator. As we sat with our coffee and tea, he scribbled on napkin after napkin writing down tidbits of info for me to remember. Then he prepped me fow my job; Go online to his facebook campaign page and post the picture and acompany it with “my” testimonial about how I met such a wonderful man and how smart and hard working he is. I was starting to catch on at this point, it was too late we had already exchanged contact info.
I was a little annoyed but you never know where these things can lead so I tried not to push too many hot buttons. I asked what party affiliation he is with and asked how they have been received by average citizens of Korea, how they stand on issues concerning foreigners working and living in Korea. They had finished their pitch and seemed to have some where to go so we shook hands and I left him with the last words, “If elected, use you power to help ALL people, not just the priveledged”.
I was tempted to simply post the picture and nothing more but after some thought and conversation I decided to just let it be. Any action on my part could be taken as a message of support and as a public worker and a teacher, my views should remain neutral in the public eye (I guess I fail since I am writing this). A day or 3 went by and my phone rang. I simply ignored it. Then it rang again a few hours later. I had saved the number from our meeting at the cemetery but wasn’t interested in any further conversation. I got a few more calls in the week or two after but they have since stopped.
Back to having parted way at the cafe I got back on track with my original mission to plant this letter box. I had a few pages of notes but I hadnt spoted a great hiding place. before soon there was an announcement in Korean that with context spelled out, “We will be closing in 15 minutes, please make you way to the gate.”
On February 28th we got a surprising late snow fall that lasted about a full 24 hours. The following day I grabbed the two film cameras and hopped on the subway in anticipation of the scene that was awaiting and finally laying my Letter box to rest somewhere.
I had the clues laid out more or less and after an hour or so of trodding through the snow I found a suitable, though not entirely satisfying place to leave the letterbox in terms of longevity of the box. I also finally located the grave stone of a very unique individual who is laid to rest. Only a handfull of non Koreans are enterred in the National Cemetery and of them only one is “Western”, he was instrumental in reporting on and fighting with the independence movement. He is sometimes referred to as “the 34th Patriot”, the 33 Patriots being those who signed the declaration of Independence.