The waiting game with North Korea

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

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8 thoughts on “The waiting game with North Korea

  1. Unlucky, man. An American visiting is gonna tough anyway. I always wondered how much screening the DPRK do for people applying for visas. In theory they could probably just google you, see that you live in South Korea and have a blog and decide that you are an enemy journalist. It’s a very basic thing to do – American immigration regularly starts with a google search – but I wonder whether authorities in the North has the foresight, common sense or even a proper understanding of the internet as to do such a thing.

    • Thanks, guys. I doubt they have the foresight or technical know how. You’re right they could have googled us months ago to save us all the trouble. I read an article that the expats living in Pyongyang are put in a small village which has unrestricted access to the www.
      They may do all of this for their amusement, purely to make us sweat. You look at their history and their ‘mind games’ that they play with the rest of the world, it’s almost like some elaborate joke. With the recent ‘satellite’ launch earlier this month and their surprise when aid was denied, it’s is unfathomable.

      • Yeah. They’re so paranoid that I bet they don’t even allow their own trusted government employees at the Home Office (I don’t actually know what their version of that is called – I can’t imagine they deal with many immigrants! It’ll be completely dysfunctional) access to the internet. They’ll have the intranet you get at Kim Il-Sung university. Part of it is that the people hired to “look into” visa applicants won’t even know what they’re looking for. There was a huge influx of contraband recently coming from missionary organizations in China that had crucifixes on them. Not Bibles (they know what they are) but perfume bottles, jewelry, and other trinket type things featuring crucifixes – apparently they just didn’t know what it was. I also saw a photo of a little girl in Pyongyang wearing a What Would Jesus Do t-shirt. She blatantly wouldn’t have known what it was but neither would the majority of officials. I don’t think it’s so much mind games, I think they’re just genuinely naive about how easy it is for the rest of the world to transmit information to one another. I don’t know why journalists even bother covering the back and forth of nuclear agreements, food aid and then the breaking of said agreement. Anybody worth their salt could have told you that within weeks they’d lose their food aid and within minutes that rocket would have crashed. If they’re going to cover a repetitive story that has been ongoing for years why not the human rights crisis and the concentration camps? It’s so sad that that never gets mentioned. They show a few thousand super healthy soldiers marching in unison with spruced up 1970s tanks which they do to expressly frighten America. The fact is that 90% of the population live nowhere near Pyongyang, they are completely feeble, emaciated and malnourished and some of them probably don’t even know Kim Jong-Il is dead yet. I can guarantee that people in the camps have never heard of Kim Jong-un – what’s the point in brainwashing someone who is going to die there? Waste of time – keep ’em in the mines

      • Yes, totally agree – although I did see a Christian church in Pyongyang – and the congregation said that all religions are accepted there.
        What can you do for the people living in appalling conditions and the concentration camps? The UN and WHO try to assess the country and North Korea deny them access to the very things that they want to see.
        Many years ago when Kim Jong Un returned from his educational stint in Europe, a Japanese reporter asked him what he thought about Western civilisation. He said he was shocked by the modern infrastructure and the level of living compared to his home nation.
        If there is change perhaps he is the man to make those steps towards it, but he is merely a fat puppet sitting upon his throne in the ivory tower.
        I’m disappointed that I couldn’t go, but at the same time had I have gone been equally frustrated that I wasn’t able to see the real North Korea.

  2. Wow, they wanted you to tell those giant lies to NK immigration. With your country’s passport and a SK visa inside. No thanks!

    • Yes, crazy right. They’d just take one look and be like ‘What’s this?’ and then shipped off to a concentration camp for being in league with the enemy.

  3. Pingback: Playing the Visa Game « karylmichaud

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