Friday, January 9, 2009

North Korea Update II

I lose things all the time, as those of you who have spent any significant amount of time with me know. I lose water bottles, travel mugs, umbrellas, and handkerchiefs regularly. I’ve lost bags, jackets, scarves, even eyeglasses – pretty much anything not attached to my body. One of my friends once told me, you could probably be a better environmental activist by NOT losing things instead of advocating to save nature. So I predictably lost something in North Korea : my brand new, Canon camera in North Korea (bought especially for this trip).

It was day 2 of our tour. We had a wonderful trip to Myohyang Mountain . We went to the Friendship Museum, where gifts from abroad to Kim Ilsung and Kim Jongil were stored; had lunch at the Myohyang Mountain Resort; visited a Buddhist temple, and finally went on a short hike. At a small waterfall in the mountains, we stopped to dip our feet in the cool water, and some of us were asked to join the dancing and singing by a group from a college sitting next to us. After the hike, one of the government officials in charge of the overseas Koreans in the group (me and one other person) bought me a bottle of soju at the small stand near the picnic area. Then we went to dinner, and back to our hotel. That was the moment when I realized I no longer had my camera.

I give you a detailed agenda of my day because when the camera didn’t show up at the restaurant, my two guides went into crisis mode and asked me to think through my day and where I could have left my camera. In consultation with other North Korean guides who quickly got involved, they then created a list of places to call and contact – the hotel, the museum, the temple, the person at the stand who sold me the soju, even the youth groups who went hiking that day, etc. I realized that everyone in the entire country was accessible to these guides through membership into some kind of government or institutional group, and they were going to open these lines in order to find my relatively insignificant camera.

Throughout these negotiations, I felt terrible. I realized that the guides would have to do a lot of extra work to find my camera, and I suspected this meant even less sleep than they were getting (about 4 hours). Moreover, one of the guides confessed that due to the 60th Anniversary celebration, he had worked back-to-back tours, 20-hour days, for about 3 weeks with no break. Knowing all of this, I tried to tell them it was my fault and not to spend so much energy looking for it. The guides looked at me with incomprehension. How much was your camera, they asked me. I told them not too much, it was bought on sale. They looked at me as if I was crazy or rich or both. I explained my position: Westerners have too much attachment to material belongings, so losing things helps me break my attachment to things. They again looked at me with incomprehension. Don’t worry, we will do our best to find your camera, they assured me. Not without a measure of pride, they related they had once recovered $20,000 that someone left behind in a restaurant. People in our country don’t steal, they seemed to be saying. Even if we are poor, we have more pride and honor than that. Stealing happens in capitalist countries.

Despite their best efforts, the guides were unable to recover my camera, and apologized profusely for not finding it. Because it was most likely lost during the hike, it was difficult to trace, they told me. If it had been lost at the hotel or restaurant, there was almost a 100% chance of full recovery through the workers’ unions.

On the last day, the coordinator of our trip left her bag at the hotel and only realized it when we arrived at the airport to leave. The official in charge of overseas Koreans projects went with her to pick it up. When they returned with the bag an hour later, I noticed that the official was sweating. He told me that he almost had a heart attack. If the coordinator had lost her bag, that combined with the loss of my camera meant that he would have been in trouble, he said. I don’t know the nature of the trouble that he would be in, and didn’t feel it was appropriate to ask. If I believe media reports, it could be as extreme as torture or arrest. Or it could be as minimal as an administrative reprimand. Whatever it would have been was enough for him to be stressed.

I’m not sure what to make of the two incidents. Is this an example of personal versus collective responsibility that is different in capitalist and communist systems of government? Is it possible to note the differences in the US versus North Korea , without making a judgment (or letting the imagination go wild)? I think this was mine and other participants’ challenge during the tour, that noting difference always came with a judgment, and depending on your emotional state, strange conclusions could be drawn without much evidence. So for now, I will reserve judgment, and just appreciate the guides’ effort to find my camera. Mr. Oh, with whom I shared beer and soju, and who arranged for us to eat yummy blue mussels one afternoon, told me, you can replace the camera, but I’m sad about your pictures because you can’t replace them. You will just have to come back, he said. And I think he was sincere when he stood waving goodbye at the airport terminal with tears in his eyes.

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