Translated by Paul Russell Garrett
Contact firstname.lastname@example.org www.immaterial.no
- Diarrhoea medication
- Extra memory card for your camera – they cannot be purchased in the country
- Alarm clock – you will not have access to your mobile phone
- 400 Euros – tourists cannot use the local currency. Bring small notes and coins
- Tissues – toilet paper is not always available in public toilets
- Gifts for drivers and local guides: pens, cigarettes, make-up, candy and similar items
- Never say North Korea, say DPRK or Democratic People’s Republic of Korea
- Do not bring books, articles, magazines or other material about the DPRK
- Do not bring books, articles, magazines or other material in Korean
- Do not bring South Korean or American flags
- Do not bring clothes with controversial or political slogans
- Do not bring any device that has a GPS function, including cameras
- Mobile phones cannot be brought into the country
- There is no internet in the country
- Phone calls can only be made from the hotel payphone. The conversation must be in English
- Emails can only be sent from the hotel communications centre. The email must be in
- Postcards can only be sent from the hotel communications centre
- Bring prescriptions with you, it is not possible to purchase them in the country
- Dairy products cannot be purchased in the country
- Look presentable
- Respect the country’s culture. Show particular respect for the country’s leaders – never fold,
crumple or tear up a picture of the leaders. A picture of the leader IS the leader
- Do not ask questions about what you see, it could be perceived as being disrespectful of
- Do not talk about politics, poverty, famine, the country’s leaders, South Korea, the USA,
war or nuclear weapons
- You must bow when standing in front of a statue of Kim Il-Sung. If you are not willing to do
that, we recommend you do not visit the country
- Never pour your own drink, allow others to do it for you. Pour for others and always pour
for the eldest first
- Offer and accept gifts, business cards and similar items using both hands, it is an expression
- Keep your hands faced down when waving. Never turn your fingers upwards. Always wave
- ‘Yes’ means that someone has understood what you are saying, it does not necessarily mean
- ‘Maybe’ or ‘we’ll see’ might mean ‘no’
- A smile is an expression of uncertainty, embarrassment or pain
- Be respectful when taking photos, for example, do not lie down in front of a statue to get a
better angle for your photo
- Do not photograph parts of paintings, monuments or statues. Make sure to get the entire
statue in the frame
- Do not take photographs of any military or strategic targets, including soldiers
- Do not take photographs from inside the coach
- Do not take photographs of people
- Do not take photographs behind statues or monuments
- Your tour guides will be held responsible for you and your conduct, even when they are not
with you. You will always pose a certain risk to the guides. Cooperate with them and be respectful. Even if you cause problems inadvertently, there will be consequences for yourself and the group. You may not travel on your own other than inside the hotel. For example, if you try to go out at night, there will be serious consequences for both yourself and the group – worst case scenario, the entire group can be expelled from the country
- Journalists and photographers cannot travel on tourist visas, if you are a journalist or photographer, you must apply for special permission. Do not attempt to sneak into the country on a normal tourist visa
- Articles or photos from the tour may not be published without permission. If you do so anyway, we will be obliged to take proceedings against you for having breached our trust. Although we support freedom of expression, we need to protect ourselves and our guides
- You have been invited to visit the DPRK. Questions regarding what is right or wrong, true or false should be forgotten. It is a great honour to travel to the DPRK. You will be allowed to see everything through your own eyes. What you get out of this trip will depend on what you put into it
It could have happened. I could have gone, Father. I could have got to know you as the child you were, after the woman with the round glasses gave birth to you in a village by the Yalu River. Her transparent bridal veil hangs like a wreath, her face reveals: I am getting married. Han, the name you bear as yours. You own nothing, Han, but you are father to someone, you are my biological father. When you die, you leave me the only photo I have from North Korea, a wedding photo, black-and-white, frayed at the edges, as though it had been torn into pieces. A photo of your parents, bride and groom, standing side by side, the river roaring behind them. Man and woman, man and river. Halmoni, Grandmother, you look across time through the camera. Your face is a wheel, your mouth a darkly painted flower. Your arms hang by your side like Grandfather’s do, Halaboji, his hair black and shiny. His hair is parted down the middle, a white line dividing the black fringe into two silk curtains, fastened with an invisible