Friday, July 07, 2006

...In the nick of time...

Mr Brando was curious about my take on the whole North Korea thing, and the launching of the Taepodong-2 missiles, aka the Badonkadonk-2 missiles, per Mr Travis.

I used to always say that I was safe from being recalled into the Marines so long as Uncle Kim didn't do anything froggy. I think it's kinda cool that he decided to get froggy the month after I was released from my 8 year obligation to the Marines. I thank you for your restraint, Comrade Kim.

So what the hell do I know about North Korea?

Gather around, little ones, and I'll tell you a little story. This is a little long, so grab a drink and stay a while.

When I was in the Marines, I went over to North Korea on a remains recovery mission. There's an organization in Hawaii called CILHI (Central Investigative Labs, Hawaii) that goes all over the world digging up the bones of American servicemembers and repatriating them. It's considered a humanitarian mission, and when I was in Hawaii I heard they were doing interviews in Korean so I jumped up in there and got selected. I went to a Korean refresher course in Honolulu for a month, and I was on my way for the month of August, 2001.

Here's a shot of the airport I snapped off when we landed.

We kind've had to be shadey about taking photographs. We'd always ask, "Can we take a picture?" and more often then not they'd say "no" which I took to mean as "This is probably a good picture to take" and I'd snap one off. I brought disposable cameras 'cuz I wasn't quite into the digital age by then, but that was a good thing because they'd often grab people's digital cameras and delete everything off of them. People used to freak out all the time.

Anyway, my job up there was an interpretter, which was really hard and somewhat unreasonable because I hadn't really spent any time in South Korea where I could be emmersed in the language. I tried my best, though, but this is what would typically happen:

This picture was taken at the Kim Il Song Friendship Museum. Basically, they took all the gifts bestowed upon The Great Leader and put them in a museum. Most of them were from African nations and crazy Arab states. The two gifts from the USA were from Ted Turner and Reverend Fallwell. Ted Turner gave him a CNN Ashtray, which was prominently displayed. All the other shit was gaudy stuff that would be found in Saddam's palace. Anyway, in the picture above, the dude next to me (a Lt Col) was telling me about how one could live up there in the mountains forever, enjoying the clean air. It took me a few times to figure out what the fuck he was saying, because he was really gruff. He was everything one would expect from a North Korean career soldier. Small, wirey, and mean. One other interesting thing is that most of the military guys had jailhouse-like tats on their forearms and on the webbing of their hands. This should make them easily identifyable when the regime collapses. The first conversation I had with this guy was in the car from the airport. I was assigned to be an interpretter for one of the Anthropologists, who coincidentally went to the same university as I did. I asked the North Korean dude if he'd ever been to China, and his response was simple:

"I love North Korea. Why would I ever go to China? I'll never leave my country."

OK. A simple yes or no would suffice. I didn't say that though.

So, back to what we were doing there. In theory, I was to talk to local farmers who supposedly found bones, they'd be dug up by the mortuary affairs guys who made up most of our party, and we'd repatriate them. All in all, we brought back 9 bodies, which isn't a bad score. The thing is, the Anthropologists knew that the bones had most likely been planted. Why? Because the North Koreans got a HUGE amount of money from the US government to allow us to go there. In either case, we were there during the rainy season, and we couldn't go to the base camp to look for remains until the end of the month. We spent 18 days in a hotel in Chongchon, which is like 100 miles north of Pyongyang. When we were in the hotel, we we're permitted to leave and they played stupid little games with us. For instance, they agreed to do our laundry, but refused to wash our underwear. Also, they accused us of purposefully putting out a large amount of clothing to overwhelm the staff, so they decided that they would only do laundry every other day. Each day, our officers and their officers would have a meeting (which I dubbed the "Summit Talks") where the North Koreans would voice their grievances and demand money and Coca-Cola. (I'm not joking.)

