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Full Circle

Day 50: Seoul to the North Korean Border

Michael Palin - Full CircleFreedom Bridge (named for the thirteen thousand North Korean prisoners who chose to stay in South Korea at the end of the war in 1953) is the end of the road for South Koreans, unless they are members of the United Nations Command Force. The rest of us pass on between mesh fences and barbed wire. Our passports are checked by lanky, crop-headed GIs from the First Battalion of the 506th Infantry - motto 'In Front Of Them All'. We are now in one of the most intensely fortified areas in the world; a two-and-a-half-mile wide, 151-mile-long strip of mines, tank traps and barricades, enclosed by a double chain link fence which slices through the Korean peninsula from coast to coast.

The South Koreans make much of the fact that there is a farming community right here, close to the border. They call it Great Success Village. The inhabitants are guarded day and night and after dark everyone must be back inside their homes with their doors locked. In return for taking part in this propaganda exercise they pay no taxes. The village may be a bit of a sham but the North Korean counterpart, called Paradise Village, is believed by observers to be a total sham with the buildings themselves only one-dimensional cut-outs.

Another manifestation of the propaganda war is the battle of the flag-poles. As soon as one side erects a new flag-pole, the other side puts up a bigger one. North Korea has the edge at the moment. Their current pole is 524 feet high and carries a flag which weighs 600 lbs and is the height of a three-storey building.

The heavily-armoured countryside we are now passing through is gentle and quite pretty with extensive alder, beech and birch woods largely untouched by human activity. There is a thick carpet of flowers on either side of the road. Bird life thrives here, I'm told, with several rare species reaping the benefits of living in an official no man's land.

Before we can actually see the frontier itself our coach pulls up at Camp Bonifas, where we are subjected to yet more information, this time from the Americans, about the DMZ, its history and the threat posed to the security of the free world by the existence of North Korea. I wander down a short green slope behind the souvenir shop. Ahead of me is a barbed wire fence and a watchtower, but right where I'm standing is what looks like a single golf-hole ringed with artificial turf. This patch of greenery has, I'm told, been featured in Sport's Illustrated as the World's Most Dangerous Golf Course. I sit for a while beneath a spreading oak tree and watch a flight of ducks squawking noisily towards North Korea. Then I pick up another sound. It's coming from deep in the woods ahead of me and a turn of the wind gusts it more clearly towards me. It's the sound of martial music being pumped across the frontier. A North Korean Vera Lynn is bawling out some patriotic anthem, interspersed with rousing, distorted exhortations to the capitalist lackeys and imperialist stooges of the South to throw off their chains and join the revolution. It is about the only sound that breaks the peace.

At last our bus moves off towards the border. A young black GI with the rank of Specialist has replaced Joy and her companion as our guide. His delivery and indeed the text of what he's saying are strictly military, with no place for emotion or embellishment. The effect is that of a policeman reading evidence in court - a curiously gripping blend of the inessential and the startling, both delivered with exactly the same emphasis.
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  • Series: Full Circle
  • Day: 50
  • Country/sea: South Korea
  • Place: Seoul
  • Book page no: 76

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