Fog on
the DMZ

Even more fog stories from Korea and Donald Trump's cancelled visit.

In 1957 French filmmaker Chris Marker on a visit to Pyongyang noted, ‘Tolerant even toward its clichés, Korea greeted us with morning calm’. Which is why I was surprised to find Donald Trump’s visit to the DMZ from Seoul was cancelled, a visit which a Trump administration official originally said would not take place because visits to the DMZ have become ‘a little bit of a cliché’. The reason for the cancellation was morning fog. Perhaps Donald Trump read Marker’s Coréennes on Air Force One and, like the reformed hipster, perhaps had a change of heart about clichés.

Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama all made it to the DMZ. So did Hillary Clinton, Rex Tillerson, and Mike Pence. So perhaps the visit is cliché, after all thousands of tourists visit both sides each year, but perhaps not cliché enough to not do if everyone else is doing it. Unless the fog gets in the way, of course. Perhaps Donald Trump read our Halloween blog post on the Hamgyong Province Cloud Monster preying on government officials.

But Hamgyong is far from the DMZ and besides the monster hasn’t been seen for a few hundred years. Last March I did see Rex Tillerson at Panmunjom and someone in the accompanying press corps identified a Koryo Tours’ group as ‘Korean tourists’. Just how that happened, I am not quite sure. On a calm day, one can hear what the US military guides are saying across the demarcation line. One should clearly be able to distinguish a group of British, Swiss, Canadians, French, and Americans from Koreans. Perhaps that message was lost somewhere along the line in the reporting process, which is no doubt what will happen with Trump’s fog-cancelled visit in general, and especially in North Korea.

For better or for worse, there is a slogan in North Korea that goes ‘If Korea decides something, it will do it’. On the surface you may read this as bravado, but for the average person this it boils down to ‘If I say something, I will do it’. It is an expectation of others, in politics, in life, and regardless of cliché, which, as we know, Korea is surprisingly tolerant of. And it is would probably be a cliché to say here that North Korean state media would have reported negatively if Trump had gone to the DMZ, so no harm done, right? Probably not. This morning’s cancellation, political garnish aside, will appear particularly disingenuous and weak to a man or woman on the street in Pyongyang or remote Hamgyong for that matter. I suspect this is not the message that the Trump administration wants to convey.

There is a line in Beowulf, rendered into lucid modern English by Nobel-laureate Seamus Heaney, that goes: ‘Anyone with gumption and a sharp mind will take the measure of two things: what’s said and what’s done’. It is a line that would be at home among the straight talking and action-prone peoples of northern Korea, where the traditional stereotypes of people from three of the four major regions have long been described as ‘fierce tigers out of the forest’, ‘stubborn cows plowing a rocky field’, and ‘savage dogs fighting in the mud’.

Now imagine how this morning's fog-cancellation will appear to the average North Korean. Very likely it will appear to the average North Korean that the American president is a paper tiger, to borrow a phrase, and a coward. ‘Does their opinion matter?’ You might ask. Remember that at the end of the day the average people of North Korea make up the country’s many institutions, the largest of which is the military, and institutions have a way of thinking and acting in their own ways regardless of the system around them. This is a lesson we should already know by now. As for today, irrespective of your own opinion of Donald Trump and irrespective of your own political persuasions, today will only hinder any progress on the Korean Peninsula.

My former Korean teacher once said in reference to the Untied States: ‘One pays attention to one’s enemies – we care what they say and what they do. The others don’t matter’. I may work for a mere travel company, but with almost a decade spent in and out of North Korea and working among North Koreans, today’s cancellation seems particularly irresponsible and poorly thought out no matter how you look at it.

To end with a quote from Marker’s Sunday in Peking (Dimanche à Pékin), a film made on the same to Asia in which he visited Pyongyang, ‘…we are required to understand…these men, these women, these children with whom we shall have to share history as we shall have to share our daily bread’. In this, all of us need to do better.

The content of this blog post reflects the opinion of a a Koryo Tours' staff member based on experience working in North Korea. It does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the company.

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