So, what was there to do in a hotel where we couldn't leave and it was hot as hell and would have torrential downpours every other day? Here's what my routine was:

  • Wake up at 7
  • Go eat breakfast
  • Play volleyball until 10:30 or so if it wasn't raining
  • Eat lunch at noon
  • Sleep until 4:30
  • Eat dinner
  • Play spades and get roaring drunk at one of the two dry bars in the hotel and interpret as our CO hit on the girls that worked there. The bargirls used to try and interrogate me while I was drunk. They'd ask me what my job was and when I became an officer, and I'd say, "Im an admin guy. And I'm just a private, so stop asking." They couldn't believe that enlisted and officers would hang out and drink. I had to be careful because we were under strict orders not to talk about politics, freedom, etc, but most of the Army guys didn't really seem to give a shit about that. A lot of times I'd sit there and make shit up on both sides of the conversation because I didn't feel like getting kicked out of the country or imprisoned.

    Either way, they decided that we were purposefully staying up late to tire out the bar girls, so they closed the bars at midnight.

    Finally the rains subsided, and we got to go to the base camp. It was a lot more relaxed there, as the had generators and a TV so we could watch all the movies we bought in China before we went up North. They had roving armed guards there "for our protection" and they had a special system for security:

    First whistle blast = warning
    Second whistle blast = super warning
    Third whistle blast = you're gonna take a 7.62 in the gizzard

    Their secondary system of security were strings connected to coke cans lining our camp, so if we hit the string the coke cans would make noise. Again, I'm not joking.

    I liked going out to the dig sites. The air was crystal clear, and I got to see first hand what agriculture was like at the turn of the century. We're talking ox-drawn ploughs. Here's a picture of the land, which they said I wasn't allowed to take a picture of for some reason:

    One time I was pulled aside, and the North Koreans we were with were acting really weird. They kept saying, "Ok, we need you to be really respectful, OK? Like bow and stuff. Be polite." I didn't know what the hell they were talking about. They just kept saying that. Finally, they bring this super old lady over. They all stood there staring at the ground and wringing their hands, and told her to start talking.

    The old lady began talking about how one day she was plowing her fields and she came upon some bones. At first, she thought they were some pig bones, but then, by George, she realized they were humans. Then she started freaking out. THEY'RE AMERICAN BONES! AMERICAN BASTARDS! FILTHY AMERICAN BASTARD BONES! AMERICANS KILLED MY HUSBAND AND BEAT ME UP! AMERICAN SONS OF BITCHES!

    Then they'd lead her around a little hill, calm her down, and bring her back. This happened about 4 times.

    The KPA (Korean People's Army) folks were embarrassed and apparently this happened a lot. The civilians were mad at them for bringing us there. How could they actually allow murderous Americans on North Korean soil?

    Here's the thing about North Korea that became abundantly clear at that moment and throughout the trip. They all wear little "party pins". If you see them on TV, they all have a little pin on the left side of their chest with either Kim Jong Il, Kim Il Song, or both on them. It's exactly as the media portrays -- it's more like a cult than a government. They don't have access to the outside world at all. Briefing them on world events would probably be like telling a group of Americans, "Hey, you guys know that George Washington wasn't the first President, right? And the Civil War was a fabrication." It's inconceivable to them.

    I used to get irritated when people would say, "If we're going into Iraq, what about North Korea?!?!" Invading North Korea would be a bloodbath the likes of which haven't been seen since Americans arrived in Okinawa in WWII when the Imperial Japanese told Okinawans that they'd better fight or commit suicide, cuz the Americans would rape them, torture them, eat them, etc..

    At the end of the trip, we were in Pyongyang for three days and a lot of the guys in our party had had enough of North Koreans being pains in the ass, so they started making fun of them a little bit. Asking them questions the same way an atheist might ask a Christian questions about falacies in the bible. This didn't sit well with me, and I'd ask them to stop. After all, we were guests in their country, and I thought it was a little bit rude. Obviously I didn't agree with North Korean propaganda, but come on. This is deep stuff here, and the North Koreans have, in the past, shown a willingness to do some crazy shit, just ask Captain Boniface, an American soldier who was killed with an axe (along with a Lieutenant) in the mid-70s over some overgrown trees on the DMZ, or the crew of the USS Pueblo. We drove by the USS Pueblo, and I took a picture of it. It's that little boat moored there past the bridge. The building in the background in the distance was our hotel, which I'll get to later.

