I approached the yellow striped line outside our hotel and froze.
This morning, though, I decided to leave the hotel alone. So I woke early, pulled on my least stinky set of clothes, and took the elevator down. Outside, buses were wheezing in lines, waiting for Chinese tourists (most of the Westerners were gone). The air was damp. The glass doors closed behind me and I strode down the tree-lined road. That's when I saw that painted line.
The border was probably meant for auto traffic, maybe to limit the passage of bus drivers. Still, I was afraid to cross. I thought about all the times we’d been reminded not to get our guides into trouble, and I recalled that second visit to the Mass Games, the panicky prospect that one of our guides might get fired because of my cluelessness. I also flashed back to last night, the fear of being alone outside an amusement park. Transgressing DPRK rules can be dangerous.
Consequently, it’s easy to internalize North Korean discipline. After just a few days I’d composed a mental map that pulsated with yellow neon lines, significations of authorized movement and permissible passage. This line, the one etched on the road, hailed all the others. Someone told me that he’d jogged around the island a few days ago. I could therefore certainly cross the line.
I’d been standing in the middle of the road for the past five minutes.
Now a new anxiety began to metastasize. Was I being watched? Did my odd behavior inspire a supervisor somewhere to pick up a phone? Just what was I doing out here? I needed a rationale, an excuse for standing in the road like this. I fished out my camera and turned around slowly. I’d stepped outside to snap a photo of the Yanggakdo. Of course! Just position the building in my viewfinder, check the vertical alignment, and...
I couldn’t get the entire building in my frame; I was too close. Maybe I could settle for a close-up shot. Perhaps a nice shot of those buses. Then my photographer’s instincts took hold and I turned back around. I was going to get that shot. I started to walk and then to jog, bounding away from the Yanggakdo. No way I’d let some silly traffic border scare me.
Loping toward the island’s edge, I imagined this place as a sort of North Korean Disneyland where each manicured hedge obscures secret machinery [William Gibson once called Singapore “Disneyland with a Death Penalty,” which is nothing compared to this place]. The yellow line had fallen from view when I turned around a second time. There it was: the Yanggakdo Hotel, neatly captured in my frame.
|On the road to the Yanggakdo Hotel|
Later that morning David and I met our guides and toured the Party Founding Museum. This was the site where Kim Il Sung led his party to establish nearly unbreakable control over the country. We joined our docent, an older woman who regretted that she’d never met the Eternal Leader, and toured the building. We saw Kim’s original office and a drawing for an alternative version of the Workers' Party of Korea hammer-brush-sickle insignia. As usual, the tour was produced solely for us. Of course what we lacked in numbers we augmented with questions.
|Party Founding Museum|
|Andy stalks the perfect frame|
At one spot, David took a picture of his thumb, mirroring a poster of a guy giving a thumbs-up. I naturally took a picture of David. Just a little Photoshop magic and I could rotate his thumb to more closely reflect the poster. Maybe one day I will. And why not? The studio is a spectacle of simulation for the most earnest of purposes. In the DPRK, words like “propaganda” and “ideology” contain no sense of absurdity or detachment. They are performances of power without a hint of irony.
|Korean Film Studio|
Before we left, a studio representative allowed us to watch about ten minutes of a movie they’re editing. It’s the story of a woman who refuses to marry a man until he becomes worthy of being photographed with the Dear Leader. Spoiler alert: He smartens up, they marry, and she is blessed. The script is based on a true story. Apparently Kim Jong Il heard about this woman and ordered the production of a movie about her life. And he insisted that she portray herself on the screen.
Backward reels the mind.
|Film studio mural|
“Would you like to see?”
“Well, no. I’m sure you have him.”
“Really, it’s easy. I just type in his name...”
Now I can confirm that North Korea’s Grand People’s Study House has some Mark Twain. They also have “American Pie" on CD.
Unfortunately it’s the Madonna version.
|Grand People's Study Room|
"Can we take pictures of the Square?"
Of course we can.
|Kim Il Sung Square|
Before we get dropped off at our hotel, the guides take us to a coffee shop. David and I flip through overstuffed menus featuring cappuccinos and day-glo fruit drinks. One of our guides asks an oddly general question: “When is the happiest day you can remember?” We all pause and think before taking turns. David tells his story and I tell mine. We wait for her to share. She starts, painting broad outlines, setting the scene. Then she stops.
The story might get her in trouble, she explains.
David and I grab dinner back in the hotel before rejoining our guides for beers in the “Teahouse.” Throughout the afternoon we’ve praised our guides. We’ve thanked them for being so helpful and kind to us. They’ve thanked us for our patience and open-mindedness. But now after so many days in such close quarters, we’re running out of things to say.
Then the guide flashes a shy smile.
“I’ll tell you my story...
... as long as you promise not to tell anyone.”
|One last view from the Juche Tower|
The next morning [“Day Eight,” technically] we pack and meet our guides one last time. They confirm that we’re checked out of the hotel, and they return our passports. David and I have prepared three innocuous gray envelops, each containing cash. Our goal is to ensure that the driver and each guide receive an envelope without being seen by the others. We have no idea whether we’re following appropriate protocol or just making asses of ourselves. Throughout this trip, that's been a common concern.
Approaching the airport, we cruise by posters and murals of heroic North Koreans standing tall against foreign aggression, praising the brilliance of their Leaders, and building the Pyongyang Worker’s Paradise. I think about another picture I saw years ago: Boris Vallejo’s poster for National Lampoon's Vacation. The image features Chevy Chase atop a marble hill, his muscles glistening with sweat, his legs gripped by scantily clad women. He’s two parts suburban schlub, one part Conan the Barbarian.
Such has been this trip, a labored performance and a performance of labor. We have only spent a week in the DPRK, and we’ve encountered few moments that have not been carefully scripted. Aglow with our own heroic deeds, we will share an epic adventure with friends and colleagues. But we can’t take ourselves too seriously. It wasn't that amazing, really. We filled out applications, paid fees, stood in lines, sat on buses, took pictures, bowed on command, and left without incident. We played our roles.
Still, I wonder about our guide's secret story. Was it real? Were her words a revelation of something beneath the surface of things? Or were they just another layer of artifice? One last souvenir.
Predictably, David and I put the pieces together differently. David’s no fool. He possesses healthy skepticism about what we’ve seen. But he feels something genuine in these moments too. Me? I remember moments that mattered, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to have come here. At the same time, I can never quite get rid of a nagging fear that the entire trip was merely a stage-set for artful storytelling. We'll take a long time sifting through this experience. We agree entirely about one thing, though.
We will never tell the guide’s secret.