button by each temple. Halaboji, wearing a black suit with sleeves that are ever so slightly too long, you resemble a large child. Han, we could have discussed it, you and I, discussed them, the wedding photo, and that which after several years of invisibility suddenly appears in the picture, shooting up behind grandfather like a shadow, thin as a stalk, a brother with high cheekbones, almond-shaped eyes and the same pointed ears as you. Han, your father, my grandfather, Halaboji, dies before his time. You are one year old, as I was one year old, when you separated us. Father and daughter, two continents, two languages, and you pull my first language from my body. Like a magician pulling handkerchiefs from between his lips, from below, from within, that is how you remove the language. The words, the black ants, they are no longer mine. The ants are a population with noiseless, active movements, they gather to erect a mound in the middle of the landscape, a mountain in history, in memory, in me. An uncontrolled energy thrives in that mountain. An energy that is expelled from time to time, leaving a white mushroom in the sky, above the earth. Rain falls from that cloud, black as coal, white as fat, cold as the friend who stabs you in the back, it foreshadows the annihilation of everything. Han, you see that I must travel. That it must happen. I am opening the letter. I have been granted a visa. I can travel to the country where you were born, but that I cannot visit Sinuiju, the city where you were born. The train that will take me out of the country will pass through your hometown. I will pass through the city, that is all. I have to travel with a group in order to enter North Korea, and the group has to follow an itinerary. Nobody can enter the country on their own. The travel agency asks me to write a letter that states: I am a tourist, I will stay with the group, I will never write about what I see. I hesitate. I run down an empty street. I don’t stop. I can’t stop. Falling. The snow is falling, the white skin, my body slips, like I’m sliding into a bath. I’m lying weak-kneed, held together only by the clothes I wear. Outside, the hoarse shrieks of the peacock, inside, the cold metallic jets of the bath. The sound is a street flowing from the ear, ending in a den of snow and skin. The snow is a den. The skin is thin, placed inside the den as a window. To fall, to fall inwards, to fall away and get lost. To pluck the tail feathers from the peacock and gather them into a fan. To use the fan as a broom and sweep the floor of the den, to shut the room up for winter.
I pack my rucksack, my passport, my clothes, my toothbrush, an extra pair of shoes, cameras, and an iPad without GPS. I stand in front of the mirror, imagine myself walking through the city where you were born as if I belong here, Han, a father, I walk as you walked on this street. There, you turn down another street that intersects the street running south. The winter draws on and birds are thrust across the border.
‘The border is a line drawn on the map with a plastic ruler,’ you say. The border is a line stretched between fence posts in the landscape, the animals are hanging on the line like frosted pearls, a white tiger is a woodlouse is a crane is a wild boar is a butterfly is a fly and a fat, silvery fish so slick that it slips between the claws of the porcelain bears, so big, too big to hang on the line, half of the bear’s body lies in the pale green grass like great, stiff tongues. On one side of the border, Korea, on the other side, Korea, and Korea uses the line as a tightrope. Time ties a knot here. Koreans, you are
one people before forces from within and from without decide that the country must be divided into two and you are able to wage war against yourselves and nobody will ever run to the south again. Time. It unravels now. And I travel. I travel into the hermetically sealed land. To the north.
Day 1 − 9°
The watch is round. Airplanes circle and dive like black insects. We are at Beijing Airport. At 1 p.m. our plane arrives. At 2 p.m. it takes off again. There are fourteen of us travelling together. Betsy’s long, blonde hair binds the group like a sheaf. Gentle as a mermaid, Betsy, our English guide, sits amongst us, the visitors, as we hover silently under her green gaze. The majority of us are between twenty-five and forty, a few are older and a few are younger, together we speak nine languages and for the most part, we travel alone. The North Korean interpreters, Chang and Ho are a couple, a man and a woman, one young, one old. They stand waiting at the airport when we arrive.
‘Chang and Ho will accompany us during our six days in the country. You can trust them,’ Betsy says.
‘They will not monitor you, they are your guides.’ Her laugh now reveals a gleaming smile, like there were diamonds perched on her teeth.
‘You can’t leave the hotel under any circumstances,’ she says.
‘I know it’s unusual, but there is good beer and lots of entertainment at the hotel. The basement is filled with games and light,’ she says. And the light becomes lighter. The sun has moved, the plane is about to take off, it takes off.