    Some of our guys insisted on calling it a "fishing boat," which enraged the KPA guys. To them, it was a high-tech US spy boat that they captured through superior military prowess.

    Anyway, in Pyongyang we stayed at a Chinese hotel called the Yang-gak-do. There was a basement with Chinese restaurants and a nightclub, where I met the Consul to Libya named Mohammed. He proclaimed grandly, "BEFORE, WE ARE ENEMIES, BUT TONIGHT, WE ARE FRIENDS!" and began dancing around on the dancefloor like a complete fucking moron. I can do a pretty good impression of it. I told our 18 Delta who was with us, "Hey man, that's the Lybian consul," to which he replied, "Yeah, he smells like a horse." I got a big kick out of that.

    Here's the view from my window.

    That pyramid thing in the background is supposed to be a great big hotel, but as you can see it's unfinished. They kinda ran out of money in the middle of it's construction.

    During our stay in Pyongyang, we got to see some of the tourist sites. Here's the famous Juche Tower:

    The flame is lit up at night, but they turn it off around 10pm because they don't have any electricity.

    Here I am in the busy streets of downtown Pyongyang, in front of the Triumph Arch:

    When we got there, they had just unveiled another enormous monument called the Reunification Tower:

    I'm proud to say that I'm the first white guy to touch it. A couple of us sprinted towards it so we could make the claim, which of course completely freaked out the KPA guys. There was a guest book. If you go there, turn to the front, and you'll see names like Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, and Tracey Lourdes signed it. We had some funny guys with us.

    I hope that the above story sheds some light on how ridiculous it is up there. When people ask what North Koreans are like, I usually just give them the short answer:

    "They're a bunch of assholes."

    When people ask me to describe the country, the best thing I can come up with is this:

    "It's like a really bad 70s movie about a communist country."

    Right now, North Korea is for some reason launching missiles into the Sea of Japan. From what I know about the country and based upon my stay there, it's hard to take it seriously. The towns we drove through were in shambles. People aren't doing anything, and there isn't anything to eat. Kim Jong Il is the single biggest consumer of Hennessey in the world. He buys lavish cars and has a harem of Russian women. His son was intercepted in Japan using a Dominican Republic Passport a few years back. When asked why he was trying to get into the country, he responded, "I want to go to Disney Land."

    I wish they wouldn't give the North Koreans so much press. While there is a threat, it's hard for me to think that a country with a malnourished, undertained, ill equipped military with absolutely no experience would pose a huge threat to our now seasoned military. It seems to me that what they want is attention. I guess it's OK to give them a little attention, placate them with some food so Kim Jong Il and his obese son can stuff their faces and keep their harem happy. I don't know enough about the situation to really know what's going to happen or to make a prediction on the future, but I hope that if the regime does collapse, there is a plan in place to keep the North Korean populace from getting the dogshit exploited out of them and allow them at least a semi-smooth transition into 2006.

    That's my story from August 2001. I hope you enjoyed it!

    Blogger brando said...

    What a great story. I like the fishing boat. er, I mean the super high tech ultra spy hyrdofoil.

    4:52 AM  
    Blogger Paul said...


    That was the short version of the stroy. Obviously there are a lot more ridiculous stories to tell, because something retarded happened on a daily basis. Thanks for askin about it though, I hadn't thought about North Kackalacka in a while.

    7:38 AM  
    Anonymous Cory said...

    Wow. I'm surprised the Reunification tower didn't crumble at your white man devil-touch. No doubt they'll never get re-unified now because of you. Good job American.

    North Korea huh? I didn't know you were so well-traveled in the Orient(s). You're like the American ninja, setting the East straight with your hip Western ways.

    12:23 PM  
    Anonymous Chad said...

    Great post Paul. I really like the pics. The people are starving, yet they build these elaborate Las Vegas-esque statues, towers, and arches? I was half expecting to see large plastic busts of Siegfried and Roy.

    Cult indeed. We should handle it like Waco. Surround them, blast "Achy-Breaky Heart" through 36-inch woofers, and tell them to release the children.

    11:00 PM  
    Blogger brando said...

    I like how you tried to refrain from talking about their inherent flaws.

