I stood trapped, trying to look nonchalantly unconcerned as the strains of Für Elise got louder and louder, attracting a swelling crowd of gawping Korean subway users to my plight. To pass the time, I affected a consuming interest in the safety poster on the pillar next to me. Which was in Korean, obviously.
I’d accidentally double tapped my ticket on the exit gate, rendering me stuck inside the barriers. Subway stations in Seoul are grand, sleek and shiny but rather soulless (baboom) spaces, generally completely devoid of staff. The only thing for it then, was to press the help button.
Don’t press the help button.
The ticket gate will rip into a spirited rendition of Für Elise, which will get louder and louder (or was this my imagination?) as you wait helplessly for a staff member to stroll the several miles from the nearest manned gate. People will stare at you. Your husband, who has managed to exit the ticket barrier without mishap, will slink off to laugh at you from a safe distance. Help will seem a long, long time coming.
Even if you do manage to exit the barriers in the manner of a person possessing basic barrier exit skills, getting out of a Seoul subway station is not easy. Look at the places.
When I eventually freed myself, we stepped out into the crisp cold sunshine and began to walk. Seoul is a dense modern city, packed with skyscrapers and expressways, but amongst them sit scraps of the past. One of these was our path for the day: the city wall.
In the 14th century a 20 km wall was built to encircle Seoul, controlling traffic in and out, and sealing the city shut at night. These days the city surrounds the wall, and not much of the original stonework remains. But several sections have been restored over the years, and now a walking route completes the whole circuit.
Frankly, we couldn’t be bothered to walk 20 km, so we set our sights on the northern half of the loop. We began climbing through a low rise residential neighbourhood, then on up the wall itself as it rose on a ridge above the city.
Baby faced guards, dressed all in black, loitered in groups at short intervals along the wall, outnumbering hikers considerably. Signs warned us not to point our cameras in the direction of the Blue House, the president’s palace, which dominated the foreground.
The history of this wall isn’t all ancient. In January 1968 it was the site of the first shots fired in an incident known as the Blue House raid.
It was January the 21st, midwinter. Three days before the largest campaign of the Vietnam war kicked off, 18 months after North Korea lost to Portugal in the quarter final of the World Cup, held in Liverpool.
A unit of 31 hand picked officers from the North was sent to assassinate the president of South Korea. They made it from the border and as far as the city wall, well inside Seoul, before being confronted.
Being outnumbered by uniformed guards adds an edge to otherwise serene hiking. The wall follows the ridges of four rocky, tree spattered hills. A tiny sliver of nature amidst panoramic city views. After a quietly tense hour or two on the chilly, wind whipped ridge, we were forced back down into the city by a break in the wall. Following the trail at ground level, we found ourselves at a checkpoint. Here, near the president’s palace, the wall is near complete, reconstructed to provide extra security after the events of 1968.
Entry to the wall section directly behind the palace is strictly controlled. Passports are required, and registration. The day we arrived they weren’t allowing entry at all. But to be honest, we’d had enough of this rather unsettling walking already.
Our pleasant stroll in Seoul turned out to be an introduction to the obvious presence of the sometimes quiet, but still ongoing conflict between the Koreas. This slight sense of unease, the barbed wire suggestion of impending doom, is not something we noticed further south. But here, 35 miles from the border, you can feel it.
As we started downhill back to the centre of town, we came to a monument to police officers killed during the raid.
Choi Gyushek, the local police chief commemorated in the statue, was on the lookout for North Korean infiltrators that night.
Camped on their journey south, the soldiers from the North had been happened on by four teenagers. The soldiers had orders to kill and bury any civilians they met, but they didn’t. Perhaps because the ground was frozen too hard to dig a grave. Perhaps not. Either way they let the boys go, after an ad-hoc lecture on the virtues of communism. The boys went straight to the police.
So Choi Gyushek had been warned. When the North Koreans tried to pass his checkpoint disguised as soldiers of the South, he got suspicious. So they shot and killed him, the first casualty of the raid.
26 South Koreans were killed in the fighting, which spread from the checkpoint as the North Koreans scattered, then fled. A bus full of civilians were caught in the crossfire. Several days later, four Americans were killed in the DMZ trying to prevent the remains of the unit from returning to North Korea. One North Korean officer made it back, the rest were killed or committed suicide, except one.
Kim Shin-Jo was the only officer captured. He defected, and then he found god. Back in North Korea his family were murdered for his defection. In 2010, still living in South Korea, he became a human rights advisor to the government.
But it gets stranger.
The South decided to launch a revenge mission. Their unit of assassins too, would have 31 members, but they wouldn’t be elite officers. They’d be civilians, recruited for financial reward. The chosen 31 were held prisoner on an uninhabited island off the west coast and subjected to such intense training that seven of them died in the process. Then the mission was called off.
In 1971 the survivors of the training overcame their guards, made their way to the mainland, and hijacked a bus, which was then stopped by the army.
All but four of the unit members were killed in the struggle, or committed suicide. The remaining four were sentenced to death, and executed in 1972.
But it goes on. In 2003 a film based on the events was released, called Silmido after the island where the unit trained. The box office takings of Silmido topped 30 million US dollars in Korea alone. Only two years after this was a government investigation into the incident initiated, the bodies of the unit members, who had been buried in secret, located, and their families officially informed of their deaths. In 2010 the families won a case for compensation, which totalled less than 250,000 US dollars.
Funny place, Korea.
*Image from populargusts.