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My Trip to North Korea (Part 6)

January 29, 2013

After the visit to my grandmother’s resting place, my door to North Korea opened up. Min Jung got a call from Shenyang, China. I realized that it could be Mr. Yang, the nice young man who worked for the travel agency. I had begged him to continue to look into Willem’s visa situation and left Min Jung’s phone number with him. I had not taken my cell phone with me, having been told that one could not use the cell phone in North Korea and that one had to leave it at the airport. “It was a Chinese man who left an urgent message. He said that Willem’s visa was granted.” Min Jung conveyed the message in one breath.

Early the next morning, Willem and I went to Incheon International Airport and caught the same flight we had taken a few days before. As soon as we emerged at the customs area, we found Mr. Yang’s face with a huge grin. What a pleasure it was to follow Mr. Yang to the third floor to find Kentucky Fried Chicken and other small eateries. No steamed dumplings this time. We each ordered a noodle dish and slurped it to our mouth. “Now, tell me, Mr. Yang,” I said, pulling a long noodle into my mouth, “why was Willem’s visa denied before?” An awkward wrinkle of embarrassment passed across his face. “Well, I wish I could tell you a good reason. The person who issued visas had a list of the names. Willem’s name was not included in that list.” “Why was it not included?” I asked. “Well, it was a simple, clerical error. Remember, it was Saturday. His boss, who gave him the list, was not available, so he could not ask him why Willem’s name was excluded.” What could I do but sigh a deep sigh? How often are our lives screwed up by unintended mistakes? Small, stupid, sloppy mistakes? They all belong to the department of “life is frail.” I went back to my noodles, after which I counted out cash to pay for the visa and all other expenses incurred, including Mr. Yang’s fee.

This time, Willem and I were able to get on the Air Koryo (North Korean airline) flight. In less than an hour, we landed at Pyongyang. The airport, which is the international airport in the nation’s capital, reminded me of the Omaha, Nebraska airport where Don and I used to fly in whenever we visited his folks in Iowa. A smart looking chap, Mr. Paek, greeted us at Pyongyang airport, and helped us through customs with all our equipment. Out of the airport, getting into a van brought by Mr. Paek, I felt at home as much as anywhere I’d ever been. I was astounded.

Mr. Paek took us to Pyongyang Hotel, by the Daedong River, where two single rooms were reserved. My room was sparsely furnished but clean. It felt like a friend’s guest room. Willem and I met Mr. Paek in the lobby and followed him to a restaurant called Arirang, next to the hotel, for dinner.

During dinner, Mr. Paek told me over a glass of soju (the Korean equivalent of vodka, and which Mr. Paek claimed to be much better than soju in the South), “I understand that you wish to visit gohyang (the place of  birth), so it will be to Shin-chun we will drive the first thing in the morning.” With that, we clinked our small glasses and ate food delicately prepared and presented. Our dinner table trailed behind none of the fancy ones I was taken to by my rich friends in South Korea and the US. Two waitresses, in western outfits of white, gray and black–not in the traditional Korean costumes I had expected–were graceful and elegant. They more than fit the images of the beautiful maidens of Pyongyang about whom I had read in Korean literature. If I was impressed by those women, I was even more delighted to put a piece of kimchi in my mouth. Growing up, I had heard a lot about Pyongyang kimchi—how cool and refreshing it was, not dominated by the spice, garlic, ginger, etc. It was so fresh that I could eat it all night, as if it were dessert.

As soon as I got up and dressed the next morning, I went outside and there it was–the Daedong River–and people were strolling along the banks. The river beckoned and my feet followed. I passed by a group of people practicing tai chi, and before I knew it, I was on the beach. I walked along the water and bumped into two middle-aged women coming toward me, humming a song. “Hi, whatever you are humming, it sounds beautiful,” I said to these strangers. They stopped and gave me a broad smile, clearly receptive to chatting. “I am a Korean living in America but I am here to visit my gohyang.” “Oh, my. How long has it been since you were in your gohyang?” one of them asked. “Too long. I left it in the winter of 1945 with my family.” “But you don’t look that old,” the other declared. “Yes, I am. I was seven years old when I left for the south with our family.” After a brief pause, words tumbled out of my mouth. “Do you know this song, ‘“My gohyang where I lived was a mountain village with flowers blooming.” (The same song which I had heard at my grandmother’s grave). “Of course.” “Would you sing it for me?”  The two women sang and I sang along. “Where are you, Willem? How fantastic it would be if we could put them on camera!” I lamented, quieting my emotion-charged heart. Those two women were happy and in peace, definitely not puppets.  If they worshipped their leader,  they did so as happy, independent citizens.

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