The cool air blasting on to us from the ceiling air duct was a welcome relief from the exterior suffocating heat of Seoul’s concrete centre. The banker positioned opposite us was somewhat flustered by his lack of useful banking English and had been bumbling his way through the transaction. The glitter from his exotic tie occasionally sparkling in the light as his fingers furiously danced on the computer keyboard. The waltz of the digits came to a sudden end and a piece of paper was shoved under our noses, ‘OK’ said the anxious man before taking a bow and indicating that this interaction was terminated. ‘OK? When will the money arrive?’ we asked. ’48 hours’ came the abrupt reply.
The money had gone to a tour agency based in Europe that specialised in tours both into and out of North Korea. It boasted years of experience in getting people like us to them. ‘Them’ being one of the most secretive and problematic countries of the modern world and ‘us’ being two teachers – an American and a Brit – living and working in Seoul, the capital of the avowed enemy country of ‘them’.
Notification actually came the same day. We were told that the money had been received and our places had been reserved for a May 2012 tour. That was the easy part. The trick now was for this tour agency based in Europe to convince the North Koreans to grant us a visa. That would take time.
In fact, as much as a month prior to the tour start date.
And so began the long and laborious waiting game to enter North Korea. Our contribution to this game was not only money but also time and patience. In August 2011 we had all three, but as the days began to get increasingly shorter so did our patience.
Aside from work to keep us occupied, we began pulling videos and documentaries off the Internet, reading accounts from people who had travelled there and keeping a close eye on the news in trepidation that our neighbours in the north would do something to jeopardise our chances of acquiring a visa.
The leaves had begun to change colour and we still had not received word. So we contacted the local agency where we had begun the whole process and were starkly told: ‘When we know, you’ll know.’
With that cold and indefinite response, we left them to it.
On December 19th Kim Jong Il died. Alicia and I watched as North Korea put on a show of intense sorrow for the loss of their ‘Dear leader’. Every citizen had to look despairingly grief-stricken both for the local and foreign media. Uncontrollable wailing, hammering of the ground, fake tears, were all pictures seen by a mostly disbelieving international audience.
Apprehensive of how the change of power in the north might affect our travel plans, we waited to hear from the agency. One day, two, three, and then a week. Nothing. We emailed and they responded in their usual curt manner: ‘When we know, you’ll know.’
There was now snow on the ground; a far cry from that sweltering summer day in the bank and we were still none the wiser. With every passing moment, flights were getting more and more expensive but with our hands tied and our patience thinned all we could do was let the agency know of our displeasure. Then, almost out of the blue, the response was somewhat more informative than previously ‘We told you, it can be as late as a month before. We will be sending more information shortly.’
And so they did.
We were informed as to how we were to present our fictitious background to the North Koreans. First, we were not allowed to disclose that we had been living and working in South Korea. Second, we were to lie stating that we came from Australia. Additionally, to indulge the country’s patriarchal views and much to my amusement, we were to state that we were married. I was to be designated as the breadwinner with Alicia dubbed as ‘the housewife’.
Us lying to the North Korean government was not the biggest shock nor was it that one look at our passport would reveal us telling king-size porkies. What the Europe-based agency also required was for Alicia’s family to become involved in the visa process by having their details passed on to North Korea and then having a diplomat contact them to verify our story.
This bombshell was announced just six weeks prior to the trip. Whilst we would not be entirely against us two fabricating the truth to gain entry, requesting a family member to falsify a testimony was totally out of the question.
That for us, coupled with the escalating price of flights was provocation enough for us to cancel.
Sadly, North Korea will have to wait.
© John Brownlie 2012