The Benevolent Sun: Part II

Chas Carey has to get out of North Korea with a handful of photos he took illegally.

Be sure to read the first installment.

The afternoon was filled with excursions through the back streets of Kaseong to its “monuments” from the Goreyo dynasty, faded wooden structures staffed by women in “traditional garb” brandishing megaphones with no English explanation forthcoming, except at a tiny stone bridge in a rather sad, flooded park next to a long road where, apparently, the blood of the last Goreyo hero still stains the rocks from where he was murdered by the first emperor of the future Joseon dynasty 700 years ago. At each location, we were carefully kept from any opportunities to see the local populace, but the buses had to traverse the roads, and along the roads were the real people.

A walled-off residential area near a designated tourist site in central Kaesong.

A walled-off residential area near a designated tourist site in central Kaesong.

The men and women we passed by wore formless shirts and pants or dresses — navy, gray, beige, white. Once in a while, the younger men would wave at us when we waved, but never when a guard was watching. Women never waved, turning away as soon as they saw us. Children, though, often wore bright shirts with commercial logos on them — donated, most likely, from charities in the South. They would often break into broad smiles whenever the guards weren’t around, pointing and waving at us. I couldn’t bring myself to smile back, settling for the intense stare I’d seen the kids give to me in the windows downtown. It seemed the best way to convey a sense of interest without turning a blind eye to the fact that we were in an air-conditioned bus a world away.

Once off of the bus, I had more pressing concerns: principally, I was now in possession of serious contraband in the form of more than three “undesirable” photos. I had prepared for the possibility, but the word “sabotage” fluttered through the back of my head. My heartbeat sped up. If I was caught, I’d have no excuse.

In the pocket of my coat lay a simple case for my digital camera with no incriminating-looking pouches to draw attention to it, and wedged carefully into the base of that case was a second memory card. The trick would be finding a place to switch the two without drawing attention to myself, and switch back in the event that I managed to take more forbidden pictures. Several of the locales had utterly horrifying Chinese-style squat toilets with no running water and a stench that could kill several horses, but none of the “stalls” had locks or any method of ensuring privacy. I managed to switch out the “incriminating” card on the bus, with my friend, the Obama guide, gone. But the question of how to switch it back if I needed to still lingered, along with the more dangerous question of how to get it past the metal detectors and scanners at the border.

As we drove to the final location, the Goreyo Museum, children began to fill the streets, dressed in uniforms, carrying flowers, all headed in the same direction.

“School’s out,” murmured Josh.

“It’s Saturday,” I said.

“That means nothing here,” he said. “I wonder what all the flowers are for.”

“Maybe it’s Mother’s Day,” I replied, arching my eyebrows.

As if on cue, Seokjin piped up in the front. “You see the children with the flowers?”

We craned our necks dutifully.

“They are going to lay them at the feet of the Kim Il-Sung statue in the center of town. The whole city does it in shifts every Saturday.”

“Oh,” I said. “Kim Il-Sung Day.”

“Every day is Kim Il-Sung Day!” said a woman sitting across from us.

The central courtyard of the Goreyo Museum. Cranes loom in the distance.

The central courtyard of the Goreyo Museum. Cranes loom in the distance.

The Goreyo Museum complex was a modest palace with a small rear garden. As I walked along, trying to stay ahead of the meandering line of South Koreans, I noticed a pair of rusty cranes towering over some sort of construction project behind the main complex. I snapped a photo, careful to compose it such that it looked like I was taking a picture of the museum itself, but didn’t think much of my chances of seeing more.

The museum’s contents were woefully preserved and under-lit, not to mention only featuring Korean captions, so I soon grew tired with the fanciful depictions of raiding Mongols and rusted arrowheads and walked out into the parking lot. A small path snaked off to the rear gardens.

A sample of an exhibit at the Goreyo Museum, featuring invaders from what I assume are the Mongols/early Yuan Dynasty.

A sample of an exhibit at the Goreyo Museum, featuring invaders from what I assume are the Mongols/early Yuan Dynasty.

“Can I go that way?” I asked a blue-shirted Hyundai assistant.

“Yes,” he said, “no problem.”

I didn’t need to be told twice.

The rear garden had a few ninth-century Goreyo stone monuments, which were surprisingly well-kept, but they weren’t what drew my attention. Across from a small gulch stood the construction site, riddled with red flags and populated by North Korean men at work. They wore tattered but surprisingly varied clothes, though some had no shirts at all. None had any protective gear from what I could see — they were laborers, pure and simple.

The construction site behind the Goreyo Museum, as seen from the garden.

The construction site behind the Goreyo Museum, as seen from the garden.

The garden featured two parallel dirt paths through it, separated by a hedge, with a North Korean patrolling each one. Taking pictures would require three distinct operations: replacing the safe memory card with the incriminating one, taking the photos, and hiding the incriminating card again. I stepped out onto the path where the guard was walking away from me, opened my camera, and slammed my hand into my pocket.

Without withdrawing it, I eased the incriminating memory card out from its hiding place with one hand while trying to wriggle the safe card out of my camera in the other, using only my thumb. The catch gave. I drew the incriminating card out of my pocket. It slipped from my fingers. I stumbled after it as it landed, diode-side up, in a small puddle under the gray sky. I was too nervous to curse. I palmed it and wrapped the wet side in the denim on the thigh of my jeans, patting frantically, hoping and praying that I hadn’t irrevocably damaged it. I checked on the guard. No turn as of yet. I pulled the safe card out and jammed the incriminating card, still slightly damp, into the socket, shutting the camera and tossing the other card into my coat pocket as quickly as possible.

