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Footsteps: around the World in 80 Countries

A collection of short stories from the road less traveled

 by Adam Rogers


North Korea


Antonio Inoki is a well-known Japanese professional wrestler and martial artist who, during his heyday, beat most of the world’s wrestlers and professional fighters, from Pakistan’s Akram Pahalwan to America’s Mohammed Ali.  As a politician Inoki was twice elected to the House of Councillors, the equivalent of the United States Senate.  He was also actively involved in trying to build bridges of communication and understanding between North Korea and Japan – not an easy task given that agents of North Korea are known to have zipped across the Sea of Japan sea on several occasions to kidnap young Japanese women, understandably infuriated the Japanese public.  The North Koreans, for their part, said it was in part justified by the thousands of Korean women who were abducted by Japanese forces during WWII and forced to serve “comfort women” for Japanese troops.


Inoki and I became friends while I was the editor of Earth News in Los Angeles in the early 1990s, and we had stayed in touch over the years.  We were together the evening of September 10, 2001 drinking copious amounts of expensive saki at Sakagura, a wonderfully hidden gem of a restaurant tucked away in the basement of an office building near the UN Secretariat on Manhattan’s east  side. The next day, on the morning of 9/11, we met in front of the United Nations building on 1st Avenue, where the plan was for him to ring the Japanese peace bell to open that year’s session of the General Assembly.  Ironic to say the least. Needless to say, we never got to ring the peace bell, and the world fell into the chaos of war.


Five years later we were back at Sakagura, talking about the events of that fateful day, when the conversation turned to North Korea. I asked him a lot of questions about what it was like there, and how the Japanese people thought about his occasional trips to the country of their enemy.


“Adam-san,” he finally said with a voice of exasperation. “You ask me too many questions about North Korea.”


I had never seen my old friend get upset before. I was worried about what he would say next. I was about to apologize when he continued abruptly:


“I think you should go with me and see for yourself. We leave next week.”


The next day Inoki’s secretary contacted me to let me know he would fly on ahead, and that I would see him in Pyongyang. A flight was booked for me the following Monday.


I flew to Osaka, where I connected on an Air China flight to Shenyang.  There,I boarded a Air Koryo (North Korea’s national airline) flight to Pyongyang. My stomach was filled with excitement and nervousness as I arrived in the Forbidden Land.  I had not felt this way during travel for many years, perhaps not since I boarded that Air Afrique flight on a one-way ticket to Senegal for my first trip out of North America when I was 19 years old.


Upon arrival, one of the first things I noticed was a giant statue of Inoki in the arrival hall.  I knew that his sensei (martial arts teacher) was from North Korea, which explains the connection, but I didn’t know that he himself was so revered there, or why.

At immigration, the officials seemed to be aware of my arrival. My mobile phone was confiscated, with a promise I would get it back upon departure. The officers stamped a piece of paper and slipped it into my passport -- tacit recognition that it would be best not to announce the visit to my own government.


I was introduced to Mr. Kim, a young man who was to serve as my interpreter, bodyguard and babysitter.  “I have been assigned to you Mr. Adam, to help you to communicate, and to understand our great country.” 


I have so many memories of that one week in North Korea but perhaps the one that stands out the most was a dinner with Ri Su-yong, vice chairman of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea.  We met on my second or third night in Pyongyang, at the revolving restaurant atop the Koryo Hotel, a twin-towered 43 storey building in the centre of the capital.


I sat with Inoki on my left and my interpreter Kim on the right so he could whisper in my ear. On the other side of Kim was the vice-chairman. Facing us around a big round table were a few Japanese politicians and businessmen, owners of Tokyo pachinko parlors. A pachinko is similar to a slot machine in most Western casinos. 


A salty fish appetizer was passed around along with some kimchi and several bottles of soju, similar to the saki over in Japan.  Then the drama began.  The vice chairman started berating the Japanese for “occupying our country for 35 years, forcing our women to be prostitutes, demeaning our people and stealing our wealth.” The Japanese around the table turned read and bowed their heads, not saying anything.  Inoki seemed unflustered, almost as if he had heard it all before.  Then Ri Su-yong turned towards me, and started criticizing the United States for “attacking Korea, bombing our villages, burning our crops, and perhaps worst of all, brainwashing our brothers in the south and turning them against us – all while flying the banner of the United Nations.”


I felt a bit awkward, not being there as a representative of my government, nor even of the United Nations, where I had been working for nearly a decade.  I just wanted to say I was there as a friend of Inoki’s. I didn’t know what to say, so I just sat there and looked at him as he spoke.  Then he finished, and we kept staring at each other in an uncomfortable silence that was suddenly broken by the sound of my interpreter’s voice in my ear: “The vice chairman is expecting a response from you.”


I froze like a deer in the headlights. My mind raced through numerous possible responses but all of them seemed lame, undiplomatic and possibly inappropriate given the company. One word from this guy and my stay in this country could be extended indefinitely.   I felt a bead of sweat form on my forehead and start to slide down between my eyebrows when suddenly I stood up and burst out:


“In the last 90 years their country has been at war with your country, and with my country.  During this time your country has been at war with my country, and with theirs and my country has attacked theirs – all with horrible outcomes.  But tonight we sit here together in Pyongyang, together and with soju. And to that I say – “geonbae!”


At that everyone stood up and raised their glasses, the Japanese yelling out “kampai!”, their equivalent of the same greeting, which basically means just “bottoms up!”  I was off the hook.  My interpreter leaned over and whispered in my ear: “Good answer, Mr. Adam.”


After dinner we all went down into the basement to a hotel bar that was either empty or closed down for our group.  After more bottles of soju were emptied, Inoki turned to me and said “Adam-san, time for karaoke.”


I don’t know if it is a cultural thing, or if I just don’t like to hear the sound of my own voice, but I do not do karaoke, and Inoki knew that.  After I reminded him of this, he turned to Ri Su-yong, who was seated on his left. I could not tell what language they were speaking, but they both seemed to enjoy the conversation, which lasted just a few minutes.  The vice chairman then turned to me and spoke in Korean. My Interpreter whispered in my ear: “The vice chairman says that if you no sing karaoke, you no leave North Korea.”


I then walked up to the podium and, with a microphone in my hand, sang the words to John Denver’s Take Me Home, Country Road as the monitor provided the lyrics as subtitling under a romantic video of a young, white American couple enjoying a picnic next to a lake. They had no way of knowing that John Denver and I had met years before on a visit to the Amazon rainforest in Brazil and became friends. I had last seen him in 1997 at a conference in San Francisco, just a few weeks before he died in a plane crash off the Monterey coast in California.  

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