It was a humid North Korean afternoon, and my guide and minder Jo was not pleased.
“No photography! No construction!” he demanded, waving his hands impatiently as our tour bus clattered through Pyongyang’s expansive streets.
I lowered my camera, one of many raised against the window, and stopped snapping. Instead I stared hard, trying to memorise every detail of what might otherwise have been an everyday scene in the country’s capital. Along the pavement, partially obscured by a blue canvas, a row of women squatted, planting tufts of grass into a patch of dirt.
Technically, we had not broken any rules, which were clearly spelled out at the start of the trip and helpfully repeated when we boarded the tour bus each morning. No photographing soldiers in uniform, and since North Korea’s military is often seconded for building and construction projects around the capital, no photographing of construction sites either.
“But this is not construction, they are just planting grass,” offered a Polish gentleman, the older half of a father-and-son pair and one of thirteen others in my tour group.
“No construction,” repeated Jo emphatically.
The questions I received about North Korea when I came back were all the same ones I had before my trip. Is photography allowed? How ludicrous is the propaganda? And when the minders delivered their spiel about North Korea winning the Korean war or sweeping the medals table at the Olympics, did they actually mean it?
I puzzled over the last one from the moment I met minders Jo, Han and Lee. They received us at the Pyongyang Railway Station; Jo and Lee smart and pressed in short-sleeved shirts, Han resplendent in a chima-jeogori, better known as a hanbok in South Korea.
Their handshakes were firm and forthcoming but their smiles melted away quickly, and on the way to our hotel, as we made small talk about the 24-hour train ride from Beijing into the DPRK, I sensed their reservation.
Perhaps it was for good reason. Minders in North Korea play dual, sometimes opposing roles — it is their job to make sure visitors toe the line, stick with the group, and behave appropriately at haloed sites, such as the mausoleum housing Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il’s bodies.
But they were also responsible for making sure we have a good time, and peppered the conversation with factoids the hermit kingdom was eager to promote. 30 million volumes of books are available for the public, said Jo at the Grand People’s Study House, even as he halted any opportunistic photos of the scaffolded building behind it. Our minders danced a delicate waltz, and I sensed without being told the consequences of a misstep.
Their cautiousness made me sceptical, and I found myself analysing the contents of every conversation, trying to decide which parts were true and above that, whether they actually believed what they were saying; what they actually thought. But opinions did not seem to matter to Jo and Han, who in their early thirties already seemed like old hands at guiding. They were pleasant and genial to a fault, their mask never slipping even when delivering hyperbolic introductions at tourist attractions.
“After Dear Leader Kim Jong Il died, the people wanted to honour him with a statue just like his father, so they built this 5-metre tall bronze statue,” said Han at the Grand Monument of Mansu Hill, where father and son towered over scores of citizens bowing deeply at their bronze, boat-like shoes.
Lee, the youngest of the trio at 27, and relatively new to the job, was marginally more relaxed. Walking across our sprawling hotel lobby with my partner and I, he made a friendly attempt at conversation.
“Are you married?” he asked, as Dean and I exchanged furtive glances — would our unmarried status be frowned upon in a conservative North Korean society?
“No, we’re not,” said Dean, and Lee nodded, his face a polite smile I could not read. Still, it was he who brought up the topic, so I took the chance to venture further.
“What about you, do you have a girlfriend?” I asked, deliberately making my tone light, casual, almost playful.
“No, I don’t,” said Lee carefully, but there was a pause before he responded, a beat I immediately filled with conjecture. Had I tried to open a can of worms? Was he not allowed to talk about relationships?
“Maybe he’s just a private person,” said Dean, when I brought this up later, a whispered conversation in our hotel room. I mulled over the short exchange for a couple of days, but could not find reason to disbelieve Lee, or a way to make him deviate from the party line — if I could even see where that line was drawn.
At a pre-trip briefing in Beijing, our China based, expatriate run tour company ran us through the standard issue dos and don’ts of visiting North Korea. Avoid discussing politics, don’t bring religious material into the country and for goodness sake, don’t try to steal any political banners from hotels.
One piece of advice from the briefing stood out for me. “Be friendly with the minders, and they will let you in to more about their country,” exhorted our western guides, who would accompany us into North Korea.
Once across the border, however, watching them swap handshakes and long-time-no-sees with their North Korean counterparts, it became clear that theirs was an exclusive little clique that would not be easy to gain entry into.
