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Authors: Simon Winchester


BOOK: Korea
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A Walk Through the Land of Miracles

Simon Winchester

For P.W.



In the Seamen’s Wake

The Irish Island

The Boat Country

Memorial to a Massacre

A Time for Meditation

With the Peacekeepers

The Roots of the Nation

Seoul City—Soul City

To the Borderline


The inspiration for this book came from Miss Park Choon-sil, the interpreter who showed me around Seoul on my first visit in the late summer of 1985. Miss Park said many times that she was eager that her country, so little known abroad and of such uncertain reputation, should be better and more sympathetically understood out in the English-speaking world. My present hope is that this very modest account, born of her initial suggestion, should go some way towards realizing her wishes.

Philip Wetton, then the commercial counsellor at the British Embassy in Seoul, and a man well disposed towards and hugely knowledgeable about Korea, was equally keen that a kindly book about this country should be published in the West, and he was generous to a fault with advice, contacts, and constructive criticism. Both Philip Wetton and George Robinson, who also lived and worked in Seoul, read the typescript and made innumerable helpful suggestions. I owe a very considerable debt to both of them, though they are in no way responsible if any errors or misjudgements escaped their scrutiny: that responsibility, of course, is my own.

Both Cathay Pacific Airways and the Seoul Hilton Hotel were kind enough to provide support for the venture; and in ways other than the purely practical, David Bell of Cathay Pacific’s parent company, The Swire Group, and Christian Schuecking, Siegbert Beller, and Mrs S. H. Ahn of the Hilton were immensely helpful.

During my weeks on the road I met scores of people who were invariably curious to know why I was walking and, when I told them, were in a variety of ways helpful or supportive or both—a glass of water here, the offer of a lift there, a shared lunch in a field in one province, a few glasses of
in a roadside
drinking stall in another. To all of this vast anonymous band, my sincerest thanks.

But others I do know by name, and so to all of them, my gratitude for helping with what turned out to be a most pleasurable mission: Ian Buruma, Chang Kyung-soon, Sangon Chu, the Columban Fathers, Roger Crabb, Paul Ensor, James Fenton, Billy Fullerton, Brigadier Tim Hackworth, Max Hastings, Adrian Hill, Christopher Hitchens, Peter Hyun, Kim Dae Jung, Ko Seouk-young, Lt. Joe LaMarca, Lee Seong Cheol, Hwi J. Lee, the Reverend Pat Lohan, Gavin Mackay, Boyd McCleary, Ferris Miller, Michael O’Brien, Oh Kyoung-sook, Birgit Schwarz, Shin Hyun Gook, Edwin Shum, Lucretia Stewart, Bob Sweeney, Yvonne Townley, Max Whitby, and Paul Whitelaw.

I am most grateful to my old friend Dennis Foreman, Librarian at the
, Newcastle upon Tyne, for his very welcome information on shipbuilding in North-East England.

I wish in addition to thank both Philip Pochoda, my editor in New York, and Lois Wallace, my agent there, for their support and for their sustained belief that Korea, so little known in the West, should in fact be written about.

My family, of whom I saw too little during my Korean spring and summer, were as delightfully helpful as ever: my gratitude to them all is incalculable.

Some while after this book was published, and once the brief excitement generated by the Seoul Olympic Games had stilled and in doing so had helped return Korea to the shadows to which it remains accustomed, I received a letter, postmarked Kwangju.

It was from an Irishman, a Columban Father, a spiritual colleague of the Patrick McGlinchey whom I had befriended on the island of Cheju. He had read the book, wrote kindly and flatteringly about what he saw as its worthier sections but also said he recognized in its structure and ambition one major shortcoming. The traditional pilgrims’ journey through the Korean peninsula, he wrote, invariably began near the 6,400-foot summit of the Cheju-do peak known as Halla-san, close to where mine indeed had begun; it ended by custom 600 miles further north on the summit of the equally spiritually regarded and rather higher (at 9,022 feet) peak known as Paektu-san. But to Paektu-san I had apparently not been. Had not even set foot. Had not come within a hundred miles, in fact. What merit, he asked with rectorly solicitude, could there possibly be in a journey that was only half complete?

I replied with rather tired courtesy. Paektu Mountain, known in Chinese as Baotou Shan, lies exactly astride the frontier that demarcates the People’s Republic of China from the nation known properly as
Chosun Minchu-chui Inmin Konghwa-guk
, and which translates as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Or less grandly, North Korea, the closed, forbidden, Stalinist nightmare-state to which few are admitted and none generally wishes to return. While it might not technically be very difficult to gain access to the slopes on the Chinese side of Baotou Shan, I wrote, it would be well-nigh impossible to win access at all to
any part of the mountain that lay on the North Korean side. And as for the summit—well, I replied, not even divine intervention could possibly transport me there.

He sent back a polite note. Yes, getting to the mountaintop might well be difficult, he conceded. It also might be
, as he put it, to get access to North Korea at all. But had I tried? Might it not be worthwhile to at least have the briefest of peeks inside the state that lay between China and South Korea, and which so aggressively and unremittingly lay claim to the entire peninsula, and which wished so loudly and so forcefully to impose its rule upon it? Would going there not add some symmetry to a story which, said the Father with rueful precision, had of now a somewhat partisan perspective?

