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Scavengers

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I was in Pyongyang’s Department Store Number One when I saw a bottle of rice wine emblazoned with the bust of famed Japanese pro wrestler Rikidōzan, Koreanized as ‘Ryokdosan’. The bottle was styled after a Grecian urn, with Ryokdosan’s image framed, halo-like, in a golden championship belt. Pearlescent and adorned, the bottle was a rare object of beauty for sale in North Korea. For a week, my minders had been steering me daily into shopping opportunities at various gifts shops and department stores. And I was ready to pay. I was dying to buy something, anything that would help my wife and children understand the profound surrealism and warped reality I’d experienced on my research trip to North Korea.

But there was nothing to buy. The stores were filled with cheap Chinese goods, grey-market medicines and out-of-date foreign snacks and candies. North Korea produced only durable goods like Vinalon overcoats, shovel handles and work boots. I might have actually bought a Vinalon blazer or a North Korean skillet. But the regime didn’t offer these at their tourist shops. I couldn’t even buy a painting or a ceramic bowl made in North Korea. Arts and crafts there are required to glorify the regime, yet it’s forbidden for a foreigner to possess images of the Dear Leaders, DPRK flags or nationalist iconography like the Chollima (a mythical winged horse that symbolizes the rapid advancement of the society), a double rainbow over Mount Paektu (the ‘official’ setting of Kim Jong-il’s illustrious birth) or some Taepodong missiles blazing upward. Hence the selection of a Beijing dollar store.

My main minder, Ga-yoon, was bright and funny and sophisticated – she had a graduate degree from Kim Il-sung University in handling American tourists – but she seemed baffled that I wasn’t salivating at all these goods for sale. She strolled with me down aisles of knock-off iPods, no-name tennis rackets and imitation handbags before showing me the object of her desire: a box fan moulded in China from pink plastic. Ga-yoon stared longingly at it, imagining perhaps the cool breeze it would bring to her Pyongyang apartment. She simply couldn’t believe that I wasn’t snapping up that fan, stowing it in my overhead luggage bin and lovingly unveiling it back in America. She couldn’t quite figure me out. Why had I purchased only postcards? The only real interest I’d shown in shopping was when I was taken to a store that had a selection of North Korean taxidermy. I was holding my arms wide to measure the two-metre wingspan of a mounted vulture, wondering if I could get it home and how a stuffed North Korean scavenger would look over our mantle in San Francisco, when I caught Ga-yoon studying me like I was an alien.

Then I found the bottle of rice wine beaming the image of Rikidōzan.

I pulled it from the shelf and asked Ga-yoon about the wrestler it depicted.

‘That’s Ryokdosan, a famous Korean,’ she said, her tone suddenly serious. ‘He went to Japan, and after beating all the Japanese fighters, he wanted to return home to Korea a champion. The Japanese were angry so they kidnapped him and murdered him.’

Her assistant minder Dong-man was new at the job. He sported
a starched white shirt, a straight black tie and a prominent Kim Il-sung pin.

‘The Japanese were jealous and ashamed that a Korean was better,’ Dong-man added. ‘When Ryokdosan tried to return home to the glorious socialism of North Korea, the cowards stabbed him to death.’

‘The Japanese murdered him?’ I asked. ‘How? Where?’

My minders shook their heads. They didn’t know the details.

A young saleswoman jumped in with her limited English.

‘Japan steal,’ she added, her eyes wide. ‘Japan kill.’

I studied the portrait of Ryokdosan on the bottle, a North Korean hero so powerful that Japan couldn’t let him live, a North Korean so loyal that Japan had no choice but to steal him and kill him.

I purchased the bottle of rice wine, thus elevating myself somewhat in Ga-yoon’s esteem. But the day was a disaster for her: part of her job was to entice hard currency from me, and I ended up spending only eleven American dollars in Pyongyang’s most elite shopping establishment.

One thing I had acquired in North Korea was a stomach bug. Knowing that I couldn’t drink the bottle of rice wine and that
I couldn’t bring it on the plane, I poured it down the sink in my room on the thirty-second floor of the Yanggakdo Hotel.

The hotel is on an island in the Taedong River. Pyongyangites are forbidden from setting foot on the island, and tourists are barred by guards from leaving. Assuming that tourists can’t get into trouble in this moated lodging, the minders go home for the night, and the guests are left to their own devices. What guests there were. At the height of the tourist season, there were only enough visitors in Pyongyang to fill the sixth and thirty-second floors – two lit bands in a dark monolith straddled by a rain-swollen river.