“You have to show the North Korean guides that they can trust you, that they won’t get into trouble by talking to you. My friends here have told me things that could get their entire families arrested,” said one of our Western guides over dinner one day.
His manner was casual, even offhand, but I listened in envy, knowing it would be near impossible to forge a similar connection in my five days there. All the Japanese-made cigarettes in the world, which we had been asked to bring as gifts for the guides, would do little to prove the trustworthiness of a stranger.
There are ways I have learnt, as a writer, to help a nervous subject open up, or to ingratiate myself into a group of strangers. Every interviewer has their bag of tricks, but when laid out their contents would not vary by much.
I knew finding common ground on an innocuous subject could help ease me into a conversation, and that a sincere and well thought out question works twice as well as flattery. And though I did not come to North Korea looking for a story, I was hungry for information and found myself leaning on familiar techniques to get it.
But what did I have in common with a young man from one of the poorest and most repressed countries in the world? I quickly realised how much of the usual self introductions, the usual backpacker spiel of ’where-do-you-come-from-what’s-your-favourite-destination-how-long-are-you-travelling’ that had served me so well in hostel lobbies and bars, didn’t apply in a country that still does’t have internet access, let alone social media.
Still, amidst an back-to-back itinerary visiting eerily empty memorials, museums, stadiums and government buildings, every time there was a quiet moment with Lee I groped for a topic we could discuss on neutral grounds.
Where do you live? Close to the city. What is your favourite food? I like kimchi.
I tried to hide my frustration, not at Lee’s closed-ended answers, but at my own inability to tease out anything more. Interviewing is big part of my work, a skill I rely upon almost daily, and it shook me how ineffectual I felt.
Sometimes, though, Lee would broach topics I didn’t think were kosher for discussion. Have you been to South Korea, he asked me one day, while visiting the demilitarised zone (DMZ) that lay between the North and South. What is it like?
I had been to South Korea five years ago, had planned a trip to Seoul because as a 21-year-old university student, visiting the DMZ from the South seemed like the closest I would ever get to the elusive (and expensive) North. It was a cool July morning when I visited, the rain and mist shrouding my view into the DPRK, even though I zoomed in as far as I could with my camera’s extendable lens.
Still, when Lee asked, I wasn’t sure what to say — what kind of information he was looking for. In the North, both countries are commonly portrayed as siblings, sharing a culture and common tongue, torn apart unnaturally and awaiting eventual reunification. But I had read in Daniel Tudor and James Pearson’s North Korea Confidential that DPRK propaganda radio station Chosun-ui-Sori (Voice of Korea) regularly broadcasts news with a strong bias against South Korea’s “lackey” leaders, under the thumb of “imperialist” United States. Did Lee, as an elite member of Pyongyang society, entrusted with interacting with foreigners, want me to endorse the official view?
I also knew, however, that popular South Korean music and TV dramas such as Winter Sonata were slowly finding their illicit way across the border. Was Lee secretly a fan, curious about what lay beyond the heavily guarded barbed wire fences less than four kilometres from us that afternoon, but may as well have been on the other side of the world?
While I was debating how to respond, a member of our tour group piped up: “South Korea has a lot of good music and dramas,” she said.
“Yes, they do,” said Lee, his noncommittal smile giving way to a sliver of excitement. “Do you like South Korean dramas?” someone else asked.
This time, I could see Lee backing off. “No, I don’t,” he said with a finality that ended their questioning, and I could see the embers of the conversation fall like ash to the ground.
It felt like I was as close to Lee as he was to the South — almost there, so close to the information I wanted I could almost reach into the shroud of fog and brush it with my fingertips. It was only when I missed did I see the gaping chasm open up between us, and how far away Lee really was when he shrank back into brisk, efficient politeness.
Despite his reticence, Lee remained the good cop. Most of the policing fell upon Jo, who hovered around the Polish gentleman’s camera after the incident with the “construction”. Taking my cue, I kept my distance, and tried to play by the rules.
Jo only stopped me once, on one of the short walks were allowed on Pyongyang’s streets. Passing an apartment block, Dean pointed out some dusty potatoes and pumpkins in one of the windows, and I raised my camera for a photo just as a North Korean man happened to walk into my frame. When I raised my camera for a second shot, Jo descended upon us.
“No photography of people’s homes. They want their privacy,” he said, though I was sure it was the building’s ragged green paint and rusty window grilles he was really concerned about. My first reaction was to bristle, but again my writer’s instinct reared its head. Knowing I had already got a good shot, and hoping Jo would not make me delete it, I lowered my camera and my head in a false show of contrition which seemed to satisfy him.
