Last night I had a vivid dream which has stayed with me. These are the details:
I am standing beside a table full of avocado green toasters. The table is inside a bank near the only door that leads in or out of the building. My supervisor is standing behind the table. She is a perky, pretty, North Korean woman with a bowl haircut and a T-shirt that reads in stylized cursive: Love, American Style. She has a permanent smile etched on her face, and she is constantly standing up on her tiptoes so that she can greet all of the passersby eye-to-eye. She is like a Korean “Sally Field” back in the 1970s hoping to sign up workers for the union. The toasters look like they are from the same decade, and indeed the entire bank could be a family friendly, small town, savings and loan from the Carter years. Part of my job is to help her in identifying those bank customers who have opened up an account. I can tell from the “happy face” sticker that the bank teller put on the customer’s lapel when they had finished the paperwork up at the counter.
This is not an ordinary bank, and I am not an ordinary employee. The bank is part of an elaborate complex of buildings that together constitute a North Korean prison, and the prison complex eerily resembles the U.C. Berkeley campus. Stretched out over miles in every direction, the prison complex of brick buildings and pedestrian walkways seems like a neighborly small town, except for the security cameras that are ubiquitous, and a chain link fence featuring barbed wire that can be seen in the far distance. Moreover, I am not an employee, but rather a prisoner. I am an American journalist who crossed into North Korea by accident at the DMZ, and my new “hosts” have not seen fit yet to let me correct my mistake by going home.
No one can open a checking account at this bank. Instead, customers are urged to open “truth accounts” into which our “hosts” deposit daily “all the truth they need to know.” If people manage their own accounts properly, presumably by believing, saying, and doing “what is right” in all instances, then these deposits will reap over time “truth dividends.” If they are not so careful, then the “truth dividends” will be turned off completely, and all those “truth deposits” will be sent back to our “hosts.” People need to be faithful to their finances, after all. We give them toasters to remind them that without bread the avocado green machine is no more valuable to them than a paperweight.
When I am not helping my supervisor pass out toasters, I am a runner. Within the prison complex, runners are messengers who convey questions or comments to those further up the chain of command, and then provide responses or follow up orders to those who are further down the chain of command. Earlier, the bank manager asked me to find out if we are still in state mandated mourning, which prohibits everyone except for my own supervisor from smiling or exchanging pleasantries. Also, on occasion, bank personnel will provide me with survey findings which show which sales catchphrases are useful, and which are doing more harm than good, in instilling “patriotism” among customers with respect to their own “truth accounts.” I pass on those survey findings to the higher ups, and then they tell me what changes, if any, should be made in our sales approach. Even though my supervisor always treats me well (Who would not want to work with a Korean Sally Field?), I am happy to get a running assignment, since that gives me time outside of the bank. When running to the appropriate bureau to convey a message, my first task is to locate my “handler,” who is another American journalist prisoner to whom our “hosts” have given authority over me. My “handler” is a younger, more handsome, prick from an Ivy League pedigree who works for a rival newspaper. He has the linear facial features of a pretty boy devil, and he always runs topless in order to show off his well toned upper body muscles to the malnourished Korean prisoners he encounters throughout the prison complex. As I am running from points A to B, I must be able to view him at all times. If I lose sight of him, then I can be detained by the ever present prison police for running “unchaperoned.” If that happens, then I am liable to end up somewhere underground, bound and gagged to something that looks medieval, and tortured intermittently with flaming hot pliers. In order to keep me on my toes, while I am trying to get from points A to B within a designated time period, my “handler” often takes detours. I can follow him down these rabbit holes and lose considerable time, or I can stay on the straight path while straining my neck to see his naked, waxed torso off in the distance. If I remain on the straight path, and if he decides to intersect me, then it is critical that I apprehend this and let him get to that intersection point before I do. What is impermissible is allowing him to intersect my straight path behind me, because unless I have eyes on the back of my head that means that he has escaped my vision along the way. I have yet to lose him, but this game that he plays with me keeps me on my edge.
I am running now toward one of the bureaus, when I see an entourage of high ranking military officers walking en masse in front of me. While they walk in unison, every now and then they collectively practice the “wild and enthusiastic applause” they are legally obligated to show the Dear Leader whenever he does pretty much anything in a public forum. It would be considered impolite for me to run around them, and so I slow down to walk by their side. We are at the base of a long hill that leads to the Dear Leader’s mansion, which looks like the House of the Seven Gables if painted bright red. Beside the house is a yellow “happy face” flag fluttering in the breeze. There is a Clydesdale adorned with a gold saddle that is tied to the flagpole. As we start up the hill, I notice that the entourage breaks up just enough for me to find myself now walking near the center of it. The senior military officers continue to practice intermittently “wild and enthusiastic applauses,” while I keep my head down, and hope not to be seen in this crowd. My hope turns out to be in vain, for the next thing I know I am walking up this steep hill alongside the Dear Leader himself. The Dear Leader is a pudgy Korean in a gray suit and black boots. He is sporting a bushier version of a Clark Gable mustache that makes him look more like a celebrated pastry chef than a dictator. With the voice and demeanor of a pleasant friend, the Dear Leader asks me what I did in the States. I lie, because as much as I like working with my supervisor in the bank, I would prefer a chance to work in the People’s Films Bureau. This is where the propaganda movies are made, and the rumor is that the cast and crew there do little work day to day, except on the occasions the Dear Leader gets a bee in his bonnet about shooting another “auteur film.” The cast and the crew are well fed, and they get to hang out like Andy Warhol’s groupies in one of the backrooms of the Dear Leader’s mansion. So I tell him that back home I worked in the film industry. As anticipated, this excites his interest, and he tells me about the latest snuff film project he has in mind. I assure him that I am best when working “behind the scenes,” but if he needs another “actor” to give his next movie an “international flavor,” then I can recommend someone to him. He is intrigued, for thus far all of the “actors” slated to be killed are Korean prisoners who are slated anyway to be executed. He explains that those kinds of prisoners are so browbeaten that they do not struggle all that much when it is their turn, and that takes away from the “dramatic effect” of the “kill shot.” I assure him that the other American journalist prisoner is not browbeaten and will put up a mighty struggle. The Dear Leader smiles, and orders the nearest senior military officer to find this American journalist prisoner and to add him to the cast list. The Dear Leader turns to me, and says that I can stay “behind the scenes,” so long as I am the first one to insert the scalpel in that other fellow’s flesh when he is tied up and ready to be “sacrificed for art.” I smile and nod agreeably, as I am going to have the last laugh on my old rival. Still, I cannot shake the fear that someday this man beside me may choose to switch me from the crew to the cast. If and when that occurs, then who will have the last laugh?