Hiroshima Seventy Years On

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The Ōta River divides into two, then three, then six and empties into the Inland Sea. It segments the city into islets. Historic trams clatter over the bridges. A cobbled path follows the course of the river under the shade of cherry trees which erupt into blossom in late March. In the park, nearby, there is a classical castle, originally built in pine in the 1590’s and rebuilt in concrete in the 1950’s. The original was destroyed seventy years ago today, along with five square miles of the city.

One plane, one bomb, at least 70,000 dead at a stroke, at least the same number again of the after-effects; 70% of Hiroshima flattened.

The ruins of the Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall have been left as they were at the end of that terrible day, the steelwork of the dome crumpled inwards, the outer wings collapsed, the stonework gouged and pitted. It is often said to have survived because the A-bomb exploded directly above it, but it actually exploded over a hospital 500 feet away and obliterated that. When Dr Shima, who had been out of town, came back to Hiroshima, the only traces he found were the bones of his patients and an implement he had bought before the War, in America.

The area around it, a bustling densely-packed neighbourhood at 8am on 6 August 1945, a wasteland by 8.15, has been turned into a memorial park. What is now the information centre was then a fuel distribution point, where the luckiest man in Hiroshima worked. Just as Colonel Tibbets was lining up Enola Gay for its bombing run, Eizō Nomura popped down to the basement for documents. Everyone else in the building was immolated. He lived on into his eighties.

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Academics and journalists, hawks and doves, conservatives and radicals have been debating the bombing for seventy years; they will be debating it for seventy more. Was it morally wrong? Was it a war crime? But was it any worse than fire-bombing? Was it justified by Japan’s own conduct? Was the only alternative a hard-fought invasion in which the Allies alone would have lost a million men? But was the War not won already by then? Had Japan not already offered terms of surrender? Was it less about ending that war as forestalling the next one? Was it done pour encourager les autres?

But few on any side of the argument stop to consider what the bombing actually meant, beyond the big numbers. The Peace Museum tells the human stories with dignity. Spectacles, wristwatches, school uniforms, a lunch box, a tricycle, melted tiles and fused bottles anchor the dreadful stories in real people’s lives. The 70,000 dead, not just a statistic but a pile of carbonised bodies: women, children, elderly people, Korean forced labourers, Allied POW’s. The countless more who survived, but with the most horrific injuries.

Across the park, a flame has burned since 1964. It will burn until the last nuclear weapon is destroyed. It will burn for a long time yet.

The nine nuclear states now have, between them, enough weaponry to end the world at the push of a button. It is improbable that any government would make a reasoned decision to launch an attack. But nuclear states have been led by presidents who were frequently drunk. One is currently led by a ruthless and erratic dictator. Mitterand and Carter each left the nuclear codes in suits which they sent to the dry cleaners; Reagan and Clinton mislaid them. Bombs have been dropped accidentally, although mercifully did not explode. There were several occasions in the Cold War when computer errors, warning shots and all too realistic war games suggested an incoming attack and the caution or quick-thinking of one individual was all that prevented a nuclear war being started by mistake.

On every other page of the comments book at the Hiroshima Peace Museum are two words which must surely come into the head of most who visit: never again.

© Richard Senior 2015

Townships of Tanzania

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The road out of the Serengeti was barely a road at all. The jeep rattled, the windows vibrated, and the contents of my pockets shook themselves free and collected on the seat around me. “African massage!” Frederick shouted over the noise.

He was a confident driver and kept the speed up and steered sharply round any rocks which looked as if they might threaten the tyres. But there had been other confident drivers down that road. One was staring at a jeep upended in a ditch, looking bemused as to how it had happened. Another had abandoned his with the windows smashed, the roof stove in and every panel dented.

Frederick dropped us at a township, where we stayed the night. The stalls on the main street sold Tingatinga paintings to tourists on their way to the national parks: cartoonish animals and semi-abstracts of African ladies. There were rusty old bikes with no handgrips or brakes piled high with green bananas. On the side roads, women knelt and sold lettuces and tomatoes from plastic bowls. Little boys played pool on a table they had made by laying planks over upturned buckets. Their cues were canes and the balls were lemons and limes.

