Wendy Simmons is either crazy, or she has a spirit of adventure that far exceeds my own. Either way, her book My Holiday in North Korea; The Funniest Worst Place on Earth, is fascinating.
I mean, who goes to North Korea on a vacation?
Granted, Wendy’s trip took place a couple of years before Otto Warmbier was held prisoner for 17 months and returned to the United States in a coma, where he died just days after his release. Wendy Simmons didn’t pull any death-defying pranks that landed her in a labor camp, like removing a sign bearing a propaganda slogan.
But seriously, a vacation in North Korea?
Wendy knew better than to step outside her motel room when she wasn’t supposed to. In her own words, “It’s amazing how badly you want to go outside when you’re not allowed to. It was such a nice night in Pyongyang, and all I wanted to do was not be stuck inside my dim, drab, smoky, weird, empty hotel.”
Her book, written with humor and warmth, gives us a glimpse into the dismal and absurd existence of people who are under the oppressive rule of an unhinged dictator. This glimpse sparked in me a fascination with this dark, anguished nation; a nation on the brink of developing a nuclear arsenal.
I haven’t decided yet what I think about North Korea’s participation in the Olympics.
Is Korean Olympic unification a pathway to peace or a pact with the devil? I hope for the former, fear for the latter.
Twenty-two North Korean athletes are participating in the Olympics, along with about 230 cheerleaders. The two Koreas are teaming up to field a joint women’s ice hockey team and marching under a single Korean Unification flag.
South Korean President Moon jae-in would like to use the Olympics as a platform to improve communication with North Korea and bring a thaw in the relationship.
On the pathway to peace side of the equation, North Korea’s participation might keep everyone safer. Before the Seoul Olympics in 1988, North Korea bombed Korean Air Flight 858, killing all 115 people aboard after demanding and being refused rights to co-host the Olympics. Their presence and participation should prevent any repeat disasters of this nature.
Another plus on the peace side is that Kim Yo-jong, sister of Kim Jong-un, is attending the events. She was introduced along with President Moon Jae-in by the International Olympic President before shaking hands with each other and other world leaders. Kim Yo-jong is the first member of Kim’s family to travel to South Korea since the 1950–53 Korean War, according to Associated Press.
Pope Francis said the presence of a unified delegation and team at this year’s games gives people hope for a world dedicated to peace through dialogue and respect. “The traditional Olympic truce takes on special importance this year as delegations of the two Koreas will walk together under a unified flag.”
I hope Pope Francis and Moon Jae-in are right.
But there’s also the pact with the devil side of the equation, which gives rise to the obvious question of whether appeasing a dictator or providing a legitimate forum to someone guilty of the atrocities that Kim Jong-un has perpetrated on his people could ever bring about any sort of reconciliation.
We’re talking about a regime that has routinely tortured and murdered its own people for infractions as innocuous as watching a soap opera. Teenagers are routinely yanked out of school to become sex slaves and people are forced to watch public executions.
Wendy Simmons writes, “Like Alice (in Wonderland), I’ve fallen through a rabbit hole in a world full of strange and nonsensical events, where normal is surreal, lying is widespread, and the ruler has a penchant for demanding, ‘Off with her head!’”
Neville Chamberlain constantly tried to contain Hitler through a policy of appeasement. Following one of those efforts, he wrote, “My good friends, for the second time in our history, a British Prime Minister has returned from Germany bringing peace with honor. I believe it is peace for our time. We thank you from the bottom of our hearts. Go home and get a nice quiet sleep.”
Moon’s popularity has plummeted in the wake of his decision to offer an Olympic olive branch to North Korea, according to latest Gallup polls. Some South Koreans are furious that athletes who have sacrificed and worked for years toward this one moment are having to give up their spot on the team to make room for North Korean athletes. Additionally, instead of participating under their own flag, they’re competing under the unification flag with a familiar Korean folk song as their national anthem.
But the women on the team could be giving up their spot for a greater good, say those who favor North Korea’s participation. If Pope Francis and Moon Jae-in are right, mutual respect and open dialogue will result in a less dangerous world and an opportunity to improve the lives of North Korea’s 24 million people. This would be worth giving up a spot on the Olympic team.
Only time will tell what the outcome will be. Maybe respect and open dialogue can lead to reconciliation. But in spite of my hope that this path is a pathway to peace, I can’t help thinking about a Native American legend:
A little boy climbed to the top of a tall mountain. As he stood on the summit looking around, he heard something slithering at his feet. He jumped back, realizing it was a rattlesnake. Before he could move away, the snake spoke. “Please, won’t you carry me down the mountain? It’s cold up here and I have no food.”
“No,” said the boy. I know what you are. You’re a rattlesnake. You’re dangerous to me.”
“Please,” said the snake. “I promise not to bite you.”
“Very well. I guess it’s okay,” replied the boy. He put the snake under his shirt and could feel the snake getting warmer. As they got to the bottom of the mountain, the boy reached into his shirt to put the snake down. Once on the ground, the snake suddenly recoiled and struck him on the leg.
“Why did you do that,”cried the boy. “You promised not to bite me.”
The snake as it slithered away, replied, “You knew what I was when you picked me up.”