I’d never sighed harder. All the pictures were still there. The men on the construction site were too distant to see me, I hoped, or else just too concentrated in their work. Rather than return toward me, the guard swerved right and walked behind the hedge, setting out along the same path as the other guard. I couldn’t risk sticking my head out to check where the second, closer guard was on his patrol, but I figured I had maybe a minute to myself.

I raised the camera and snapped three quick photos of the site, then let it fall to my side. For good measure, I took a few quick blind shots of the surrounding statuary, then rounded the corner and ambled as freely as I could toward the bathrooms near the front gate.

True to form, they stank like nothing else, but no North Koreans were inside, only a traveler at the gulch that doubled for a urinal. Three stalls presented themselves to me, and I entered the middle one, shutting the door and leaning against it. I pulled out my camera and undid the latch, then, like an idiot, realized I hadn’t even bothered to look around. Above the squat toilet was a circular hole cut into the ceiling. There was no way to risk a second glance up to find out whether it was a simple vent or something more sinister: acting suspicious rat me out instantly. I pretended to examine the camera.

“What’s wrong with this thing?” I muttered, pressing the memory card in and out.

I’d win no awards for acting. Finally, I shut the latch, let out a long sigh, and hawked a gob of spit into the toilet to complete the illusion.

I left the stall and glanced up as carefully as I could at its neighbor on the right. No holes. I dove in as another Korean entered the room — a Southerner, fortunately, but I was taking no chances. I leaned once again against the door, let out an exasperated noise, and coughed and sniffled as I switched the memory cards. I hawked another gob of spit into the grimy toilet, made sure the incriminating card was fully secured in the pocket of the case, and walked out.

In the dusty courtyard of the Goreyo museum, under a thousand-year old tree, a North Korean security officer sat smoking with a precocious woman from New Zealand. He smiled nervously and took a drag on one of her cigarettes. She talked to him in patient tones.

“Smoke,” he said, waving his cigarette. “Very good.”

“Yes,” she replied. “I like it, too. Addictive.” She knew he had no shot at understanding the word, but laughed to herself anyway. “Is this your job?”

“Hmm?” said the guard, his nervous smile broadening. He chuckled a little, too, imitating her, but she had the conversation by the throat.

“Your job. Me, I’m a teacher. I teach. Teaching,” she repeated, miming the motion of writing on a blackboard. “Learning. Yes?”

“Ah,” said the security man. “Teach. Ah. Okay.”

“So what is your job?” she asked, moving her hand towards him again.

“Here,” he said.

“I guessed that,” she said, laughing a second time without letting the teacher’s interrogative drop from her tone, “but what else do you do? Another job?”

He was now trying to smile as wide as humanly possible, looking up at his colleague who stood nearby as if in desperate need of a wingman at a bar.

I stepped in. “Can I have a picture of you two?”

His head snapped towards me, the universal sign of relief on his face.

“Picture? OK!”

North Korean guard and New Zealand woman with friend, chatting over cigarettes.

North Korean guard and New Zealand woman with friend, chatting over cigarettes.

I steadied my hands and took the shot. It was my last picture from North Korea: nicotine, bringing people together.

My camera case sat deeply-nestled in the white plastic bag I’d used to pack up my books from Unification Restaurant. We were standing in line to exit back into the DMZ, but not before the North checked our cameras. Noticing that the guards didn’t ask for the souvenir bags to be x-rayed, I took my chances. The lines thinned until I realized I’d chosen terribly wrong — I would be the last one out of North Korea. Alone, I stood in front of the guard on the other side of the metal detector, camera in hand. He took it from me and turned it on, but couldn’t figure out how to scroll through the photos. I helpfully guided him, trying to smile, and he made what I hoped was an appreciative grunt as my safe photos flashed before him. Were there enough? Had I erred in not realizing that I would really need to switch cards until after Bakyeon Waterfall? Would he recognize them as purposefully innocuous?

He reached the end and looked up at me, then down at the camera. He grunted, and thrust it back into my hands.

I stepped out of customs and back on to the bus, and we took off through the DMZ once again.

“Did they take anything from you?” asked Josh.

“Not what mattered,” I said.

I tried to put my thoughts in order as we re-entered the South. The DMZ is the most militarized place on the planet, but also one of the most empty, so devoid of human contact that tigers are rumored to have repopulated its forests. Yet it’s possible to imagine the minesweepers coming through the eerie trees and quiet rolling hills, knocking down the bunkers and opening the roads. Maybe, I thought, in ten or twenty years, the best of all possible futures would render the images I smuggled out of Kaesong a cautionary tale, nothing more. Even now, the most pressing emotion is the sickly flash of optimism that sprung up in the back of my throat when I saw children in donated South Korean clothes wave at us, rare flashes of color.

We passed through Southern customs without incident, and I added to my list of blessings the fact that my brother hadn’t joined me — a heat sensor watched for signs of fever in returning travelers, since malaria is still endemic in the North. The passengers stayed quiet as we drove away from the DMZ, barely even showing one another the trinkets they’d collected. I leaned my head against the window of the bus and stared out at the landscape as small flashes of modern life began to creep back into the countryside. Satellite dishes on houses. Gleaming industrial harvesters outside farms. Cars alongside us on the highway. My eyes closed.

“Hey,” said Josh, lightly shaking me awake as the bus stopped in Seoul. “Were back.”

I stretched, yawned, shook his hand, then Seojkin’s, and walked out into the light of the late afternoon sun as it burned off the last of the day’s cloud cover. I spent a few minutes standing at the subway exit, watching the crush of brightly-clothed Koreans make their way into the narrow alleys surrounding Hongjik University, shouting and laughing with one another. Finally, I clutched my plastic bag of Northern books and impermissible photos to my chest and slipped into the crowd.

Chas Carey is graduate student currently studying at Georgetown in Washington DC. His work appears regularly at the Hearth Gods reading series in New York. His occasional ramblings and design work appear erratically here.