    I probably would have taken a slightly different approach, and I probaby would have ended up in a North Korean prison.

    "A CNN ashtray!? *snicker snicker* You guys are retarded."

    5:22 AM  
    Blogger Jinxy said...

    Great story. Did you really hope I enjoyed it!?

    I made sure to pass it along to some of my friends as I'm sure they'd appreciate it.

    6:36 AM  
    Anonymous newton said...

    Wow great story paul. Thanks for sharing it, cool pictures too.

    3:14 PM  
    Blogger mikey said...

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1:18 AM  
    Blogger mikey said...

    Hey should check out this comic book. Its a "graphic novel" (comic book to me).
    Pyongyang : A Journey in North Korea
    by Guy Delisle

    1:20 AM  
    Blogger Paul said...

    Brando: The guys I were with were far less, erm, tolerant, than I was. The ashtray gor a lot of snickers. When we went to the Friendship Museum we had to wear these funny red slippers and before we went in, we were ushered into this room with a wax statue of Kim Il Song standing there. We had to stand there in front of it while they blasted the north korean national anthem. In the middle of it, the 18 delta (again, he always sadi funny shit) leans over to me and says, "...Wut'dya suppose they'd do if I just kinda ran up to that statue and hit it like a linebacker..." So naturally I got a case of the giggles which earned me some angry stares.

    Chad: We thought the same thing. The country is in shambles and they're building these insane monuments. They were careful not to bring us to the really shitty parts of North Korea, but the joke was on them: by our standards the entire country is shitty, so nice try. I can't imagine what the "bad parts" are like.

    Jinxy: Of course I hope you enjoyed it. sheesh.. Just be happy you didnt have to go there and sit in a hotel for 18 days where no matter where you went, they were blasting stupid peppy north korean propaganda music. it was like showtunes from a twisted 1970s off-broadway show.

    7:38 AM  
    Anonymous Anonymous said...


    American Ninja...

    I dub thee, SIR Michael Dudikoff!


    8:18 AM  
    Blogger Paul said...

    Damn skippy.

    8:42 AM  
    Blogger Hoss said...


    Sweet post.

    I know it's a little more real for you being so close in Japan, but my thoughts were to just light the place up if they lobbed any turds at us. It sounds like we'd be doing them a favor.

    "It's like a really bad 70s movie about a communist country."


    9:51 AM  
    Anonymous Anonymous said...

    Great post, Paul. I am referring this to many of my friends who think I'm mistaken when I tell them which Korea you were in .... bastards.

    Your sis

    11:11 PM  
    Anonymous Chad said...

    Paul, do you think there is a danger that we won’t take Kim Jung Il seriously until it’s too late? I watched the Daily Show last night, and jokes aplenty were made about the name of the missile (Taepodong II), the fact that it only launched for 48 seconds, and of course, Kim’s fat, Gummi-Bear-like face.

    I don’t think anyone would be laughing if this happened in the Middle East. Yeah, the whole North Korean country is funny. But I’ve read too much Stephen King. That guy everyone makes fun of eventually turns into Trashcan Man.

    I guess what scares me is this whole country is willing to starve, lie, and even worship itself. It’s nationalism on a cult-like level.

    1:51 AM  
    Blogger Paul said...

    Yep. It's pretty weird up there. To be honest, I'm a little out of the loop on the North Korea tip, as it were. They're probably a little bummed out that they lack the resources/audacity/soviet and chinese backing to pull off some of the crazy stunts they used to do, like assassinations and blowing up airliners, so they want the rest of the world to show them that they "mean business" by launching some 1960s era rockets into the sea of japan. rock on guys.

    7:43 AM  
    Blogger brando said...

    I like to laugh at North Korea. They're just doing this as a way to say "We're important too!"

    And we just laugh.

    I'd like to yell at them too.

    "I want to work in North Korea, so I can yell at the workers every day. I'm yelling at you because I don't respect you. Hold out your hands; I need to throw up, in your lower class hands."

    9:30 AM  
    Blogger David said...

    Wow, very impressive. I didn't now that you travel that much. I'm really deeply impressed. Travelling to N.Korea is like Mount Everest.

    10:04 PM  

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