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I am greatly enjoying watching the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea…although thus far I am a bit underwhelmed by the United States performance overall.  Is our precipitous national decline already reflected in international sports, or are the Norwegians, Austrians, Canadians, and other hearty winter folk just having a good Olympics?  Only time will tell.

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At any rate, to celebrate the Korean Olympics (and put the ups-and-downs of history in perspective) I would like to feature a great treasure of South Korea in today’s post.  This is the gold crown of Seobongchong Tumulus, a spectacular gold Silla crown now housed at the Gyeongju National Museum. Gyeongju was the royal capital of the Korean kingdom of Silla which flourished from the mid first century BC to the eight century AD.  These crowns date from the fifth through seventh centuries. The exact nature of the crowns is unknown: ethnographers believe the magnificent shamanistic forms reflect a steppe influence (perhaps from Persia/Iran) but much about these crowns remains a mystery.  We aren’t even sure if they were worn by the living or if they were solely exquisite grave goods.

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The Scilla crowns were discovered in huge, nigh impregnable barrows which were only excavated in the 1920s.  The coffins of the Silla nobles were placed in deep pits lined with wood.  These were covered with dense clay and then with giant river boulders and then with a huge burial mound.  This particular crown is 30.7 centimeters (one foot) in height and 18.4 centimeters  (7.25 inches) in diameter. The headband is decorated with lovely abstruse leaf-shapes and bent jade ornaments called “gogok” comma-shaped curved jewels which are believed to be tied to bear worship (perhaps reflecting Japanese of Iranian influence).

Wikipedia blithely states that the crown reflects no Chinese influence and yet, “the right and left most branches, along with the middle branches of the five branches, are composed of the Chinese character 出 in three prongs. The tips of the branches are decorated with a budding flower ornament.” Hmmm—you will have to make up your own mind on that score (although finding anything anywhere in East Asia without some sort of Chinese influence is rare).  Scholars who believe that the crowns reflect shamanistic influences see a tree in the gold shape (which seems like a bit of a stretch…but they do remind me a bit of Zhou Dynasty bronze work which was heavily influenced by animism/shamanism , so judge for yourself).

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Silla began as one small state in the Samhan confederacies (loosely allied with Imperial China), but subsequently spread through the middle of the peninsula.  During its heyday (around when these crowns were made) Silla succeeded in conquering the other two great kingdoms of Korea and briefly unifying the peninsula, but a parasitic entrenched aristocracy sapped it of its vitality and devoured it from within (a decline which was hastened by sectarianism, schism, and civil war).  We still have these splendid crowns though…

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The 2016 Olympics are fast approaching and they have the potential to be all too interesting.  The Brazilian government has been mired in a serious executive political crisis.  The Brazilian economy is melting down. There is a crimewave in Rio AND the beautiful tropical city is at the epicenter of the Zika crisis.  Pundits are predicting disaster, but I am still hopeful that Brazil can pull it off.  My cautious optimism stems partly from love of international sports; partly from the desire to see tropical dance spectaculars featuring samba dancers & bizarre floats; and partly from morbid curiosity.

But before we get to the 2016 Summer Olympics there is business to discuss concerning the 2018 Winter Olympics. Ferrebeekeeper tries to stay abreast of mascots because there is larger symbolic meaning in these cartoonish corporate figureheads.  Behold “Soohorang,” the white tiger mascot of the 2018 Winter Olympics to be held in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

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Real tigers are magnificent, stately, adorable, and terrifying–so they make good mascots.  The last Korean Olympics, the Seoul Summer Olympics of 1988 had an orange and black Amur tiger mascot “Hodori” (below) who was pretty endearing. Unfortunately Soohorang is a bit too digitally rendered to look like anything other than the output of a committee and a graphics design team. Hodori

According to the June 2nd press statement at Olympics.org,“In mythology, the white tiger was viewed as a guardian that helped protect the country and its people. The mascot’s colour also evokes its connection to the snow and ice of winter sports.” I guess white tigers are special in Korean and Indian mythology, but in Chinese mythology the white tiger is a monster which symbolically represents the west and death.

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Now that a mascot has been chosen, we can start looking forward to the 2018 winter Olympics in the north of South Korea (somehow the Olympic committee found the one place that is the focus of even more socio-political tension than the Black Sea).  In the mean time the Summer Olympics is fast approaching.  Why not sit back and pour yourself a Cachaça, read about the Brazilian mascot “Vinicius” (pictured at the top of this article, playing on and around a cable car in an unsafe manner) and start preparing for the games.

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The Korean Demilitarized Zone and Joint Security Area at Panmunjom

The Korean Demilitarized Zone and Joint Security Area at Panmunjom

On August 21, 1976, the joint military forces of the United States and South Korea launched Operation Paul Bunyan, a mission which involved 813 fighting men on the ground (including a platoon of South Korean martial arts experts wired with Claymore mines), 27 military helicopters, a number of B-52 high altitude bombers with their jet fighter escorts, and the aircraft carrier Midway along with its attack group of missile cruisers, destroyers, and submarines.  At the heart of the mission was a team of eight soldiers armed with chainsaws! The rest of the forces were providing support for this small team of men whose mission was…to cut down a single poplar tree.

