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

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 its turn, 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