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My Trip to North Korea (Part 7)

February 10, 2013

Back at the hotel, I walked through a long corridor to reach a huge hall where we were to have breakfast. The hall held many tables covered with white table cloths, but there were only a few people scattered about. I was led to a large table at the back. Willem joined me there with a camera. Breakfast offered choices of toast and rice porridge with kimchi. The menu was clearly designed to accommodate those who wanted western fare and others who would rather have something Korean. Willem and I ate both, starting with the toast, jam, and butter, then proceeding to the rice porridge, as if it were lunch. Nothing was served in huge quantity, apparently applying a no-waste policy.

I politely asked if I could have a cup of coffee and was told by a smiling waitress, “Of course.” She came back with a cup in which I found a spoonful of instant coffee at the bottom. She poured hot water into the cup and gave me a small spoon to stir. Instant coffee!? How long has it been since I drank instant coffee? When it came to coffee, I confess, Don and I were snobs. We wanted freshly made coffee of a particular type–French Roast. During the last couple years before Don’s departure, we rejected the electric coffee maker and opted to pour hot water slowly through Chemex bonded natural filter squares. Each time, I was thrilled to see the rich brown liquid drip slowly. Don never missed saying “thank you” with a big grin when I brought him a cup of freshly dripped coffee! I felt more than richly rewarded, knowing that the hot coffee going through his ailing body helped him to forget his pain a little, however briefly. (Well, I always do this–side track to Don at every chance.)

The real point I wanted to make: I wasn’t disgruntled with instant coffee. No way. My heart was warmed by it and even thought it was delicious!

Upon finishing our breakfast, we proceeded directly to the front of the hotel. Mr.Paek greeted us with the door open to the same van that carried us from the airport. “Driving out of Pyongyang will cost you more,” he warned me casually, reminding me that I was to pay all the expenses. I wondered if I had brought enough cash to cover the costs. Our North Korean guides would prefer euros, but would accept dollars–of course, only in cash.

We drove through the NK capital of Pyongyang, soon to hit the road which, I was told, would reach all the way to the DMZ. In little over an hour’s time, we were driving on the road with rice paddies on both sides. We were in the farm land away from the city. In the fields after harvest, hay stacks were scattered, and on the edges were cosmos flowers.  They were starting to wither but to my eyes still beautiful, their delicate petals moving quietly as the soft wind passed by. “Oh, how beautiful. It would be great to shoot some of these flowers and fields!” I exclaimed–my way of pleading with Mr. Paek to stop the car. While I felt comforted to see Willem filming through the open car window, I was also worried that the road was too bumpy. (Well, my concern was justified when I viewed the footage from the moving car–it was shaky, some too shaky for use.)

Had it been just nature’s beauty I wanted to film, our driver might have stopped, but I knew that he wouldn’t because there were more aspects to the scenes we passed. There were women carrying their babies on their backs and what seemed to be bundles on their heads. Some men rode bicycles. Small school children walked on the narrow path chattering and laughing, avoiding the occasional cars. I ached and itched to get out of the van, go grab some of those people and talk with them–especially the kids. They brought back gohyang I left in the winter of 1945. If the sight of those people warmed my heart, I knew that Mr. Paek would not want me to bring them back in my camera and show them to Americans. He was concerned that those images would confirm outsiders’ notions of North Korea as a backward country. “Well, we have a heavy schedule today. Soon we will be entering your gohyang,” was Mr. Paek’s polite rejection of my wish to stop the car. Within a minute or two, ignoring my deep sigh, we saw a sign, “Entering Shin-chun.”

Driving on the road with rice fields on both sides, it dawned on me that I could be passing our farm land where so many of my own family’s tenant farmers tilled the soil. There was no way to verify what I thought and felt. I simply decided that it was, and held myself still, and let my imagination run wild. The houses we passed had tile roofs, though–different from the farm houses I remembered. The thatched roofs were gone.

At last, our van came to the town of Shin-chun, but nothing was the same. Everything had changed.  Even before I could try to see where our house could have been, the van pulled into a parking lot surrounded by big buildings. “This is the Museum of the Shin-chun Massacre,” announced Mr. Paek and he urged us to get out. A woman in traditional costume came and was introduced as our guide. I wanted to find our house–if only a glimpse of it–but instead, I was about to see the gruesome images of burned and tortured bodies of Shin-chun citizens, the old and young and the male and female, who were killed during the Korean War in 1950.

To be continued.

I am pleased to alert readers that Iowa Sky: A Memoir by Donald D. Gibson will be available to order at or at on March 1, 2013.


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