Personal Essay: Just a touch of 아리랑: Understanding the two Koreas

Over the course of his strange and relatively short life, North Korean President Kim Jong-Il amassed many nicknames: “Superior Person.” “Dear Leader, who is a perfect incarnation of the appearance that a leader should have.” “Highest Incarnation of the Revolutionary Comradely Love.” “Guiding Star of the 21st Century.”

Or, from the other side of the fence: “Paranoid Dictator.” “Totalitarian Murderer.” “Incompetent Troublemaker.”

In his home country, the dictator was credited with a laundry list of accomplishments befitting of the more fawning epithets: inventing the Internet, inventing the automobile, controlling the weather with his mind, setting worldwide fashion trends.

Now he’s dead, fallen pretty to “physical and mental overwork,” or so goes the party line, never-you-mind his penchant for Hennessey cognac, prostitutes and couch potato-ism.

I’ve been reading the obituaries and elegies and it seems that the only things everyone can agree on are that, A: there’s a whole lot about Mr. Kim we don’t know for sure, B: there’s a whole lot about him – and about North Korea, for that matter – that we’ll probably never know for sure, no matter what happens next.

The last-gasp Stalinist holdout may be sandwiched between the desolate outer reaches of free-market China and its bustling, astonishingly prosperous better half, the Republic of Korea, but North Korea is without peer in the depth and breadth of its isolation.

When I was in my 20s, I had occasion to visit both Koreas. During the time I spent living in the lower, luckier half of the peninsula, and during a brief weekend visit to the North, I came to understand these two countries as frenemies in a deep and complex sense.

***

The Zen Buddhists say that understanding the nature of reality is as difficult as picking up an egg with a pair of silver chopsticks.

Likewise, the nature of the reality that governs the North-South relationship is fraught with slick and slippery curves.

Any South Korean you ask will say that he or she favors reunification, and as the peninsula’s division is a product of very recent history (two competing governments, one backed by the Soviet Union and the other backed by the United States, were first established in 1948), most middle-to-older-aged South Koreans can still rattle off the names of at least a few relatives lost to the North. Often, though, they have no idea where these cousins and uncles and sisters are, or if they are still alive. Point of fact, there’s a South Korean television channel that, from what I could surmise, dedicates itself exclusively to broadcasting footage of tearful reunions among Northern and Southern family members.

I first moved to Seoul in 2005, to teach English at a public elementary school in a wealthy area just south of the city proper. It was a nice place, full of upscale coffee shops and wide, clean roads.

The month before my departure, I’d pulled out my atlas and located the city on a map. To my horror, I discovered that the South Korean capital was located a mere 70 miles from the North Korean border. In the days before I boarded the plane, I was plagued by nightmares about being chased by grim-faced North Korean guards, about big, oily gun barrels with smoke rising from then, of rotting concrete prison cells and suffering too terrible to name. But the truth was, after the day I arrived in Seoul, I almost never thought about my proximity to the Red North. For all it mattered in my daily life, it might as well have been 7,000 miles distant. Home felt closer in many ways, flanked as I was by American fast food restaurants and Nike swooshes and constant, unsolicited shouts of “Nice to meet you!”

At the time, it baffled me, but looking back, it sort of makes sense. Throughout history, Korea had the geographical misfortune of being located at the crossroads of warring superpowers.

In the aftermath of WWII, all that tugging and pulling finally ripped it clean in two during the Korean Conflict, which began in 1950 and was stalled – but never concluded – with a cease fire in 1953.

North Korea, to its eventual detriment, was claimed by the Soviet Union, while big-nosed American soldiers streamed into South Korea by the thousands. They still haven’t left.

In short, South Korea was a tiny and exceptional chunk of civilization that found itself on the right side of history at the wrong moment.

Hence, the south was partitioned off, implausibly, from the rest of the cold and unlucky Northeast Asian landmass, where the winters are interminable and most everyone remains shockingly poor. And like an iceberg cracked free of its moorings and caught by a steady westward current, South Korea drifted irretrievably away.

***

In light of all that remains unknowable about North Korea, the key to understanding it may well be to consider, first, the makeup of modern South Korea, and to paint the picture in relief.

One stifling October mid-morning not long after my arrival in Seoul, my new boss and I took a long and awkward drive to the Seoul consulate for yet another round of visa paperwork.

