Politics and Mushroom Clouds in North Korea
I was exhausted. My guides relieved me of my backpack and fetched spring water from a mountain stream. As a former Army soldier, it was quite embarrassing to be relying on a 5’2” female KPA lieutenant.
While we rested, my guides were keen to discuss politics and war; subjects usually discouraged. But since I didn’t bring it up, and was by myself, I felt fine to answer their questions as honestly as I could.
We were observing the ‘slogan trees’ carved out during the Japanese occupation prior to World War Two by the anti-Japanese fighter Mother Kim Jung Suk.
My guide asked if my family members ever fought the Japanese. Nearly a dozen of them had, actually — and I told them so.
After hearing my stories of the atrocities the Japanese committed against them, they asked me about the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Without thinking, I replied that some people close to me had played a role in that; and that I had an autographed picture of the mushroom cloud in North Korea. I said I hung it in my office to keep my sensibilities in check when making recommendations to policy-makers. Even if I disagree with the way a country is behaving, it’s not worth the deaths of civilians. That puts one on the wrong side of history. And after all, no difference between countries is so bad that the only outcome is nuclear war, right?
My story was well intended, but they weren’t so moved by it. I asked them what was wrong, as they were visibly shaken. They said the dropping of the nuclear bombs was a terrible thing because innocent people got hurt.
I was bewildered. Here I was, on a mountain where slogan trees had been carved out during their traumatising struggle with the Japanese. Here I was after waking up that very morning to see the “imminent threat” of nuclear war on TV. Here I was having heard their horror stories of the Japanese occupation — and they were upset because I’d mentioned the act that literally ended it all for them.
“That’s what makes tourism so special. It’s the sharing of emotions and experiences, and every now and then something magical happens where common humanity is revealed.”
I knew then just how much the Koreans are sincerely upset by the thought of the destruction of war. I told them I shared that sentiment. As a wounded warrior, I’m reminded of the suffering of war on a daily basis, and I hate it too. I told them my personal experiences in combat, and my family members’ experiences as well, and in turn they told me how their families had suffered so badly.
We experienced a moment of bonding and shed tears together. We were mutually dumbfounded with shock at each other’s hate for war. I don’t think either of us expected to share those emotions, and I gained unforgettable insight into the hearts of the North Koreans.
Before that day we hadn’t seen each other clearly and had misconceptions about each other, but we realised something profound about each other in our journey up that mountain.
That’s what makes tourism so special. It’s the sharing of emotions and experiences, and every now and then something magical happens where common humanity is revealed.
Taekwondo Diplomacy in the DPRK
There once was a time I challenged a member of the DPRK Taekwondo team to a one-on-one match. I knew I was going to get my ass beat but I wanted to see if he’d help me up afterwards — especially since I told him I trained to fight in the US Army.
Within one second he’d delivered a lightning-fast blow to my face and knocked me out. But afterwards, he did help me up, and gave me a hug!
I was inspired to do this fool’s errand by watching a documentary on “soccer diplomacy” in Apartheid South Africa.
At one point, a white player tripped a black player and the crowd grew silent, and it seemed the diplomacy was going to crumble apart. The white player defied the silence by helping up the black player, and then hugged him. In a magical moment — just like in mine — the people came together to show their common humanity.
Was it all worth it? You betcha! These are things that can’t be scripted, or learned in a classroom or documentary. These interactions show the true intentions of another’s heart.
The North Koreans will always have a special place in my heart and it’s because of the magical moments that happened to me during my travels throughout the country.