His remarks, kindly meant as they were, needled me. I had long wondered what would have happened if I had walked across the Bridge of No Return and into the Democratic Republic that late spring day, when the months of northbound walking recounted in this book had brought me to the frontier village of Panmunjom. There had been, after all, a black limousine waiting for me that day, just across the border. Two men, North Korean agents of some kind, had apparently been sent to collect me. The ceaselessly blaring propaganda loudspeakers were telling such as might listen that a westerner, just arrived at the Bridge, had travelled the entire length of the country on foot, too poor to afford a car: the limousine had been sent as a courtesy to make the next stage of my journey, into Kim II Sung’s legendary workers’ paradise, just a little more comfortable.

I see that in my account I recorded the American sentries with me as saying only that, had I decided to accept, they would have
tried to persuade me
not to cross. The bookish decorum of the time persuaded me to omit the violence of their actual response, which was, in its essence, that if I made any attempt to pass them and step on to the narrow walkway across the weedy ooze of the Konshan River, they would most certainly
break my legs
. So I stood my ground, gazed wistfully northwards for a while and finally turned back into the welcoming embrace of the South.
The guards sighed with relief. The journey was, so far as I was concerned, formally over.

But as I say, the priestly comments in that letter from Kwangju, written some months after I had left, irked me. I knew that eventually, and for my own sake, let alone that of the book and its story, I had to go back and visit the North. And in due course (and with the grant of a visa prised from an unsmiling official in a grimy consulate in Macau, a place where rum things quite unobtainable in nearby Hong Kong—like a North Korean entry visa, price $600—were always marginally easier to come by), I did go, and became sufficiently fascinated by the place that over the next ten years I went back a further two times, eventually reaching a sufficient familiarity with the traffic-less streets of Pyongyang that I could find my way around the capital with some ease. It turns out to be a much simpler city in which to navigate than is Seoul—not least because, essentially,
there is nothing there
. It is a lifeless place, a silent mausoleum of a city peopled only, it seems, with stick-like automatons, figures from a Lowry painting with whom a visitor is permitted no communion.

Remembered images of desolation and hopelessness crowd in from those brief northern expeditions, even at this remove. There was that first endless-seeming Air Koryo flight from Peking—no direct flights from Seoul, of course, nor any communication of any kind with the South since 1953—aboard a rickety Soviet propeller-driven aircraft. The stewardesses, unsmiling and virginally demure, each with a miniature of Kim II Sung pinned to their lapels, served rice, watery gruel and, surprisingly, small tins of Coca-Cola. I arrived in an otherwise deserted airport—Pyongyang in those days was served only by flights from Moscow, East Berlin, Sofia and Khabarovsk—and in the gritty and chill air was greeted by the limp handshake of my pre-assigned minder, a tired-looking man in an ill-fitting suit who spoke flawless English and said he was there solely to ensure my safety.

The hotel was spectacular, tall and modern—but lifeless, chilly and with halls that rang to a discordant muzak of what I was told were popular anthems to the Great Leader, Kim II Sung. There
was a bar, in which I encountered an Englishman, a wall-eyed giant of a rugby player from Leeds who had lived in North Korea for fifteen years, working for a tourist magazine that tried vainly to solicit business from English-speaking countries. He admired the regime, he said; he had no plans to return home. I thought he might take me around and offer some insight into the city’s mysteries: but he wasn’t permitted to, he said, and I had to travel everywhere with my minder.

In that week I came rather to like Mr Park, which I seem to remember was my minder’s name. He took me on all the obligatory tours of the marble monuments and memorials to which Pyongyang is home; we went to a circus and then on to watch the astonishing regimentation of the ‘mass games’, in which tens of thousands of students marched and paraded in honour of some festal moment; we took a dilapidated bus somewhere outside the city limits—they ended quite abruptly: immense lines of one-room tenement towers, then fields as empty as Siberia; nothing approaching a suburb to shade passage from urban to rural. We went to see a tedious and ugly hydro-electric project somewhere and then took in the seaside at Wonsan and went up to a resort in the eastern mountains where, high on granite walls as sheer as Yosemite, there were
letters carved, which, inevitably, spelled some paean to Kim II Sung, evidently written by a rock climber of great fortitude and skill.

And through all this Mr Park smiled gamely and tried to look optimistic and robustly supportive of the regime, and yet all the while he was interrogating me with foxy charm as to how things truly were in the South and what I had learned while writing my book. I mentioned to him that some people had suggested I continue the walk all the way up to Paektu-san. It would, he said, be very difficult. Many soldiers would have to come with me. It would be dangerous, and cold; only the Great Leader had the kind of courage necessary to climb up into the snows of Paektu Mountain. I let the matter drop.

