He was the first to make introductions. I was sitting at the bar in the billiards room located in the basement floor of the hotel when I heard in a thick, Pyongyang accent: “Has reunification already happened? What are you doing here in Joseon?” (North Koreans do not call Korea by North or South, but by Joseon, the name of the last dynasty of a unified Korea).
I tried turning around in my bar stool so that I could determine whether the intimidating questions were intended for me. But, a stout, square-framed, man stopped my swivel and took a seat at the counter next to me. his name was Mr. Cho. He had heard from his fellow colleagues of an overseas Korean staying in the hotel.
After some introductions and rounds of North Korea beers, he confided in me a confession: he was in trouble.
As a way to motivate his young daughter, a piano student at the local conservatory, Mr. Cho promised her a new wardrobe of outfits from the “nicer” market if she placed at the yearly competition. He didn’t expect much from it – parents make these empty promises all the time to their children – and so he spent much of his recent pay on a new entertainment system for the home.
Well, not only did she place, but she earned top honors in the competition.
Kim Jong Il’s body laid at rest on a stoic platform adorned with Kimjongilia flowers carved from marble in the center of a square hall. The room was pitched dark except for the spotlights cast above his body, dimmed at an appropriate and reverent level. There was music playing in the background – muted strings playing a melody evocative of a Mahler adagietto. When taking in the entirety of spectacle, the body was unimpressive and seemed out of place with the splendor surrounding it.
The serenity that emanated from the room was interrupted by a chorus of cries and tears; it began in almost choreographed unison. It was coming from our guides. They were sobbing uncontrollably.
I started to wonder if this was all some twister hypnagogic hallucination. Claustrophobia began to set in. Feelings of anger and disillusionment set in inside of me from the surrealness of this spectacle.
Why were tears being shed for this monster?