Later I uploaded the offending photos, deleted them from my camera, and launched a charm offensive — if I couldn’t breach Lee’s defences, perhaps I could win Jo over instead. He didn’t seem averse to selfies, so we took a few, where he bared his teeth in an over-enthusiastic semblance of a smile. But when we stopped for beer at a North Korean brewery and I tried to loosen his tongue with a pint, Jo diplomatically refused.
Perhaps this is all you’ll learn about Pyongyang, I told myself, climbing onto the bus for our final day of touring, forcing myself to acknowledge the truth in all I had read about North Koreans being guarded and closed-off to outsiders.
That day’s itinerary included a trip to Kaesong, an industrial town where children frolicked half-naked in canals and locals cycling past our tour bus were intrigued enough by tourists to wave. It was a different side to North Korea, one that seemed a bit more idyll compared to Pyongyang’s blocky, greying apartments buildings and propaganda posters on street corners.
Still, there was no sidestepping Kaesong’s reality, or more painfully, my inability to understand it. Who were these people, and what were their lives like? What did they eat, drink, think, believe? I knew that even if they could speak freely, our minders could not accurately represent the hopes and dreams of 24.9 million countrymen. But at least it would be better than the stilted answers I received when I sat next to Jo in a supermarket parking lot later that day.
“Do you shop here often?” I asked.
“No, I shop nearer to my home, where it is cheaper.”
I paused, searching for a response, but Jo hastily spoke up again.
“But I have shopped here once or twice before,” he said emphatically, as though to preempt any questions I might have about whether “real” North Koreans shop at Kwangbok Supermarket.
We both turned back then, looking back at the red and green signs emblazoned on the three-storey building — Kwangbok Supermarket, spelled out in Chosun’gul or North Korean lettering, and then in Chinese characters below it — a nod to the Chinese investment and foreign imports that have slipped into the hermit kingdom.
Earlier, I had browsed its aisles relatively unchaperoned, save for our three minders stationed at the entrance to ensure that none of us wandered onto Pyongyang’s streets. While filling my own basket with snacks and liquor, I stole surreptitious glances at what the locals were putting into theirs. There were mothers with young children perched in trolleys and women with coiffed perms buying groceries alone, selecting boxes of biscuits, colourful bottles of syrupy drinks, and plastic bowls with tiny pink flowers on them.
When they left I hurried over to the shelf and picked up a bowl, turning it over to check its price. Instead I found a Made in China sticker, and suddenly North Korea felt like any other part of the world.
It rained the day we left, a warm summer drizzle that speckled the windows of our tour bus as we made the return journey to Pyongyang’s train station. Lee fell into step with Dean and I as we followed our group to the platform, and I searched for a goodbye that would sound neither flippant nor mawkish. It struck me how many partings had been softened by the promise of Facebook — another traveller on my list of contacts, another person to pepper my newsfeed with panoramas of rolling hills and jagged peaks. Another friend of the road, another goodbye made easy.
I was careful to promise none of the above to Lee.
We would not stay in touch, and I knew that even if we did, we would both run out of things to say. I was going home to an internet connection and a place in the free world, while Lee would wait for the next tour group, arriving that same day, to deliver the same spiel of victory during the Korean war and reverence of Dear Leader.
Perhaps Lee sensed this the same time I did, speaking faster as we approached the Pyongyang – Dandong – Beijing train, huddling close as he peppered Dean and I with questions that seemed to pour out of him at once. Where did we meet? How long had we been together? What did we do on dates?
“When are you going to marry her?” he asked Dean, and for once my usually-reticent partner did not deflect the question.
“Maybe in two to three years,” he said.
Perhaps our imminent farewell made Dean bold, too. “Do you have a girlfriend?” he asked Lee, repeating the same question I had asked on our first day.
This time Lee didn’t hesitate.
“Yes,” he said, and swiftly, in the next few minutes, he told us — they had met at work, when he used to be a translator; they communicate via text message; he would like to marry her in a year’s time.
The crowed swelled around us; the train conductors had begun herding people to board, just as I asked Lee, “What is your girlfriend’s name?” But we were surrounded now, and suddenly shy, Lee hung back.
“You can say it in my ear,” I said, gently teasing, not quite expecting him to lean forward and whisper it. Lee enunciated each syllable slowly, deliberately, like each one was precious, a secret both heavy and light at once. He said her name and it rang with truth, emotion, gratitude. He said her name and I knew he meant it.