The Consultant: Chapter 17

Once outside, Barry got his first good look at the Yang Suk Foreign Friends Camp. When they had brought him in, he had been far too disoriented to think about anything other than what was immediately in front of him. 

There were many buildings throughout the camp. From where he stood, it was impossible to tell what their functions might be, but Barry suspected that many of them were used for housing.

How many people do the North Koreans have imprisoned here? he wondered.

I may never find out. And do I even want to? 

Barry reminded himself that his only real goal was to get out of here.

The canteen was a former warehouse, or perhaps a small airplane hangar. It looked very old—pre-communist era. Perhaps this building, too, was another bit of architecture left over from Korea’s long-ago period of Japanese occupation.

The long, brown canteen building was in the middle of the compound; and like Jung-Ho had suggested, you couldn’t miss it. 

Barry wasn’t the only one heading to dinner. He saw some other inmates (foreign friends!) clad in the same gray uniforms. They were going inside the canteen, through the single front entrance.

I’d better fall into line, Barry thought. 

He tried not to think about where he was, about what he was doing.

One step at a time, he told himself.

Inside, the canteen was a vast, cavernous space, filled with the smells of food and mildew.

Just beyond the main entrance, Barry stepped into a crowd of his fellow inmates. There were mostly men—a few women. Barry guessed them to be Chinese, possibly Thai. They were speaking a tonal language. When he looked in their direction, they immediately looked away.

No help there. 

Barry could see the main dinner line. It was a setup similar to any institutional feeding center. Each inmate had a tray, and the food was dispensed by women behind a counter. 

In the center of the big room, there were tables, rapidly filling up with inmates. The tables were institutional, too: dark green, mounted into the floor with bolted or welded-on benches. 

Barry stepped into line, and picked up an empty metal tray from a nearby stack.

That was when he noticed the murals that decorated the considerable wall space of the canteen. The canteen was not only a dining area, it was also a miniature exhibition hall of North Korean art. 

Not just any random art. All of the murals had some political purpose. Most were hagiographic portraits of the three Kims. The painting directly above the food line conveyed an almost spiritual message. In the foreground, smiling Korean farmers and workers were joyously engaged in their labors. In the background, the two deceased Kims—Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung—stood silhouetted against a sunrise. 

On the other side of the room, a mural showed the chubby Kim Jong-un—the nation’s present ruler—surrounded by a group of happy, cherubic Korean children. 

But some of the portraits took direct aim at the United States. In the mural across the room, the figure of Uncle Sam, with green skin and vampire teeth, was attempting to throw an armful of nuclear missiles down on the Korean Peninsula. 

Another, more realistically painted—and particularly ghoulish—mural caught Barry’s attention. In this one, American soldiers wearing military uniforms of the Korean War era were using a pair of pliers to extract a tooth from a bound Korean female captive. 

The Americans obviously weren’t practicing dentistry. They were carrying out a bizarre and pointlessly creative form of torture. 

In a similar portrait directly beside it, an American solider was dangling a Korean infant over a well, while his comrades restrained the infant’s distraught mother.

Why? Because in the narrative of the North Korean regime, obviously, that was what Americans just did. This was the story of the Korean War that the regime told its people, and probably even itself.

Did anyone in this country have an objective grasp on reality? Doubtful. 

Barry took a step forward in line. The Asian-looking man directly in front of him seemed to be alone. 

Barry decided to attempt communication. Sooner or later, he would have to talk to someone here—other than Jung-Ho

“I’m Barry Lawson,” he said. “I just got here.”

The man looked embarrassed—or frightened—possibly both. He pointed to his mouth, and shook his head. The message was clear: No English. 

Then he turned away from Barry, so that Barry could not make another conversational gambit, neither in English, nor in any other language.

(Above and below): actual North Korean propaganda

Finally his turn in the dinner line arrived. Following the lead of the inmates in front of him, Barry held up his tray to the nearest woman behind the counter. Without making eye contact with Barry, she took the tray and filled it with a scoop of rice, and a stew that contained a substance that resembled meat. 

The next woman in line gave him a cup of lukewarm tea.

The next woman gave him a pair of chopsticks.

Dinnertime in North Korea, he thought sourly. Bon appetit

His food (such as it was) now in hand, Barry stepped out of the line and faced the dining room. All of the tables were now filled with people—all of them wearing grey. 

I’ll have to sit somewhere, he thought. Whether my mealtime companions want my company or not. 

This was a bit like the first day of school: Where to sit in the cafeteria?

Chapter 18

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