At 5:15 a.m., Seoul lies under a hazy blue light, straddling the border between night and day. It was late July, 2008. I turned from the window to look at my brother, sleeping across the room. The periodic spikes in his mono-induced fever, which caused him to shake uncontrollably, had subsided for the moment, but he still looked miserable.
“You coming?” I asked.
“No.” He rolled over.
We were silent for a bit as I adjusted to being up before the dawn. “I’m sorry you’re sick,” I finally said.
“Me too,” he murmured, already drifting back off.
I washed up, pulled on my jeans, and left my cell phone by his bunk. “Listen!” I hissed, shaking him awake. “Get some sleep, but remember: If I’m not back by 9 p.m., you call the U.S. embassy and tell them where I went. Then call the family.”
At 5:50 I found the bus waiting, as promised, outside Exit 1 of the Hongik University subway station. As I clambered aboard, I was struck by the American accents. In reaching Seoul by crossing Europe and Asia, Americans had been a rarity. Here at least twenty murmured in their seats.
“My first impression of North Korea?” said a swelteringly obese Texan taking up two seats in the back row. “Lotta’ Westerners.”
Our guide for the day was Seokjin Park, a sturdy young South Korean man with an airy, clipped manner of speaking English. Seokjin alternated between a beaming smile and a zoned-out look of intense fatigue. I later learned he conducted almost every tour his company ran, and handled the bureaucracy for trips to the North personally.
“Good morning!” he said as the door swung shut. “I know the North controls what you can and can’t see. But let me promise you: this will be everything you were hoping for.”
He flashed a quick grin. “And probably more.”
The process of getting through the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea has been streamlined in a corporate way by Hyundai, under the auspices of the South’s Ministry of Unification. Their deal with the North permitted the conglomerate to build a light industrial factory in the border city of Kaesong in exchange for restricted civilian visits to the city. Allowing the North to train light industrial workers, the South reasoned, would wean them from their black-market staples of weapons and counterfeit currency, and the ability for the Southerners to visit their northern cousins fanned the fading hope of unification, or at least reconciliation.
But corporate gloss or no, crossing the DMZ is traversing the single most militarized border on the planet. As we prepared to enter the zone itself, the South Korean guard that searched our bus threw us a quick salute, smiling behind his wraparound shades, and tried his best to pretend he wasn’t carrying a wicked-looking submachine gun as he walked up and down the aisle, poking under the seats.
A long stretch of no man’s land, complete with a pristine concrete road adorned with lampposts depicting a united Korea, waits between the southern and northern customs control offices. After “checking out” in the South, our passports ominously stamped with an exit notice and the notation “→Kaesong” in place of a date, we were informed that the North, in an attempt to get the South to replace a few cross-border cables, would delay us for an hour.
“They like inconveniencing us in the hopes that someone complains to the South’s government,” said Seokjin. “Take 40 minutes and walk around.”
“Walking around” the dour parking lot and cavernous, empty hallway for 40 minutes was not anybody’s idea of a good time, but I met the other travelers: the grizzled older man with Cold War stories aplenty, the 40-something black woman from Atlanta who’d traveled to Japan on business ten years ago and decided to stay in the East forever (and said she’d worn a Knicks jersey that day as a “sign of cultural exchange,” with a wry grin), and a strange pair of Canadians who would go onto surprise our hosts in ways I never anticipated.
Finally, our buses were given the go-ahead. We were the eighth of ten in a tightly controlled convoy. All the others were loaded with South Koreans, mostly chattering away happily. But a few older men, walking with canes, their wispy hair under hats, stared out at the quiet hills of the border zone. They were the veterans, I thought, the ones old enough to remember one Korea, or at least the war that split them. Maybe they were going to where their families or they themselves were born.
“We’re on the North’s side of the zone, now,” said Seokjin at around 9:10. “Wave hi to the bunkers up there.”
We did. Ahead of the bus was a barbed gate. Two guards in faded olive uniforms swung it aside.
“You can wave to them, too, if you’d like,” said Seokjin.
I looked down as we passed, my hand at the ready.
The guard was a woman, her rifle slung onto her back, but I’ve forgotten everything else about her except her face. Her cheeks were sunken and her skin pale, and she stared at us with wide eyes. I felt my hand curl and my breath catch in my throat. In the cloudy light, she seemed almost feral, looking at me as if the bus was the only thing stopping her from tearing out my throat.