Han, what kind of life am I leaving in order to travel to this closed country? Three children, a husband, my home, my heart is a muscle the size of a hand, pumping blood round my body.
‘Don’t go,’ my youngest says.
‘What if you never come back,’ she says. Her small arms are wrapped tightly around my neck.
‘I’m scared too,’ I think, but I don’t say it. My anxiety grows. It does not lessen. At the airport, I ask Betsy if I can say that I’m a poet if a North Korean asks me.
‘Of course, that’s not a problem,’ she says. But when I ask if I can say that you, Han, were born in Sinuiju, she gets upset.
‘Why didn’t you tell us this before?’ Her cheeks flush, she clenches her jaw firmly.
‘I sent you an email,’ I answer.
‘You must never tell anyone. Never. Not even the others in the group,’ she says in a low voice.
I am sitting next to Arthur, a 30-year-old Scot with mousy hair. Arthur is the only one of us who speaks Korean. He lived in South Korea for two years when he was younger.
‘I’m making a list of the hundred top places to see in the world,’ he says and continues. ‘For the past seven years I’ve been working on an oil rig, now I’m travelling the world.
‘You lived on an oil rig for seven years?’ I ask.
‘Yes,’ Arthur says, ‘A lot of them have living quarters on the production platforms,’ he says, ‘and helipads.’ My gaze wanders, I tune out of his story and focus on the stewardesses, their decorative, gentle figures gliding up and down the centre aisle in their red uniforms, white shirts and shiny shoes. Everything is freshly-cleaned, polished, pressed, smooth. Their hair is combed back tightly at the neck and gathered into a bun. They have narrow, lustrous eyes while small silk scarves nestle around their necks. Necks swaying like stalks, the silk scarf is wrapped loosely around the stalk and knotted just above the collarbone. The corners of the scarf look like wings.
I take a photo:
A ventilation duct and a round button in the ceiling. To the right of the duct and the button, a monitor. The screen reveals a picture of two round airplane windows. Two people sitting in two
airplane seats. A young woman with an oval face in a tight, red sleeveless dress. She is wearing a white shirt under her dress. Covering her upper body is a yellow life jacket. Her hair is gathered in a bun. She smiles with sealed lips. Her face is turned towards a boy, partially hidden by the life jacket she is pulling over his head. The boy’s hair is cut short, his shirt has red, black and white stripes. The screen displays the message: In case of an emergency landing at night, remove the plugs from the lights in order to see in the water.
I hold a copy of the Pyongyang News in my hands. Careful, be careful. I could drop the newspaper, I could accidentally crumple it, tear it up into tiny pieces, rip the face on the cover, fold it like paper. A stewardess is collecting the papers, several return them, others keep them as souvenirs. Betsy gets up to pass on a message to the group. She runs a hand through her mermaid hair, opens her big green eyes and fills her lungs.
‘I will now distribute some small square bags, please write your name on the bag and place your mobiles inside. I will look after the phones until we leave the country,’ Betsy says.
We are aware of the rules we must follow.
Han, do I look like them? Do they think I look like them? What are the stewardesses talking about behind the long, red curtains that separate their area from ours? And if I do look like them, where does the resemblance lie? Does it matter to them that they look like me? Does it matter to me that I look like them? Do they doodle on the newspapers when they are alone in the airplane toilet, mapping their connections around the world, connections between people that tighten around the waist like a corset. Just below the ribs, in the middle of the airspace, love is hovering like a globe. On the globe, the maternal basket rests in the paternal country. Now, I am floating like a grain of dust, it is simple, I close my eyes. Now I sink into the redness, the gentleness, I sink all the way in, with my eyes open and my gaze empty. Han, can I call this country my own because you were born here? Can I call this country my own when I leave again? Like an egg, I am lying in the maternal basket tucked under the wing of the plane. The egg will divide into two, into three, and more. Here, everything feels as light and as heavy as sleep.
