Never forget

 

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We visited the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) on Friday. It is the c.10 km strip of land that separates north and south and has, as the title suggests, no soldiers in it. Although that hardly seems important when there are hundreds of thousands facing each other off a few centimetres just beyond the lines in the sand.

The Koreans, both sides, are still at war. Although you would have to look very hard to notice it here. And as they’ve done no proper fighting since 1953 you can begin to understand why they’re much more into K-pop than Kalashnikovs.

But … and this is my point, for people of my generation 1953 is not that long ago. My dad didn’t fight in the Korean War, but he could have. Out of a  British force of 15,000 soldiers we lost 1,109 dead with two and half thousand wounded. That’s no small excursion (the US lost close to 40,000 soldiers), and heartbreaking when you consider that many of those were only five years on from keeping their lives after the horrors of World War Two.

And it could have been so much worse. This little known war brought the world as close to World War Three as any time during the Cold War. Under the banner of the UN, at one point us lot (mostly, but not exclusively, the US, the UK – and the Commonwealth, Turkey (?) and 600,000 South Koreans – oh and 900 Belgians) were fighting almost one and a half million Chinese soldiers. Yes, we were fighting the Chinese.

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the unhingely-named Democratic Republic of North Korea in the far distance

In a nutshell it started because after World War Two a minor official in the US State Department drew an imaginary line on the 38th Parallel, carving up the Korean peninsular between Russia and the US, much like Germany was split into four zones: Russian, Brit, American and French. Neither Russia nor the US paid much attention to their assignments and in 1948 both north and south founded their own states and automatically started hating each other. The north’s army, funded by the Russians but supported with Chinese weaponry, turned south in 1953 on a route march, crossed the border and Seoul was taken 3 days later. In the following weeks the South Korean forces, with limited, but now v agitated US support, were almost pushed off the bottom of the country into the sea. It was that easy.

The US, now badged UN and led by commie-hating General MacArthur, landed a huge force well up on the left hand side of the peninsular (the Inchon Landings), and the war swung in the south’s favour. They pushed on north and were close to defeating the Chinese/North Koreans when Mao said enough was enough and applied the principle that quantity has a quality all of its own, throwing a million men at the problem.

And here was when common sense thankfully took hold. The Chinese halted their advance back on the 38th parallel and decided to stop the pendulum from swinging. World War Three was averted. Three years bitter (literally) entrenched warfare followed whilst an armistice (not a peace treaty) was signed. And since then both sides have been staring down the barrels of each other’s guns, whilst the US maintains its largest overseas deployment in the South and the North are close to having ‘the bomb’. You’ll be up to date with the latest between His Trumpkiness and Rocket Man … so I need not elaborate further.

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names of the lost civilians

My point, and it’s unsurprisingly political, is that we must do all we can to keep the peace before we find ourselves launched into another war which kills thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of our own soldiers. 1953 is pretty much within my lifetime. I’ll inevitably give you an overview of the Vietnam War in due course, which is definitely in my lifetime. Don’t misunderstand me. I am not a pacifist. Indeed, I would not be on speaking terms with Kim Jong-un and certainly would not give him the satisfaction of allowing him on the same world stage as me. And owning a highly competent and well equipped army is a massive deterrence, and we should definitely have one of those. What we shouldn’t be doing is breaking apart the international institutions which have kept the uneasy peace in this fractious world. The West’s strength has been its solidarity. The Soviet Bloc broke apart because it was held together for all the wrong reasons: fear and loathing. The EU and NATO are bonded together by the strength of cooperation and friendship. Our togetherness is what stops our adversaries from thinking they can snipe at any one of us. Disassemble that and who knows which lunatics are going to think they can pick a fight with an outlier.

Trump – and the rise of nationalism – ignores these lessons. Lessons of my lifetime. And, I guess, yours.  We live in a dangerous time.

Anyway, phew, enough of that. Other than the DMZ, what have we been up to?

We have walked (miles) and ran up some big hills. We have eaten well. And we have played indoor baseball and sung our hearts out in a v Korean karaoke booth. Today we are walking to the main war memorial in Seoul, Rebecca heads off to Borneo with the school and we must repack for Singapore.

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What a life.

Heart and Seoul

We’ve made it. Seoul via Hong Kong. We were remarkably well looked after by Cathay Pacific. The flight to HK was 11 hours and even in cattle class I had lots of leg room. The food was good and the in-flight entertainment was fab … I can recommend The Widows  and Beirut. Oh, and Free Solo, a 90-minute documentary about a mad American who climbs the highest vertical face in Yosemite National park … at 1000 metres. He climbs it without ropes and on his own. It’s heart in the mouth stuff and every child should be made to watch it – just to let them know what you can do if you put your mind to it.

