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Full Circle

Day 48: Seoul

Seoul, South Korea 
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The rise and rise of Seoul. Nearly half of all South Koreans live in and around it.
Michael Palin - Full CircleMy third day in the Hermit Kingdom (as Korea was known in the nineteenth century, when, like Japan, she tried to hide away from increasingly attentive foreign merchants). Eight thousand miles away in London my wife will just be waking up on her fifty-third birthday. I should like to telephone her but I'm currently caught up in a demonstration in Seoul. There are a lot of angry people around me raising fists and chanting. Photographers retreat ahead of us, many of them dragging little aluminium step-ladders which they erect every now and then to grab top shots of the crowd. Television crews weave in and out of the lines of protesters. As they do so, I see a young man just behind me hide his face behind a placard. Fliers bearing ghastly pictures of mutilated faces and bodies are handed out to the crowd. The shouting and chanting is insistent. Drivers, afraid of being trapped by the march, are attempting perilous U-turns over the central intersection. Up one of the side roads I catch sight of coaches with green and white mesh window grilles. Inside are the riot police, parked and waiting.

The anger of the demonstrators is vented at proposals to drop proceedings against two leading generals whom they think were responsible for a particularly bloody repression of the political opposition in the town of Kwangju in 1981, in which an estimated two hundred students were killed. Shin-Na is marching with me and eyeing warily the behaviour of the police. Squads of reinforcements are arriving, quite dapper in royal-blue shirts, navy trousers and ties and white peaked hats. These, Shin tells me, are traffic police. Only if the demonstrators lose control will the riot police, with tear gas and possibly rubber bullets, be released from their waiting coaches.

Despite being swept along unwittingly from observer to participant, I feel quite secure among the marchers. It's as though I am taking part in some time-honoured ritual in which both sides know each other's moves.

As my initial apprehensions fade away I begin to enjoy myself. This is probably the best way to see the city. Along streets obligingly cleared of traffic by the police, with three thousand people making sure you don't get lost.
Seoul, South Korea 
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With Shin-Na at a protest rally.
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  • Series: Full Circle
  • Day: 48
  • Country/sea: South Korea
  • Place: Seoul
  • Book page no: 74

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