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I stared out of the window of the bus heading south in the morning. The country, at times, could almost have been European, except that the scale was all wrong. Nowhere in Europe would you find so much space unclaimed: a place where you can look to the horizon on either side and not see a town, or a farm, or a superstore.

The road passed through dusty townships with huts built from wattle and daub, or mud bricks topped with thatch, or tin sheets nailed to wooden frames. Some had windows, none was glazed. The business names alluded to lions (Simba Freight, Simba Concrete), acacia trees and – incongruously – Arsenal Football Club. Always Arsenal, never Spurs. I saw a “Gunners Supermarket,” an “Arsenal Salon,” an “Arsenal FC Bar,” and the Arsenal logo painted on walls, and on the side of trucks.

Motorcycle taxi drivers waited for custom on Chinese bikes. Men sat and played draughts with beer bottle tops on hand–drawn boards. Perfectly poised women carried jugs on their heads to the well. Children ran out and waved and shouted, except one who jerked up his forearm and gave me the middle finger. I taught him the British equivalent.

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© Richard Senior 2015

Cappuccino with the Cats in Korea

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The girls at the cat café spoke no English but by pointing and miming got me to understand that I had to take my shoes off at the door and sanitise my hands.

A haughty Persian lay on the counter resting its eyes; a silver tabby stood behind it, inspecting the accounts. In the middle of the room there was an activity centre lined with soft carpet for the cats to climb on, sharpen their claws against or curl up asleep in. Next to it there was a rug for them to roll about on and cardboard boxes to play in and toy mice and things on strings for customers to dangle in front of them.

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Modern life is too often too busy, too cramped for pets, and cat cafes are a compromise. There are rabbit cafes as well. Maybe you would love a cat of your own but your apartment is too small, or your lease stipulates against animals, or you spend all day and half the night at the office and all your free time out of town; so you can go to the cat café, buy a drink and stroke their cats instead. They started in Taiwan, became hugely popular in Japan – where there are now owl cafes and goat cafes – and spread across Asia to the West. This one was in Busan, in the south-eastern corner of Korea.

I first heard about them sometime last year when one opened in Shoreditch and thought they were a lovely idea but worried that the cats might be exploited, or at least not get enough quiet time to themselves. But, at this café, there were places for them to go where the customers couldn’t, and the customers left them alone when they wanted to sleep or were not in the mood to be stroked. They looked healthy and happy and properly fed, neither scrawny like feral cats nor fat from over-indulgence.

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I am good with cats; they like me. I can usually persuade the toughest of toms to come and say hello. I have had them climb on my shoulders all over the world, and purr and poddle and roll on their backs to have their tummies tickled. But these Korean cats were indifferent to me, until the girl handed me a packet of fish-flavoured treats and I instantly became the most popular guy there. The little white kitten which had, until then, just wanted to curl up and sleep on the activity centre now tried to badger me into letting it eat the whole packet. But while I was feeding the kitten – far less than it wanted – a tabby climbed up my leg and meowed and gave me its best wide-eyed, heart-melting look, so I fed it as well, and then a black and white cat strolled over and muscled out the tabby.

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Once I had fed them all, and they grudgingly accepted that I was telling the truth when I said there were no more treats, they sat on my table or on the sofa beside me and were happy to have their paws and noses stroked. It seemed as if we were friends for life. But, being cats, they would of course have abandoned me without thought if another customer had opened a packet of fish-flavoured treats.

© Richard Senior 2015

Osaka’s Brave New World

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It was early morning. A drunk old woman puffed on a cigar and shouted at nobody. Men with straggly beards and beaten up clothes were curled up asleep on the pavement. One cuddled an empty bottle of shōchū.

The adult cinema, the blowfish restaurants and the cheap clothes stores were yet to open. They might have closed for good. But the lanterns were already – or still – illuminated at the casual kushikatsu places, selling deep-fried things on skewers. Forlorn-faced maneki neko cats waved limply to customers who did not come. Lights pulsated on the facades of the pachinko parlours; the music inside was amped-up to festival volume.