“Remember, no pictures,” said Seokjin as we passed through, “but capture this image in your mind: There are two signs on either side of this road ahead. The sign on the left says, ‘We will do whatever it takes for our Dear Leader,’ and the sign on the right says, ‘We will obliterate our greatest enemy, the United States.’”
The gate swung shut.
Kaesong is the second largest city in the North, and the former capital of the Goreyo dynasty, which controlled most of the Korean peninsula a millennium earlier. It’s also the only city to change hands as a result of the Korean War. The passage closed on December 1, 2008. As of today, resumption of travel is still under negotiation.
The North Korean rules were simple.
1. No pictures from the bus. No pictures of men or women in uniform. No pictures of “the cityscape.” No pictures of “citizens,” except guides/staff with prior permission. Cameras will be checked at North Korean Customs before departure. Violations: $30 for the first offense. $50 for the second. $100 for the third. Following that, a “determination” would be made, likely involving your detention.
2. The pass around your neck is a visa. Don’t lose it. Don’t mangle it. Don’t get it wet. If you do, you might not get out.
3. You will see rocks and statues with inscriptions by Kim Jong-Il and Kim Il-Sung. Do not touch, lean on, or point at these monuments.
4. Under no circumstances will you bring mobile phones, mp3 players, digital cameras with a zoom greater than 10x, analog cameras, laptops, communications devices, or extra batteries for any item previously mentioned of any kind into the country.
5. Smoke only in designated areas.
We passed through a perfunctory scan while men with rifles watched on a balcony above us. Northern customs control stamped the piece of paper hanging from the lanyards around our neck and we re-boarded our buses, which had been inspected by yet more of the North’s men with rifles. This time, three men joined us — two at the front of the bus, wearing white polo shirts adorned with Kim-Il Sung pins and walkie-talkies strapped to holsters around their waists, and one in a simple brown shirt at the back, also wearing the pin. These were our “guides,” Seokjin said. He handed the microphone over to one of the men in white.
“Introduce yourself!” he said, repeating it in Korean.
The man looked puzzled. The rest of the bus looked mortified. Getting a kick out of North Korean confusion seconds after arriving didn’t seem like any way of being good guests.
“Hello,” snapped the man into the microphone, passing it back to Seokjin and sitting down. A few nervous giggles trickled out from various corners of the bus.
The sites chosen for us by our gracious hosts were staged, to say the least — worn reconstructions of temples, tired exhibitions with small Korean-language plaques, and grim little monuments wedged onto cracked streets with no drainage. Seokjin knew the breaks, however, keeping the commentary to a minimum and pointing out that the sooner we looked at what they wanted us to look at, the longer we could actually look at (though never photograph) the city and its residents.
For their own parts, the North’s guides weren’t stupid, and they watched us angrily as we traipsed past their “cultural artifacts,” nodded, and proceeded to wave at the crowds that would gather across streets to gawk at us until the secret police arrived to disperse them. To the guides, it looked as if the Westerners treated the people, not the sites, as the tourist attractions, and if you’ve ever been pointed at in the streets before, you might recall the sense of umbrage you felt at being looked at as a novelty.
The North’s agents on our bus had been hand-picked because they spoke almost no English and therefore couldn’t get to know us any better. The brown-shirted guide in the rear stared straight ahead, wedged between the obese Texan and the short Canadian girl. Her traveling partner Josh, a Korean by birth but a Canadian citizen by passport, sat next to me a row further forward, wearing a black t-shirt and a silver cross on a chain. The guide’s gaze drifted toward him as we drove. Finally, he stole glances first at a sheet of paper in his lap, then up at Josh.
“Where,” he began, haltingly, “are you from?”
We looked at each other to see if he was talking to us. He jutted his chin towards Josh and leaned a little closer, making an interrogative grunt to clarify.
“Canada,” said Josh.
The man’s face remained blank.
“Ca-na-da,” he said, slower.
The guide’s eyes dropped down to a piece of paper he held in his hands.
“Do you speak any English?” asked the Texan. “English?”
The guide shook his head.
“Anything else, then?”
The guide looked up for a moment before returning to scanning the page.
“Rossiya (Russian),” he said.
