Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Drunk in Pyongyang, sober in Beijing

With North Korea dominating global news headlines again, I can’t help but think of the North Koreans I have met.

Mr. Kang was the foreign ministry “minder” assigned to us during a reporting trip to Pyongyang a few years ago. He was a slim and rather pale young man – in his mid-20s back then – who had followed his diplomat father’s footstep when it came to choosing a career.

Having lived and studied in Europe and China, Mr. Kang is fluent in English and Chinese – a perfect choice to mind nosy journalists’ business. Thanks to the rather innocuous agenda of the trip (a few weeks before North Korea revealed its secret nuclear program to the world), Mr. Kang seemed to have spent less time supervising us and more time socializing with us.

Even this privileged North Korean was eager to learn more about the West, particularly his nation’s sworn enemy. We talked about quite a bit about America, mostly on the cultural front – and he was well-versed in the Western pop culture. Although I noticed he wore the same shirt, tie and suit for a week, he was always articulate and relaxed during our conversations – quite a sharp contrast to the image of Communist dinosaurs in most people’s minds.

On our last night in Pyongyang, Mr. Kang was trying to take us to a “secret” karaoke parlor. Crossing the wide and silent downtown street in nearly total darkness, I was looking forward to the rare opportunity of seeing a North Korean official belt out some cheesy pop songs (this being the pre-“Team America” days – we had no idea we would hear the Dear Leader himself sing “I’m so ronery, so ronery” with such tenderness only a few years later).

But alas, we were a little too late. The karaoke parlor closed at 10 p.m. We ended up at the revolving restaurant on the top floor of our hotel. The view outside was – well, pitch-black. But with alcohol flowing, Mr. Kang became even more friendly – toasting to each of us repeatedly while promising to call us next time he would visit Beijing.

We paid the exorbitant bill (even by New York standard) and bid farewell to Mr. Kang – and that was the last time I saw him.

Then there were some of his fellow countrymen I met in their hideaways in Beijing. For a while, North Koreans were literally crashing the gates of different embassies in the capital – seeking refuge and highlighting their plight. Sometimes we would be tipped off about their action the night before – and would go see and talk to them.

It was usually somewhere far out in the suburbs – in one of those “ghetto” areas. There would be children, couples, the elderly – often the whole family was there – all crammed into one or two small rooms.

Much has been said about the North Korean refugees’ escape from their homeland. Seeing them in person and talking to the few Chinese-speakers among them, however, still made me understand a little better why they would risk everything to make the dash or jump the next day – despite the barbwires and armed guards in front of the embassies. There was simply no going back.

One scene has stuck to my mind. Dressed as construction workers, a group of North Koreans caught the security personnel of the Canadian embassy off-guard – when the refugees started climbing two ladders into the embassy.

Just when it seemed to be a mission accomplished, several guards rushed to the spot and pulled the ladders down – felling the last remaining Korean on one ladder.

As the guards grabbed the old man in the bushes and dragged him away, you could hear the gut-wrenching scream from those already inside as they witnessed the horror so helplessly through the fences.

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