His name was Mr. Khang. His English was terrible, my Korean was non-existent. However, as just about anything is less awkward than abiding total silence in a confined space with a near-stranger of the opposite gender, we worked hard at striking up a conversation, an earnestness that led us, eventually, to the topic of the two Koreas.

Mr. Khang recalled that he and his brothers had to subsist on a single potato a day each in the days just after the Korean Conflict. Hunger was the backdrop to everything he did, and finding ways to fill his belly occupied his days and troubled his dreams.

By the time we came face to face four decades later, things looked very different, indeed.

Mr. Khang shared a posh apartment with his exceptionally attractive wife and two doe-eyed children, one boy and one girl. He had a fancy foreign automobile and, in said apartment, a huge freezer purchased for the sole purpose of storing massive quantities of kimchi, the spicy pickled radish that is the country’s national dish. He sat at the helm of a business that ran after-school English programs in public schools. (He also had the spare kit to treat his assistant, Mr. Kim – No, not that one – plus all the schools’ principals, to whiskey-fueled gambling-karaoke-hooker binges, but I wouldn’t know that part till later.) He was healthy and handsome by both American and Korean standards, with ruddy, angular cheeks, a toothpaste-commercial-smile and a thick mop of glossy black hair. He’d even given himself an English name: “Philip.”

His only physical flaw was a none-too-obvious paunch that hung over his Dockers when he sat down. He loved to worry over it, especially after finishing a big meal of kimchi chi gye or sam gyeop sal. With great ceremony, he’d loose his belt a few notches and cry out in English, “I need to lose my weight!”

But secretly, I think it made him proud. It meant something to him, that gut, although it took me awhile to get close to figuring out just why.

That day in the car after he finished the potato story, as he wove his fancy wheels in and out of a mid-morning traffic snarl, he reached down and grabbed playfully at the roll of flesh, laughing.

“Today all South Korea is big-sized!”

***

It felt true, and Mr. Khang was far from exceptional in his plight. I quickly noticed that the youngest generation of South Koreans, reared during the gluttonous, heady aftermath of unprecedented economic upward mobility, was looking a bit, ahem, portly.

South Korean is not a country that minces words, and its people have not taken well to that very forward-thinking and perhaps uniquely American “beauty comes in all sizes” saw. Instead, they teased me for my curves relentlessly.

My students quickly learned that shouting out “Tea-cha! How much you weigh?” in the middle of a lesson was a guaranteed crowd pleaser, sure to earn them the hysterical admiration of their peers for the rest of the day. And I was several times banned from trying on clothes in department stores by dour-faced ajumas who scolded me with the admonition, “You too pudgy!” (At the time, I was 5’3 and weight 135 pounds.) It irritated me to no end, especially seeing as a good 25 percent of my students were downright obese and on track to surpass me in poundage well before they reached the age of consent.

They craved Mac-don-ald-su, and sausa-gees and were indulged shamelessly by their doting mothers. The resulting bulge didn’t go unnoticed by the moms, however, who’d then scold their chipmunk-cheeked children in front of other mothers for being fat, or, to coin a Konglish expression, “big-size.” They’d encourage the girls to go on diets before they reached junior high. The moms seemed embarrassed, and more, straight baffled by their children’s relative heft.

It was one of a long, long list of things I just didn’t get.

The causal relationship between the heft of the youngest generation and their insatiable cravings for fatty, sugary American fare seemed obvious. But after a few months of grocery shopping and dining out in SK, I finally figured it out: they didn’t get it either.

American foods flummoxed them, and so they simply treated it like Korean food dressed up in different clothes.

I gave up trying to explain to the skeptical waitresses at an “Italian” restaurant near my apartment that butter wasn’t meant to be spread a half-an-inch thick over a piece of bread.

One of my university students, Wendy, was thrilled to no end when she landed a desirable job as a cashier at KFC (K-F-She). She cited a 25 percent discount on food as a major perk of her new gig. Sometimes she’d show up to class still in her red and white uniform and dress wig. Her friends sighed with envy.

In 2005, American-style buffets were all the rage in Seoul. Craving foods from home, a few Western friends and I once took a trip to a buffet near our neighborhood. VIPs Buffet it was called, pronounced Peep-su poo-pay in Korean dialect. (Say it aloud a few times. You’ll get it.)

