By Mark Barthelemy
When I first started studying Korean as an undergrad, a professor gave me a copy of a North Korean magazine. On the cover was an Olympic athlete — a gold medalist in badminton, or volleyball, or something — beaming with the kind of wide, rapturous smile typically seen on the visage of theme park mascots. I would thumb through the magazine, wondering whether I’d ever have a chance to use this new language I was learning to speak with a North Korean.
I’ve lived in Seoul on and off for six years, working as a stock market analyst and then as an educational designer. I’d often hike up to the windy peak of Seoul’s Mount Bukhan, contemplating the very different sorts of lives being led just 30 miles north of where I stood. It always seemed unfair that the cold northerly wind could rush so freely across a border and mingle with the warmer airs to the south — a privilege denied to Koreans on both sides of the border, even as they breathed that same air.
When VICE called last fall, saying they were close to getting approval to shoot an episode of their HBO series on location in Pyongyang, and that they were bringing American basketball players with them, and would I be interested in going along as an advisor and translator and avoider of international incidents, I knew immediately I had to be a part of it. Whether or not I’d have opportunity to practice any sort of low-level, soft diplomacy, I’d do my part to help VICE’s audience gain a more nuanced view of the situation over there. I tend to believe that the pursuit of deeper understanding and insight is inherently useful.
As the Air Koryo flight touched down at the Pyongyang airport in February, I wondered whether they’d assume my Korean fluency had been the result of a State Department training program for foreign spies; fortunately, this turned out not to be the case. Considering that our motley crew of a delegation spanned from scruffy and tatted VICE guys, to a 6’8” Harlem Globetrotter with a massive fro, to Dennis freaking Rodman, I must have seemed a relatively benign curiosity.
I did whatever I could to make sure things went smoothly, sometimes representing the American delegation in negotiating our schedule, sometimes alleviating cross-cultural tension, sometimes doing instantaneous translation for Dennis Rodman, and sometimes just running back to the bus to grab backup batteries for the camera guys.
Throughout the week we spent there, I took every opportunity I could to connect with locals beyond the scripted formalities. As the only foreigner many of them might ever speak with directly in their lives, I thought it my duty to try to impart some understanding of American culture, if only to serve as a counterpoint to what they might have been previously taught. I explained the concept of a suburban garage punk band to members of the country’s most famous girl group. To others I explained YouTube and how the Internet provided the sort of immediate connectedness across national boundaries that could produce the international “Harlem Shake” phenomenon.
I touched on the positive aspects of private industry to a high-up economic official. I spent two hours with the North Korean press, defining terms like “thunderous dunk” and “alley-oop” and explaining the Harlem Renaissance and the cultural context of “Sweet Georgia Brown.” When once asked how we got approval from our government to travel to a place considered part of the “Axis of Evil,” it was gratifying to explain that, despite state-level tensions, our government doesn’t begrudge us the freedom to travel there and see it for ourselves.
I’m not one to sew Canadian flags onto my backpack when I travel abroad — half of the shirts I’d brought to wear were emblazoned with something America-tastic, like an bald eagle wearing a top hat and looking super tough. The Betabrand USA Pants I’d ordered especially for the occasion had arrived just a day before I left. I’d planned to wear them during the big game, but at the last minute opted not to Push It and went for a relatively muted look of blue jeans under a subtly red-and-white-striped button-down.
After the game, our hosts whisked us into a conference room at the hotel and, with much gravitas, told us we had the great honor of being invited to attend a previously unannounced gathering to honor Dennis Rodman’s presence. It would be at an undisclosed location. It started to be clear what was about to happen.
We were to wear our best clothes, and were not permitted to bring any cameras or metal objects. Since I’d left my tailored suit at a hotel in Beijing, this meant that when I met Kim Jong-un, and when I translated our delegation’s words directly to him, I did it wearing a v-neck sweater with Dress Pant Sweatpants. Straight out of the suitcase. Didn’t even have to iron them.
When chatting with the North Koreans at my table that night, I mentioned that I used to play saxophone in jazz bands and in my ska band during college. Later, after the all-girl group assembled on a stage to perform a medley, including theme songs to Dallas and Rocky, someone handed me a saxophone just as Rodman took the stage to sing Sinatra’s “My Way.” Suffice to say that the Dress Pant Sweatpants held up to even the most strenuous of performing positions.
Whether our trip will prove to bear diplomatic fruit of any sort remains to be seen. Certainly, we’d been only exposed to the places and the people they were prepared to present, and their side surely had a PR angle. But I’d like to think that — among the hundreds of people we met, among the thousands who watched Americans and North Koreans playing basketball together in that stadium, or among the millions who saw their leader welcome a delegation of United States citizens — our positive interactions planted some seeds of goodwill and curiosity in the minds of a few people. I swear that I felt it on more than one occasion.
Maybe someday, when those people find themselves in a position to effect real change, they’ll recall the time they spoke with an American in their own language. Or they’ll remember the sight of an American and a North Korean connecting for a sweet alley-oop. And maybe they’ll choose to play some role in opening up to the community of nations that surrounds them.
I returned to the States with a renewed sense of just how privileged I am to call this place my home. Since I’ve been back, I’ve worn the USA Pants more than a few times. Fourth of July is always awesome, but this year it felt magical.
Mark Barthelemy, an educational consultant and entrepreneur, resides in southern California.
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