a borderline in Korea uxeta labrit   I  uxeta labrit When you're invited to a South Korean cinema festival and they send you a plane ticket, you only have two choices. One is to go and the other ... is to go. As soon as I started the trip I only had one thing in mind: visiting the frontier between the two Koreas. This is the story of my trip to the 38th parallel. I remember the bus that took me north, even though I was half asleep, Seoul is unending. Suddenly it seems like a city still to be built. Skyscrapers, roads and a huge traffic jam. It's a good opportunity to make up for sleep lost because of last night's party. No-one else at the cinema festival wants to come and visit the inhabitants of the north. When I talked about this trip yesterday, they looked at me as if I was an extraterrestrial. I'm more and more convinced that cinema directors are not to be trusted.

As soon as the city ends there are sentry boxes and barbed wire fences. The bus left me at a special place. Next to a carousel and one of those Viking boats. Here, the woman who is going to be our guide gives us very precise instructions: we cannot take photos from inside the bus, no photos can be taken of soldiers and military installations. In fact, photos can only be taken from specially designated places. She asks us to have our passports handy as we draw up to a type of toll in the middle of a bridge. A soldier gets on and examines our passports. Most of the people on the bus are tourists from South Korea. There is also a couple from Turkey and bloke from Canada (all Canadian tourists are given away by the maples leaves on their rucksacks). We go past the sentry boxes slowly and enter the DMZ (demilitarized zone). That terminology struck me as paradoxical when our sargent-guide told us that military law took precedence over civil law in that area.

To tell the truth, I don't know what I'm going to do with my camera. I've never seen so many soldiers ready for war. Just in case, I don't put it into its case. They take us to a train station and our guide starts boring us. ¨The people of the North want to kill our president¨, ¨The people of the North are illiterate¨, ouch! You're expecting that sort of propaganda, but they could be slightly more subtle about it. Outside the station, there's a woman picking up leaves in a garden. From the station they take us to a place we can see North Korea from. Two things caught my eye. The first thing is how clearly you can see the frontier line. There are trees on the South Korean side, on the North Korean they've all been cut down. There are electricity shortages in North Korea and people get fuel from wherever they can. The second thing is the road that connects the two countries and the lorries on it. I asked our guide and she told us they were going to the factories that South Korea has in North Korea. Taking advantage of the low wages in North Korea, some companies from the South have reached agreements with the government of the North and set up factories there. Once more, capitalism triumphs over national pride. Today there are 2 soldiers for every tourist to control the photo problem. And, of course, I've done what all good tourists do, the opposite of what's safe. I've focussed on North Korea and taken photos. A soldier's realised and come screaming up to me. Mister! mister! Bugger, now I've gone and done it. Forced labour for me! When he reaches me, he asks me very politely and in perfect English if he can see the photos I've taken. Of course I say yes. He tells me which ones I must wipe out and which ones I can keep. I put on a dumb face and do what he says. When I get onto the bus again I get my camera out again and check it once more. There aren't only photos there. There are videos too. Many of the pictures I had to erase are there. Smart alec tourist, I deserve to do forced labour, that's the truth.

The last sight was a tunnel leading to 70 metre wide wall which the soldiers from the North had built to establish the frontier. They simply take your camera away from you there. Many of the visitors decide not the go in. It's a long descent into the tunnel and it certainly wouldn't be any fun for anyone with claustrophobia. After walking hunched up for 400 metres, we reach a concrete wall which is 70 metres from North Korea. It's a frightening place. It's very hot and humid. How many North Korean soldiers died because of the dynamite and force ordered by the great leader? As I go out I take some photos the edge of a wooded area on a mine field. I see a camouflage painted bunker not far away. I go up to it and start taking photos again. Another tourist's mistake. Be happy with the luck you've had and don't always want more. In any case, I don't see any signs forbidding it or any soldiers either. A little later, when I'm waiting for the bus, I see the Canadian tourist leaving the bunkers and I realise that they're toilets. The sargent-guide counts us up and we go back the way we came. We go over the military bridge and they take us back to the giant car park with the big wheel and Viking boat. And there I am, waiting for another bus, warming my hands on a paper cup of coffee, in a strange, giant tourist attraction in the world's biggest military zone.

When I get back to Seoul, I see that the young girl who is looking after me is worried. We're late going to a prize-giving ceremony. I tell her I don't mind arriving late. I'm going to the hotel first. I can't be late, she tells me, and she has a short laugh. There's no feeling like going to a prize-giving when you know that you've won ...