Shinsekai, it says on the signs: New World. Half was modelled on Paris, half on Coney island. What could go wrong? It was meant to show the world how forward-looking Osaka was when it was laid out in the early twentieth century and everything Western was fashionable. There was even a version of the Eiffel Tower. They called it Tsūtenkaku: the tower reaching to heaven. An ‘aerial tramway’ connected it to a Luna Park. There were Billiken statues copied from the United States. They are supposed to bring good luck.

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But the amusement park closed in 1925. Tsūtenkaku was torn down in the War, although another was built in the Fifties. The New World grew old. There was no longer anything fashionable about it. If it suggested Paris, it was the Paris of the shabby streets around the Gare du Nord.

The entire area is squashed with small, cheap eating houses,” says the Japan National Tourist Organisation with what is presumably meant as positive spin. Shinsekai became the seediest quarter of Osaka. It was – by reputation – the most dangerous place in Japan. That is all relative, though. If Shinsekai were in London or New York, wealthy professionals would happily live there, and walk home late at night.

Everyone has heard the stories about salarymen who were made redundant in the slump of the 1990’s but kept on dressing up in their suits every morning and taking an early train to jobs they no longer had. To admit to their families and friends that they were out of work would have been too great a loss of face. Some, instead, moved to Shinsekai, where they could live in penurious anonymity. The rough sleepers with the straggly beards might well be the ambitious middle managers of twenty years ago.

It is, indeed, a New World.

© Richard Senior

Keeping it Capsule

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An alley led through to the cheaper restaurants, a few hostess bars and the capsule hotel I was looking for.

I took my shoes off at the door and put them in a locker. There was a sign with a tattooed man crossed out. It technically meant what it said: that you were not allowed in if you had tattoos, but what it really meant was that you were not allowed in if you were a gangster. The yakuza famously have full-body tattoos.

I filled out a form at the desk and paid, and they handed me a pair of pyjamas, a towel and a plastic wristband with a locker key folded inside. It looked like something the courts would impose on you for a minor criminal offence.

Capsule hotels are aimed at salarymen who have got too drunk at corporate events to find their way home, or would not be let in by their wives if they did. But they are used, much like hostels, by anyone who wants a cheap place to sleep in the city. The other guests were all Japanese, and sober; but it was still a bit early.

There was a vending machine in the lobby with everything a guest might need in the morning: toothbrush and toothpaste, shaving kit, clean underwear and headache tablets. The inside of the lift was papered with flyers for food – to soak up the drink – coffee – to sober you up – laundry – in case you had made a mess down the front of your suit – and massages – in case you could not make it to the hostess bars round the corner.

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On the upper floors, there were beer vending machines and rows of desks with power sockets and partitions, so that sozzled salarymen could set up their laptops and bash out emails they might suddenly remember in the morning, with a stab of panic, as they open their eyes experimentally and start to work out where, why and how.

I changed into the pyjamas, which were made of brown corduroy and reminded me of the jacket my middle school art teacher wore, and shut my clothes and daybag up in the locker. The backpack had to stay out in the corridor.

There were sinks and toilets on that floor and a communal bath in the basement. It was the usual Japanese set up, with sit-down showers around the wall where you scrubbed yourself up before soaking in the hot tub. There were sauna rooms, too, and because it was all-male they had televisions inside screening football, instead of that soothing music which is supposed to evoke temples and beaches.

The capsules were arranged like train station lockers, stacked two-high in parallel rows with a walkway of perhaps two metres wide between them. Some of the guests had left their screens open and, with the rows of feet, it was hard not to think of a morgue. There were rubberised steps and a chrome grab handle to get to the upper capsules. It was like climbing onto the back of a truck. I would not like to try it if I were in no state to get myself home.

The capsule was much nicer than I had imagined, though. It was more cosy than claustrophobic. There was enough room to sit up and read, and a decent light to read by; and there was a television, in case I wanted to watch people being loud and hysterical in a language I did not understand. It was quiet enough with the screen pulled at the end and the sliding door shut on the communal area; but I wore earplugs anyway. Some of the drunker guests who arrived in the early hours made enough noise to wake me up as they tumbled in, but I slept at least as well as I ever do in hostels.