Trapped and sick and a little stir-crazy, I went to the hotel’s forty-ninth floor, where there was a bar and an unused revolving restaurant that didn’t revolve. Here, I found a carpet of AstroTurf, a fish tank full of algae and a lone, drunken Japanese businessman. There was also a spectacular view of the DPRK’s darkened emptiness.

Most of the liquors behind the bar were unknown to me, including a carboy of fluid that contained a pickled snake. A shot of Jack Daniel’s, I saw, cost twenty-five euros. I ordered a Taedonggang beer to settle my stomach and asked the barmaid about the Korean wrestler who became Rikidōzan.

She shook her head.

‘She’s Chinese,’ the Japanese businessman said, with a great lament, and explained that all the hotel staff were Chinese workers on contract, ‘so we never get near a real North Korean woman, ever’.

He was quite drunk, and I had stumbled upon his central issue in life. It was with surprising candour that he explained to me his unrelenting desire for North Korean women, that he’d set up his entire career to enable him to visit the DPRK from Tokyo to be in their presence, to study them, to breathe their air. He said it was his cruel fate to be forever thwarted by their elusive nature. He went on and on about their beauty, about how they were uncorrupted by the shallowness of the rest of planet Earth, about how their sheltered status meant they were as close to ‘real’ women as could be found in our century.

‘They are the only pure women left,’ he said.

Moths circled outside the windows. Occasionally a bird would slash through the dark, picking moths from the air. I could almost hear the clicking of their beaks.

‘Have you ever had a conversation with a North Korean woman?’ I asked. ‘I mean beyond minders and translators?’

With great pain, he said, ‘No. We’re the enemy here.’

I didn’t know if ‘we’ meant all Japanese, or if it included Americans like me.

I said that perhaps there were more accessible women to meet in Japan, women he could get to know. Women of Korean descent. Even women who had defected from North Korea. This only seemed to increase his isolation, as if it was proof that I didn’t understand anything.

As a joke, I said, ‘You could always defect to North Korea.’

He snorted and gave me a look that said, You think I haven’t considered that?

I looked over at the fish gulping in the murky water of the aquarium. My kids raised tropical fish, so I had a great urge to roll up my sleeves and clean that tank.

I’d been away from a toilet too long. It was time to leave this sad tableau. I took a last look at the moonlight glimmering off the fat Taedong River, its muscly, dark green bends slowly wending toward Nampo.

When I stood to go the businessman said, ‘That wrestler you mentioned, I remember him. But he wasn’t Korean – he was Japanese. I think he spent too much money on girls and gambling. He died in the toilet of a nightclub. They say the yakuza who stabbed him urinated on the blade.’

Rikidōzan, I would later learn, was born in 1924 in what would become South Hamgyong Province, North Korea. His Korean name was Kim San-rak, but under Japanese occupation, all things Korean were deemed illegal, including Korean language, arts, customs and personal names. Kim San-rak, an orphan, was adopted by a family of farmers in Nagasaki Prefecture in Japan and given the name Momota Mitsuhiro. He was a large boy, so his adoptive father had him train in sumo, and here he took the shikona, or ring name, of Rikidōzan.

It translates roughly as ‘difficult mountain passage’.

Rikidōzan was a successful sumo, competing in over two hundred matches, but it was after the war that he discovered his destiny. He saw an American pro wrestling event sponsored by the Red Cross to entertain US troops. He began to train as a pro wrestler and travelled to America in 1952, where he booked hundreds of matches, competing mostly as a villain. Many American wrestlers later reciprocated, travelling to Japan to take on villain roles against Rikidōzan. Already known from sumo, Rikidōzan’s defeat of ‘evil’ Americans captured the imagination of a nation in the mire of post-war defeat.

