Writer and photographer Wendy Simmons shares a personal account of her vacation to one of the most reclusive nations on the planet, North Korea. During her journey she finds herself caught between an international crisis sparked by the release of the Sony Pictures film The Interview and accidentally crashing the "wedding" of a North Korean bride to be.
Life at the Koryo Hotel was like watching a Wes Anderson movie, only weirder, and I was the star. Like the dining room, the rest of the hotel was decked out in decades-old décor that in its heyday was at best, gaudy, chintzy, and ostentatious, and in present day was dated and faded. A little less dirt and a little more quirk, and you might have called the place kitschy, but the pervasive feeling of melancholy and doom that enveloped the hotel made that ship sail.
I'm in the bathroom in my hotel room at the Koryo. The TV is in the other room, so it's a little faint, but I'm pretty certain I hear the BBC broadcaster say that North Korea is threatening war against the U.S. over the forthcoming release of a Sony Pictures movie called The Interview, about two CIA spies killing Kim Jong-un, starring James Franco and Seth Rogen.
I dash into the other room to catch the story. Oh, this is good! THIS IS TOO GOOD! It's hilarious! The Supreme Leader of North Korea has promised "merciless retaliation" against America over a James Franco movie fewer than 24 hours after I've arrived!
Because my mom watches the morning news, there's little doubt in my mind she's just shit herself.
Fakaront: (noun) any location that resembles a restaurant in that it has tables and chairs, and serves food, but is not a restaurant in the anywhere-else-in-the-world sense of the word because 1) it seems only tourists eat there, and 2) all seem to be operated by the KITC — reminder, that's the KOREAN INTERNATIONAL TRAVEL COMPANY whose express goal is convincing tourists NoKo is normal.
There are a plethora of restaurants in Pyongyang, and normal Koreans can, and do, eat in them whenever they want to (which they can't and don't). Only twice did I see anyone but other tourists and their handlers in any of the fakaronts I had the pleasure of dining in, and usually I dined solo.
Anyway, my handler and I are on our way to a fakaront for lunch, and an older handler turns to me and says since I like to take photos would I like to go to a real Korean wedding?
Are you kidding? Of course!
This is so nice of older handler. I'd like to believe she's just being nice — even now I can barely type this next bit without my heart falling — but there's no way she's just being nice. Of course she's ingratiating herself to manipulate me in some way. This is, let's face it, North Korea. So she may also be trying to throw me a bone. I don't care what the reason… if you're telling me I get to see something even approximating your version of real, I'll take it.
It turns out an employee of KITC's son or daughter (the story, as usual, was convoluted) was conveniently having his or her wedding reception that very day at 1 p.m. at the same fakaront where we were having lunch at noon. On a Thursday.
I was skeptical.
After arriving at the wedding, we're immediately directed to our table (no crowds… no wait), and as we dine, several waitresses busily go about setting up the room for the reception. It's fascinating; they manage to move fast and slow at the same time. They're beautiful (I'd read or heard something later, after getting home, that the Party selects the most fetching women from around the country to come live and work in Pyongyang so the city literally looks its best for foreigners, but who knows), and they're setting up one of the ugliest rooms I've ever seen.
The guests began arriving — both men and women (older handler explained some wedding receptions are male- or female-only) — and they are all dressed in their regular NoKo attire. What I mean is this: Whatever they had been wearing five minutes ago if they were NOT going to a wedding was what they were all wearing now. Men dressed in military uniforms? Check! Men dressed in short-sleeved work shirts and pants? Check! Ladies in their Mad Men costumes? Check! Children in school uniforms? Check! The only thing missing was semi-formal, formal, or cocktail attire. Unfortunately, older handler has also told me I'm not allowed to take any photos of the guests.
When the bride and groom cross the threshold, the logistics are made clear: Older handler will and does drag-push me straight through the middle of the crowded room (conveniently) making it impossible for me to take photos of any guests, before depositing me directly in front of the bride and groom, standing behind the bridal table.
I may be struggling to find true North in this land of uncertainty, ambiguity, and doubt, but the bride's unmistakable stink eye upon seeing me — a clearly unwelcome and uninvited American Imperialist with a camera in her hands — proudly earned the first spot on my "Shit I Think Might Be Real" list. Followed second, by the wedding reception… I think.
I am allowed perhaps five seconds to snap a photo of the Happy Couple, before being ushered out of the fakaront faster than a president is pushed out of harm's way during an assassination attempt.
So I'm hanging back, trying to look casual, and be as unobtrusive as an American Imperialist can be while crashing a wedding in North Korea, playing my favorite mind-fuck game, "Gotcha!" or "Got-me?"
That's the problem in North Korea: Whether it's what you're hearing or seeing, or not hearing or seeing, you're always second-guessing who's outsmarting whom.
They are clearly trying to obfuscate something, presumably the truth. If not the truth, then why else go through the effort? And what's wrong with a country trying to put its best face forward anyway? Isn't that just what tourist boards and PR firms do? What's wrong is… it's a helpless, abused, deprived cult, run by an insane, evil, smart, or stupid but for sure fat, dictator with a limp, who won't even reveal his age.
A visit to NoKo is a metaphorical arms race of Ask Don't Tell. You know it and they know it, and you know they know it, and they know you know it, and you know that they know that you know it, and they know that you know that they know that you know that they know it. Or not. And so on. Ceaseless cognition over what's real and what's not.
Wendy Simmons is based in New York, NY. To view more of her work, check out her website at www.wendysimmonsphotography.com.