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Friendship breaches cultural divides

By Joe Fuyuno ’11 / North Korea

I went on a seven-day tour of North Korea in the summer of 2010 with my classmate, Albert, and have been trying to make sense of what I saw there ever since. Initially, I had my doubts about whether I should go, as I didn’t know if my tourist money would end up supporting what I saw as a corrupt dictatorship. However, I decided that being able to see the The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), with my own eyes was more important than anything else. From a distance, I’ve found it easy to think of things simply as black or white. Up close, I often find myself realizing that there are shades of gray about a topic. I wanted to go to meet some North Koreans and to get a sense of what life really was like there. I learned much about the country itself, and met a friend that made what I saw both more meaningful and more difficult to understand.

Everything we experienced was the best the DPRK had to offer. We stayed in a modern 47-floor hotel, complete with a brew-pub, bowling alley, restaurants and a golf course. Every meal we ate was a multicourse banquet; every restaurant seemed only opened for us tourists. Knowing the extent of food shortages in the country, it was clear the things we were seeing and experiencing were extraordinary. Whether this was an extreme case of hospitality, or an attempt to mask internal problems, I couldn’t say. This feeling of deception led to tension in many interactions. Throughout the week, everything we saw or heard had to be taken with a bit of skepticism. Amidst this controlled presentation of information, I looked for a connection with the country’s people, something that was based on the truth.

[[{"fid":"4932","view_mode":"default","fields":{"format":"default","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"Joe Fuyuno ","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":"Joe Fuyuno "},"type":"media","link_text":null,"attributes":{"alt":"Joe Fuyuno ","title":"Joe Fuyuno ","style":"float: left; margin: 10px 15px;","class":"panopoly-image-original media-element file-default"}}]]Albert and I had brought more than five bottles of scotch into the DPRK. Our plan, based on our experience in developing economies, was to use them to smooth our interactions with locals and as an exchange for currency in what we imagined to be a vast black market. The second day of the trip, Albert persuaded a couple of the local guides to join us in a drink of Johnny Walker, blended Scotch whiskey, while they taught us a card game. We ended up drinking most of the bottle with Mr. Lee, a stately gentleman in his late 40s who was the head of the entire 100-plus person DPRK tour operation. While initially eager to show us a uniquely North Korean card game, it became clear that he didn’t actually know the rules of the game he taught us. With some proper Asian drinking etiquette, and some judicious losing in the card game, we were able to come to an understanding, and some sort of bonding. After that, Mr. Lee became one of the best sources of straightforward information for us. Over the following days we had many conversations about the differences between our countries.

To get into the DPRK, you have to contract with the state-provided tour service. There were many restrictions on travel. What you could photograph was controlled and, at times, so was how you composed your pictures. For example, all pictures of statues of Kim Il Sung, the leader of the DPRK from 1948-1994, were to include his whole body, not just an arm or head, or other body part. Cellphones were checked at the border, and many nonfiction books and magazines weren’t allowed. What became the biggest indication of the government’s control were the local guides. Three were assigned to our group of 19, and one was never more than a few yards away. We were never allowed to walk about freely, and all of our actions were closely watched. We were told in the end that our own safety wasn’t a concern, but our actions could easily get these guides in trouble for their failure to control us. I had heard stories of punishment in North Korea, and the possibility that my own foolish or careless actions could cause one of our guides to get into trouble was compelling. This tension was exacerbated by the feeling of constantly being monitored for behavior. One clearly not only had to worry about the opinions of the other guides, but also of the general population. High-ranking party members were indistinguishable, as everyone wore the same type of clothes with identical Kim Il Sung pins on their lapels.

A few days of our tour were spent on the southeastern coast of the country, in Wonsan. During our stay at the foreigner and dignitary resort, we were able to go to the beach. Despite the weather being cloudy, our group was tired from days of touring museums and historical sites, and quickly seized the opportunity for some fun. Our ever-present minders watched us play in the surf. As we gradually grew tired and went in to rest before dinner, so did the minders, one by one. Eventually the only people remaining at the shore were Mr. Lee and I. As I splashed around in the waves hitting the beach, I could tell he was anxious. I guessed that he too had become tired from the tour itinerary. I noticed him disappear for a few minutes. When he returned I saw him pacing back and forth along the coastline. His anxiety had clearly increased. After a time, I grew tired and got out of the water to sit on the sand and read a book. When I next looked up, I saw Mr. Lee was still facing the waves, but now without his shirt on. I remember feeling glad that he was able to relax a little. After reading a few pages I looked over, and saw Mr. Lee had undressed to reveal that he had been wearing a clearly borrowed set of swim trunks underneath his dress slacks. He then took off running and dove into the waves. I’m not sure if he had learned to trust me, or was just envious of our carefree playing. But it became a secret between us, as I had a suspicion that he shouldn’t have been in the water while I was alone on shore. The look he gave me when he eventually got out of the water confirmed my feeling.

People lucky enough to live in the capital city of Pyongyang enjoy a life that in many ways seems comfortable. Students take entrance examinations to attend the college specializing in the career of their choice. Following mandatory military service, and upon graduation, these students work temporary jobs for two to three years while the party officials find them a permanent position in their trade of choice. The concepts of student loans, mortgages, credit cards, and job hunting were all topics that I eventually had to explain to Mr. Lee.

The final night of the trip, we went to a fun fair in Pyongyang. This amusement park had been constructed recently and was clearly one of the popular places in the city. As our group walked through the park, we were immediately escorted to the front of the very long lines to get on the rides of our choice. Albert and I knew Mr. Lee had never been on a roller-coaster before, and between the two of us we were able to goad him into taking one ride with us. Unskillfully, Mr. Lee had chosen a ride that our tour company had dubbed the “Vominator,” a 10-story spinning and swinging ride. Mr. Lee seemed excited to join us, and I have pictures of him smiling when the ride started. As Albert and I introduced Pyongyang to the American tradition of screaming loudly while on a ride at the amusement park, we didn’t get an opportunity to look over to see how Mr. Lee was doing. When we got off the ride, I noticed that something was wrong with Mr. Lee. He clearly did not feel well, had lost his sense of equilibrium and stumbled his way to the exit. I chuckled, realizing that Mr. Lee had learned, first-hand, why this ride was called the “Vominator.” I asked him if he thought the ride was fun, he shook his head and said simply, “No.” I suppose he learned that sometimes going along with Albert and my suggestions wasn’t the best idea.

When I read about the DPRK now, I think of Mr. Lee and the week I had in North Korea. What confuses me most isn’t that somewhere far away, in a culture different from my own, I was able to make a friend. Even with all the tools of the modern world, cell phones, air travel, Internet and Facebook, there is still a great distance that remains between us. I remember boarding the plane and waving back at Mr. Lee, realizing that I would never see or hear from him again.

Joe Fuyuno graduated from Thunderbird School of Global Management in 2011. During his time at Thunderbird, the U.S. citizen made trips to Japan, Kenya, China, and North Korea. He currently resides in Denver, Colorado.