July 14, 2017

I ran a marathon in North Korea, did you hear?

With the return of the Danny/Gwyneth Project, I figured I might as well start a TinyLetter, too, since all the kids are doing it, and I’m going to want an outlet for non-Gwyneth Paltrow writing from time to time. So, here it is. I wonder if anyone will read this!

DannyLetters will be infrequent dispatches from me on, well, whatever I’m thinking about. One might be a travelogue from a trip I’m taking (I’m going to Vietnam and Tokyo in October and can tell you now I’ll probably find it hard to not talk about it), another might be a recap of the latest episode of Survivor. Another could just be bitching about how much I truly, truly hate Trump (I’ll try to not do that, though, not because I’m afraid of getting political and offending people but because I’m afraid of being BORING). Most will probably include some sort of recommendation for good things to read, listen to, or watch. I don't know, we'll figure out a structure as we go.
Anyway, let's do this. Today, I'm feeling like talking a little bit about the time I went to North Korea and ran a marathon.


Just over a year ago, I went to North Korea. My friend Henry and I were planning a trip to Cuba, and I made a joke about it being cliché to go to Cuba these days. "You know, there's actually a marathon in North Korea we could run," he said and, literally the next day, we had both signed up to run it. For Christmas that year, my parents got me a Delta gift card. "You're not going to like what I use this for," I told them as I opened it. "Are you fucking kidding me, Danny?" my mom asked.

I feel weird about this photo, but I feel weird about this whole trip.

It's surprisingly easy to get into North Korea. The US government doesn't really seem to care if you go -- which is odd, considering we're suddenly their problem when we're stuck there -- and the Koreans don't seem to care if you come, as long as you're not up to anything on their ever-flexible list of dissident crimes, and as long as you go through one of the government-sanctioned tourism companies. Henry and I chose Koryo Tours, the company most people choose when traveling to North Korea. The other major company, Young Pioneer Tours, was cheaper but also had just had one American traveler arrested and sentenced to 15 years in a labor camp, soooo that's definitely going to affect their Tripadvisor ratings. (Of course, poor Otto Warmbier was ultimately released from North Korea in a coma and died at home, after which Young Pioneer Tours said they would stop providing tours for Americans. We may never know what happened to Otto. Our group did find out some info from the Swedish ambassador to North Korea's wife about the circumstances that led to Otto's imprisonment, which I'll share when we get to that point in a future DannyLetter.)
Turns out you can pay for your North Korean marathon by credit card. (You send it to a generically named Chinese bank, because any mention of North Korea, Pyongyang -- even the word Koryo -- gets your transaction frozen by the U.S. government.) The other option is to pay in cash when you meet your tour guide at the Chinese airport. As much as I loved the idea of meeting a person in a Chinese airport with a suitcase of cash to get them to transport me across the border into North Korea, I'm also incredibly lazy, so I paid online.
Henry and I spent 2 days in Shanghai, where we basically just drank and ate xiao long bao. Our first morning, Henry went for a run, while I slept in.
Here's the thing about marathon training: it sucks. Having never trained for a marathon before, I found it incredibly hard to get myself outside on a freezing February weekend in New York and run a casual 15 miles. And the thing about training for a marathon in North Korea is it feels like a made-up thing that you won't ever actually be doing, giving you just another reason to fire up Netflix instead of hitting the streets. So by the time we landed in China, a mere 4 days from our marathon date, the farthest I had run in one go was 18 miles. I was incredibly proud of this mileage, until a friend pointed out I would have to run that distance plus almost half that distance again, in order to finish. Making things worse, the marathon had a time cutoff of 4 hours, a finish time that took one experienced friend three marathons to finally hit. (No one told us what happened if we didn't complete in 4 hours, so our imaginations ran wild. Dogs, guns, secret police, etc.)
Henry, meanwhile, has the legs of a gazelle and the look of a man who, if you asked him to run a full marathon right this very second, would sprint off into the distance, and would be quite happy to do so.
So by the time we met Vicky, our delightful tour guide -- a short, spunky Scottish woman with bright pink hair, who had been to North Korea 20 times before, and was the lead guide for all the Koryo Tours guides -- I was woefully unprepared to run a marathon. Especially in a country where, if I injured myself,
I would have to either be somehow airlifted to Beijing, or taken to a Pyongyang hospital which, from what I had heard, would be at around the same medical level as healthcare in Victorian England.

The plane ride to Pyongyang from Shanghai took about two hours on Air Koryo, an airline with a staggeringly low safety record, planes that are supposedly 40-year-old Russian artifacts, and a blanket ban from landing at practically every airport in the world. Our departure time was midnight, which felt appropriate: flying across the border in the dead of night, like Mao’s pilots had secretly done throughout the Korean War. But the seats weren't uncomfortable (certainly more legroom than a United or Delta flight), and the flight attendants were cheery and attentive. Never mind the stern-faced military man literally patrolling up and down the aisle, or the propaganda blasting from the TV screens, featuring a surprisingly entertaining all-female rock band dressed in military fatigues, singing what I assume were patriotic songs on a stage filled with replica fighter jets and anti-aircraft artillery.
We landed, deplaned, and got in a series of lines for immigration and customs, same as any international airport in the world. Unlike JFK, there weren't swarms of military men standing around with literal machine guns in their hands. Just a few bored-looking officials, probably enjoying how batshit nervous the foreigners shifting in line were.
The final step to enter the country is customs, where your bags are searched, you're briefly questioned, your books and Kindle library are pored through, and, ultimately, you press your fingerprint to your iPhone and hand it over to a military official, who is free to peruse throughout all your apps to his delight, searching for anything off-limits.

We had been warned no less than 10 times to absolutely not bring in anything that could be considered pro-religious, anti-North Korean or pro-South Korean, or pornographic into the country. They stressed the strict rules against pornography about as seriously as anti-North Korean propaganda.
But I’m an idiot, so as I handed my unlocked phone to a stern-faced North Korean military officer -- bone-tired, jetlagged, running on 8 hours total sleep over the previous 72 hours -- I suddenly realized I still had dick pics on my phone.


I want to tell you about the book I just finished reading:
The Accusation by Bandi. It's a collection of seven short stories SMUGGLED OUT OF NORTH KOREA, written by an anonymous author still living in North Korea. (Having just read it is probably what prompted me to write about North Korea above.)
It's... intense. The stories are blunt and simple, hitting you with all the subtleties of a North Korean propaganda piece. The characters are all regular people, the kind of people you don't get to see or interact with when you visit North Korea as a foreigner. As you'd expect, things do not go great for any of these characters. They all live in constant paranoia, trying and failing to not make mistakes under the convoluted logic of the country (for example: it is a punishable offense to take credit for improving output from the bean paste factory you've been put in charge of during a famine, because you should have realized that you're to blame when things go wrong but when things go right it's all due to the state and the Dear Leader, and god help you if someone thinks you're not giving a Kim family member his proper dues).
The stories have the feel of Shirley Jackson tales -- everyday people enduring small, tense situations in their home lives, wracked with paranoia and mistrust, usually ending in doom -- with the surreal layer that they're most likely based on real situations or people. Every time you find yourself thinking, "This is some fucked-up dystopian shit, who thinks of this?!" you realize this is millions of people's daily reality. As you read this newsletter, these stories are happening.
Whether you've been to North Korea or not, you should read these stories. They're quick and easy to get through, but they stick with you for a long time, and you feel the urgency and desperation of the anonymous writer -- and the country full of people he risked everything to write these stories for -- in every word. I hope he's still holding on out there.

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