When I leave South Korea go into China and then back into Korea via the North, I am returning to a peninsula with the same air, the same blue skies, the same mountains, the same people, and the same language – only a fence separates their beliefs.
Touching down in Sunan, Pyongyang, has a new airport. I am greeted by my colleagues from the Korea New Zealand Friendship society, chairman Pak Kyong IL and secretary general Hwang Sung Chol. Somehow we always manage to meet every year for some kind of bold project. Seated in the coach, salutations over, it was time to talk, “did the images get here okay?” I ask Hwang.
“Yes, Comrade Roger. They got here safely.”
“Was there any damage to them?” I queried.
“No, they look wonderful.”
As we drove through Pyongyang, I watched the large masses rehearsing for the October 10, Party Foundation Day 노동당 창건일. A passionate chant rumbled through the streets, like fans marching to a football match final.
The next morning we went to the exhibition venue at the Grand People’s Study House [인민대학습당] – an impressive location set in the heart of the city in front of Kim IL Sung square. The exhibition was to be named the Paektu Dae San Julgi 70th anniversary Liberation Day photo exhibition ( 조선해방 70돐경축 백두대산줄기사진전시회) and was set to run for three days from August 14 to 16.
On arrival inside the magnificent hall which is made from granite pillars and floors, with glimmering chandeliers above, I saw a friend from my 2014 visit, “Comrade Kim Jeong Ah, how are you?” I said cheerfully.
Her face lit up with a big smile, “Comrade Roger, how have you been, how is everything in the South with you? I hear that you are living in Jiri mountain these days, how is that?”
After swapping pleasantries, I took a good look at the layout.
“The photos look amazing. They almost look 3D.” Kim Jeong Ah said.
The printers and framers in the South had done a good job, I thought.
“Wow, you have set it up nicely.” I remarked about the layout.
“We started setting up the easels and photo’s yesterday.” She replied. “The students here took a strong interest in them, and even helped us. They were especially interested in the mountains of the South, and even the ones here in the North, because most people have never seen them before.” I was proudly picturing that moment in my mind, “I didn’t know how beautiful the mountains of the south were, now I do.” Her comment left me speechless. I was touched.
“Roger, I need to tell you about the VIP guest for this afternoon’s opening.” Hwang broke my trance, so I turned to look at him. He was a handsome and dignified looking young man. “ Her name is Kim Jong Suk, she is the chairwoman of the Committee for Cultural Affairs with foreign nations (대외문화련락위원회), and a member of the leadership’s family, ” he continued.
“What do you mean by that?” I asked.
“She is highly respected in our country and the niece of the late Great Leader Kim IL Sung.” Before I could do the family math, Hwang instinctively added, “ Kim IL Sung had many uncles and came from a large family…esteemed comrade Kim Jong Suk is 84 years old.” Still trying to calculate dates, I wanted to ask if she had been named after Kim IL Sung’s late wife, when Hwang spoke again, “I am worried about her age. As you can see the venue is quite large, so after the speeches when you show her your photos, instead of stopping and explaining at every image, maybe try to take a short cut, so she doesn’t have to walk for too long.”
We returned to the exhibition venue after lunch. A large crowd of at least 300 persons had gathered, including media, and the Pyongyang based Associated Press News. On arrival I was ushered into a meeting room in the back.
A short time later, chairwoman Kim Jong Suk walked in, her female personal assistant, and a small entourage was with her. She had an unmistakable presence and friendliness about her, and when she spoke it was with a resonating matriarchal voice that made people comfortable and laugh.
Holding my hand with both her hands, she looked up at me and I saw a vigor and drive sparkling deep in her eyes like a faraway star. She must have seen a lot in her life, I thought.
“I have heard much about you comrade Shepherd. You have travelled far and wide to get these images.” Her warmness was infectious and I instantly liked her. Not being sure what to say, I thanked her.
“As you are the first to do this, then these images are special. They bring the people of the north and south together through mountains. I deem them as National Treasures. We are extremely thankful for you doing this.” Kim Jong Suk had repeated those sentiments in her opening speech to the crowd. When she spoke, it was almost like she was singing.
Earlier when I was writing my speech notes, chairman Pak Kyong IL had asked me if I could add a little something to the end of it, “what do you mean?” I asked.
“Something strong and meaningful about your work with mountains,” he paused, and then he stared back at me, his eyes shone with an idea, “ like, 백두산 대국 만세!” I interpreted this to mean something like ‘Hail the Great Nation of Paektu-san’, which for me was a romantic depiction of a fabled land. I liked it.
“백두산 대국 만세!!” I yelled.
It was time to lead esteemed comrade Kim Jong Suk around the photos. I was worried that the media crowd might accidently knock her over, when she instinctively grabbed my arm, so then I grabbed her arm with my other arm, putting a double lock on her. She had a strong grip.
Escorting her slowly along the images, she stopped to say, “Many people from the North want to visit Halla-san, like the many people of the South wish to visit Paektu-san, “ she paused before continuing, “I understand these same images are going back to the south to be exhibited there?”
“Yes.” I answered.
“Next time you come back to Pyongyang, will you bring me this one,” she said pointing at a snowy image of Halla-san.
“Of course. It would be my pleasure.”
As we walked, there was no chance of a short cut; Kim Jong Suk was stopping at every single one of the images. Her interest was genuine.
“There is a great and beautiful song called Jindo Arirang (진도 아리랑),” she hummed a tune, and people around laughed, “do you know it?”
“No.” I said.
Then she pointed at the photo of Mungyeong-saejae , looked up at me, and said, “ this place is in that song.”
After the exhibition I thanked Hwang for the interpretations.
“No problem, “he replied, “ what did you think of that then?”
I knew he meant the exhibition, but instead I said, “Do you know who Kim Jong Suk reminded me of?” I told him.
“No.” he curiously answered. Others were standing around listening to our conversation.
“Esteemed comrade Kim Jong Suk reminds me of a Jiri-san grandmother. If I had met her anywhere else in Korea, I would have thought her as just another kind old lady from my village.”
Hwang appreciated my observation. The others wanted to know what I said, so he interpreted it back to them, and they smiled and laughed. Before they could stop laughing, I added, “like a Jiri-san Mago Halmi (지리산 마고 할미), ” and they knew what that meant.
Mago Halmi is the spiritual mother of Jiri-san.
With liberation day (조국해방의 날) looming, there was a pitching fever simmering in Pyongyang and it was brewing in me too. Later that night in my hotel room, I made my notes. The day had been powerful and I was feeling emotive. I wrote, ‘mountains seem to shed the masks off the faces of the Korean people and bring out a genuine identity in them, a true Korean spirit, untarnished by division and politics’.
Tomorrow we’re going to Panmunjon to demonstrate – I had some issues with that…