We land in North Korea, the way one lands in an airplane. The airport building resembles a large tent. Our airplane stretches its metal wings in the clear, frosty air. It is parked behind four or five other planes near the building. The long, wide runways are empty. Our plane is the only one to have arrived recently. We wait in front of the baggage carousel with the other passengers – well-dressed North Korean women wearing dark sunglasses and expensive fur-lined jackets, North Korean men in suits and full-length coats, a few businessmen, some Chinese, an Arab and another group of tourists, all waiting for their baggage just like us. Everything makes its rounds on the baggage carousel. Washing machines, suitcases, cardboard boxes, cigarettes, more suitcases. Nobody pushes, nobody shoves, it is like we exist in an entirely different place. They look right through us, like we are clouds and dust. Maybe they’re shy, I think. Or arrogant? Maybe they are not allowed to speak to us. Suddenly I feel empty, forsaken, the scenery fades and for a brief moment the illusion is complete. I feel a stabbing pain, like a thin awl jabbed into the lower back only to be quickly withdrawn. I am dizzy, I try to stand completely still, hold my breath, swallow. The pain disappears as quickly as it came, through a door, through a pore in the building, I glimpse a frosty white landscape. A cloud breaks loose, I take a deep breath. Through the valley, something powers forward, panting like a train, steaming, forcing its way through the landscape and I bump into a man. I turn my head. Here, I see him for the first time, the North Korean, tall as a tower, his face mirroring that of the mountain, his ears large and protruding, his mouth soft and broad. Dazed, the words flock together, grow stronger than the Danish words and force their way out before passing from my lips, but the man does not make a sound.
‘Have I seen you before?’ I ask. He fixes his gaze to the floor and steps away, sideways, silently out of the picture.
Day 2 − 10°
King Long Coach. The engine is rumbling, it is warm and new, with a grey ceiling, grey floors and cream-coloured curtains. The headrests are upholstered with artificial white leather and the seats with a synthetic blue fabric. King Long is designed for sixty passengers. There are only eighteen of us. We each have a double seat. It suits me fine, compensates for the lack of personal space that is part and parcel of travelling in a group. I sit alone on the bus and allow my gaze to wander. I do not need to speak to anyone. The bus is odourless. The smell inside the bus comes from outside, from us, from the chemicals we secrete, sweating in our snow pants and thick jackets on the heated bus. Salt, urine, chemicals, Dermicidin protects against bacteria, the single-celled microorganisms that live everywhere, ball-shaped, bar-shaped, spiral-shaped, individual cells forming chains, clusters, threads, complex branched filaments. Patterns of the living exist on the bus, a gradually increasing flock.
I wipe the steam off the window with the sleeve of my jacket. The glossy skin of the river reflects the light. The nascent light, the biological, the internal, fragile light, the light that quakes, cuts, breaks, blinds, blends, chops, soothes, shows that there is life. Far out on the river, a small, dark shadow crosses the ice. The bus starts up, we drive towards the city. The day’s itinerary begins. The six days we are in the country are planned down to the last detail, what we are going to see, where we are going to eat, what we are going to eat.
‘We’re very fortunate to have the cameraman with us for the six days of our stay,’ Betsy says. Her mermaid hair is in a ponytail, fluttering behind her like a pennant.
‘On the final day of the trip, you can buy a film about the DPRK, starring all of you. It will only cost ten Euros,’ she says and smiles.
‘Is this part of the surveillance,’ Dan says.
‘No,’ Betsy says. ‘The film is a gift.’
Han, here I am, in the country where you came into being. What was it like to travel through Korea with your aunt in one hand, your uncle in the other? Heading south, you were a child then, the country was one Korea, a woman and a kitchen, a watermelon, an arm, a knife, and with a single blow the country is divided into two Koreas. The red flesh, the sweet scent, the freshness of the organs. The same root and mouth that spits out the black seeds of the watermelon.
Day 3 − 11°
The alarm clock goes off at seven. I wrench myself out of a dream. The sound is waiting in the corridor behind the hotel room door. My eyelids are two heavy bags and in a moment the morning light will force its way in and awaken my gaze. My lips are swollen like after kissing. A heavy, bitter and salty taste lingers in my mouth. The sheet has been pulled free at the foot of the bed and
is twisted tightly around my right ankle. My body is tethered to the bed. I tear my foot free. The morning light is blinding. Everything is shiny and white. White foot, white fish. Lying, glaring, gasping and suddenly thrashing, that’s me when the sound finally penetrates the door, makes it inside.