This requires some explaining.

On July 27, 1953 an armistice agreement effectively ended the Korean War by creating a buffer zone 4 km (2.5 mi) wide which runs 250 kilometers (160 miles) across the entire Korean peninsula.  Although huge armies wait on either side, the Demilitarized Zone itself remains a no-man’s land, deadly for humans to tread upon (and, consequently, one of the most pristine temperate forests on Earth).  Only a tiny portion of the DMZ is designated as a Joint Security Area (JSA) where people can go. Located near what used to be the village of Panmunjon, the JSA serves as a sort of neutral meeting place, where North Korean forces meet face to face with forces from the United Nations Command. Numerous military and diplomatic negotiations have taken place at the JSA (although the North Koreans abandoned all meetings in 1991 over a perceived slight), however, in the years since the armistice, the area has also been the sight of many kidnappings, assaults, and killings as the hermit kingdom repeatedly tests its boundaries like a dangerous animal behind an electric fence.

A photograph of the actual confrontation--well, that certainly clears everything up!

A photograph of the actual confrontation–well, that certainly clears everything up!

In the mid-seventies, American and South Korean forces near the JSA had a problem: a leafy poplar tree blocked the view from one guardhouse to another.  North Korean commandos exploited this weakness to attack the isolated guardhouse more than once.  On August 18, 1976, a team of American and South Korean soldiers was duly dispatched to trim the tree.  Unfortunately a bellicose team of North Korean soldiers intercepted the landscaping team and precipitated a fight.  The North Korean officer stated that the poplar had been planted and nourished by Kim Il-Sung and was therefore sacrosanct.  In the ensuing melee, two American officers were killed with axes and clubs.  The perfidious North Koreans rushed to the Conference of Non-Aligned Nations, and presented the incident as an American attack.  With support from Cuba, the members of the conference passed a resolution condemning the provocation and demanding a withdrawal of US and UN forces from the Korean peninsula.

Carrier USS Midway (CVA 41) is flanked by destroyer USS Picking (DD 685) on the left, and guided missile destroyer USS Preble (DLG 15) (from the US Navy Museum website)

Carrier USS Midway (CVA 41) is flanked by destroyer USS Picking (DD 685) on the left, and guided missile destroyer USS Preble (DLG 15) (from the US Navy Museum website)

Gerald Ford decided the incident had to be answered in a way which asserted overwhelming force yet precluded further escalation.  Hence, Operation Paul Bunyan was put together to chop down the tree under the rubric of massive armed force.   Heavily armed infantry, artillery, and air assault forces were moved into supporting positions as was the Midway carrier group.  The armed convoy cut down the tree (in 42 minutes) and left the 6 meter (20 foot) stump remaining.  They also cleared away two North Korean barricades.

A section of the poplar stump, saved for posterity

A section of the poplar stump, saved for posterity

Response to Operation Paul Bunyan was swift an unexpected:  Kim Il-sung sent a message to United Nations Command expressing regret at the incident. North Korea’s provocative actions along the border were subsequently muted down (although, obviously, not forever).  In 1987, the stump was cut down, but a stone monument to the fallen American officers was erected in its place.

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A gray-tufted monkey traveled to the edge of space according to Iranian media

A gray-tufted monkey traveled to the edge of space according to Iranian media

Today’s post concerns various contemporary news items regarding outer space.  At first this list may seem like a bit of a mash-up, but it all comes together as a very specific polemical point.

This year has already featured a lot of space news, but, sadly, most of it seems like it could have come from the 1950s. Iran launched a monkey to the edge of outer space. South Korea placed its first satellite in orbit (which seems like a response to North Korea doing the same thing last year).

South Korea's rocket lifts off from its launch pad at the Naro Space Center in Goheung, South Korea

South Korea’s rocket lifts off from its launch pad at the Naro Space Center in Goheung, South Korea

In US space news, the 27th anniversary of the Challenger disaster came and went (that was an epically bad day in 6th grade–which was hardly a picnic anyway).  Additionally, America announced that its biggest space plans for the near future include landing a redundant lander on Mars which was not exactly what NASA wanted but it fit the budget and was politically expedient.  Our not-very-exciting work on our not-very-exciting next generation rockets continues slowly.

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Finally, in other space-related news, paleontologists discovered that a massive space event apparently bombarded the Earth with Gamma rays in the 8th century.  Astronomers speculate that two neutron stars might have collided!  Also on February 15th a 50 meter asteroid will narrowly miss the Earth (flying by closer than many of our communication satellites).

All of this paints a rather alarming picture of a turbulent and dangerous universe where catastrophic events can occur with little notice.  Meanwhile on Earth dangerous rogue nations (not you, South Korea, we like your style) are venturing into strategically important low Earth orbit.  NASA’s current large-scale projects are lackluster (although its robotic exploration of the solar system continues to be exemplary).  Are we discarding our leadership position in space because of debt, political paralysis, and complacency?  It certainly seems like it…

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