This morning I sent my first email from North Korea. Actually, I didn’t send the message; I requested that one be sent. While the DPRK is wired enough for internet access and mobile telephone use (The Wall Street Journal reports that the country has about one million cell phone subscribers) the use of media to communicate beyond national borders is strictly controlled. And all foreign messages are subject to review before being released. Thus a quick note letting Jenny know that we’d arrived safely would require me to learn about local surveillance procedures at the hotel’s communication center.
|Pyongyang view from Yanggakdo Hotel|
|Preparing for our DMZ visit|
At this point, we passed through a steadily narrowing gauntlet of metal gates and security checks. Again we were warned not to take pictures or step out of line. Our guides continued to smile, yet something about the firmness of their voices reminded us not to screw around. We’d been told that South Korean saboteurs [egged on by U.S. Imperialists, according to the Pyongyang Times] had recently tried to blow up a statue of Kim Il Sung, an affront to national dignity on par with a full-scale military assault.
|Panmunjom Truce Village|
At last we could take pictures!
Despite the tension of this place, we could also smile and wave. Folks on the other side could not, though. Still, they could tour the blue topped conference room that straddles the border while we were unable to enter. Our guards wouldn’t allow mixture with tourists from the other side (there’s wouldn’t either, I’m sure), so we stood and snapped photos, and we smiled. Then we walked back toward the north to visit to the original pavilion where generals signed the 1953 armistice.
|"Debating" at the DMZ|
|Touring Kaesong Koryo Museum|
|Tea house serenade|
|Children's space shuttle|
[At a Banquet]: “I will drink a toast to a long life in good health of the great leader Comrade Kim Jong Il.” [In a Theatre]: “It is of high ideological and artistic quality.” [Departure]: “Pyongyang is the people’s paradise where there are no beggars and all people study... [It] is clean and beautiful and seems to have the best housing conditions in the world.”
One other thing about the bookstore where I bought that guidebook: For reasons that our guides never explained, a barrier was placed at the entrance during our visit. We could walk out (to the bus), but locals could not enter.
|Close-up at the Mass Games|
Then things got weird.
Suffering the standard airheadedness that afflicts all tourists at one point or another, I left my camera bag - including my wallet - under the table where we sat. I only discovered my mistake once we left. I figured we’d turn the bus around and, with some luck, find my stuff before it got hauled off. Only the panicked look on my North Korean guide’s face alerted me to the gravity of the situation.
“Please tell me you’re kidding,” she squeaked.
“Um, sorry. I wish I were.”
My guide looked as if she’d pass out.
I tried to calm her, saying, “But it’s my fault. I’m responsible.”
The young woman looked like she was going to cry.
The senior DPRK guide explained the problem. While I was indeed at fault for leaving my stuff at the mass games, my guide would be held responsible for failing to remind me to watch my bag. Worse still, if my wallet were stolen or lost, she would lose face - and maybe lose her job. Watching the guide make frantic phone calls, my mind swam with nightmare scenarios.
My fellow tourists tried to ease my mind, assuring me that someone would return the bag. I didn’t care. Even the loss of all my cash seemed like a small thing; I just didn’t want my guide to get into trouble. The massive parking lot was still choked with buses and soldiers when we returned. My guide was calling everyone she could but getting no good news. Every time she shook her head I sank lower into my seat.
Then her face brightened.
The guide heard from a friend working in the stadium that the woman who rented us a set of binoculars had found my bag and would meet us in a few minutes. A fellow tourist broke out some Soju and passed it around. I took a gratified gulp.
But even when we met the woman outside, even when I was instructed to count the cash and confirm its safe return (signing a receipt, no less), I knew that something wasn’t right. Our guide would still be responsible, at least according to her superiors. Just the fact that my bag was momentarily lost at the Mass Games was a serious problem. I had to do something.
Back at the hotel, drained and exhausted, I drafted out a letter of thanks - adding a hearty dose of self-criticism for my fault in causing this screw-up. For two hours I revised each sentence, recalling our senior guide’s gently placed hints about appropriate language (“You know, if this had happened anywhere else in the world, it’s unlikely that your bag would have been found...” and “Remember, this shows that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is honest!”).
I wrote my letter by hand, taking another hour trying to form legible letters and regretting that I’d never mastered the art of elegant pencraft. “I don’t have a printer,” I explained to the guide. “It’s better that you write by hand,” he replied.
“And write from the heart.”