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Full Circle

Day 50: Seoul to the North Korean Border

Michael Palin - Full CircleHere in Seoul we are about 50 miles south of our first serious obstacle to progress around the Pacific Rim. It's called North Korea, and no matter how nicely you ask, North Korea is not really interested in seeing you, especially if you're from the West and carrying a film camera. Global glasnost has barely dented the protective shell of one of the last remaining communist dictatorships and the closest we can get to it is the Demilitarized Zone, the DMZ, which has separated the two countries since the end of the Korean War in 1953. And the only way we can get to the DMZ is with one of the strictly-supervised day-tours which leave Seoul every weekday morning.

Our coach is filled with a mixture of Japanese, Americans and Europeans. As the coach moves off some of the Japanese are already asleep (I've never come across a nation which falls asleep so easily) and the babble of excited European voices is soon quelled by our tour guides, who keep up a two-hour informational duologue until we reach the border. First, the rules. We are entering an area around which is assembled the largest concentration of fighting troops in the world; so no hot pants, stretch pants, shorts or flip-flops, no children under ten years old and no alcoholic beverage.

Then Joy, our English-speaking guide, gives us a few facts about her country. I learn that the Korean Peninsula resembles a rabbit and that in five thousand years it has been invaded nine hundred and seventy times. The current troubles began in 1945 when the most recent invaders, the Americans and the Russians, drove out the previous invaders, the Japanese, and forced Korea into partition - communist north, capitalist south. There are still thirty-seven thousand American troops stationed in South Korea, while the north has a standing army of over a million. Joy rounds off her history lesson with a poignant reminder of the human cost of partition. It was imposed so swiftly in 1953 that millions of friends and families were separated with little prospect of seeing each other again from that day onwards.

'Our greatest wish,' says Joy, with a depth of feeling not commonly heard amongst tour guides, 'is the unification. We will reach for the unification in our dreams with our whole heart and our whole efforts. It is the unification which shapes our people. Oh, unification, come through, come through.' While this is being translated into Japanese a bulky middle-aged American leans across to me.

'Have you been up here before?'

I shake my head.

'You'll love it. You'll love it.'

On Unification Road the republic of South Korea stutters to a halt in an assortment of symbols. The railway line that used to run from Pusan to Peking now stops in a field with a chicken farm built over it. The last building of any size is The Anti-Communist Exhibition Hall, a big white circular construction which resembles a recently landed spaceship.
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  • Series: Full Circle
  • Day: 50
  • Country/sea: South Korea
  • Place: Seoul
  • Book page no: 75

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