The polished windows of the hotel are gleaming. I walk across the car park towards the coach. The cold weaves its way between jacket and skin and prickles. Ethan and the pilot, Henk, are zigzagging around in front of the hotel, each with their cameras around their necks. Ethan is shooting his first photos of the day. The others are already waiting on the bus. I just manage to sit down when Ho’s voice breaks through the speakers.
‘Gooood mornin.’ Ho has on her delightful little-girl smile today. Her eyes are slanted on her face. She lowers her head between her shoulders, as though she is trying to make herself smaller than she is. Only when an internal storm breaks out does she fold out to her full height. I look out across the river through a clear window. On the far shore, opposite the hotel, a man is sitting under a wicker roof. He is holding a thick rope with both hands. The rope runs down to the river. He is drawing in the waves beneath the ice. We are heading to Mangyongdae, the place where Kim Il-Sung was born. There are very few people on the streets, no cars. The high-rises stand like frozen shells. When we turn away, they roam the streets like large, rectangular creatures. When we reach the outskirts of the city, we suddenly see hundreds of locals in large groups and the bus slows down. Unseen, I turn the camera towards the window: personal tale. Ho’s pale face is streaked with tears. ‘It was here that he was born, our great leader, president for eternity. It was here that he grew up, he was like all the others, a perfectly normal boy. Our great leader and his family suffered in poverty like the rest of the population, but they wanted for nothing,’ she says. I look over at the bonsai tree. The music does not reach all the way over here, it hovers and dangles beneath the clipped crown.
We leave Kim’s childhood home the same way we came, passing through the brown landscapes towards the city. My eye suddenly catches something, I take a photo:
Dead straw, raked up into small piles, lying in rows on a brown field. Behind a wooden electricity pylon, the shape of a small man in dark clothes facing the camera. Standing next to him, turned sideways, a woman in a red dress. She turns towards the camera. At the very edge of the frame, a third figure is stood next to a large, white sack. The shape turns its back to the camera. To the left of the picture, a large latticed electricity pylon. On the horizon, low rolling mountains form the passage between field and sky. The mountains are covered in grass, brownish-green waves and the snow, a light white foam lying in hollows up and down the mountainside.
‘Always try to get something red in your picture,’ Ethan says. ‘The camera loves red,’ he explains. His one eye is shut, the camera lens is pointing towards the coach window, the shutter releases with an unmistakable click. And make sure you bring a quieter camera next time, I think, taking a quick glance at Betsy and Ho, but they are engaged in conversation and do not notice.
‘Look, this is such a cool picture,’ Ethan says as he hands me the camera. On the small illuminated screen, a woman is swathed in dark clothes. A scarf is wrapped around her face, leaving only a slit for the eyes. She is drawing a bucket from a well.
‘We’re approaching our destination. Next stop is Pyongyang Metro,’ Ho announces then continues: ‘It only costs five won to travel on all forms of public transport in Pyongyang. ‘Five won,’ she repeats. ‘It’s the same price for trams, busses and the metro.’ She pauses, then continues: ‘In this part of the city, there are two Metro lines and seventy Metro stations. You have been permitted to ride for two whole stops. ‘Two stops,’ she repeats, holding up two fingers.
‘Normally, you are only permitted to ride one stop. One stop,’ she repeats, holding up one finger. Ho explains that we will begin at Prosperity Station and travel to Glory Station.
‘Here, all of you will see the beautiful chandeliers that hang from the vaulted ceilings in an eternal display of light. You will have the opportunity to take photos of a large bust of Kim Il-Sung,’ she says, ‘Another train will take us from Glory Station to Triumph Station, which is near the Triumphal Arch.’ Arthur raises his hand.
‘Are we going to be the only ones at the station,’ he asks.
‘No,’ Ho says. ‘Today is a completely normal day in Pyongyang, so there will be local citizens at the station and on the train,’ she says.
‘Can we take pictures?’ Ethan asks.
‘Yes,’ Ho says. ‘But not now, only when we are down on the platform.’ The coach comes to a stop. It is the first time there has been enough traffic to bring us to a complete stop at an intersection. A blue and white tram pulls up next to King Long. Its seams are corroded with rust. There are only a few passengers inside. They are standing completely still, the buttons on their jackets done all the way up. The tram is decorated with a long row of small metal stars.
‘The stars you see on the tram indicate how many years the tram has operated without an accident,’ Ho says. I manage to count at least thirty stars before King Long starts off and continues its journey towards Prosperity Station. The coach parks as close to the entrance as possible.
