The Write Stuff: Sunan Airport Terminal

Author Andrew Raymond Drennan. Picture: Contributed
Author Andrew Raymond Drennan. Picture: Contributed
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A GOVERNMENT minder in North Korea is escorting tourists he suspects of being journalists in this extract from Andrew Raymond Drennan’s novel

Han sat in the back seat of a six-seater minibus outside the terminal building, the driver, Mr So, gripping the steering wheel as if still driving. Han was consulting the itinerary in his lap, circling on a map places of particular Party interest, trying to blink away Yong’s morning whisky, and the ordeal with the books.

Ryong stood slightly behind Han, arms behind his back, trying to look tough. “I must follow the rules, comrade.”

His deputy, Mr Ryong, as the visitors would call him, sat up front, watching the foreign tourists being quickly hustled on to a bus bound for Yanggakdo Hotel, their faces aglow at this strange new land.

“I don’t know why we let them in at all,” Ryong growled. “It used to be the Westerners would come grovelling about the sorry state of their leaders’ views on Korea. They used to thank me for showing them the truth. Not anymore. Always with their damn questions…”

Outsiders always made the mistake of calling North Korea “Stalinist” or “Maoist”. But the Party P&A Dept had been clever not to try and convince the people of things they knew to be demonstrably false (viz, “We have had the biggest ever corn crop this year!”, as farmers surveyed ruined, blackened fields like in the Soviet Union’s most famished days). The Party were wise to the fact such lies only breed contempt, and stoke discontent. Instead, the Party chose their language carefully, using phrases like “economic difficulties” instead of “famine”. Anything that couldn’t be proven by witnesses (that when Kim Jong-il was born the birds had sang in Korean), that was when the outlandish, CS Lewis-esque imaginations of the P&A Dept really kicked in. Sometimes the only thing fact and fiction have in common is suspension of disbelief. Ryong was still venting: “…and they never speak the language.” Han was too involved with the itinerary to look up. “As someone with a translator’s degree, I would have thought that last one would please you.”

“Please me? They come here to laugh at us. We don’t need these foreigners.”

“Would you calm down? They told me at the Ministry you were a professional.”

“I am a professional,” Ryong sulked.

“We’re guides, with a task of presenting our great country in order to further ties with the outside. It’s not our job to air petty grievances.”

“Why do they even come here?”

“I suppose they want a glimpse of what few get to see.”

Ryong looked at Han with hopeful eyes. “The most glorious socialist regime left on the planet? The full majesty of the Great Leader Kim Il-sung’s socialist project?”

So peered back at them in the rear view mirror.

“Of course,” Han said. “The most glorious regime on the planet.” He felt So’s steady glare strip-mining him. There was always someone watching or listening. “We should stand outside,” Han told Ryong. “They’ll be here soon.”

Ryong made a fuss of rushing round to open then close the door for Han, making a sweeping gesture of his hand directing him out.

With mild embarrassment Han rubbed where he had shaved earlier (only required above his top lip and the point of his chin). “Thank you, Ryong, but you don’t need to keep doing that. You’re five years older than me.” Han forgot that, in Pyongyang, elders took a back seat to Party ranking.

Ryong stood slightly behind Han, arms behind his back, trying to look tough. “I must follow the rules, comrade.” He thought of himself as one of the old guard, grumpy in brown military uniforms whose sole currency was how many times they had witnessed one of the Great Leader’s “on-the-spot” guidance sessions, where he bestowed apparently profound advice (normally suggested to him beforehand by experts in the field) to workers and farmers. Ryong wasn’t interested in power, he just wanted to hang on as best he could to its slipstream, before his unremarkable career fizzled out. He envied those intelligence officials in smart suits and ties, with their solid postures and disarming smiles. People like Han. Ryong practiced his stance in front of a mirror in his ramshackle apartment, but he could never exert their authority or menace, no matter how many different tie-and-jacket combinations he tried. This was primarily because of his large ears, big enough to catch a tailwind, and how he stooped when walking: tall, but with no power in the torso. He had the receding hairline of a tax accountant who dreamt all day of retirement. Ryong was under no illusions he would never be taken seriously in the Party. People like him had nothing other than total, unquestioning loyalty to ascend the ladder.