© Richard Senior 2015

Gangneung: Sun, Sea and Spy Submarines

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It was a magnificent coastline. The rocks extended out into the sea, an abstract beauty above the surface, a dark shadow beneath. The water was turquoise near the shore, fading to deep blue further out. There were stripes of white sand at the foot of the cliffs.

Yet no one sat on the beach. No one paddled in the sea. No one clambered over the rocks. They might have been shot if they had.

A sturdy fence surmounted by razor wire stretched along the coast. The waves broke onto tank traps. There were watchtowers every few hundred yards, manned by camouflaged soldiers with heavy machine guns and rifles.

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I missed the stop for Unification Park and got off at the next one and set off walking down the coast road, along the security fence. There was nothing to stop me, but it felt like I ought not to be there. It was as if I were walking through a war zone. There was no one else on foot.

It was a hot morning and pleasant to walk and silent except for the droning of insects and the occasional car on the road, and there was a glorious view through the fence. But I could not help but be anxious.  I wondered how I would explain myself to an excitable soldier with whom I had no words in common.

I had laboriously copied 통일공원 – Unification Park – on a sheet of paper to show to the bus driver (he had nodded, then shot past the stop); but I saw the scope for a terrible misunderstanding if I reached for my pocket when challenged by men with guns, so I took out my sheet of paper and clutched it as I walked down the road. I wished that I had not brought my daypack.

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I tensed whenever I walked towards and past a watchtower, and deliberately did not look up at the soldiers, but there was never a shout, or – worse – the click of a safety catch. A troop carrier seemed to slow as it passed me and I thought that it was going to stop, but it was just that the driver was struggling with the hill.

Then a company of fully-armed combat troops with rifles, packs and steel helmets marched up the road towards me. I held my breath as they came close but they marched past, an inch away, as if I were not there at all. It was a routine patrol.

There is good reason for the strong-armed security. One night in 1996, North Korean commandos landed on the shore nearby. When the submarine came to collect them after their spying mission, it snarled up on rocks and stuck fast. The captain burned his papers and tried to destroy sensitive equipment, although it would probably have been of more interest to museums than military intelligence.

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He and ten others were later found shot dead, presumed, by some, to have been executed for negligence. The other fifteen tried to sneak back to the North on foot. They stole food, stabbed three civilians, strangled a soldier and stopped at a ski resort to play video games; but after a frantic seven-week manhunt, all but one had been killed or captured. No one knows where the other one went.

The submarine is on walk-through display at Unification Park. It is claustrophobic enough when you squeeze through it alone with all the hatches open: unthinkable to spend days at a time locked inside it with twenty-five others struggling for space between the engines and bulkhead, the pipes, the gauges, the valves, and the periscope tube. It has had a fresh coat of paint on the outside, but there are still the scorch marks and melted radios in the cabin, and a smell of oil and diesel.

Nearby, there is an old American destroyer which went into service a few weeks too late for the War in the Pacific but got its chance to fire at North Vietnam twenty years later, before it was sold to South Korea. It is claimed as the only warship displayed on land anywhere in the world. I doubt that, somehow; but I cannot immediately think of another, and the point is too trivial to research.

© Richard Senior 2015

Watchtower image via Shutterstock

Fence image via Pixabay

A Bog Above Standard

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It is a squat toilet in Southeast Asia: a hole in the ground with grips for your feet to stop you from falling in, a bucket to flush and a hose to clean yourself up.

In Africa, it is a long drop – just the hole in the ground. Sometimes you have as much privacy sitting on the loo as you do when sitting on a bus.

You will not so readily complain about trifling discomforts back home once you have used a squat toilet with an upset stomach and a backpack and nowhere fit to put it down. It will seem luxurious to have a locking door, a flush handle, a seat and soft paper.

Yet in Japan, the average Western crapper – the bog standard bog – seems as primitive as any squat toilet, as brutally functional as the long drop. Almost everywhere, there – even in bus stations and cheap hotels – you get a thunder box with a control panel which looks as if it belongs to an aeroplane, or at least a very expensive washing machine.

