Spending the 4th Abroad: Careful with the Fireworks

July 4, 2011


It’s the 4th of July today, an American holiday celebrating the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Rather, the draft of the Declaration was signed on July 2nd, but the parchment which now sits on display in Washington DC is the transcribed copy we now consider the cornerstone of American history. In any case, you’re all thinking about BBQs and fireworks, right?

During my two years in Japan I did absolutely nothing to celebrate this day. Although fireworks are very common over there, you can’t exactly find a Chinese market willing to sell you a personal stock like you can in Thailand, Korea, or the US (or China, one would assume). And, it’s difficult to find a place to set them off. Most apartment rooftops are inaccessible, and public parks are pretty exposed. The only place I might have considered using Roman candles in Japan would have been on a beach somewhere along the Osumi Peninsula in southern Kyushu. Even then, probably would have been stopped by police.

In Thailand, the only other American in the area and I raided the local market and found a secluded area of beach facing the Indian Ocean. Nearly blew my hand off with some of those explosives, but it was fun. Although the police probably would have frowned on our behavior, my Thai friend suggested a bribe would have smoothed things over. After all, we were just two crazy Americans lighting the sky on fire.

When the Uljin crowd got together for a combination Canada Day/4th of July party, we decided a beach bonfire would be the best way to wrap up the evening. However, we soon discovered this generally isn’t the best idea on the east coast of South Korea. Since the end of the Korean War in 1953, the South has been very vigilant about keeping watching for DPRK submarines and troop deployments out in the East Sea. In October 1968, over a hundred North Koreans managed to infiltrate the country near Samcheok, a mere hour’s drive from my apartment. As recently as 1996, soldiers from the North have been finding ways to breach the south along the east coast; 26 landed that year near Gangneung, having abandoned a disabled submarine. Only one escaped – the rest were captured or killed. I mean, 1996! Hardly the distant past, yet North Korean troops were on South Korean soil. If they wanted to fit in a little better, they should have just shouted “HELLO!” to the local English teacher. No one would have questioned them.

In any case, it should come as no surprise that a lot of military personnel are deployed along the coast at night to check for surprise incursions. South Korean fishing boats are allowed to operate with the right permits, but otherwise it’s a pretty quiet stretch of sea. In the morning, the soldiers are required to check every bit of coastline (in their assigned area) for footprints.

So when the foreign crowd got together and started dragging firewood to the beach, we suddenly found ourselves facing three soldiers wondering what was going on. It could have been a major problem – innocent civilians have detained by the military over misunderstandings on the coast, but these incidents are very rare. The worst that usually happens is the “offenders” are asked to leave. We were luckier; the soldiers were simply curious, and talked to us for a bit before leaving and allowing the fire to burn.

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2 Responses to Spending the 4th Abroad: Careful with the Fireworks

  1. Bluegreen Kirk on July 6, 2011 at 11:55 pm

    i would have to say that you were very lucky indeed. Great story in which you give a brief history of both the 4th and why people cant be on the beach. Seems like you guys were really taking a chance going out there.

  2. Turner on July 7, 2011 at 8:33 am

    Not exactly life threatening. Like I said, the worst that could have happened would have been us being asked to leave.

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