It was a frightening and exceedingly unpleasant experience. An elderly woman literally shoved me aside to gain access to a freshly loaded platter of shrimp. I watched, astonished, as she picked up the platter and dumped the entire thing onto her plate. At every table, Koreans were bingeing on massive platefuls of starchy, fatty foods. I spent 15 minutes in line for a cone of soft-serve ice cream before I figured out why the line was moving at such a glacial pace: people were preparing 5-10 towering cones apiece, which meant that the machine required constant replenishing by an exhausted-looking teenager in a green VIPs apron and matching hat.

A Korean friend who joined us for the dinner said it was not uncommon for Koreans to gorge themselves at such restaurants, vomit into bathroom garbage cans, and then head back the buffet for another round.

They just didn’t seem to understand how to interact with American food. And it was no wonder. Korean “sweets” were usually made from some combination of sesame seeds, honey, beans and rice, which meant you could fairly gorge on them with some degree of impunity. I’d watch at lunchtime, astonished, as my students dutifully devoured their little partitioned lunchboxes of kimchi, quail egg, rice and pickled seaweed, then scarfed down massive bags of contraband chips and donuts they’d pick up at the convenience store at the school’s back entrance.

And all of this, just a decade after an estimated 3 million North Koreans died of starvation a quick few-hundred miles away.

How had this happened? Why had the fates visited such drastically different outcomes on a single people? And when the rift cuts this deep, what in the world is anybody supposed to do next?

I suspect that many South Koreans are more ambivalent about the prospect of a reunification than they’d ever care to admit to a foreigner. I’m sure the reasons are far more complex than my Western mind is equipped to understand. But I do have my guesses. As evidence by the ever-expanding girth of South Koreans and the figurative and literal disappearing of North Koreans, reunification would present cataclysmic economic and social implications.

The North and the South have been two for a mere six decades, but in that time, the South Korean per capita income has mushroomed to 15 times that of North Korea. (2008 estimates put South Korea’s PCI at $26,000 and North Korea’s at $1,700.) Infrastructure in the North stalled out after the Soviet Union collapsed, taking with it North Korea’s primary source of aid and sending the country into economic freefall. South Korea, on the other hand, is now home to hotshot electronics and car companies such as Samsung, LG and Kia, and to a people that are singularly determined to working their tails off to perpetuate the sudden abundance.

***

To call North Korea’s borders jealously guarded would be something of an understatement. Its citizens are forbidden from traveling into the world outside and, largely, discouraged even from moving freely between cities. Likewise, foreigners are granted sporadic and hesitating entrance, and their itineraries are carefully controlled by “escorts.” (Always at least two, so that the escorts might keep an eye not only on visiting foreigners, but also on each other.)

In recent years, in what I can only assume is a bid for desperately needed revenue, North Korea has opened its borders to foreigners. But it’s always only just a little, and usually for short spurts of time before some conflict or other slams the door back shut.

I was lucky enough to be in South Korea during one of those moments when a crack appeared, and I had the opportunity to visit the big, bad Red North for a weekend.

The experience, much like my experience at VIPs Buffet, left me feeling bloated, disoriented, and further than ever from understanding the Koreans as a people.

A couple of days before I was scheduled to depart on a bus for North Korea, Kim Jong-Il fired off a couple of long-range test missiles, to the outrage of pretty much everyone.

Tensions got tense, but my friends and I opted not to cancel our excursion, reasoning that we’d already paid a hefty deposit, and, well, we’d probably be better off getting caught in the place where the missiles were coming from as opposed to where they were heading toward, right?

Before departure, we were given a long list of weird, creepy rules. A cross-section:

• Cameras with telephoto lenses of more than160mm and binoculars with zooming capabilities of 10 times or more are banned

• All electronic equipment must be checked at the Guemgang Condo before departing for North Korea

• You must ALWAYS wear your ID (you will get this before you arrive in NK) around your neck. You will be fined if it lost or damaged

• Washing hands and/or feet is not allowed in the fresh water springs (fine is $15)

• Only US dollars and credit cards are accepted

• There are many large rocks with engraving done by the government. Do not touch or lean on these rocks

• You may not speak the names of Kim il-sung and Kim jong-il aloud.

