Encounter With The Kims

Trip Start Jul 29, 2006
Trip End Sep 03, 2006

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Flag of Korea Dem Peoples Rep  , Gangwon,
Monday, September 4, 2006

We honestly thought nothing of it, even though we probably should have. The mural looked warm and inviting, so harmless and fascinating, exposed as it was under bright lights in the dark evening, and we were drawn to it like moths to a flame.

Aside from the hotel compound our group was staying at, there was another hotel some distance away but more commonly used by South Koreans. We'd heard there was a noribang, or karaoke bar there, and four of us set out in the night to check it out and report back to the crowd of foreigners already gathered on the main drag and quickly working through the beer fridge of the local Family Mart.

In Kumgangsan, shuttle buses run tourists back and forth to different areas of interest with South Korean precision and regularity, and the one that took us to the Hotel Kumgangsan (as opposed to Hotel Oekumgang, which, very roughly translated, means "foreigner hotel") took us past a giant mosaic portrait of Kim Il Sung and his son and current dictator, Kim Jong Il, erected across the street from the hotel. There was no question where we were headed when the bus dropped us off.

Does it matter that I am a history nerd, that the sight of a portrait of North Korean dictators excites me? Is it strange that I yearned for this moment, to be as close to these despots as I will ever get? And get relatively close we did, but not before the shrill blast of a whistle brought us to a dead stop. Somewhere in the darkness we were being observed, and the whistle sounded clear as a rifle shot.

Almost by instinct I put my hands up, and we retreated to a respectful distance as the guard who had spotted us emerged from the darkness. Behind us, a squad of soldiers, perhaps a dozen in total, marched by in goose-stepped unison down the road, mercifully unaware of our trespass.

There is something terrifying and yet totally mesmerizing about totalitarianism and its trappings, and watching the soldiers march by brought shivers of awe and dread, and a wonder of what it must be like to attend the May Day parades in Pyongyang, when hundreds of thousands of soldiers and tanks and missiles pass in unison before the Dear Leader.

Back at the hotel we were told that only North Korean staff could take pictures of the mosaic, and when a group of us returned the next day we were met by a stony faced concierge who refused to take individual pictures. Though we settled for a group shot I lingered long enough to convince another North Korean to take my own picture.

But that night, still fresh and flushed from our encounter, we retreated to the hotel, a sparking and grand affair with lofty, ornate ceilings and crystal chandeliers. Feeling distinctly out of place, we made a half-hearted quest after the noribang and left, though not before thoroughly entertaining the staff, North Koreans especially, by dancing along to the hotel's muzak.

Unmistakable for the pins of Kim Il Sung on their uniforms, the North Koreans work alongside their southern counterparts, sometimes sharing a joke or gossip or news of their respective families. There were few North Koreans at our hotel, and the one I did meet told me he was from China, but whether he was a Chinese North Korean or North Korean Chinese escaped me. The distinction can be easily blurred by geopolitics and translation. Our guide assured me that the workers were indeed North Koreans, and that their relationship with their southern coworkers and the tourists was cordial and apolitical; the last point easily imagined in a country not unlike George Orwell's 1984.

Our hearts still aflutter with our brush with the soldiers and keen to share the story, we returned to our hotel compound where the party was well underway. A few dozen foreigners had commandeered a good portion of the patio furniture, and the Family Mart was in danger of running out of beer. While the South Koreans had retired to a good night's sleep we carried on well into the night, undetered by the prospect of an early morning wake up call.
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