Laughing Out of Place

A dispatch from nowhere North Korea

By / December 2012

“Welcome, welcome to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea!” It was a chirpier and more heartfelt greeting than I had expected to hear upon crossing the Chinese border into North Korea. The docent’s name was Mr. Lee*. He was dressed smartly, if somewhat awkwardly, in a black blazer pulled elbow-high over the sleeves of a pinstriped shirt. He worked for the tourism branch of North Korea’s security bureau. He was, as I would come to find out, 25 years old. He looked much older.

I had arrived in North Korea as part of a tour group. The three-day trip was the culmination of a lifetime of curiosity and a lengthy process to secure safe passage. Since childhood I have been fascinated by the “other,” other people, other places, other times. North Korea was, for me, the ultimate other. No Twitter, no Facebook, no rush-hour traffic, few if any cell phones, no coffee shops to meander away Saturday mornings.

From everything I’d heard and read, the North Korean government was determined to preserve the country’s otherness. And yet there was Mr. Lee and his enthusiastic welcome.

In a land where you need a security clearance just to read a book in English, his handle of the language was impeccable. He wore a perpetual grin on his face, a grin that mirrored the grin of the Great Leader’s on the pin firmly affixed to his jacket. There was not a hint of irony in his voice. He seemed genuinely thrilled that we were there.

The border post, in sharp contrast to the massive Chinese edifice on the far side of the Tumen River, was small and worn. The structure was shedding paint, the dusty pathway circling the two-story building littered with swatches of deep blue. There were soldiers all around the checkpoint, but they were outnumbered by Chinese tourists and traders, all funneling rowdily through a single metal detector.

Gradually, we checked our bags, cleared security, and, trailing Mr. Lee, descended the dusty path. We passed Chinese trucks carrying who-knows-what before boarding a silver mini-van that had seen better days. As we settled into our seats, trying to find room for our bags and coats, Mr. Lee’s tone changed.

Posting up by the passenger door, gripping a microphone with one hand and the back of the seat with the other, he launched into a rehearsed monologue about the DPRK’s accomplishments in education, in science and math, in politics, in peace and prosperity.

The ride was bumpy. I tried to stay engaged, to keep eye contact with Mr. Lee. Despite my best efforts, my attention veered towards the window. Outside, overhead, the sky was massive, the deep cerulean blue dotted with a few light clouds. The sky seemed oddly reflected in the homes scattered across the coastal countryside, every one of them the same: single-story, brick, white exteriors, blue doors, tiled roofs with the occasional cuttlefish, a squid-looking mollusk that is a staple of North Korean cuisine, set out to dry.

When I turned back to face Mr. Lee, I was startled to find him looking at me. He was pontificating about a deepwater harbor in the Sea of Japan. The harbor, he insisted, was one of the few in the region that stayed open year round. I wondered if he was serious; in winter, after all, the weather in North Korea can reach nearly arctic conditions.

Then I did something I immediately regretted: I laughed. It was a laugh of incredulity, a natural response, in many ways, to the thoughts racing through my head. I was still shocked that I was in North Korea. Perhaps the travel had left me slightly loopy.

“Why are you laughing?” Mr. Lee snapped, his smile giving way to an intimidating scowl.

The van fell silent. I started to sweat inside of my thick winter jacket. There was no use denying it, so I muttered a frazzled apology and silently resolved to give Mr. Lee my full attention for the remainder of the trip.

A few miles up the road, we stopped to stretch our legs. It was the middle of the afternoon, the sun still looming high above. The temperature was unseasonably mild, the air clear and warm. I was standing on the edge of the dusty hilltop road, taking in a view of the sea, when Mr. Lee approached. I grew tense, fully expecting him to give me a piece of his mind.

Instead, he asked me where I was from, if I was married. He was intrigued about how I’d met my wife. He said he hoped to marry, too, one day. We strolled, talking, the tense atmosphere of the van ride dissolving like sand into the sea.

From that afternoon on, Mr. Lee would accompany us every waking moment of the trip. He joined us on a hike up a beautiful mountain outside of a seaside town, the golden leaves of the trees crowning the drab gray of the city below. He hurried us through the only public market in the area, a place where for two hours every day rows of women, dressed in identical red jackets, sit under plastic awnings, cuttlefish or shrimp or rice and mung bean candy spread before them on wooden tables.

I was surprised to learn that the North Korean government screens for its citizens one foreign film a year. Mr. Lee went on and on about “Bend It Like Beckham,” the most recent pick. At the karaoke restaurant in our hotel basement, he belted Elton John’s “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” He danced the tango with one of the women in the group.

At another karaoke restaurant one night, he asked me a question I never thought I’d hear. I had just taken a seat at a neatly set table when Mr. Lee said, “Would you try our famous dog stew?”

Seconds later a hot bowl was placed before me. I stared at the morsels of dark meat floating in the thick, tawny broth. Mr. Lee watched encouragingly. There were chili peppers in the concoction, along with eggs and vegetables. I picked up the spoon.

But as I dipped into the soup, I hesitated. All I could see was the face of Sammy, my pet terrier back home. “Come on!” Mr. Lee taunted, echoing the chants of the others in the group. Pushing the thought of Sammy aside, I took a reluctant bite.

It was spicy. It was awful. Who knew dog meat would be so gamey, so tough, that it would taste more like beef than chicken, and more like goat than beef? One bite was enough. I knew from the second it touched my tongue that that was the last time I would ever eat dog.

But what I remember most is this: When I looked up from the bowl, Mr. Lee was laughing. It was a quiet laugh, more chuckle than roar, but the laughter had taken over his entire face.

I felt in that moment as if my interactions with the man had come full circle. On the bus that first day, laughter had nearly triggered an international crisis. In the restaurant, around the steaming bowl of stew, laughter added punctuation to what had already become, against great odds, an unlikely friendship.

Several months after my trip to North Korea, I turned on the TV and saw the news of Kim Jong Il’s death. The images coming out of North Korea showed a nation in the throes of grief. My heart pounded. This was big news, news made more real from my having just returned from the country. I thought of Mr. Lee, about what he was experiencing at that very moment. I figured that the news of the Great Leader’s death must have made the ground beneath his feet quake.

Even now, I cannot read the stories, nor look at the pictures, without recalling Mr. Lee. I wonder what the future holds for him. I wonder if we will ever laugh together again.


*Names in this story have been changed. Philip Andrews is the pen name of a writer living in the Washington, DC area.