Friday, March 09, 2012

My Punishment in North Korea

I had hardly been in North Korea for more than a few hours before I got into Trouble with the soldiers. I hadn't even had time to get off the train yet.

It happened when I was travelling on this train.

It started innocently enough. The carriage we were on was divided into several compartments, each with 8 seats inside. 7 were for for the tourists, while the remaining compartment was reserved for a group of soldiers, whose job was to keep the tourists in line. Some people in our compartment wanted to talk, while others wanted to sleep. At first, those of us who wanted to talk were happy standing in the corridor, leaning out the window and looking at the countryside, but soon we got tired. Not tired enough to sleep, mind you, but we did want to sit down, and we wanted to avoid disturbing other travellers, if possible. 

Fortunately for us, the soldiers had gone to get lunch, and their compartment was empty. So we sat down in there. None of us felt particularly apprehensive about this. After all, the room wasn't locked, there was no obvious sign saying "keep out", and it's not as though there was any sensitive material in the compartment, save for a hat that one of the soldiers had left behind. 

It was not long, however, before the soldiers returned, and made it clear to us that we should Get Out. 

So out we got, recognising fully the importance of being Good Tourists in the DPRK, and returned to our own compartment. And as I walked past the guards, I said "Gomap sseumnida" - "Sorry". I even took care to use the politer verb ending - after all, I had no intention of getting on their bad side. 

And that's when the trouble started. 

Realising that I could speak some Korean, the guards became curious to learn about me. I already stood out - being the only white face amongst a sea of Chinese (and one Singaporean) tourists. Minutes after I returned to my compartment, they invited me out to the corridor to chat with them while they had a smoke. 

We chatted a bit, though with difficulty (my Korean is not that great), and everyone seemed quite friendly. One soldier in particular - let's call him the Fonz, because he had that kind of look - seemed to find the conversation particularly entertaining, and when the rest of the soldiers returned to their compartment for a rest, he decided to continue chatting with me. Not only that, but he decided to close the door to the soldiers compartment. 

Well, that would not do! The door had barely been closed when the captain of the soldiers opened it, and told the Fonz to get into the soldiers' compartment NOW. He then turned to me and said said those words that I always dreaded hearing coming from my parents' mouths: "Go to your room."

So, that was it. I hadn't even made it to Pyongyang yet, and the North Korean Army had sent me to my room. I went there obediently, and kept a low profile until we'd arrived at our destination. 

Later, as I left the country, I saw the same guards on the train. The Fonz smiled at me and waved as he saw me, and as I was waiting for my camera to be checked before I returned to China, I saw the very same soldier who had sent me to his room.

"Hello," he said, waving me over. "Did you enjoy North Korea?"

"Yes, I did," I replied.

"Please come again!"

“Of course," I promised.

I guess that despite me being the kind of nuisance who has to be kept well away from young Fonz-lookalike patriots, there were no hard feelings about the matter. 


  1. AFAIK Koreans really respond oddly/strong to foreigners speaking Koreans. They aren't used to it a lot I guess.

  2. Yeah, they always seem really happy when someone makes the effort. I think they're far too used to being overshadowed by Japan and China.