“Anyone speak Russian?” yelled the Texan.
“Uh,” I said to him, trying to knock the conversation down into a quieter register, “Spasiba (thank you), puzhalsta (please), that’s about it.”
The guide’s eyes darted up to me. He spoke a quick burst of Russian.
“Pros`tite (sorry),” I said, wincing again in what I hoped looked like an apologetic manner. “I can’t. No Russian.”
He grunted again and returned to his paper.
“Where you from?” asked the Texan, smiling. “You from Pyongyaaaang?” The long A drawled out across the back of the bus. “Eh? You know Pyongyaaaang?”
The guide ignored the Texan, still concentrating on his piece of paper, his lips moving faintly. I took a sidelong glance at it. Beneath were a few simple phrases in English along with what I assumed were Korean transliterations of all of our information. He wanted to know who he was talking with, I realized.
He spoke a sentence in Korean to Josh.
“I don’t speak it,” he replied. “Not really. A few words.”
“No?” said the guard. A slightly perplexed look came over his face.
The Canadian girl laughed nervously. The guide turned to her.
“You?” he said.
“Canada,” said the girl. Then she dropped the bombshell. “We’re married,” she said, gesturing to Josh. “Married,” she repeated.
Josh blurted out something in Korean. “I said ‘wife,’” he explained. “I don’t know the word for ‘married.’”
The guard’s eyes widened. I stared at them too — they were too young to be married, I thought to myself, but the large cross around Josh’s neck was a plausible explanation. The guide, though, was still having trouble believing it.
“You?” he said, jutting his head forward at Josh.
“Uh-huh,” said Josh, looking bashful under the stare of the guard.
Slowly, the North Korean turned his head back towards the front of the bus.
“Huh,” he whispered.
At Bakyeon Waterfall, the “third most beautiful in all Korea” and far removed from the city itself, I bought some North Korean snack food, which the attendant said were “poppies,” for two dollars. The waterfall itself was surrounded by stones bearing huge red characters, along with dates before and after Juche (the birthday of Kim Il-Sung) with their Gregorian equivalents in parentheses. After aimless wandering and polite nodding, we were soon on our way again, convoying back towards Kaesong proper for lunch.
The “poppies” in question were sugary, starchy, deep-fried pastries of some kind. I ate one, grimaced, then turned around to look at the eternally stoic guide in the back with us. I took a deep breath and offered up the plastic tray they’d come in.
“Sir?” I said, feeling stupid. He looked ahead, oblivious. “Sir?” I repeated, making my best effort at being polite but not insistent.
The guide looked at the slimy globules, then at me, his face trapped between perplexity and disgust. “No,” he barked, slamming his hand out and nearly sending the tray scattering up the bus’s aisle. I yanked it back.
Josh, sitting beside me, was a quick thinker. “I’ll have one,” he said.
I paused for a moment, then realized what he was getting at.
“Yeah,” I said, “go ahead. Anyone else? North Korean snack food?”
The guide watched us munch away. I glanced at him out of the corner of my eye, careful not to do anything else that might offend him. But Josh had the right idea: in offering the food around, it made the case that I was being polite rather than treating him both as an enemy and a tourist attraction in offering to exchange food for conversation.
“Where are you from?” the guide asked me, as I finished dispensing the fried, starchy material. I looked over at his list, still close to his chest.
“The States,” I said, rattling off synonyms. “America. The U.S.”
“Oh,” said the guide. I tried to think of something to say, but I couldn’t think of any way to make polite conversation, and so we sat in silence for a few minutes, eyeing one another when we thought the other wasn’t looking.
Finally, he asked the question. “Obama?”
I blinked and shook my head. “What?”
“Obama,” repeated the guide. The others started to pay attention.
“Obama? John-mac-ain?” The guide moved his hands like a scale, and I understood.
“Oh!” I said, too loudly. “Uh. Wow. Obama? Yeah. Obama.” I made the thumbs-up motion, then realized that he probably didn’t understand the thumbs-up motion and instead moved my hand, palm-upward, towards the roof. “Obama,” I repeated. “Yeah.”
“Hell, yes!” bellowed the obese Texan, cutting into the conversation.
“Obama, yes. Noooo Bush. Nooooo.”
Before long, the entire back of the bus was filled with English voices, vouching for Barack Obama in the middle of North Korea.
