Thursday, December 18, 2014

North Korea Redux

Against the backdrop of the ongoing Sony hacking saga, I thought I'd repost an older story 

I wrote about a trip to Pyongyang while Kim Jong Un's dad, Kim Jong Il, was still the boss.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

So, How was North Korea?

I'm still groggy from a whirlwind trip to North Korea. By the time David Caras and I hit the tarmac in Pyongyang, we'd been in the air for 23 hours, with brief stops in San Francisco, Honolulu and Hanoi!

The trip was sponsored by the Korean Friendship League, a front organization for Socialist romantics. The Korean people were friendly, somewhat wary of Americans, and excruciatingly polite. The purpose of our little jaunt was to try and persuade Kim Jong Il to write an essay for the book that David and I are doing. We had been guaranteed in advance only that we'd get to meet with an "important" official to discuss our project.

On the morning after our arrival we were whisked—in a giant black Russian limo—to the Foreign Affairs Office at Solidarity House. Several young Korean women fussed over us in the reception area. Did we want tea? Ice cream? More tea? Hand massage? Cigarettes? Beer? We were still pretty woozy from the trip, so we said no to the beer and cigarettes. We gulped down the tea though, and David had a hand massage. After about two hours, we were ushered into a cavernous room that was very ornately decorated; lots of gold and several large portraits of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il's father and the original "Supreme Leader" of the country. And there, emerging from behind a desk the size of a small yacht, was Kim Jong Il himself!

Our audience was brief. Kim welcomed us to Korea, hoped we'd enjoy our visit, promised us tours of a hydroelectric plant, the zoo, and the Museum of Socialist Painting and Sculpture. He'd been well-briefed and knew all about our work. David and I had boned up a little on Kim's own artistic efforts—he's written some lyrics for operas and published a couple of books of poetry. One of them, "Strolling Through a Garden," contains haiku-like poems that mix politics and nature. I recall one poem titled Exalted Bee: "Work. Sting. Rejoice. Return to your Cadre."

After a few minutes of translated chit-chat, an aide interrupted to whisper something in the Great Leader's ear. I figured our time was up, and it was, but then we were invited to join His Excellency later that night for a "private reception" and to discuss our proposal. While ushering us out, an aide said, with a nervous smile and a wink, "I hope you like cocktails."

I can't go into the details of our night at the White Swan Guest Pavillion. Firstly, because we were warned—by the same aide who asked if we liked cocktails—to just forget the whole evening. Secondly, we couldn't remember most of it if we tried. I dimly recall those cocktails, several attractive "hostesses" and loud music: Earth, Wind, and Fire, Celine Dion, New Kids on the Block, Aerosmith, and Lady Gaga. But somewhere in the midst of all this, Kim Jong Il promised to write something for our book!

We got back to the hotel at about seven in the morning, just in time to shower and shave before touring the hydroelectric plant.

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