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“I couldn’t get to Pyongyang - it was politics,” says kayakerSeo Seong Man almost made it all the way to North Korea, only to be turned back when almost at the border
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승인 2013.10.31  14:57:50
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▲ Seo kayaking with the Unification Flag. Photo courtesy Seo Seong Man

What links the conflict between North and South Korea, UN political interference at the highest echelons of the South Korean government and a small village north of Seongsan on Jeju? No, it’s not some new round of shadowy peace talks, nor is it an NSA covert spying installation.

Stay yourself, young pilgrim: what links these things is one man, and he is no secret agent or diplomat. Also, you should probably read less conspiracy websites, because, honestly, that should be no one’s first reaction.

The man in question is Seo Seong Man, the chairman of the Jeju Island Canoe Federation and owner of Jeju Kayak; he also runs a guesthouse on Hamdeok Beach. He’s a serious-look-ing man in the indeterminate 30-yet-not-ancient range, though he quickly warms up when talking about his preferred subject, which is everything to do with kayaks.

▲ Seo's planned route from Jeju to Pyongyang. Photo courtesy Seo Seong Man

Seo originally came to our collective attention during my Kayak Jeju series for being a bit of an all round legend. We heard he kayaked from Jeju Island across the open sea and up the west coast. He aimed to go up the Han River at Incheon, through Seoul, and then up to Pyeongyang in the North. Naturally, this voyage was the first thing I asked him about.

“I couldn’t get to Pyeongyang” he tells me. “The UN and South Korean governments said no,” he said, presum-ably to clarify that this was not of his choosing. When pressed as to why they wouldn’t allow the crossing, he told me, “There was no trust. The North said yes, but the South did not believe I would be safe. The UN agreed with them, and so they wouldn’t let me go over the border. It was politics.”

That he was ‘only’ able to get as far as Seoul is no mean feat, however. The journey is roughly 700 k.m., a not insignificant portion of which is across open ocean, all by hand, pulling yourself through water. It took Seo 16 days of kayaking to get there, nearly 45 k.m. a day, which I calculate being about 80 days faster than I would have done it.

▲ “I am a Christian. It was my duty,” said Seo Seong Man about his mission to kayak from Jeju to North Korea. Photo courtesy Seo Seong Man

He stayed in small villages along the coast, sometimes camping, sometimes in guesthouses, but always travelling without a support net. One big storm and his voyage would have been over.

You may justifiably ask why he did this. To prove that he could? Perhaps he lost a bet? No. “For peace between North and South Korea” was his reason. “I am a Christian. It was my duty,” he adds.

He is not content simply promoting world peace, however. He tells me about his plans for kayaking on Jeju and he hopes one day to hold compet-itive long-distance races. “You need more than power and speed for this race” he muses, “you need patience.”

While his plans are still in the incu-bation stage, few can doubt Seo is doughty enough to achieve his goals.

Seo welcomes questions by email ( or by phone (+82 64 711 1786/+82 (0)10 3697 4466). For further info.please visit:

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