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

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