• You may speak with the North Korean people that you meet, but you may not take random pictures of them, including pictures from inside the bus. In addition, please be careful of the conversation topics when speaking with North Koreans. DO NOT talk about politics, diplomatic relations, economics and other such sensitive issues.

After a night of driving, we arrived at the “border,” which was basically just a huge white circus tent. Inside, we and our belongings were herded through a long row of obviously fake x-ray machines.

We were asked to keep our arms raised above our heads, in a position suggesting at once guilt and surrender, with our passports and cameras held aloft for inspection.

On the other side, we were greeted by impossibly pretty, rosy-cheeked girls and a couple of dudes dressed in giant bear suits dancing around and crying out, “Welcome to North Korea!”

But it wasn’t exactly North Korea, or at least not the North Korea that you see on the nightly news, the North Korea I saw in my nightmares.

It was something lesser, though equally sinister.

We were to spend the weekend in a tiny enclave of the North that had been carved out by Hyundai Motor Corporation and renamed “Kum Gang San Village” for its proximity to Korea’s most beautiful mountain.

All said, we’d arrived in North Korea on a fortuitous occasion, our tour guide explained to us: it was Kim Jong-Il’s birthday, and in celebration of himself, he’d given everyone in the country a new shirt and pair of paints.

During my visit, I discovered three things: one, when you’re an outsider, perhaps the most distinguishing feature of totalitarian regimes is their boringness. Two: I do not do well with rules. Three: the tops of mountains are high, treacherous things, and prone, sometimes, to spiral impossibly, eternally out of reach.

***

Because I’ve always had a flair for the dramatic, I cued up The Gorillaz’ “Last Living Souls” on my iPod as we re-boarded the bus and drove into the country proper.

The land was green and glittering and shockingly pristine. Aside from a few trucks ambling along, apparently powered by piles of burning wood lodged in their beds, everyone moved about on foot or bicycle.

Red flags peppered the fields, underneath which real live North Koreans dug in the dirt and wheeled their wheelbarrows.

Atop hills, stationed in bushes, and lurking on the rooftops we whizzed past was the ever-present line of soldiers, standing stock-still, wearing sunglasses, gripping little red flags in hand.

If we tried to take a picture of anything, the tour guide warned, the little red flag would go up, the bus would pull over, and we’d be searched and seized.

The guy in the seat in front of me kept sneaking photos with his camera.

“Cut it out!” I hissed at him. “You want to get us killed?”

I had reason to worry: My screwups were legion.

First on the itinerary was a visit to a North Korean circus, which definitely sounded more impressive and exciting than it was, especially if you’ve seen footage of the crazy, colorful synchronized spectacles Kim Jong-Il and his father were so fond of putting on for visiting dignitaries.

Those sorts of showstoppers took place in the capital city, Pyongyang, perhaps, but not in Kum Gang San Village.

There, the “circus” took place in a tiny, dilapidated auditorium, and it mostly involved people in sequined leotards hoisting themselves up to the ceiling and back down again with long silk ropes while spinning around and singing. It was boring and depressing, and I slept through most of it.

We also took a trip to Kum Gang San mountain and its adjoining waterfalls, where I discovered that I was especially bad at following the rule about not saying Kim Jong-Il’s name.

I also discovered that in North Korea, it costs $2 to go poop. The rate drops to $1 if you need only urinate, or say you need only to urinate, but I was too nervous to push my luck.

The South Koreans touring with us seemed to have a slightly easier time of adjusting. I noticed that many of them had developed the clever workaround of substituting the nonsense phrase “Mm-mm-mm” when they wanted to reference Kim Jong-Il or Kim Il-Song in conversation, as in, “My, what a lovely row of outhouses mm-mm-mm has built at the edge of that waterfall,” but I kept forgetting, and soon discovered that an old Korean guy in a track suit carrying a walkie-talkie appeared to be trailing me.

In the quiet of the hotel room later on, I railed against Kim Jong-il to my roommate, calling him a fraud and a loser, then panicked when I discovered a listening device stuck to the wall behind the hotel mirrors.

I also got screamed at by guards for wandering too far from the tour group to check out a weird, gigantic mosaic of the Two Dear Leaders. The guards came running down the little flower-lined path toward me blowing a whistle and waving their little red flags. When they reached me, they grabbed my ass, offered me a cigarette, then took away my camera and force me to pose in front of the mosaic before letting me go back to the hotel.