In 1953, Rikidōzan invited famed judoka Kimura to compete as a pro wrestler, allegedly agreeing in advance to a choreography that would end in a draw. Once inside the ring, however, Rikidōzan dealt Kimura a punishing beat down, lumping his face with brutal open-hand blows and striking his neck with the karate chops that would become his signature move. The attack lasted only a minute, and Kimura was left unconscious in the ring. Kimura vowed revenge, claiming ten yakuza hit men would retaliate. But it didn’t matter: Rikidōzan was now a superstar. By borrowing yakuza money, he started his own wrestling federation and began training a stable of fighters who would go on to become superstars: Kanji ‘Antonio’ Inoki, Kintaro Ōki and Shohei ‘Giant’ Baba. Rikidōzan’s matches in the late fifties and early sixties become the most highly viewed television events in Japanese history.

Rikidōzan used his fame and fortune to purchase nightclubs, hotels and condominiums. He gained a reputation for his bar-room showmanship, drinking prowess and willingness to gamble. On 8 December 1963, Rikidōzan fell into conflict with the Japanese mobster Katsuji Murata, who stabbed Rikidōzan in the abdomen with a switchblade. It’s unclear if the attack in the bathroom of  Tokyo’s New Latin Club was prompted by yakuza debt, personal rivalry or was in retaliation for Rikidōzan’s beating of Kimura.

A week later, thirty-nine-year-old Rikidōzan died of peritonitis.

Kim Il-sung had supposedly tried to lure Rikidōzan home with promises of a fancy Pyongyang apartment, his own North Korean wrestling federation and the ability to travel abroad for state-sponsored matches. But the wrestler had tasted the good life and refused. To a propaganda machine, however, a dead hero was even better than a live one.

After Rikidōzan’s death, North Korea repossessed the fighter with the 1989 biography I Am a Korean, which became required reading for a generation of North Korean citizens. Pyongyang’s Foreign Languages Publishing House brought out an English edition of the book, whose publication coincided with the production of the commemorative Ryokdosan Drink that I ran across in Pyongyang’s Department Store Number One.

That was not the end of North Korea’s wrestling propaganda. In 1995, Kim Jong-il hosted a pro wrestling event in Pyongyang’s Rungnado May Day Stadium, the largest on earth, called Collision in Korea. Kim invited Rikidōzan’s early protégé Antonio Inoki to North Korea to visit Rikidōzan’s home village, meet his sister and lay a wreath at Rikidōzan’s grave, despite the fact that Rikidōzan was buried in Ikegami Honmon-ji Temple Cemetery in Tokyo. Half a century after Rikidōzan beat Americans on Japanese TV, Inoki, a stand-in for a hero co-opted for North Korea, fought the American wrestler Ric Flair in front of 190,000 spectators to glorify the regime. Muhammad Ali travelled to Pyongyang to witness the fight. Ric Flair, in his memoir To Be the Man, recalls that Ali was having none of North Korea’s monkey business. After being pressured to read a propaganda speech prepared by his handlers and being subjected to anti-American insults from party officials at a state-sponsored dinner, Ali interrupted the meal to announce, ‘No wonder we hate these motherfuckers.’

Taking leave of the Japanese businessman in the unrevolving restaurant at the top of the Yanggakdo Hotel, I went to take the elevator. Here I paused. It wasn’t because this elevator had tried to kill me the day before – when I’d called it to the thirty-second floor and the doors had opened, there was no car and I nearly stepped into the dark shaft. No, I think I opened the steel door to the fire-escape stairs instead because I wanted something real in this unreal place. So I began making my way down, floor by darkened floor, seventeen storeys to my room.

These sections of the hotel were dark, lit only by moonlight through windows at the ends of long halls. But I could faintly see that some kind of operation was going on. On some floors, large stretches of carpet were stacked in rolls by the elevator. On others, fixtures like toilets and lamps were lined in the hall. Doors were off their hinges. Wires were exposed. I began to understand that, to keep floors like mine looking good, they were stripping materials from the darkened ones.

It struck me that this kind of cannibalism was something I’d been feeling on my entire journey through North Korea. On a good day, propaganda can feel like a strange and fanciful story – ‘We’re the most democratic nation on earth’, ‘This is a worker’s paradise’, ‘We have universal health care’ – but this national narrative comes at the expense of every individual’s in the country. Here, people’s hopes and dreams and identities were raw materials, to be harvested and processed and consumed by the state. In the dim light of a darkened hallway, I saw someone had pried the metal room number off a door. Left behind was the barest outline of a 9. I remembered that the other functioning floor in the hotel was the sixth. In North Korea, it didn’t matter if you were a 9: you would be turned into a 6. ■

Photography by Adam Johnson