Han spoke like a father does to a delicate child. “Speaking of rules, Mr Ryong, if anything… uncomfortable comes up, just talk to me calmly. In Korean. And don’t let them know there’s a disagreement or disturbance. If they ask anything rude, say the question cannot be rendered into Korean. Then take a note of which one said it. I’ll need it for my report.”

“Yes, Mr Han.”

“I’ll be doing most of the talking in English, but if something comes up then don’t be afraid to speak. I’m not a dictatorial boss.”

“I’ll keep a close eye on the Yank, comrade.”

Han tilted his head to the side, faking weighing up his elder’s approach. “In my experience, comrade, it’s better to treat visitors from the West like friends, they’re more agreeable than if you pick arguments. If they are nice, we’ll show them more.”

“Very well. I’m sorry I missed your welcoming party this morning, Mr Han. I only found out about it afterwards. Nobody tells me anything around here!’

“You didn’t miss anything.”

“Is it true Chief Officer Yong got drunk? I overheard the secretaries say he came back to the Ministry stinking of whisky.”

Han lit a Commie Marlboro, lingering on the first drag. This is going to be a long week, he thought. “An impertinent suggestion. Chief Officer Yong is a respected Party official. What secretaries said that? What are their names?”

Ryong thought better of it. “Forget I mentioned it. I must be mistaken.”

Ben and Hal came out the terminal exit, struggling with the sticky, manual front doors. Coming out of the dark terminal, Ben had to shield their eyes from the sudden burst of light. Hal had on his sunglasses, and was holding his camera, ready to get to work.

Ben presented himself first, bowing politely, trying to appear as deferential as possible. “It’s so nice to meet you, Mr Han. I’m Ben Campbell. This is Hal Huckley.”

Hal shook hands whilst pointing the camera at Han.

“Hello, I’m Mr Han. Welcome to Democratic People’s Republic of Korea! We also have Mr Ryong with us, for extra assistance. For translations. Language can be sometimes tricky.”

Ryong was surprised, and impressed, at how easily Han morphed into his Official persona.

Ben was taken aback at how pleasant Han was, the charming kind smile of a next-door neighbour, rather than some brutish instrument of the State.

Still smiling, Han said, “Thank you. I will take your passports now.”

Ben and Hal exchanged looks; this hadn’t been discussed. Ben was first to make tentative enquiries. “Our passports? Is our paperwork not in order?”

“Is just procedure,” Ryong chimed in, arm extended, palm up.

Hal tried to make Han feel at ease, wrapping a stocky, tanned arm (the hairs still bleached from Sudan) around his tiny neck. “No problem, Mr Han.” Hal turned to Ben and shrugged, handing his passport to Ryong. “The man says it’s just procedure.”

Ben gave Ryong his passport too, who forwarded them to Han.

Ryong mumbled to Han in Korean, looking Hal up and down, “He looks like a Jew.”

Han stuck to his plan, giving no hint of discontent as he spoke. “I don’t want to hear any of that talk, comrade. Now get in the van and be quiet.”

“Yes, Mr Han, sorry, Mr Han,” Ryong said, bowing.

“Will we go to the hotel first?” Ben asked, getting into the van after Hal.

“Soon,” Han said cryptically. “Our itinerary will arrive us there. First, we stop off somewhere special on the way. It is most special place for all Koreans, we must go there first for great honour.”

When their door was slid closed, Hal gently tried the handle – just to check. It was locked.

They were now officially guests in the hermit kingdom.

