Our ancient train had just started rolling clamorously away from North Korea's border with China when I made a simple, unconscious slip - reaching for my guidebook - that even a few years ago might have landed me in jail, or at least had me speedily deported.
"Can I have a look at that?" said one of the North Korean officials escorting us on the train. The official was referring to the Lonely Planet guide to Korea I had just pulled out of my bag, and it was clear from the curt tone I didn't really have the option of saying no.
My heart started to pound as I handed over the book, knowing full well that its chapter on North Korea referred to the country as a rogue state with "a human-rights record worse than anywhere else on Earth." Even more problematic, the Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il, was described unflatteringly in the book as "Mini-Me" (presumably making his father, Kim Il-sung, Dr. Evil) and blaming him for nuclear brinksmanship as well as a famine that took three million lives in the 1990s.
I knew that it was a criminal offence to bring into the country any publications deemed "hostile to the North Korean socialist system." Worse, I had entered the country under not-quite-honest circumstances, identifying myself as a Russian historian rather than a Canadian journalist, something I worried would be discovered with a little extra scrutiny.
But instead of reprimanding me, the young official read every last word in the North Korea chapter, greedily gulping down information. The book was then wordlessly passed on to another official on the train. The second official passed the book to a third, carefully avoiding the eyes of the Workers Party of Korea cadres who were riding in the same car to keep an eye on me, photographer Sean Gallagher, who had entered by telling consular officials that he was an English teacher, another semi-true tale, and a 50-strong Chinese tour group with which we had fortuitously met up at the border.
As the book made its way around the cabin, I began to sense that the Lonely Planet's take on recent Korean history wasn't offending those assigned to watch over us, but was confirming their suspicions. Eventually, one of the officials handed it back to me.
Map and itinerary of the trip
- Monday, Aug 24: Dandong, China (red)
- Tuesday, Aug 25: Journey to Pyongyang (blue)
- Wednesday, Aug 26: Trip to Mount Myohyangsan (green)
- Thursday, Aug 27: Tour of Pyongyang (yellow)
- Friday, Aug 28: Trip to the DMZ (cyan)
- Saturday, Aug. 29: Fly home (purple)
"There are some mistakes in here," the official said, pointing out a name that had been misspelled and a date that was slightly off. Both errors were in the ancient history section. "But otherwise, it's pretty correct."
Catching a glimpse of the exchange, one of the Workers Party cadres leaned over, bringing me to eye level with the red Kim Il-sung pin he and every North Korean wears on their lapel. I started sweating again.
"Do you have a novel I could borrow?" he asked in soft, stilted English. "Maybe a love story?"
I gave him River Town , the memoir of an American who wound up teaching English in small-town China. Throughout two years there, the author and the locals slowly overcome long-held stereotypes and a history of adversity by taking the time to get to know each other better. The cadre smiled gratefully and read silently the rest of the way to Pyongyang.
We were just hours into our five-day stay in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, and I could already see that the Kim regime's ideological grip on its citizens was weakening. The episode was the first in a series over the next few days that suggested to me that North Korea is changing despite the Dear Leader's best efforts, and that perhaps even the Hermit Kingdom can't isolate itself forever.
Little of the outside world seems to have reached the peasantry, who have known nothing but Workers Party propaganda since Kim Il-sung came to power after the Second World War. The rare glimpse of the rural countryside we got during the five-hour, 20-minute train ride from the border town of Sinuiju to the capital Pyongyang made clear that the vast majority of this country is desperately and heart-wrenchingly poor. But among a select but important few to whom the regime has given the privilege of travelling abroad and interacting with foreigners, there is an awareness of the country's massive shortcomings.