Getting out

Korea 2007

By Will Englund

June 09, 2009

Published in The Baltimore Sun

Leaving North Korea brought back distinct memories of dread. Our little group had had a perfectly normal time there - if a weekend in a fenced-off hard-currency resort, where everything is just so, can be called normal. But it was the departure that made us realize how eager we were to get away, yet how uneasily iffy it might be. It was like the unavoidable anxiety that used to accompany my exits from Moscow, where I was once posted and where it seemed as though you never quite knew whether the airport guards and functionaries and metal gates would make way for you this time, as you sought to get onto a westbound plane.

Our North Korean fantasy retreat was at a legendary place called Mount Kumgang. The spot is beautiful, with mountain trails and an astonishingly serene lake, surrounded by low pines. Natural springs feed a hot-water spa. Thrillingly patriotic music calls out to you from loudspeakers.

Nature is enjoyed on schedule. When our group - 12 American editors on a tour organized by the International Reporting Project at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies - was ready for the stroll around the lake, we had to be at our bus at 2 o'clock. Dozens of other buses departed for the lake at the same time, and hundreds of nature-lovers hiked its shore together. By 3:30 sharp, we were all back at our buses for the 10-minute ride to the hotel.

The same thing the next day for our mountain tour. Along the green fence that separates the resort - run by the Hyundai Asan corporation of South Korea - from the villages and fields of the real Democratic People's Republic of Korea stands a soldier every 50 yards or so. Signs in Korean (as most of the tourists are South Koreans) warn against "provoking" any North Koreans who might be encountered. We had been told not to point at anyone or anything, which becomes very hard not to do once you're thinking about not doing it.

North and South Korea are engaged in an odd romance these days. The South has had a policy of trying to carefully bring the North out of its shell, without giving offense. The regime in the North acts as though it just might be interested in going along. The result is that corporate and political leaders in the South have refrained from criticizing the North, or noticing dissidents - though that will change, maybe not dramatically, with the new more conservative South Korean president, Lee Myung Bak.

It's not North Korean border guards but Hyundai Asan employees who check to make sure you're not bringing anything subversive (such as a video camera or a newspaper) to Mount Kumgang. To the west, a large industrial park ostensibly exposes local workers to global corporate ways, but it also provides a lot of very cheap labor to the South Korean companies that have set up there.

After the trip to the lake, we had a "traditional" North Korean feast- the sort of spread that might have been provided to visiting journalists anywhere in the old Soviet world, where they were treated with elaborate courtesy and as much scenic and gustatory and alcoholic distraction as possible, to keep them from getting too nosy. In this case, we had fried fish flattened as if with a sledgehammer, to be eaten bones and all, and pieces of wild boar cooked on tabletop grills that quickly filled our private dining room with greasy smoke.

Afterward we chitchatted a little with two of the women who worked there; plenty of topics had already been explained to us as off-limits (that is, too provocative). They must have enjoyed some privilege to get work at the resort; they clearly were not the brainwashed automatons that caricature would suggest. The conversation (through our own interpreter) trailed off when a middle-aged man in a Mao jacket sat down at one of the nearby tables.

We were given a time slot for crossing the border back to the South. We left in a convoy of buses, but then one of our party realized he had left his passport in his room. This was very serious business, for all concerned; the border was closing soon and our two-day visas were expiring. Worried messages were relayed by walkie-talkie, and finally an official car picked up our colleague and roared back to the hotel. He found the passport, and off we raced to the border. Soldiers stood on granite outcroppings, and in the middle of fields, as we went by. We made it in time.

Once in the South, we headed to a place called Naksan Beach, crowded with modest hotels looking out over the surf, and had lunch at Naksan Sashimi Place No. 5. We had sea urchin roe and abalone porridge and seaweed soup. The sashimi was from a bream, fished out of a tank and expertly filleted; it was presented to us on a platter, the head and tail intact, still connected to the skeleton, the pieces of flesh arranged artfully along the ribs. The gills were still breathing, the tail still flinching, though nothing but bones and a spinal cord lay between them.

The restaurant was crowded and informal and lively. South Koreans' belief in engaging the North is predicated on the expectation that some day it, too, will be raucous and easy-going as a result. Maybe they're right, though the difference between engaging and enabling is hard to discern at times. The resort at Mount Kumgang is a big success, and we were thrilled to get away from it.