‘It’s so they can be sure we don’t run into anyone. They wouldn’t want to risk us speaking to the locals,’ Marte says in Norwegian and directs her blue eyes at the sky. As we disembark the coach, we are handed a metro ticket. The ticket is smaller than a stamp. A few Korean characters are printed on it, maybe it just says ‘ticket.’ I place it in my pocket. I do not have to show it to anyone, I am able to walk directly to the escalator that leads down to the platform. The escalator hums metallically under our feet. We are slowly transported one hundred and ten metres below the surface of the earth. Bimo, who is standing a couple of steps ahead of me, is taking photos all the way down towards the platform, despite the warning. As we step off the escalator and enter the subterranean chamber, everyone starts taking pictures of the five gigantic chandeliers hanging from the ceiling with its dyed stones looking like boiled sweets, of the locals walking back and forth on the platform, of the large mural of the leader hanging at the end of the chamber.
‘Wow,’ it’s beautifully painted,’ Divina says. ‘Oh, sweetie, would you mind taking a picture of me,’ she says to Ho and poses in front of the large painting. A train has just arrived at the station. Divina slides her sunglasses onto her nose and smiles at the camera. Locals move in and out of the train.
‘I wonder how long they’ve rehearsed being “perfectly normal people riding the Metro,”’ Marte says in Norwegian. The uniforms of the train staff have clean lines. The women who give the signals when the trains arrive and depart have bright-red lips and small, black whistles. Even though the train carriages look like something straight out of the fifties, there is no visible rust. Everything is freshly-painted, heated, clean. Women and men, old and young, as well as a small group of children, are moving about on the platform with familiarity. People are keeping their distance from us, a lone child wearing a brown padded jacket is staring at us. Ethan takes a picture, the child smiles.
‘We believe we can capture reality through the photograph, draw out its essence and bind it to the paper,’ Ethan says to Dan.
‘I take very few pictures,’ Dan says, ‘It’s all in here,’ he says and taps his forehead with his right finger. The group is in high spirits, almost euphoric. Everyone feels privileged at being permitted to be amongst real North Koreans.
‘We’re taking the next train,’ Betsy says. The train arrives. We board an empty carriage along with the locals. I am wedged in between four men beneath a double portrait of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il. We are so close that I can smell the locals, but they do not smell of anything. Dan sits down next to a small boy. The boy looks up at Dan’s salt and pepper beard, opens his eyes wide and shoots off through the carriage like an arrow, burrowing himself on the seat next to Divina. Divina smiles at him.
‘Why don’t you take a picture of me and the boy,’ she says to Reima, who is standing next to her. She hands him the camera. He points and clicks without looking at the display.
‘There,’ he says and quickly turns away.
‘The next station is Glory Station. Glory Station,’ Ho says. We step onto the platform where a large vaulted ceiling is supported by voluminous marble pillars. Long murals of happy citizens decorate the walls on both sides of the tracks.
‘This is so exciting,’ Arthur says, scratching his left eye. His eye is red.
‘Yes,’ Ho says with a friendly smile before raising her voice. ‘The reason the metro is so far below ground is that it also functions as an air-raid shelter,’ Ho explains.
‘But don’t come back tonight,’ she adds and lets out a short, loud laugh.
‘Why not?’ Arthur asks.
‘Because it’s all a bloody act,’ Marte says to me in Norwegian. ‘A defector from the central administration described how they hire thousands of people, including soldiers, to put on shows like this. Most soldiers don’t have any civilian clothing because they are always in uniform. So they’re happy to pretend to be normal people in Pyongyang, then they have the opportunity to wear normal clothes.’
‘That was the best experience so far,’ Arthur says when we return to the bus. ‘Just imagine, we were allowed to meet the locals.’ Marte turns to Arthur.
‘And you don’t wonder why the chandeliers were lit when there’s no electricity in the city? Why the stations were heated even though only our hotel rooms and a few restaurants and shops are heated?’ she asks.
‘No,’ Arthur says, ‘Actually, I don’t.’ His red eye is itching again, he rubs it with a circular motion. ‘That was not an act we saw in the metro, if that’s what you’re implying,’ Arthur says and continues: ‘Those were real people we met. It was real. I could tell.’ He is clearly agitated. His face is flushed when he turns his back to us. His back is a dark wall.