***

Again, all of this probably sounds more exciting than it really was. In fact, aside from the nature excursions and bus tours, our group spent the bulk of the weekend milling about a large compound that resembled a shopping mall more than anything else.

My friends and I chatted, we argued, we ate tuna and crackers and we shopped in the souvenir store. We also frequented a few not-very-good restaurants, including a large, fancy sit-down number that sold $10 bowls of ramen.

It felt like spending a weekend at any tourist trap in South Korea, except in the moments when it didn’t.

The village was powered by generators, which tended to flicker in and out, causing the waitresses to blush prettily and orders to back up in the restaurant kitchens.

Everyone was improbably attractive.

The people working the fields never looked up when we drove by, even though a tour bus must have been an unusual sight.

And we were the only visitors around.

Keeping squeaky clean is something of a Korean national pastime, so my friends and I weren’t surprised to discover that the village also housed a traditional Korean bath, just a few minutes walk from the shopping mall area, and we figured it was a good a way as any to spend an afternoon in North Korea.

We hit the jim jil bang in late evening, accompanied by an escort.

We whiled away the hours marinating in steaming hot charcoal baths and icy green tea baths, and then when dusk came, we wandered to the outdoor bathing area and lay naked on a row of lawn chairs, sipping juices and cracking jokes. To our north, beyond the privacy fence, stood a sinister-looking, heavily wooded hill.

“I wonder if mm-mm-mm is hiding up there with a camera?” I whispered.

We all laughed giddily, but reached for our towels.

That evening, I was granted entrance into the hotel kitchen to microwave a bowl of instant ramen I’d picked up at the compound convenience store.

A group of cooks stared at me, gape-mouthed. It was the longest two minutes and 30 seconds of my life. We smiled back and forth, there was more blushing, but I couldn’t sort out what to say, and figured that whatever I said, it’d probably be the wrong thing anyway. So, for once, I shut up, grabbed my half-cooked bowl of noodles, bowed and returned to the hotel bar, where my tourmates and I proceeded to drink every last bottle of beer in the entire compound.

Later, I made fast friends with a drunk American guy whose dad worked for the CIA and a group of us cased the hotel, looking for bugs and hidden cameras (both of which we found) and speaking to each other the whole time in sloppy, whispered French.

In the wee hours, I awoke both myself and my terrified roommate by leaping out of my bed and, still lost in another nightmare, screaming at her, “WHAT do you WANT from me?”

The next day, we visited the North Korean seashore. It was rocky and desolate and sort of sad, and I had to have my camera inspected after I accidentally took a picture of a cannon wedged into the sand and pointed directly at Japan.

“That’s an old cannon,” the tour guide insisted. “It doesn’t work anymore.”

I filled my pockets with contraband shells and rocks, I followed the group once more through the fake x-ray machines, and I boarded the bus that would take me back to Seoul – It was the place I lived, but it wasn’t home by any stretch of the imagination.

Home, I was coming to understand, was a complex sort of thing.

***

There is a genre of native Korean folk music called “Arirang songs,” and they are well known to every Korean, whether Northern or Southern.

I’ve never been able to find an English equivalent for the term “Arirang,” or “아리랑,” but an older Korean woman I worked with once explained it to me like this: “Arirang means you have many hills yet to climb.”

In fact, the word itself is so old and ever-present that even Koreans are hard pressed to define it precisely, but it seems to speak of nameless sorrow and spurned love, of incredible, incredible struggle.

I wanted to get it then, but deep down, I really didn’t. How could I, coming from the place where I came from, where everyone was pudgy and accomplished and querulous and the view stretched out around us for endless miles? What did I know of true sorrow or long climbs or the kind of hunger that can never be sated?

It was a slick egg, indeed.

Still, between the beers and the boredom and the hungry, pretty North Korean girls and the ever-flickering lights and the gallons and gallons of ramen, I think that weekend in North Korea brought me a little closer to understanding what all of those earnest and achingly sincere 아리랑 songs might be getting at, and to understanding why the departure of Kim Jong-Il could change nothing just as soon as everything.

Look around you. There are so very many hills still to climb.

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