A Friend from the North

Mrs. Jin was incredibly shy. She had only recently become a tour guide. Her preferred second language was Russian and this only heightened her nervousness around our group of English speakers. When we first met at the airport I tried to break the ice by reaching out to her in Korean, but that seemed to have only exacerbated her reticence.

There was a problem on our way to the demilitarized zone. Mrs. Jin had left her identification card back in her room at the hotel. All North Koreans are required to have documentation when traveling anywhere in the country. Its especially necessary on the roads, where military checkpoints are stationed at every couple of hundreds of meters. We passed through four such stations on our way to the border.

We were already a couple of hours outside of Pyongyang when she noticed her documents missing, so driving back to retrieve her papers was out of the question. However, she had a plan. She got up from her seat at the front of our mini-bus and made herself comfortable in the empty seat next to mine. She then asked me, in Korean, if she could borrow the Ray-Ban sunglasses cleaved in my shirt collar. She was going to pass herself off as a foreign traveler, an overseas Korean just like me.

After exchanging pleasantries, she did the most remarkable thing. She began to open up. We shared identical accounts of our recent lunar new year holiday. We both did 세배 (wishing luck to our elders), ate 떡국 (rice cake soup), and played games of 윷놀이 (a Korean folk game). We exchanged photos of our families, me from my iPhone and her from her dated 2G machine. I saw pictures of her neat, little apartment with fixtures I never would have imagined existed in a North Korean home: a flat-screen television, western style sofas.

She informed me of her favorites. Her favorite movie was James Cameron’s “Titanic” and her favorite karaoke song was the title track of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast.” I was dumbfounded. These selections were available in North Korea? She was a little insulted by the question. Why wouldn’t North Koreans be allowed to enjoy these popular hits like people from the rest of the world? Her logic made sense, but I still found myself at a loss of words.

We were inseparable after that day. We walked together, developed little inside jokes, tossed around light insults, like friends reunited after time apart. On our last evening our group made a visit to the Diplomat’s Club for an evening of drinks and entertainment. Mrs. Jin and I excused ourselves from the fun to continue our ongoing conversations at the bar. It was here when she shared with me her dreams of traveling and her wish to visit universities like Harvard and Princeton. Though she had no regrets marrying young and starting a family, I could sense in her a longing to return to her studies.

I was startled when she led our conversation to the subject of politics and foreign affairs. She wondered whether Americans and South Koreans were as concerned over the possibility of armed conflict as much as the North Koreans were. I did my best to play the role of diplomat by asking her if she could imagine someone like me eager to engage in something as dreadful as war. She chuckled and earnestly replied back, “No. How could we ever fight.”

On my day of departure, Mrs. Jin accompanied me to the airport to see me off. We took one last picture together. I gave her a warm hug and wished her luck and health for the new year. We promised each other that this wasn’t a goodbye. We would see each other again.

After clearing airport security, I turned around hoping to steal one more glance of her. She was still standing there. One hand was waving goodbye while the other was wiping tears away from her eyes.

(Mrs. Jin’s name has been changed for this post)

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