‘I’m going to lie down in the back,’ I say to Marte. ‘I’m exhausted.’
I stretch out on the back seat and close my eyes. Dreams will come, dreams will go. They will weave a wreath out of reality. I place that wreath on my head and tie my hair with it. I am standing across from Ho. She takes my hands. These are the hands that guide us through the city.
‘This is how we live,’ she says. ‘We have no electricity or coal but we have rice and water. Food is not as varied at this time of the year, the plants are asleep beneath dry leaves. But there is no hunger here.’
‘The population is now digging into the earth with a spoon. The mouth opens and is filled with dirt,’ Marte mumbles in Norwegian. Fill, chew, swallow, the clayey substance gets stuck in the throat. She kicks at the asphalt with the toe of her boot. Then she looks at Ho and smiles.
‘This is a dream,’ I say to Ho.
‘Yes, it is,’ she says.
Day 6 − 14°
I wake abruptly to the sound of someone pounding on my door. The police interpreter shows me a photo of the North Korean. He questions me.
‘I’ve never seen him before,’ I answer.
‘It’s my first time in the country. I’m a tourist.’ The man towers above the others. How should I know him as anything other than a tower? When I finally close the door behind them, everything is spinning. I sit down in the blue armchair until the anxiety has died down.
‘I live in Miami Beach, close to the sea,’ Dan says. ‘Normally I don’t eat breakfast,’ he says and takes a bite of toast. We are sitting in Restaurant 1. The food is the same every morning.
‘When I get up,’ Dan says, ‘I take the dog for a walk. We walk along the beach. The dog goes for a swim, she loves that. When I get home, I make a cup of coffee and switch on the computer,’ he says. ‘I watch all the news I can find on the Internet.’ He smiles.
‘I try to keep up with everything that is happening in the world. Then I grab a few crackers for lunch, and later I have dinner,’ he says. I nod. The egg in my mouth is growing.
‘My dad was a fanatic,’ Dan says. ‘We didn’t have a TV,’ he says. ‘He didn’t want us to be contaminated by the outside world. It was lonely,’ he says. Betsy walks over to our table.
‘There is something I want to ask you,’ she says. Then she lowers her voice. ‘We have copies of
everyone’s passports on the bus,’ she says. ‘And the interpreters have discovered that it is your birthday. Later today, you will receive a birthday cake from Kim Jong-Il,’ she whispers.
‘But today isn’t my birthday,’ I reply. ‘My biological mother wrote the wrong date on my documents,’ I say before adding: ‘On the other hand … ’
‘Yes,’ Betsy interrupts then continues: ‘Let’s just stick to the plan with the cake. It will be so festive,’ she says.
As we drive through Pyongyang, the citizens are collecting plastic flowers that have decorated the city for the past few days. Red, purple, yellow, pink flowers are placed in large plastic bags so they can be re-used.
‘We’re going to visit the local school,’ Ho says. But first we’re going to stop at a souvenir shop. King Long parks in front of a two-storey building.
‘There is a shop on the ground floor and a shop on the first floor. We are going to visit the shop on the first floor,’ Ho says before adding: ‘The shop on the ground floor is only for locals.’
The shop on the first floor consists of two large rooms. The rooms are decorated with green plastic leaves on vines. I wander past the shelves, looking at pottery, oil paintings, ginseng tea and postcards. Just as I am taking a picture of a brown leather sofa, Dan walks by.
‘We weren’t given permission to take pictures in here,’ he says.
‘It’s just a sofa,’ I say. The annoyance hits me like an arrow. The arrow is resting in my arm. I tear it free from jacket and flesh and walk down the stairs. The door opens at the bottom of the stairs. A North Korean woman walks out and I slip inside. I wander around the shop on the ground floor, looking at glasses, telephones, bags, jackets and electronic equipment. The shop is filled with locals. Nobody notices me. The driver and the cameraman are looking at sunglasses. When they spot me, I wave at them. I expect them to come over and ask me to leave but they just wave back. When I exit the shop, I bump into Dan. ‘We weren’t given permission to go down there, you do realise that, don’t you?’ he says. ‘The door was open,’ I say and walk over to the bus. I sense something flaring up inside me. Han.