“Oh,” said the guide, nodding, looking around at the suddenly animated crowd without emotion. He seemed to have nothing more to say on the subject.
“You?” I made the motion he’d made, imitating a scale. “Obama? McCain?”
His eyes widened again, and this time the sneer was gone. I kept eye contact and put on an encouraging smile. Finally, he turned his gaze downward, putting both hands palm-forward like a police officer stopping traffic. He spoke in Korean, but the phrase was similar enough to Chinese that I got it.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said, and for the first time, he smiled.
Unification restaurant, our lunch stop in downtown Kaesong, had no power, but the gray light that filtered in from the windows reflected off the painted white walls of the main dining hall. Every single table, regardless of how many people actually showed up on the tour, was decked out with the food. The message was obvious: We have plenty to eat here. Rumors of famine are exaggerated. Everything is fine. Ignore the fact that your sumptuous meal is lit “naturally.”
As this would be our only chance to actually see downtown Kaesong up-close, however, most of us scarfed down our meals and excused ourselves. I stopped in the small bookstore on the way out.
“Don’t, you can’t buy any books,” said Seokjin wearily as I walked in. “Well, you can, but the South will just seize them when you return. So don’t.”
“I’m just looking,” I said.
Along the rear wall were hundreds of North Korean books in English, ranging from Distortion of U.S. Provocation of Korean War to The Leadership Philosophy of Kim Jong-Il. A series of brilliant red hardcovers caught my eye: The Benevolent Sun, the multi-volume biography of Kim Il-Sung, the “Great Leader” and father of North Korea, named its Eternal President (despite having died in 1994) by his son, Kim Jong-Il. “The rays of Juche spread all over the world!”, bellowed their dust jackets. The title stuck in my mind as I bought a few books against Seokjin’s guidance and stepped out into downtown Kaesong.
“Downtown” is perhaps a misnomer — Kaesong has one large main road, on which no cars travel, save the newly donated buses from Hyundai. The bombed-out apartment buildings that seem to predate the Korean War lining either side of the road serve as its sentinels, eclipsing even the bronze statue of Kim Il-Sung at the top of the city’s central hill. Apparently, the companion of the Namdaemun Gate of Seoul, a UNESCO World Heritage monument destroyed by arson in early 2008, sits in a quiet traffic roundabout in Kaesong, rotting, but we were cautioned to avoid even trying to catch a glimpse of it. Hyundai’s own team of young minders kept us on the city block where the restaurant stood, and formed a cordon at the point leading up to the massive Kim Il-Sung statue — we were warned that if we walked any closer, the North would demand we bow to it.
Seokjin wandered up next to me as I reached the end of the “allowable zone” furthest from the statue, next to a shuttered building with a strange obelisk in front of it — the department store, Seokjin said.
“I see a lot of slogans that begin with ’21,’ Seokjin,” I said. “What are they saying?”
“They say ‘Kim Jong-Il is the greatest leader of the 21st century,’” replied Seokjin. “I wish he’d open up the store.”
“Is it ever open?” I asked.
“They tell us it’s open from 3 to 4 p.m.,” said Seokjin. “But we’ll never know because we’re never allowed to be here then.”
A squat apartment block flanked the restaurant on the other side of a narrow, grimy canal at the bottom of the hill, across from the department store. Once Seokjin departed, I ducked down the embankment, losing my minders for a few brief moments. In the windows, children poked their heads out at me, pointing, freezing whenever I looked in their direction. Older siblings and mothers held the younger ones close as I waved, looks of total incomprehension on their faces. It crossed my mind that since this was only the fifth tour that had included Seokjin’s Western contingent, I might’ve been the first white person they’d seen in the flesh.
I knew I’d be in incredible trouble, and the ethics of it weighed on me: the extent to which I was a voyeur into their misery only grew as I kept waving to no avail. Finally, I pulled out my camera. The kids dove for cover. A few stayed in place, either doubting I’d actually take the picture or thinking I’d never make it out with it intact. The shutter snapped. I did a quick pivot and took pictures along the back road, catching glimpses of the citizens in the distance. My hands shook. I dropped to one knee like a tourist at the Eiffel Tower, steadied my aim, got a few clear images, and bolted. When I got back to the bus, the guide who’d asked me about Obama had vanished.