You will have a heated seat and a deodorising button, in case you stink the place out, and a sound of loudly percolating water you can switch on if you are planning to make a lot of noise.

There will be a jet of warm water you can adjust for aim and pressure, although if it is new to you, it will make you think you have been taken suddenly ill. That is, if you manage not to misunderstand the picture. Many a traveller has left a Japanese restroom angrily after mistaking that button for the flush and squirting himself in the face.

You start to wonder how even the grandest, most demanding people at home can be satisfied with just a locking door, a flush handle, a seat and soft paper.

© Richard Senior 2015

The Two Japans

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Tokyo seems never to end. Even from 200 metres up, on the observation deck of the Metropolitan Government Building, all you see stretching out until they blur together are thousands of densely packed office and apartment blocks. Only the nearby National Gardens break the monotony of concrete and glass. Rivers, parks, roads and railways are simply swallowed up.

The city streets are as wide as European motorways. The stations are the size of airports. The crowds expand to fill them. Hurrying salarymen toting briefcases. Bent old ladies with surgical masks and bells on their bags which tinkle like the collars which cats are made to wear to stop them catching birds. Orange-haired teenagers hunched over iPhones as they shuffle down the pavement and into the Metro and onto trains and out at the other end without ever looking up.

When the cherry blossoms come, the crowds descend on the parks and sit in huddles under the trees, laughing and chatting excitedly, or jostle with selfie sticks held at arm’s length. They take the train en masse to Naka-Meguro at the end of the Hibiya Line and clog the streets either side of the canal, stopping for selfies, street snacks, beer or cherry blossom ice cream.

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Searing neon fizzes from every surface. Music explodes from animated billboards. It follows you across the street along overhead wires. More of it pierces out of the sides of trucks as they inch through the middle of town.

The noise from  Vegas-scale pachinko parlours deafens as you pass by the door. Digital birdsong plays in the stairwells in stations. Elevators and escalators chatter away to you. The station cleaner’s rig plays Fur Elise to warn you that it is approaching from behind. The Yankee Doodle Boy heralds platform announcements; a jingle celebrates a train’s departure.

Yet even in the middle of Tokyo, there are pockets of perfect tranquility. Just a block or two back from Ueno Park, where shrieking couples lark in swan boats and tightly-packed groups share bentos on mats spread underneath the cherry trees, the scale shrinks and the noise is muted, the crowds vanish and the neon never intrudes. The alleys are lined with old wooden shophouses and discrete galleries, and temples and shrines, gnarled pines and ancient cedars.

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Two hours to the north in Nikkō, there are no high-rise blocks; no neon, no gratuitous music, no bustling salarymen, no teenagers with orange hair. There are just quiet restaurants and antique shops and a mineral-green river which hurtles over boulders and flows under a humped-back bridge.

In the forests in the hills, there are gilded temples with intricately painted eaves and dragons and grotesques and the original monkeys to see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil. It is as beautiful and as peaceful as anywhere I have been in the world.

To the west, deep in the Japanese Alps, the streets of the old town of Takayama are lined with wooden buildings from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries: inns and craft shops and sake breweries. In the early evening, after the day-trippers have left, an old man potters down the street in pyjamas, and a lady kneels outside her house to pull up weeds, and a couple slowly rolls by on bicycles.

It is hard to comprehend how a single nation can be at once so manic and so sedate, so big, so bright, so loud, yet – at the same time – so quiet and calm; how unspoilt heritage can coexist so closely with ruthless modernity. It is almost as if there are two Japans.

© Richard Senior 2015    

Eating Sushi in London and Kanazawa

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I was part way through a run of long nights at the office. It was hours since the pinstriped crowd had made its way to the Tube, with its furled umbrellas and gym kits and Little Brown Bags. The City was silent then, without the murmur of innumerable phone conversations and the clatter of brogues and stilettos.

The pub on the corner had filled up with after-work drinkers, who got louder with every beer, then thinned out as they drifted off home. It was closed by the time I got out. Lights had been left on for show in the Gherkin and the Lloyd’s Building was uplit in blue. But the streets of the Square Mile were deserted then. Even the cleaners had been and gone. A gust of wind blew grit in my eye, and sent a dropped newspaper scuttling down the street.