I resemble them, those who resemble me. It feels real. ‘Have you been to the loo?’ Ho asks.
‘No,’ Daniel says.
‘You must go to the loo,’ Ho says.
‘I can’t,’ Daniel says. Ho is annoyed.
‘You won’t be able to go at the school, the toilets are closed,’ she says and turns her back on him. ‘Have you been to the loo?’ she asks.
‘Yes,’ Marte says with a friendly smile.
When we are all on the bus, Ho grabs the microphone.
‘Did everyone go to the loo before they got on the bus?’ Silence resounds.
‘The schoolchildren have the day off today,’ Ho says. ‘Because today is Kim Jong-Il’s birthday,’ she says. ‘But a group of students will be at the school to commemorate your visit,’ she says. King Long drives into the schoolyard. The school is a heavy brick against the earth. Five boys are running around playing football.
‘Look,’ Arthur says pointing at the children. The entire side of his face is red and swollen, the skin is peeling where his eye used to be, now it is a tightly-sealed boil.
‘Shouldn’t you get a doctor to look at your eye,’ I ask Arthur.
‘Betsy has already made an appointment, so I’m sure it will be all right,’ he says and continues: ‘I’m just a little tired.’
We enter the school building and pass a hatch. The round hole of the hatch is an eye in a wall of glass. In the corridors: pictures of teachers, students and former students who have distinguished themselves decorate the wall. We are led into a room where we can see and hear about the dear leader and his relationship to the school. The local guide says that the leader has visited this school five times. There are stuffed animals inside glass display cases. Thick, yellow curtains cover the windows but light somehow passes through.
‘Now you are going to see a typical classroom. Then we are going up to the auditorium where a group of children will perform for you,’ the school guide says. Ho translates, the guide continues:
‘The children have chosen to spend their day off entertaining you.’
‘Isn’t it exciting,’ Betsy adds. The inside of the school is made of concrete, glass and stone, all clean, naked surfaces. The classroom is rather large in comparison to the number of desks facing the board. We pass through empty corridors and stairwells on our way to the auditorium. The auditorium is large. The seats of the chairs are padded with red plush and can be tipped up and down, just like at the theatre. Daylight passes through the windows. A heavy red stage curtain opens. We applaud. On stage, a thirteen-year-old girl is standing with an accordion. She is wearing a short, red dress. And a white shirt. A blue scarf is tied around her neck, the corners of the scarf are like two, dark-blue leaves resting at the collar of her shirt. She pulls at the accordion and blows out a melody. ‘Aegukka,’ she sings, her voice surprisingly deep, like an adult has occupied the girl’s body.
Let morning shine on the silver and gold of this land. Three thousand leagues abundant with natural wealth. My beautiful fatherland. The glory of a wise people. Brought up in a brilliant culture. With a history of five millennia. Let us devote our bodies and minds. To supporting this Korea forever.
Afterwards the school band, consisting of a guitarist, an electric guitarist and a drummer go on stage, and then there is more singing and clapping. From where I am sitting, I can glimpse the children waiting in the wings. They are wearing padded jackets. When they have to go on stage, the padded jacket is taken by a woman who directs the children on and off stage. For the finale, a group of girls dance for us. Their beautiful, graceful movements remind me of the national ballet.
At the end of the dance, the young girls come pattering towards us, grab our hands and invite us to dance with them. The cold, limp hand. The dead gaze. The hand that guides me to take part in a chain dance. The girls’ hands feel different. Some latch on, others slip in and out of my hands like water, one is a fish, moist and cold. Her hand reminds me of my child, the one grasping my neck, telling me not to go, that I might never come back.
Han, we are sitting on the floor with our backs to the sofa. The small, dark folding table is in front of us, and you say that Korean culture can be difficult to understand for Europeans.
‘My name is Han,’ you say, ‘but Han is also a phenomenon engrained in Korean culture. In reality, it is more of a feeling than a concept. Han is part of the blood and breath of the people, it describes a feeling of unresolved anger towards a lifelong pain brought about by unjust suffering. A feeling of helplessness that produces an acute pain in the internal organs. The entire body twists and turns. The pain is accompanied by a constant whispering about revenge and about righting a wrong, though without ever seeking revenge.’
‘And if the wrong is made right, what then?’ I ask. ‘Then the pain disappears,’ you say.