I was in Pyongyang’s Department Store Number One when I saw a bottle of rice wine emblazoned with the bust of famed Japanese pro wrestler Rikidōzan, Koreanized as ‘Ryokdosan’. The bottle was styled after a Grecian urn, with Ryokdosan’s image framed, halo-like, in a golden championship belt. Pearlescent and adorned, the bottle was a rare object of beauty for sale in North Korea. For a week, my minders had been steering me daily into shopping opportunities at various gifts shops and department stores. And I was ready to pay. I was dying to buy something, anything that would help my wife and children understand the profound surrealism and warped reality I’d experienced on my research trip to North Korea.
But there was nothing to buy. The stores were filled with cheap Chinese goods, grey-market medicines and out-of-date foreign snacks and candies. North Korea produced only durable goods like Vinalon overcoats, shovel handles and work boots. I might have actually bought a Vinalon blazer or a North Korean skillet. But the regime didn’t offer these at their tourist shops. I couldn’t even buy a painting or a ceramic bowl made in North Korea. Arts and crafts there are required to glorify the regime, yet it’s forbidden for a foreigner to possess images of the Dear Leaders, DPRK flags or nationalist iconography like the Chollima (a mythical winged horse that symbolizes the rapid advancement of the society), a double rainbow over Mount Paektu (the ‘official’ setting of Kim Jong-il’s illustrious birth) or some Taepodong missiles blazing upward. Hence the selection of a Beijing dollar store.
My main minder, Ga-yoon, was bright and funny and sophisticated – she had a graduate degree from Kim Il-sung University in handling American tourists – but she seemed baffled that I wasn’t salivating at all these goods for sale. She strolled with me down aisles of knock-off iPods, no-name tennis rackets and imitation handbags before showing me the object of her desire: a box fan moulded in China from pink plastic. Ga-yoon stared longingly at it, imagining perhaps the cool breeze it would bring to her Pyongyang apartment. She simply couldn’t believe that I wasn’t snapping up that fan, stowing it in my overhead luggage bin and lovingly unveiling it back in America. She couldn’t quite figure me out. Why had I purchased only postcards? The only real interest I’d shown in shopping was when I was taken to a store that had a selection of North Korean taxidermy. I was holding my arms wide to measure the two-metre wingspan of a mounted vulture, wondering if I could get it home and how a stuffed North Korean scavenger would look over our mantle in San Francisco, when I caught Ga-yoon studying me like I was an alien.
Then I found the bottle of rice wine beaming the image of Rikidōzan.
I pulled it from the shelf and asked Ga-yoon about the wrestler it depicted.
‘That’s Ryokdosan, a famous Korean,’ she said, her tone suddenly serious. ‘He went to Japan, and after beating all the Japanese fighters, he wanted to return home to Korea a champion. The Japanese were angry so they kidnapped him and murdered him.’
Her assistant minder Dong-man was new at the job. He sported a starched white shirt, a straight black tie and a prominent Kim Il-sung pin.
‘The Japanese were jealous and ashamed that a Korean was better,’ Dong-man added. ‘When Ryokdosan tried to return home to the glorious socialism of North Korea, the cowards stabbed him to death.’
‘The Japanese murdered him?’ I asked. ‘How? Where?’
My minders shook their heads. They didn’t know the details.
A young saleswoman jumped in with her limited English.
‘Japan steal,’ she added, her eyes wide. ‘Japan kill.’
I studied the portrait of Ryokdosan on the bottle, a North Korean hero so powerful that Japan couldn’t let him live, a North Korean so loyal that Japan had no choice but to steal him and kill him.
I purchased the bottle of rice wine, thus elevating myself somewhat in Ga-yoon’s esteem. But the day was a disaster for her: part of her job was to entice hard currency from me, and I ended up spending only eleven American dollars in Pyongyang’s most elite shopping establishment.
One thing I had acquired in North Korea was a stomach bug. Knowing that I couldn’t drink the bottle of rice wine and that I couldn’t bring it on the plane, I poured it down the sink in my room on the thirty-second floor of the Yanggakdo Hotel.
The hotel is on an island in the Taedong River. Pyongyangites are forbidden from setting foot on the island, and tourists are barred by guards from leaving. Assuming that tourists can’t get into trouble in this moated lodging, the minders go home for the night, and the guests are left to their own devices. What guests there were. At the height of the tourist season, there were only enough visitors in Pyongyang to fill the sixth and thirty-second floors – two lit bands in a dark monolith straddled by a rain-swollen river.
Trapped and sick and a little stir-crazy, I went to the hotel’s forty-ninth floor, where there was a bar and an unused revolving restaurant that didn’t revolve. Here, I found a carpet of AstroTurf, a fish tank full of algae and a lone, drunken Japanese businessman. There was also a spectacular view of the DPRK’s darkened emptiness.
Most of the liquors behind the bar were unknown to me, including a carboy of fluid that contained a pickled snake. A shot of Jack Daniel’s, I saw, cost twenty-five euros. I ordered a Taedonggang beer to settle my stomach and asked the barmaid about the Korean wrestler who became Rikidōzan.
She shook her head.
‘She’s Chinese,’ the Japanese businessman said, with a great lament, and explained that all the hotel staff were Chinese workers on contract, ‘so we never get near a real North Korean woman, ever.’
He was quite drunk, and I had stumbled upon his central issue in life. It was with surprising candour that he explained to me his unrelenting desire for North Korean women, that he’d set up his entire career to enable him to visit the DPRK from Tokyo to be in their presence, to study them, to breathe their air. He said it was his cruel fate to be forever thwarted by their elusive nature. He went on and on about their beauty, about how they were uncorrupted by the shallowness of the rest of planet Earth, about how their sheltered status meant they were as close to ‘real’ women as could be found in our century.