It would have been too late for dinner by the time I got home, so I stopped at the sushi bar a little before it closed. The staff were cleaning up and winding down. Only a few plates were left on the conveyor. I watched them do their rounds, and daydreamed about sushi in Japan.

Three years on and I had given up being a lawyer and I was in Kanazawa in a sushi restaurant a few steps from the Omicho market, which bustles each morning with seafood vendors whose stalls are crowded with rows of spider crabs, piles of scallops, and ruby-fleshed tuna, silvery mackerel and bloated puffer fish. Some of the things on the menu were familiar enough. The sushi bar I used to call in after work had prawn nigiri and salmon roe norimaki. But not flounder fin, gizzard shad or horse mackerel; nor salted plum with cucumber makizushi.

The chef reached in the cabinet for a slab of tuna and sliced off a strip with an easy flick of the wrist. He wet his hand under the tap and, in the same movement, reached behind him into a barrel of rice and scooped up a handful which he had moulded into shape by the time he had brought it up to his board. He dipped his finger into a pot of wasabi and smeared it over the rice then glued on the strip of tuna, plated up and handed it over the counter to the customer.

Then he was onto the next order, rolling raw sea urchin and vinegared rice into a square of seaweed; then lightly searing a flounder fin with a woof of flame from a blowtorch. He worked at speed but never noticeably hurried; his movements were fluid, almost balletic, each seemingly casual cut precise.

The sushi there was as different from the sushi I had eaten at home as freshly-made pesto is different from the stuff in jars. I ordered three pieces, then another three, and another three after that.

It seemed a lifetime ago that I was eating sushi because I would be home too late to make dinner.

© Richard Senior 2015

Reunification Delayed: Korea Rail Would Like to Apologise to Passengers

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There is an impressive modern station in the city of Paju in the far north of South Korea.

The walls are plate glass, the roof is swooping brushed steel. Its supporting rods are fashionably exposed. There are seats for a trainload in the waiting area and a long line of toilets and sinks. The station was built to be busy.

A map on the wall shows connections through Korea, across Asia to every city in Europe; and a sign directs passengers to the trains for Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea. There are carousels, baggage scanners, customs desks and all the paraphernalia of international transport hubs. Across the road, there are goods warehouses and yards big enough for articulated trucks to manoeuvre.

But the warehouses are empty, the carousels stand idle, and no trains go to Pyongyang. The border is sealed with high fences, razor wire, tank traps, and watchtowers manned by soldiers with machine guns trained, and regular patrols by squads in combat gear.

The only trains which run into the station – three or four a day – are specials bringing tourists to see what is ironically known as the Demilitarized Zone and to peer through telescopes into the North at what they claim is a farming village, although the only people you see are the armed guards in the watchtowers. But it has the World’s Third Largest Flagpole. In the South it is known as the Propaganda Village.

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The station, too, looks like nothing more than an elaborate, expensive, political gesture. But things seemed different when it opened in 2002. The Korean Cold War had briefly thawed. North and South had been talking since the end of the nineties. They committed to working towards peaceful reunification. They agreed that the railway lines across the border should reopen, that families separated by the war half a century ago should be able to meet; that Southern companies should build factories on the other side of the border and Northern workers should staff them. Optimists thought that reunification was bound to happen soon.

The mood did not last. Relations grew frostier when the South’s most powerful ally included the North in the ‘Axis of Evil’ together with Iran and Iraq. They chilled further towards the end of the Noughties when a new government in Seoul resolved to take a hard line with Pyongyang and strengthen relations with Washington. The North, in the meantime, froze off any prospect of further cooperation with a series of gross provocations. It sank a ship, bombarded an island, kidnapped soldiers and tested nuclear weapons. By then, the idea of taking a train through Korea, across Asia to cities in Europe seemed entirely fanciful.

Just this week, it was reported around the world that the North had test-fired ballistic missiles from a submarine and might double its stockpile of nuclear warheads by the end of next year. It is hard, now, to imagine peaceful reunification happening any time soon.

Then again, that might have been said about Germany a year before the wall came down.

© Richard Senior 2015