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My Trip to North Korea (Part 3)

December 20, 2012

Esther had to break the bad news. “Everybody has visa except for Willem.”

I could neither speak nor breathe. Blood circulation in my entire body felt at a standstill. I didn’t know how many seconds, how many minutes passed before I managed to utter two words: “Why? Esther!” No immediate response. I went on. “How many times did I stress that both Willem and I need to get visas. As you would recall, in the beginning, I was going to join the group as a tourist but both our leader and you encouraged me to obtain official permission to film. To our delight, the permission was granted, and I could bring a camera man. I remember the day when you and I had supper together with the good news that Willem was granted a visa.” Esther simply nodded her head. I went on. “I was uneasy about only the oral assurance about Willem’s visa. I asked you many times if there was a way to get something in writing. You responded, ‘That’s not the way these things had been done. Don’t worry. Everything will be fine.’”

For me, it was a hardship as well as a risk to incur expenses for Willem, for equipment and other essentials to shoot. The escalating budget made me dizzy, but I went on buying flight tickets, renting and buying the equipment, etc. And now? We were in a Chinese city, only an hour away from Pyongyang, and I am told that Willem does not have a visa!

Willem was totally silent with the unexpected news.  Esther’s small voice came, “I know. I know.”

“So what is the explanation?”

“The man at the embassy had no explanation. He said, ‘I just do not have permission to issue a visa for him.’ Can you try to get in touch with someone and find out?” I asked him. “’Well, today is Saturday. No one is around that I can talk to.’ To me, it means that they are revoking the permission to film!”

Well, it was time for the group to head toward the gate and get on the flight to Pyongyang. Esther and the rest of the group asked me, “Are you coming?” “Am I hearing right?” I asked myself. They took it for granted that I would go without Willem. The red jacket minister prompted, “Come with us. You should come!” I felt an intense emotion stirring in me, with a strong impact on my entire body, as if the sky were falling down on it. The whole world turned dark, pitch dark for a second. Then my mind cleared up as if the sun pierced through dark clouds, menacing clouds. My mind was clear, crystal clear. “No, you go ahead. I am not coming.”

Neither Willem nor I had visas for China. The airport was our prison; we were locked up there. I could not leave Willem, someone’s precious son, stranded in a Chinese airport and hop on the flight with the group. “But,” the red jacket was gearing up to preach, to persuade me to do the only right thing. I waved her off and blocked my eyes and mouth. It was bad enough. I did not want to let my temper get the better of me. Willem continued to be silent. Even if he urged me to go, I would have said “No.” He had told me that his parents were against his going to North Korea. But he came! I needed and wanted to stand by him. He was with me. A small crew of two owed each other loyalty. I wanted to take care of him, even if it meant losing a chance to step on my kohyang.

The group and we parted from each other. They disappeared while Willem and I stood in line for a Korean Air flight to Seoul, the only flight that day to take us where we could find beds and clear our heads. We were told, however, that the flight was full. I went to the counter and talked with a Korean Air staffer. She was a Chinese woman who spoke Korean with limited vocabulary. I explained our situation–that we had to get on that flight, enunciating every word clearly. “Well, there is always someone who does not show up at the last minute. All you can do is to wait and see if that happens.” What else could I say but thank the woman. She told us to step back and stand where she could see us.

The flight was scheduled to leave at 4:30. It was almost four. The line came to an end, and I saw the woman motioning to me. “Okay, you and your son are on!” Me and my son! There were several others waiting. A couple of them protested. “We do things in an orderly fashion. These two were the first on the waiting list.”

On the flight, the relief was so enormous that I almost forgot that I was heading back to where I had come from, not to North Korea.


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