Gurye, Seoul, Kaesong, Pyongyang and back.

June 23rd: “Comrade Roger, why don’t you travel overland to Pyongyang with your photos?”

I was a little shocked! Mr. Won Yong Hee was in charge of the North Korean arm of the Kaesong Industrial Complex. He had already agreed to assist me with getting permission for the photo frames to come through Kaesong for the August 15 liberation day exhibition in Pyongyang. Now he was suggesting that I travel with them. Bradley, sitting next to me, a foreign business owner in Kaesong who was letting me use his Kaesong factory as a transfer depot, shuffled slightly in his chair, and smiled at me. He wasn’t expecting that suggestion either.

I looked surprisingly at Mr.Won and said excitedly in Korean “Jin-jja (진짜?)”

I heard the North Koreans in the office giggle from behind their cubicles at my remark. Somehow it always seems funny when a foreigner says that?

He sat back in his chair, looking comfortable and confident, and replied, “sure why not?”

As it turned out, I didn’t travel overland from Seoul to Pyongyang, it was too complicated, and we were running out of time. The seventy-framed photos of mountains of the Baekdu Daegan were far more important. They needed to get there first, not me!

I was in high spirits, and on my way out of Kaesong complex, I stopped at the local store and bought some Paektu-san Blueberry wine and tasty but mean Kumgang-san cigarettes for my friends in Gurye. Inside were three girls, dressed beautifully in floral peach frocks. Using my shitty Korean, I flirted with them, telling them how gorgeous they looked. They reluctantly laughed at me. There’s a hard edge to the girls of the North, you don’t want to overdo it with them.

I proudly tell them, “ Jiri-san, I live in (지리산, 전라도 살아요).” They stare at me blankly, “ Jiri-san you know of (지리산 알아요)?” I carefully add.

“Yes(네),” they replied in unison.

“Jiri-san you have been too (지리산 가봤어요)?”, I said next, and then they looked at me confused. I quickly realized it was a stupid question. I wondered what to say next? “Jiri-san photos, next time, I will show you (다음에 지리산 사진 봐요),” making a square shape with my fingers to indicate a photo. They smiled and nodded in agreement. I think they got it? My conversations in Korean always involved some measure of acting or demonstration.

On my way back to Seoul, I thought of Hwang Sung Chol from the Korea New Zealand Friendship Society. For this exhibition to happen he now had to get his end tied up in the North and I now had to get my end tied up with the Ministry of Unificaiton in the south.

Kaesong storeDPRK side of Kaesong Industrial ComplexDMZ areaKaesong convoyDPRK side of Kaesong Industrial ComplexInter Korean Courier Service
Of course, nothing is ever sure in inter-Korean dialogue. Any number of FLASHPOINTS along the border could shut down this project instantly; this reality always ran through my head. It was like walking on broken glass.

On the 27th of April, I had written to Minister Hong Yong Pyo at the Ministry of Unification requesting help with getting my photo frames over the border. Some months later one of his staff members had replied by phone. We delayed any meeting until I had some weight behind my idea. So today (06/29) was that day. Strolling into their offices, I had with me an invitation from the North, permission from the Kaesong Industrial Complex, and help with the logistics from a business in Kaesong. Now it was up to the MOU to play the game with me. Will they play? I thought.

I explain to them a scenario that happens all the time in Korea; a grandmother goes to a bus terminal and gives the driver a box of food to deliver to her granddaughter, who will then collect it at the other end. This is the same simple principle I seek. I call it the inter-Korean courier service (택배 서비스). They get it, and agree to make it work!

They had also known of the public support I was getting through Daum Media. It was great that the power of the people had influenced their decision to help. However, MOU asked that I not make any promises to the Daum supporters, until the images had at least gone to Pyongyang. I sat there thinking what they meant, they were scared of the same thing I was, that FLASHPOINT on the border that will cease all operations. I agreed it was a good idea.

It’s the first day of August; the seventy photo frames have arrived. They are all boxed. I haven’t seen what they look like. I trust they are good, because I had told the printers and framers earlier that, these seventy images are going to Pyongyang via Kaesong as part of the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of Korea, “They are important to many people, please do a good job!”

August 4th: FLASHPOINT! It’s on the border! Some mines explode. Two soldiers loose their legs. South blames North, North denies it. I feel for the soldiers. “Damn this Cold War Game. Damn this fence,” I curse.

However, two days later, I got a Kumgang-san fag, hanging from the corner of my mouth, the iPhone is pumping out singer Kim Chu Ja, and like a country farmer, I am pounding up the expressway in a Bongo truck, all the way from Gurye and into the chaos of Seoul.  Seventy framed images and easels are stacked in the back. The next day they are transferred into another truck and driven into Kaesong complex. I drive there as well. By the time I get into Kaesong, the truck has already transferred the photo frames to the North Koreans, and they are safely on their way to Pyongyang in a Red Cross truck. The inter-Korean courier service has been dispatched already!

On the way out I stop at the same local store and flirt with the girls again. They remember me, and know about my operation. Good news travels fast on the peninsula. As promised I show them a photo of Jirisan through my book. They liked that gesture. I am tempted to leave it with them, but I don’t. It is a South Korean publication written in south dialect. There are rules to follow on the peninsula. It is sad!

Later that night I get off the expressway and drive into the Gurye countryside. It’s dark and peaceful. I let down the windows and feel the wicked stench of fertilizer washing through the air. I take a big lungful. It is great! I stop the truck and get out. I light up a fag and look up at the Jiri-san stars and listen to the croak of the field toads. It is the sound of the Korean summer. In Seoul I cannot experience these things. It is good to be back.

August 10: FLASHPOINT: At the border, they’ve flicked the loud speakers on! North Korea is being tortured to the beat of K-Pop. “I LOVE Son Dam Bi (손담비), but not like this. STOP IT!” I shout.

Two days later I am at Incheon airport. I wait in line at immigration. The officer thumbs through my passport, stopping at the numerous full-page North Korean visas. He looks at my ID card and mutters something in Korean about me living in Gurye, Jollanam-do. Sensing trouble, I Impatiently ask him what he wants? He then reads my name, “Ro ja Shae pu du, Gurye you from(로저 쉐퍼드, 구례에서입니까)?”

“Yeah, why?” I gruffly reply, (I ain’t got much time for authority).

“You are the 로저 쉐퍼드 from Daum Media News Funding story about Baekdu Daegan?”

“You know me?” My mood changes.

“Yes. Are you going to North Korea now?” he says.

“Yes, I am going to do the photo exhibition of Baekdu Daegan in Pyongyang.”

“Good luck with your project. I have been following you on the internet,” he concludes with a smile before stamping my passport.

As I leave immigration and walk into the nether regions of duty free, I now feel I have gone with the full support of the people of the South. Next stop Pyongyang.

Pyongyang airport

Roger Shepherd©2015.

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