Anyhow. It’s fab to see Rebecca and Steven (they’re both teachers at Dulwich College international) and great that they had today off with the Koreans celebrating their memorial day. We’re staying with them until Monday, when we fly to Singapore … we meet them again in Bangkok a week and a bit later at which point we pool resources and hoof it around SE Asia for almost 4 weeks. (Hurrah!) Between now and then Bex is heading to Brunei with the school (in their first year Steven has been to China and Phuket, Bex to Hong Kong and Japan – all looking after kids from the school). They have landed on their feet here, but they do both work really hard. We are v proud of them.

Today, struggling against the jet lag monkey on my shoulder (C was in much better fettle), we walked all over Seoul, a city built on a series of steep hills that would have defeated the Romans. The photos tell the story, so I shall recount a couple of observations instead.

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Inside the palace … hundreds dressed in their Sunday’s, all taking photos of each other

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all that’s left of old Seoul

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we didn’t climb this hill, but it felt like it

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climbed this, though

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drawn for us, the Ladley family motto: diligence will make you succeed

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Bex can confirm that when you go to this cafe you are joined by loads of cats

First, South Korea is hardly a tourist location. Any history and associated buildings were literally obliterated by Japanese occupation (no love lost there) in the first half of the 20th Century, and later by the Korean War (50 -53), so any architecture is very new. It has developed into a huge industrial nation (Samsung, LG, Kia, Hyundai etc) with the infrastructure struggling to keep up. It feels like a West African nation which has been given a shot of speed. There are plenty of classy new build skyscrapers, but you don’t have to look too hard to find a lot of quick-build concrete, smelly drains and badly erected electricity wires. There is no crime and the people are all lovely, if slightly reserved. The youngsters are into fashion and k-pop; they are delicate (boys and girls), but, again, lovely.

Seoul has things to offer. We did the main hill with its huge tower, the sprawling palace (we watched the non-military changing of the guard) and the very small and very twee ‘old Seoul’; a couple of delightful streets of immaculate wooden houses with tiled roofs.

On the way there I was accosted by an elderly lady who was part of a demonstration outside the American Embassy – they demonstrate a lot in Seoul, all peacefully. Bex reckons it’s a national past time. She wanted to tell me that they were protesting against Kim Jong-un, and that I was to tell Donald Trump that he was to assassinate the North Korean leader. I didn’t have the the heart to tell her that I knew some people and they had been given very clear instructions to do the same to His Dondaldness.

We’re off to the DMZ tomorrow, which should be fun! Until Sunday …

The big red button

I thought it best to bash this out before we all get embroiled in a nuclear war. That, of course, is a nice lead for me to say a few choice words about POTUS (I’m loving Twitter), but I shall refrain from doing so. Although, I can’t move on without mentioning one of his latest tweets where he berates South Korea – an ally, no less – for appeasing their loony neighbours. In the first line of the tweet he uses the clause ‘as I have told them’. Mmmm. I think if I were leader of the Free World (and had only been in the seat for a few rollercoaster months) I’d be tempted to drop stuff like that. It smacks of ‘me-ism’. Anyhow, he’s surrounded by US Marines now, so hopefully they’ll bring some order to where it’s due. I do worry, however, that they’re currently planning a beach invasion of Inchon, something they did quite well in 1950.  They’d better check their geography though. Inchon is in South Korea…

my latest marketing shot

We’re exhausted. Over the past three and a bit weeks we’ve driven to Berlin and back, then Bristol and then Devon to drop of Doris at the doctors. Then to Colchester and up to Skye. Back down to Devon to pick up Doris where Chelstons assure us that she’s watertight. Up to Gloucester where we have deposited Doris with P&K, and now to Godalming in Surrey as a launch pad for Heathrow. New York on Tuesday (thankfully not driving) and then, on Friday, onto The Bahamas where Hurricane Irma is due to land – on the same day. Thankfully we’re due to stay with Rebecca and Steven for four weeks, so a couple of day’s delay to avoid the second worst mid-Atlantic storm this year, won’t be such a challenge.

£35 from Maplins. All I need now is a decent reading voice.

As you can see, it’s all go.

As a result I have still not finished my article ‘How to become a not very successful novelist’. I hope to get it down before we board the plane on Tuesday. Over the next five weeks I’d like to get it published somewhere, complete another 5 chapters of book 4, and, hopefully, have recorded a podcast of Unsuspecting Hero – with the aim of making it available for free to anyone who can bear the sound of my voice. All of this whilst browning our knees and avoiding getting swept into the Atlantic by whichever tropical storm happens to be bashing against The Bahamas whilst we’re there. We’ll see.

Anyhow, I must go and finish ‘the shelter’. We’ve practised getting under the kitchen table in the crunch position (and closing our eyes) earlier today. Hopefully it won’t come to that. But knowing POTUS, anything to deflect from Congress not approving his tax reform bill – or the Russian enquiry using the big ‘I’ word (impeachment). Men, their egos and the big red button. I tell you …