Most people wonder how moving through the DPRK by bus – with constant supervision – can be any more enjoyable than a lengthy car ride through an unvarying, monochromatic and silent environment. But for our group, driving through the countryside was anything but the sort. At the beginning, everyone – age and generational differences aside – comported themselves in the best, most politically correct way possible. Thank-yous, compliments, careful bows and non-exaggerated remarks characterized both our and our host’s behavior towards one another. We followed the cultural norms, carefully selecting conversation topics, and praised the sites we visited. With this [unspoken] code of conduct between both sides, our group moved agreeably through meals, visits and lengthy bus rides throughout our tour of the DPRK.
I was not expecting my mannerisms to change while on this trip, or to engage in much heavy political discussion. I knew that there were boundaries and I agreed to the standard set for me as a visitor to the Hermit Kingdom – their hermit kingdom. However, on the eve of our visit to Panmunjom, better known as the 38th parallel, after a visit to the most anti-American museum I have ever seen or really, who could have imagined that our next bus ride would become a diplomatic meeting of sorts.
On a sunny afternoon, the silence was broken when Rob, our comedian and priest-in-training from the Midwest, asked our guide, Mr. Kim a question that little did we know, would trigger a powerful and constructive discussion. Rob prefaced the question in stating that this question was something he asked on all trips, and that he was now eager to hear a response from his new North Korean friend.
“Mr. Kim – now, I usually ask many people I meet while traveling this, so I’d like to ask you: If you were live on American national television, what is the one thing you would say to our country?”
A bit shocked but gently and sincerely smiling, Mr. Kim picked up the 1980s bus microphone (looking as if it had been snatched from a vintage karaoke bar). Hesitating a bit while he gathered his thoughts to a question never asked of him, Mr. Kim faced us in uniform composure and said:
“We are not crazy!!”
We could not believe it – the bus laughed. Not expecting such an out-of-character remark from our head guide, Mr. Kim continued: “I would tell America that we are not crazy.” This was the first time we saw any emotion toward the relations of our two dueling nations. The most fascinating part of our discussion was the door that this question opened. Mr. Kim decided to, in turn, ask each of us what we were proud of. He commenced the dialogue by mentioning that he was proud of “Being Korean – of speaking Korean.” He handed each of us the microphone and one by one the comments began: pride of being first generation, of immigrating to the U.S., of everything America has given us, of seeing the U.S. mature over the decades, and of seeing a country grow before technology. Even the driver commented, adding that he too was proud of being a North Korean.
The dialogue was profound and brought us all closer – such open, judgment-free personal remarks brought down an invisible wall between our North Korean counterparts and ourselves. We were all equally human and felt the tension disseminate a bit more – ironically, before entering one of the tensest latitudes on Earth at the DMZ.
With a more personable dynamic amongst us, we were circled around the back of the bus, nearly off our seats like children around a school teacher’s skirt hem – eager to be next to ask a question to Mr. Kim – holding onto every remark and trying to quickly capture every word. Adrenaline and excitement was our caffeine on an otherwise coffee-less trip. We asked questions regarding the recent Cheonan sinking, the Obama administration and U.S. – DPRK politics. We asked questions regarding the Korean war and future potential positive relations between North Korea and America, about the Bush administration, the famine (although a denial was given as an answer), and about North Korean’s awareness of their country’s politics.
When we asked about 9/11, Mr. Kim paused a bit – seemingly trying to figure out the most polite way of forming his response: that some citizens do not even know it
occurred. We were a bit perplexed, but not completely shocked. But Mr. Kim continued in earnest, saying that some people in the country thought it was not terrorism, but rather an American ploy, while others thought was merely science fiction. Mr. Kim said he only found out because he happened to be in Europe, surrounded by German tourists at the time, when on the television in the background the towers had fallen. While Mr. Kim did not understand exactly what was happening, he recalled the instantly panicking German s were quick to discuss an escape route from the European continent.
This ended the open conversation, our amazement had become flooded with exhaustion. It was such an intense and interactive discussion that the rest of the trip ended as it started – in silence. Here we were, freely conversing with the quintessential “enemy” of the U.S., in a discussion that seemed like one amongst friends. We were all human. We respected, we shared. While relations between our two nations remained tense, here we were – a small citizen delegation understanding the other side, while on their side, on unknown territory. This was a real diplomatic meeting. This was the way to fully understand the differences and appreciate the similarities.