“Are you two the Americans?” she asked with a smile.
I had been watching her make her way from the front of the bus to the last row of seats where I had been with my travel companion, Joe Skeel. Obviously we stood out in a bus filled international journalists.
“Yes, we are.”
“Do you have anything with you, anything you are wearing, that is a symbol of the United States? Do you have an eagle, flag?”
“No,” we answered, not entirely puzzled by the questions. We were, after all, sitting in the DMZ moments from disembarking and walking into North Korea.
“Good, because you are not allowed to have it where we are going.”
Where we are going? You mean North Korea in 2007, that oppressive country which hated the United States and pretty much anything that resembled democracy? That North Korea led by dictator Kim Jong Il who always seemed to have his finger inches from a nuclear launch button?
Where we were going was only half the story. The rest unfolds in a bizarre 36 hours that involved a drunken Chinese leader, two hours on a bus while Czechs were detained for filming soldiers, and the near arrest of a surly Italian reporter who was generally uncooperative with our hosts the entire week. And there was lots of undistinguishable, high-octane alcohol.
Let’s start here by saying Joe and I were invited into North Korea as part of an international journalism conference in Seoul, Korea. There were more than 100 of us on that bus, from all parts of the world, presumably going to North Korea to meet with that country’s journalists to share stories and commiserate. But, it was apparently unsettling that two Americans representing the Society of Professional Journalists were among the border crashers.
Strict rules had been shared with us before we got to this point. All laptops had to be screened (we left ours in the hotel), cameras were allowed but with no more than a 200 mm lens. No photos of soldiers, workers, people — just each other. And certainly don’t point your camera toward the many trucks parked along the hillsides with surface-to-air missiles mounted to their beds.
2007 was a big year for Il and North Korea. Not long after our international journalism conference, the dictator met with South Korean president Roh Moo Hyan in Pyongyang for reconciliation talks and later that year, U.S. President George Bush sent Il a personally signed letter asking him to dismantle his nuclear arsenal. Il later pledged to do so at a Geneva conference. In small circles, Joe and I share the belief that we started that ball rolling.
Long story short, we didn’t see much, confined to a very posh Hyundai resort (yes, that Hyundai). We were treated to Chinese acrobats, fine meals and many drinks, allowed to tour a national park and stroll a golf course under construction that was expected to attract wealthy Japanese businessmen.
Yes, that Japan, where Sony execs recently decided to pull the Christmas Day debut of “The Interview”, a comedy in which two inept journalists going into North Korea for an interview are enlisted by the CIA to kill the country’s dictator, Kim Jong Un.
Neither Skeel nor I can confirm or deny our time in North Korea was the basis for the movie, although I’m at liberty to say, Il was far from our event, only present by way of the striking lapel pins worn by the waitresses at the banquet. These same waitresses resisted my repeated requests to purchase said pin until two nice men in suits and earpieces asked me to stop asking for them. Will do, but seriously, do you know how far $20 USD would go in that economy?
Which brings me to my best understanding of why Sony caved to the North Korean threats. At the time, and presumably to this day, there is a tenuous relationship between North Korea and Japan. The geopolitical dynamics are not easy for many Americans to understand. Think U.S.-Cuba.
North Korea desperately needs economic infusions of any kind; if Japan’s private sector is willing to turn Korea’s east coast into Club Med and bring in millions of tourism dollars each year, then both sides seem fine with turning a blind eye to more political issues. I wouldn’t be surprised if many of Sony’s top executives hadn’t vacationed in North Korea. It doesn’t surprise me that Sony made the decision to yank the movie. There is far more at stake here than Americans believing their free speech rights are being trampled. That view is not close to the big picture, so to speak.
That wealthy Japanese find something mystical and tantalizingly forbidden about vacationing in North Korea has given rise to resorts like the one where I stayed, world-class golf courses, spas and entertainment parks. The irony is, of course, that locals are strictly prohibited from being near these resorts so as not to spoil the ambiance for visitors. Never mind that the golf course we toured had been the site of a small village the year before. But, what’s displacing a couple hundred poor people when you can backfill with jetsetters? Or the occasional middle-class Americans?
“As you depart the bus, there is a gift shop to your right where you may review many of the handmade local items,” said the same tour guide who quizzed us about our nationality. “But, please note that it only accepts North Korean and United States dollars.”
(Above photos show North Korean golf course and restaurant at Hyundai resort.)