We were assigned two tour guides, Ms. Kim and Mrs. Jin. Both were roughly my age, but Mrs. Jin was already married and already a young mother.
There was a Mr. Kim (no relation to Ms. Kim), a cantankerous elderly man who didn’t say much throughout the trip. It was clear he was responsible for overseeing the security, or rather, since this is North Korea, order and control of the group. His intimidating silence spoke volumes of the authority he held.
And then there was Mr. Lee, the cameraman of the group whose only responsibility was to document the group’s travels with his surprisingly contemporary Sony camcorder. I was startled when I first saw him. He shared an uncanny resemblance with my mother’s older brother, right down to his signature wavy hair and the gold capped tooth.
We were put up in the Yanggakdo International Hotel situated in Yanggak-do (of course), a small island in the middle of the Taedong river that divides Pyongyang into halves. Though there are other hotels in the city, this is the one most often used for foreign guests as it offers a number of facilities: a spa, bowling alley, billiards room, conference center, gift shop, karaoke room, tailoring services, as well as a casino independently operated by one of the Macau gambling syndicates.
But perhaps it is the fact that the hotel is on an island that makes it the residence of choice for guests. It is near impossible for foreigners to escape.
Because I was of Korean descent, I was given preferential treatment from our minders. I recall during one of our excursions in Pyongyang Ms. Kim startling me by reaching for my hand from behind. She whispered to me in Korean, “영원아, 잠깐, 기다려봐 (Youngwon, wait just a moment).”
She went off to to purchase some snacks from the local street vendors, the same merchants that were previously deemed off limits to our group. I was pretending to admire some of the brazen propaganda that lined the boulevard when she returned with some local ice cream bars and roasted sweet potatoes, a rather odd choice of snacks for the month of February.
I offered to pay as her generosity was too much for me to accept. I reached into my pocket, my hand clumsily searching for a Euro or some Chinese Yuan (foreigners are restricted from using the local currency). She told me to stop and to not tell the others in the group, who were at this point yards away down the street, what she had done for me.
Instead, she made me promise to one day return the favor, that I would take her out for a meal when she visits me in New York.
(Names of the North Koreans have been changed for this post)