Thursday, August 2, 2012

Seven days in the DPRK - Day 3

Note: These posts provide a summary of one tourist’s experience in North Korea in summer 2012. This trip was conducted without external financial support, and nothing herein should be construed as condoning or supporting the actions or policies of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

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
To begin, I had to fill out a short form and wait for a Yanggakdo Hotel attendant to boot up a computer and launch an email application. She offered me a seat, allowed me to type my message, and then asked me to stand aside while she logged onto the internet. Funny, I hadn’t noticed the lack of a “Send” button until that point. She scanned my message, maybe just confirming the email address, and sent it off. Then she opened the outbox to confirm transmission, checked the message size, and switched the internet connection off. Total cost: a couple Euros and some change. Could I check my email here? Sorry, no.

Reunification Monument
Wondering if Jenny would actually receive my message, I joined the group for a ride to the Demilitarized Zone. Driving through Pyongyang, we could take pictures as long as we avoided close-ups of people or any images of military activity. Things changed, however, once we passed under the garishly titled “Monument to Three Principles of National Reunification.” Staring upward at those two stone women, their hands stretching across the road in quivering anticipation, our conversations became more subdued. And when we passed under a teahouse that straddles the otherwise empty highway, we were warned not to snap any more pictures.
Preparing for our DMZ visit
We’d crossed an invisible frontier. At first, only the appearance of thick stone blocks, sentinels rigged to explode at the advance of enemy tanks, hinted at the tension of this place. Then we saw those two crazy flag poles on either side of the border, each one competing to stand higher than the other. South Korea started the game in the 1980s, hosting their ensign more than 300 feet. North Korea responded by building a taller pole, stretching upward past 500 feet [Sorry, guys: Tajikistan’s monster Dushanbe pole recently topped you both at 541 feet].

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
We exited the bus, formed into lines, and marched to Panmon Hall, a perch from which we could survey the Panmunjom Truce Village that marks the boundary between north and south. We saw strange trios of DPRK soldiers, with one staring back in our direction and two others keeping a close watch on each other (presumably to guard against escape), and we studied a group of South Koreans who gazed back across the DMZ at us. 

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
Today that building serves as a museum displaying artifacts from what North Korea calls the Homeland Liberation War. Inside we heard the DPRK’s narrative of cowardly running-dog Imperialist Americans trying to pull a “cunning trick” by signing the armistice under the flag of the United Nations, and we saw photographs of U.S. soldiers and pilots holding their hands up in surrender. I’d never felt so foreign.

Touring Kaesong Koryo Museum
Returning north, we stopped briefly at the Kaesong Koryo Museum to learn something about the country’s ancient roots, and we paused once more at that highway teahouse. One of our group leaders knew that the young women there sometimes sing for visitors, so she cajoled an impromptu performance. We applauded wildly, took pictures, bought tea, said our goodbyes. Our new friends grinned in bashful response and waved as we drove off. 

Tea house serenade
We had to race back to Pyongyang to visit the Schoolchildren’s Palace and see yet another show. The show included more acrobatics, dancing, and singing, and plenty more affirmation of DPRK glory, all performed by children. My favorite part showcased a pair of country bumpkin provincials staring awestruck at their first sight of Pyongyang’s gleaming skyscrapers and bountiful shops. I loved the sight of dancing red-kerchiefed kids, all wearing broad, fixed smiles, guiding the newcomers into the Socialist paradise. We laughed and clapped, exiting past a model space shuttle boasting a DPRK insignia.

Children's space shuttle
From time to time I’d flip through a phrasebook (“Let Us Learn Korean”) I purchased at a bookstore. While David diligently set about acclimating himself to the language, I simply enjoyed reading some of the sentences that foreigners are expected to practice.

[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
The evening offered two choices. We could tour the newly opened “Fun Fair” or we could see another performance of the Arirang Mass Games. David and I opted for the latter, especially after learning that we could snag first class seats for second class prices (100 Euro versus an original cost of 150 per seat). Pricey? You bet. Yet David and I needed to see this show again, partially to share our perceptions of the show with academic colleagues but mostly because we enjoyed last night’s show so much. The chance to sit next to Party bigwigs was also pretty cool.

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.”

Day 2 | Day 4

All photographs - except for "Debating" - © Andrew Wood

No comments: