An International Incident – Narrowly Averted

Monday Evening September 10, 2012 – An International Incident Narrowly Averted

The 1 Sep issue of The Pyongyang Times, with what appears to be an obligatory lead story and picture of Kim Jong Un prominently on the front page.

The following week’s issue (it comes out once a week), also with a front page lead story and picture of Kim Jong Un.
We had been given a list of Do’s and Don’t’s at our pre-departure briefing in Beijing, in terms of what was acceptable and non-acceptable behavior in North Korea, and it was pointed out to us that whereas we in the west have generally come to dislike, distrust, and disrespect our politicians as a matter of normal ordinary life; that is absolutely not the case in North Korea, where the population uniformly reveres their two previous leaders, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, and is now warming to the new leader, Kim Jong Un, too.

We were told they view their leaders more or less the way that devout Roman Catholics view the Pope, and just as it would be very disrespectful and discourteous for people to sneer at and make fun of the Pope to a Roman Catholic, so too would it be offensive and inappropriate to make disparaging comments to the North Koreans about their current and former leaders.  Besides which, doing so would in no way impact on the people we spoke to and their perception of their country, but it would negatively impact on their perception of us and the west in general.Okay, lesson learned.

This was reinforced to us by the guides on our drive in from the airport when we first arrived.  Between the briefing and the guides’ commentaries, we understood that various things were inappropriate, including things like photographing statues that cut off part of the statue, or making stupid poses in front of statues, or making photographs where we appeared to be touching the statue.  We were also told not to do things like rip or tear pictures of their leaders, or of course, not to write offensive things on the pictures or use them to wrap up food scraps, etc.

Again, lesson learned.

One more piece of background, and then I’ll tell you about the ‘international incident’ that was narrowly averted (and, yes, I am indeed exaggerating when I describe it as such!).

On our flight from Beijing to Pyongyang, the flight attendants came through the cabin distributing a mix of English and Korean language newspapers and magazines (possibly some Chinese ones too) and as many of us as could, took something to read, not only for something to do on the flight, but also out of interest to see what type of journalism North Korea provides.  The most common thing we got copies of was a weekly English language newspaper called The Pyongyang Times – a tabloid sized paper printed of course on newsprint.

This was an interesting thing to read, and it seems (based on seeing a number of issues) each issue follows a similar set of formatting guidelines that requires the lead story on the front page to be something about the current leader, and with a large picture of him supporting the story.  The stories were generally fairly political and included some awkward statements about the country’s willingness to engage in fearsome and of course victorious combat with the US and South Korea in the event of even the slightest provocation, and so on.

Okay, so that’s the backstory.

Now let me ask you a question.  So you’re traveling, and you’re in your hotel room where you’ll be staying for the next some days, with yesterday’s and today’s copies of USA Today, possibly a local newspaper, maybe the NY Times too.  You’ve finished reading them.  What do you do with them before heading out for your day?

If you’re like many of us, you might possibly rip out an article or advertisement you want to keep, and then toss the rest into the trash bin.

Do you see where this is leading?

So, upon returning to the hotel on the Monday evening, I was told that the cleaning staff had discovered, to their horror and extreme upset, that one of our group had thrown a copy of the Pyongyang Times in the trash bin in his room that morning.  (He had also, it turned out, thrown away various other western newspapers and magazines too as part of a general tidy up.)  Throwing anything into the rubbish that had a copy of their leader’s picture on/in it (as did the Pyongyang Times) is totally verboten and an extremely disrespectful act, and the entire hotel staff were now outraged and up in arms, demanding a sincere personal apology.

I anxiously did a quick mental replay of my own actions, because in truth, it could have as easily been me as anyone else who did this.  For many of us, it is an automatic, ordinary and normal action to simply throw away any newspaper after reading it – if we don’t, then it will lie in the hotel room, and the papers will accumulate, day after day, until we finally do trash them, because well trained hotel staff know the rule is only to remove items from the trash cans in a guest’s room, no matter how much like rubbish anything might look, elsewhere in the room.

While the very worried guides assured me that they’d told everyone on the coach not to throw away newspapers festooned with pictures of their leaders, I had no clear memory of it, and even if I had picked up on the point (assuming they had indeed told us) I could still see how the automatic reflex unthinking act of cleaning up one’s room would cause one to inadvertently transgress.