So rallied around the streets of Pyongyang, muttering insults about his countrymen’s driving after each sudden swerve and toot of the horn. The wardens were mere white blurs at the interchanges. Ben and Hal grabbed at their seatbelts, their buttocks tensing at each crossroad, awaiting an imminent collision.

Han, sitting up front with Ryong, the engine covering their voices, said to him, “I’ll bet you all the coal in Chongjin they’re not tourists.”

“How can you tell?” Ryong looked back at them.

“Don’t turn round!’ Han said, kicking Ryong’s foot, unseen. “They’re not sharing the camera for one thing. Tourists always take turns. And only journalists can pack so economically for a week-long trip. Tourists, they fill their suitcases with extra clothes, cosmetics, luxuries.”

Ryong was practically spinning in his seat. “We must report this to the Ministry at once! This is an outrage! The foreign swine…!’

“Calm down, comrade, this is how it works. It happened all the time in Pyonganbuk province. We give them a little of what they want, and in return we get what we want. Which is exactly what we’re doing right now.”

The few Pyongyang buildings that had been constructed in the past quarter century seemed based on blueprints and designs circa the Iron Curtain’s height. The citizens walked around oblivious to any sense that time had stopped moving forward. Not so much the bird that has come to love its cage, but rather the bird that isn’t aware it’s in a cage at all.

Ben became aware of a weird dynamic playing out up front in the minibus, with Mr Han and Mr Ryong trying to outdo each other in some game of who loved the country and honoured its history more, but the pair of them seemed to be performing more for Mr So’s benefit, as if he were simultaneously the least and most important member of the entourage. He kept clocking Ben and Hal in the rear view mirror, giving them scary Socialist eyes.

Ben shouted forward to Han. “Have you been doing this long, Mr Han? You’re very young.”

Han, not wearing his seatbelt, spun around in his seat, unperturbed by the NASCAR manner in which So accelerated through tiny gaps in the morning traffic. “I been working outside the city for some years. Show tourists round our factories, collectivised farms. I been to sites we will visit in your stay many times.”

“What about here in Pyongyang?”

He turned back around, as if embarrassed. “First time for me showing tourist staying in Pyongyang.”

“And you live here?”

Han confirmed with a sharp nod then remembered to smile again. His smiles seemed confined to the area immediately around his mouth; his eyes never lit up, like his heart played no part in the action. “Yes, I live here. But please, is not about me. We will be arriving at first destination shortly, very exciting. Please note the picture ahead of our Great Leader Comrade Kim Il-sung. The slogan read,” Han swung his fist enthusiastically, “We will unite Korea through hard work!” For ’zample, in nineteen seventy-eight, or as we name it here the year of Juche sixty-seven, the Great Leader started a fine revolution in our mining industry through a series of genius methods…”

Han talked without stopping for the next five minutes, on the strength of the Workers’ Party, the vagaries of history that had constantly conspired against the Korean people, the corruption in the United Nations and its persecution of the DPRK.

Hal whispered, “Why are we going so fast?”

Ben’s head flicked from left to right – not wanting to miss a thing – transfixed by what might be going through the mind of everyday North Koreans. Were they really as clueless about the outside world as he had been told? Did they really believe the great evil South was home to wild dogs rampaging through desolate streets, hunting orphans for food?

The reason for So’s terrifying speed quickly became apparent. Ben tried to provide commentary to Hal’s video that sounded like casual conversation, using euphemisms. “Oh look at the little children, Hal.”

Hal zoomed in on them as they zipped past the shoeless wraiths, crouching down in the grass, picking through it for something edible.

Ryong was clearly agitated. “We shouldn’t have come this way.”

Han was more stoic. “There’s nothing we can do. We can’t exactly put blinds over the windows.

“It’s not the worst idea in the world.”


Andrew Raymond Drennan’s debut novel Cancer Party was published when he was 24, followed by the critically acclaimed The Immaculate Heart. Drennan, now 31, lives in Glasgow. His new novel, The Limits of the World is out now, published by Cargo.


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