At a time when our nation’s security apparatus is no doubt refreshing contingency plans for a war with North Korea, it’s worth noting that the North Koreans themselves doggedly persevere despite oppression from within and a militarized US foreign policy from without. For a counter-narrative to the predictable Sturm und Drang between Washington and Pyongyang, see below:
The bedlam revealed here is not a regular occurrence in ancient Sonchon, a North Korean coastal city about thirty-five miles south of the border with China. Sightings of foreigners are about as infrequent as they are anywhere else in the self-styled “Hermit Kingdom,” so it’s not surprising that a long-awaited visit from a delegation of aid workers would be celebrated with a decidedly unproletarian extravagance.
The lanky gent above toasting his bibulous hosts is Dr. Stephen Linton, who has just completed his resupply of medical goods at Sonchon People’s Hospital. The seated apparatchik with the toothy grin and heroically pomaded hair is the hospital director, and the young lady greeting Linton’s glass with one of her own is the proprietress of People’s No. 6 Diner, which apparently doubles as Sonchon’s top restaurant and unofficial greeting hall for visiting dignitaries.
I was along for the ride while reporting a profile of Linton and his work with North Korea’s tuberculosis victims. Journalists are regarded warily in the country, and I had been given the ground rules well before my arrival for the twelve-day assignment: no photographs between destinations, don’t talk politics with the minders, stick with the group at all times, don’t go near TB patients unless you’re wearing a mask, and eat and drink whatever the North Koreans put in front of you.
Hold it. Eat and drink? We were talking, or so I thought, about a famine-stricken country where people are commonly reduced to eating boiled tree bark. Could the local economy muster a selection of foodstuffs beyond the inevitable offerings of kimchi, the spicy fermented cabbage that is a staple in rich South Korea and a guilty pleasure in its impoverished neighbor?
As it turned out, the delegation did not want for good eating. On the contrary, we were welcomed and provided for as honored guests while we journeyed from one rural sanatorium to the next in a convoy of SUVs. At every stop, after dispensing drugs, electrocardiographs, parkas, and stethoscopes, we were ushered into the office of the director and treated to platters of roasted chestnuts, sweet potatoes, apples, and roast chicken. On tap were bottles of beer and soju, a high-octane hooch brewed from fermented potatoes or grains. (It’s best administered as a general anesthetic, of which the country is in dreadfully short supply.) The head of a care center in Ryongsong, a northern district of Pyongyang, celebrated our arrival by passing around shot glasses of ginseng-flavored soju that had the flavor and viscosity of cough syrup. We washed the shots down with beer chasers. It was nine in the morning.
Occasionally Linton and his delegation would be fêted beyond the confines of the care center. But the saturnalia at Sonchon was unforgettable. The business of resupply done, we were escorted to the diner, where a narrow table was set for 16 guests. Within minutes, we were steeped in small dishes filled with culinary confections hauled mostly from the nearby Yellow Sea. There were fried clams in their shells, crabmeat, cold cuttlefish diced and marinated in spicy garlic sauce, whole baby squid, fried dumplings, pâté of donkey meat, green-bean pancakes with congealed pig-fat centers (good for digestion, I was told), and rabbit fricassee prepared at table on portable gas stoves.
The toastmasters came at us in human waves. The soju and the steam from the fricassee provided an illusion of ambient warmth in defiance of North Korea’s severe energy shortages, though no one removed their coats. The diner’s windows fogged up, and the feast went on for more than two hours. Reluctantly, Linton declared our need to move on, which unleashed a scramble for photographs with the exclusively female and impressively apple-cheeked staff. Heady from the attention and nearly blind from the booze, I briefly convinced myself that I had liberated North Korea.
A snap snowstorm arrived, and with it its sobering properties. We climbed into the vehicles and continued on our way.