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My Trip to North Korea (Part 9)

March 9, 2013

Mercifully, the next place we went from the Shin-chun Massacre Museum was Guwol-san, a mountain in An-ak (my father’s hometown), a neighboring town of Shin-chun. I didn’t know much about it except that the name guwol comes from the ninth month of the lunar calendar. But my grandmother often talked about Guwol-san. I remembered how I dreamed about going there with her as a girl.

Not far from the gate, we found a beautiful stream where water flowed through the rocks and pebbles. We spread a blanket by the stream and ate food from our lunch boxes which Mr. Paek had ordered with my money. Food, the songs of the stream, and the beautiful trees and wild flowers slowly but steadily released the tight knots in my body and filled me with soft feelings that I was indeed in my gohyang. If only Don were there to put his arms around me, his hazel green eyes gazing into mine. Deep sorrow passed, but only momentarily. I knew Don was happy for me and he was there with me.

Next came the most unexpected part of this trip. Our car drove to a temple–a Buddhist temple, aged gracefully as if in deep meditation. So quiet and still. I didn’t want to stir, afraid that the quietude wrapped in mystery might disappear. Soon, a middle aged monk in grey garment appeared as if from nowhere. I heard his voice, “Welcome to our temple, Woljeong-sa (moon vitality temple).” Automatically, I bowed my head and put my hands together below my chin. At that moment, I was not standing in North Korea, South Korea or the USA. I was not standing. I floated.

The first thing the monk told us: “Our dear leader, President Kim Il-sung visited the temple in January 1990. (It wasn’t clear if the monk met him.) Then in 1997, his son, General Kim Jong-il came.” He relayed the experience of his visit.

“I had never dreamed that General Kim Jong-il would come here. He told me that I was a patriot. I said, ‘I don’t deserve to be called a patriot. In fact, the country and many comrades enabled me to get an education and lead a worthwhile life.’ Then, he said that one who would qualify to be a patriot is he who loves his country enough to devote himself to protecting and cherishing its history and treasures.”

Then the monk gave us a brief history of the temple: that it was founded in the middle of the 9th century and later rebuilt under the Yi Dynasty during the 15th century. “Our dear leader urged  me to take  good care of this temple, stressed that this temple has historical and spiritual resources which our country and people need.” Showing a gold watch under the sleeve of his garment, he told us that it was the watch General Kim Jong-il gave him. “Since then, I’ve always had this watch on my wrist. Every morning as I put it on, I think of the general. When he passed away, I could not even cry.”

As he turned to give us a tour, I cautiously approached him and asked, “You are still young and yet you are buried in this temple, leaving the secular world behind. Do you have moments of doubts or regrets about withdrawing from the world?” His smile was slight but gentle enough to invite my soul into his. “In the past, I regretted. It was not once or twice a year but daily—it might be an exaggeration if I said a hundred times a day but I did daily. I missed my friends more than anyone or anything.”

“I lived in Pyongyang and graduated from the university. I had a great, big ambition for the future and spent much time with my friends. So I missed them more than my own siblings. I cried a lot. Because I missed them so much, even in my dreams, it was my friends whom I saw.”

“I was seven years old when I first visited this temple. You see, my own father devoted his life to protect and preserve national treasures. He spent thirty years of his life for this temple. He did that until he died. It was not so much my patriotic feelings but my father’s devotion that moved me to follow his path. I was determined to succeed him.”

“Though I am a monk, I am married. When I came here, my mother-in-law refused to send my wife here with me. She thought her daughter should not be isolated in the middle of the mountain.”

“In the beginning, it was a struggle.” “But now?” I pursued. “I am determined to die here and I would want my children to take up this task. I can’t leave here.” I said nothing but continued to gaze into his eyes. “Now I struggle only occasionally. But mostly I am in peace.”  I felt his serenity.

To be continued.

I am proud to announce that Iowa Sky: a Memoir by Donald D. Gibson is available for order at Amazon.com or Barnesandnoble.com

In Iowa Sky, meet Don Gibson in his own words.

The world is full of people who are brilliant and committed to ideals. Don was all of that and more. Born and reared on Iowa soil and under the Iowa sky, he was free of pretensions and rich with dreams. He was a boy who tended pigs and organized Legion League baseball in a “town” of ninety-five people.

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