Travel Weekly's Michelle Baran is visiting South Korea. Her second dispatch follows.
BUSAN, South Korea — As we were driving to the scenic coastal area of Taejongdae in the southern city of Busan, suddenly some men in yellow jackets wearing arm bands blew whistles, halted the car and told us to pull over.
I looked around for a police officer, thinking we were getting stopped for speeding. But then I heard the loudspeakers and saw that all the cars were getting pulled to the side of the road. My guides explained that this was a monthly civil defense drill.
With the street empty and a loudspeaker blaring in Korean, there was an eerie feel to it all. One guide whispered something to me along the lines of "if we were just one country, we wouldn’t have these problems."
We waited and waited. Fifteen minutes went by. Elderly pedestrians gathered to see what the fuss was all about. And then a siren signaled the end of the drill, and we were on our way, without any display of military might.
Aside from a brief instance such as this, you don’t feel the ominous presence of the nuclear-armed North Korea when traveling through South Korea.
South Korea exudes a pleasant and peaceful environment, complete with capitalist conveniences, ranging from luxury hotels and resorts to the world’s largest department store, which we visited in Busan.
But there are hints of frustration and sadness with the ongoing tension with North Korea.
We laughed about how silly it all seemed, and headed to Busan’s beautiful, rocky coastline. Then it was on to the city’s hopping shopping district full of young Koreans on the prowl for the latest winter fashions. North Korea quickly became a distant memory.
My guide in Jeju told me that while she doesn’t worry about the threat from the North, there are concerning incidents, such as when North Korea reportedly torpedoed a South Korean warship in March, killing 46 sailors.
North Korea denied that it sank the warship, but the incident serves as a reminder that there isn’t harmony between the fractured nations. Not by a long shot.
South Korea tourism likely suffers from the tensions between South and North Korea. After touring the country for the past three days —visiting ancient Buddhist temples, grilling Korean barbecued pork, strolling through parks and gardens, and relaxing in a Korean spa — that seemed as unfortunate as the civil defense drill.
Click to read Michelle Baran's first South Korea dispatch or to view more photos and video in our Dispatches from South Korea gallery.