I pointed this out to the guides, indicating that no disrespect was intended.  Fortunately, the newspaper hadn’t been used as something to eat food on (also a possibility!) and the picture was in no way defaced (you’re not supposed to even fold the papers over an image of the leader).  But it had been thrown away, an act which the hotel staff chose to interpret as a deliberate and specific act of disrespect to their leader.

I mentally rolled my eyes at this, but only mentally.  In reality, the country, and most of all, the people being paid well in a hotel catering to international tourists, needs to ‘man-up’ a bit about this and not be so fast to imagine insults and evil intents where none exist, and to accept that the foreigners who are bringing so much cash with them and creating so much employment will sometimes act differently to how they do themselves.

But that was not an issue I could address or change, and the real problem – unstated but clearly understood – was that the person who would suffer the consequences of this ‘gross act of disrespect’ was not the specific tour member, nor me as tour leader, nor the group as a whole, but the two guides who were now looking sick to their stomachs in front of me.

The guides risked losing their jobs as a best case scenario, and unthinkable horrors as an unlikely worst case scenario, if the matter wasn’t quickly resolved according to the strictest requirements of local political correctness.  And we had all, as a group, formally agreed among ourselves prior to embarking on the trip that we’d conform to the local etiquette requirements – bowing to statues, avoiding political argument, and so on, so for all reasons, it was an unexpected problem that we needed to resolve per local requirements, rather than invent some moral principle and stick to it.

I offered to do the apologizing, suggesting that if the group leader were to make a fulsome apology on behalf of the group member, the entire group, and also personally, accepting full blame as group leader for the actions of the group member, then this might be the biggest and bestest of all possible apologies.  I offered to write anything they wished, and to appear in person before anyone or everyone and to say in person anything required to defuse the situation and remove any threat to the guides.

The guides said they’d discuss it further with the hotel management and disappeared.  I went into the hotel bar for a few evening drinks with fellow tour members, but an hour or so later the guides reappeared and took me out of the bar to discuss the matter further.

Unfortunately, it turned out that the hotel management and staff would not accept my apology.  It had to come directly from the person who had trashed the paper, himself.  Okay, I mentally started preparing for how I could most winningly present this to the group member in question the next morning, but I was next told that the hotel staff required an apology immediately (it was probably about 11pm at this time).  It couldn’t wait until the morning, it must be done right now.

So I had to wake up the group member and ask him to get dressed and come down to the hotel lobby and work out a handwritten apology in an acceptable format that would ameliorate the outrage the hotel staff were claiming, and which would also exonerate the tour guides from any blame.

This was not an easy task, particularly as the gentleman in question is a somewhat strong willed individual, understandably not pleased at being woken up, and initially viewing the problem through a western lens rather than the way the locals saw it.  He initially said he had no memory of being advised not to do so by the guides, and couldn’t even be sure he had thrown away the newspaper, and was reluctant to apologize for an act in which he saw no fault, and went as far as to say that he would be willing to go to prison if need be, rather than to tell lies in an insincere apology.

Fortunately, when it was pointed out to him that he was not at risk of imprisonment – deportation, maybe, but imprisonment, no; however, the guides definitely were at risk, and a negative response on his part would almost guarantee such an action, he agreed to respond in a locally appropriate way, and an hour or so later we ended up with his signature on a hand-written letter that resulted in the matter being resolved to (hopefully) everyone’s satisfaction.

As an interesting postscript, I asked the guides, the next day, what they did when they had finished reading a newspaper themselves.  Did they carefully cut out and keep the photos of their leaders and throw away the rest of the paper?  No, that would not be acceptable.

So what did they do?  We were told they simply keep the papers.  I have a mental picture of the average North Korean’s apartment being crammed full of old newspapers in every part of every room – surely there must be some way of – dare I say – disposing of old newspapers that doesn’t involve disrespect?  But whatever it is, we weren’t told.


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1 thought on “An International Incident – Narrowly Averted”

  1. Pingback: Banning Travel to North Korea is a Big Mistake - The Travel Insider

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