We said our farewells at the airport after a week—our valedictory celebration taking place in the airport café, drinking what
passed for a cappuccino, made by a woman who had spied one in a magazine but had clearly never tasted one, for the foam on top turned out to be egg white, beaten and cooked into a sort of greyish omelette. I grimaced; but Mr Park, who said he rarely saw eggs, wolfed his down in a single mouthful and then took mine as well for good measure.

I saw Mr Park again two years later, under curious circumstances. A crewman from the ramshackle spy-ship USS
, which had been captured by the North Koreans in 1968, wrote to me from California to ask if I could help. Perhaps I had contacts in Pyongyang, officials who might enable him to go back and visit his old ship, which had been turned into a Museum of American Imperialism at Wonsan Port. We spoke a number of times: he had been the ship’s cook, had suffered wretchedly at the hands of his captors during the eleven months that he and his eighty-one shipmates had been held, but was now in a forgiving mood, and wanted to go back to Korea and publicly renounce his enmity. He hoped his gesture might be interpreted kindly, and that a spirit of rapprochement might in consequence be allowed to build between America and the North.

I thought the man naïve in the extreme; but eager to go back, I made contact with a bureaucrat I knew in Pyongyang and so was invited to spend a further week in the capital. After another session aboard Air Koryo and another limp handshake and a wintry smile from Mr Park, I then inaugurated a few days of what some might term negotiation. This meant waiting, generally, in the same hotel as before, in the uncongenial company of the same wall-eyed Yorkshireman as before, and under the genial invigilation of Mr Park, and hoping for appointments during which I might discuss the case. I was something of an athlete in those days and took time off to go running—Mr Park tried to protest, but I simply sped away and found myself among groups of wide-eyed workers in faraway housing projects, trying to speak my vestigial Korean and merely frightening them off, like chickens sighting a fox.

The appointments, half promised, eventually all mysteriously
evaporated, and in the end I saw no one—not even the official who had first invited me. I spent much of my remaining time with the Swedish Ambassador, a comfortable-looking man with little to do and few people to speak to, but a man who was not nearly as lonely as his diplomatic colleague from Ethiopia, who had been in the country for nine years, had had no contact with his Ministry in Addis Ababa for the previous four and had no idea if he was still employed as Ambassador or not and was fast running out of money. He had a bicycle, but the week I was there it was stolen, adding to his woes. He did, however, take me to the former East German embassy—the Berlin Wall had fallen, and the place was empty—and we speculated together on what unlovely happenings had marked the history of this grey bunker of concrete, where two of the world’s nastiest regimes were wont to commune on how they might best wreak havoc on the unsuspecting in the outside world.

The third time I went it was in the company of a BBC man who was shooting a film, surreptitiously. It was spring, it was warm and the flowers were out in abundance, and everything I did I liked. Kim II Sung was by now dead, and his dwarfish and vulpine son Kim Jung II had assumed some of the mantle of power, being known as the Dear Leader rather than the Great Leader of his state. (And one of the flowers that was in bloom in the parks that year, a pink peony-like creation, had been named after him:

None of the changes in the upper reaches of political Pyongyang’s stratosphere seemed to make much of an impact on life in the gutters below, however; the city was still unutterably quiet, the central lane of the car-less roads was still reserved for the black Mercedes limousines which occasionally sped senior Politburo figures between tomb-like buildings; the traffic police still performed like marionettes, signing with perfect and balletic accuracy to invisible cars which never arrived, never went. I visited a school, and was asked to sing, and performed a bel canto version of ‘The Teddy Bears’ Picnic’, to unreasonably enthusiastic applause. I saw a teacher whom I thought the most beautiful
woman I had ever seen. I basked in the sunshine, I talked endlessly with Mr Park—and I decided, in a most perverse way, that in fact I rather liked some peculiar aspect of North Korea and hoped I might go there fairly frequently, to see how this outlandish and wayward state managed, despite being so terribly out of step with almost all of the rest of humanity. In fact, as is the way, I have never been back since.

The country has behaved in eccentric, duplicitous and dangerous ways in recent years. True, there had been some feeling of conciliation since the moment Mr Kim Junior arrived on the scene with the death of his father in 1994, and more obviously so since he was declared Supreme Leader in 1998. An agreement was signed with America in 1994, the North pledging to give up its atomic-power plants, accept new and less harmful versions from the Americans and then use its nuclear expertise for power generation and medical research only. In 2000 Kim Jung Il invited his opposite number in Seoul, Kim Dae-Jung, to come up to Pyongyang—the summit, three days of talking and memorial-visiting, was the first ever meeting between the heads of state of these neighbour-nations. And it seemed to do some good: there were protocols signed for opening the border, restoring rail links, allowing tourists to come and go.

All seemed to augur fair—until, true to its maverick nature, North Korea suddenly scuppered everything, first by admitting that it had had a secret nuclear-weapons programme all along, then by tossing out the UN monitoring equipment from its atomic plant at Yongbyon, next withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and embarking on a campaign of vilification of America (who had named North Korea a member of the world’s Axis of Evil) that was marked by alarming and hysterically belligerent commentary and rhetoric. North Korea was suddenly in the vanguard of the planet’s public enemies, feared and loathed by turn and by all.

BOOK: Korea
9.89Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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