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Saturday, October 07, 2006

worrying times in Seoul

We've just come back from the tour of the De-militarised zone (DMZ) in Korea. It was very interesting and informative, and a sign of just how divided the two Koreas still are.

First we had a passport check, where a soldier came on board the tour bus and checked we were who we said we were - followed by a military film designed to "explain" the true facts of the Korean war. It was quite sobering, with archive war footage, and shots of soldiers marching and bodies coming back. We followed the film most of the way, but at the end it tried to make a point about how the DMZ was becoming a sign of hope for the future, which I must admit seemed a bit far-fetched. It's a big stretch of propaganda to make a several mile wide strip of heavily mined and fortified land dividing a country in two a symbol of hope. Both sides are still technically at war, for instance.

We were given another briefing by a Korean soldier, before taken to the third incursion tunnel. Apparently one day some villagers felt the earth tremble repeatedly under their feet. The government put down test boreholes and found that the North Koreans had been digging tunnels under the DMZ. At first they started with thin weedy tunnels, presumably to let commando troops into the South, but they soon turned to creating big wide ones that could take an army through in rapid time. The one we saw was a long way underground, and very cold and damp. Apparently it had been dug by dynamite by political prisoners. When the North Koreans were discovered and evacuated, they smeared coal over the walls, so they could claim the tunnel was an exploratory mine shaft. Or so our guide told us - although he was obviously a very pro-Southern army guy.

We got a look at North Korea from the top of a fortified observatory - 500 won for two minutes with binoculars. It looked much like the south, except they had cut down all the trees, and they had an enormous flagpole facing the south Korean's one. The base had ridiculous rules on taking pictures - we had to all stand behind a yellow line and try to photograph up a hill and over a low wall. Some resorted to stretching with their cameras over their heads, but really there was no way to actually take a picture. I suppose this was to make the North Koreans feel less like goldfish in a bowl, and yet give a sop to tourists who insist on taking pictures everywhere. I took pictures of people standing on tiptoe and trying to get a photo, instead, as that seemed more interesting.

The last stop was a train station, built as a real symbol of hope by the chairman of Hyundai (who was North Korean originally). It was a fully functional train station, missing only trains and somewhere to send them. The hope is that one day it will be a leg of a great trans-continental train system connecting Korea with Europe via China.

And from that hopeful sign we returned to our hotel and turned on the news, to find that on the day we had visited, South Korean guards had fired warning shots at five North Korean troops who had crossed over the border. And that the North was warning that they would carry out an atomic bomb test in the near future. Initial indications are that it might even be tomorrow. Many people in South Korea are worried understandably about this, as they doubt that the North Koreans have enough experience to calculate yields properly. Although the North Koreans reckon they will do the test in a safe location (probably under a mountain), if they get the bomb wrong it may blow the top off the mountain and irradiate us all with a radioactive plume of fallout.

As the Chinese curse supposedly has it, we live in interesting times.

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