I'm sorry for not updating again. Me and my long chapters. :C I'm gonna try and write shorter ones in the future so I can update more often, but for this point in the story, I feel like short chapters would be bad pacing.


Chapter 10

Mr. Richardson briefed the group quickly as they gathered for breakfast in the hotel lobby. Today they would be meeting with Major General Pak Rim Su, the commander of the North Korean forces on the DMZ. If something happened in the next few days that drove the Koreas to war, he would be the man leading the North Koreans into battle. Today's meeting was crucial. This man, if given the command, could literally start a war at any time. Getting through to him was essential, and the gravity of this fact seemed to be weighing on the minds of the entire group. Breakfast was eaten in near silence, and then the group departed.

North once again waited for them outside the Foreign Ministry, today lacking his dark coat in favor of an olive green military uniform for the occasion. Alfred had to wonder how long he'd been waiting out there. Though no more snow had fallen, it was still dreadfully cold, and the chill wind blowing from the north only made it worse.

Alfred smiled when he approached the Korean, hoping it would set a good tone for the meeting ahead.

"Good morning," he said brightly, trying to keep his uneasiness out of his voice. "Are you ready?"

"Why would I not be ready?" North asked, frowning. Alfred kept smiling, despite feeling somewhat uncomfortable. Was North bitter over their conversation about emergency transportation the day before? If he was, Alfred could only hope it wouldn't affect the meeting in any way.

North glanced over the rest of the group before his eyes settled on Mr. Blitzer. "You'll have to wait outside," he said, directing his words toward the man and his camera. "Kang Dae will be here shortly. You're free to explore the Patong River area as long as he's with you."

Mr. Blitzer moved his hand with the camera behind his back, as if he were ashamed. "Of course!" He was silent for a moment. "Will Kang Dae be able to take me anywhere indoors? It's awfully cold today."

"I'm sure he'd be happy to do so if you ask him nicely," North said with a grim smile. From what Alfred had seen of Kang Dae throughout their trip, he thought the Korean guide would probably rather watch Mr. Blitzer squirm from the cold than find a warm place indoors.

As they were talking, a white car pulled up. Speak of the devil.

"There's Kang Dae now," North nodded towards the car as Kang Dae stepped out, accompanied by Ki Young. North excused himself for a moment to exchange a few words with Kang Dae before returning to the group and leading them inside for the meeting.

When the American delegation took their seats in the meeting room, the other side of the table was empty. A few minutes later, Major General Pak Rim Su and several other military officials filed in, neatly lining up their hats on a table behind them before they all stepped forward to exchange greetings with Mr. Richardson and his advisors. The General seemed to take warmly to Mr. Richardson in particular. That was a good sign, Alfred thought. This meeting would be a breeze!

At least, that's what he'd thought.

Despite the warm greetings, the meeting took a track similar to that of the day before almost immediately.

"If the South Koreans go ahead with their drills, the North will retaliate," the General said through the translator. Alfred was actually surprised. The General was so forward about it. It was almost the first thing he said, and it didn't leave much room to negotiate. How was any sort of peace supposed to be achieved when the North's top military man had that sort of attitude?

Mr. Richardson was trying to dissuade the General from that route. "I need you to be statesmen," he said, addressing the North Korean delegation as a whole. "Don't retaliate. We need to build some trust here."

"We will not allow the South to go on with such provocations unchecked," one of the other North Korean officials said through the translator. "We need the world to know that we are not the provokers. We will respond if this goes on."

How does responding let the world know that you are not the provokers? Alfred wondered to himself. He guessed that maybe from the North Koreans' point of view, it was a cause-and-effect case where the South was the cause and the North was the effect, but to the rest of the world, the North was the cause because of what they'd supposedly done to the Cheonan, and South Korea's drills were the effect. The North Koreans were sadly out-voted.

After some more urging the North Koreans to hold back (What more could he do really? There was no real way to guarantee that fighting wouldn't break out.), Mr. Richardson switched tactics. If the North Koreans couldn't be dissuaded, the Americans could at least offer something to try and make a bad situation marginally better. The proposed hotline between North and South that had been discussed in yesterday's meeting was brought up once again, with similar results. While the North Koreans seemed interested, they didn't ultimately accept the offer. Alfred thought they probably couldn't. After all, it seemed like the Dear Leader had the finally call on just about everything here. Unless they were going to get a meeting with him during their time here, they probably weren't going to get a straight answer.

"I will study these," was all the General had to say on Mr. Richardson's proposals. Disappointing, but better than an outright 'no.'

A few minutes later, the meeting dissolved. Mr. Richardson was visibly disappointed. This had been their big chance, but tensions didn't seem any closer to being eased. Alfred was suddenly very eager to ask North if he'd been able to arrange for any sort of transportation out of the country. If nothing else, Alfred wanted to make sure the rest of the American delegation got to safety.

The group stepped out into the lobby to find Mr. Blitzer and the two guides waiting for them. A few minutes later, North rejoined them, and the group was once again whisked away for lunch at one of Pyongyang's restaurants.

Upon stepping inside, Alfred was not only surprised to see other people eating (everything about Pyongyang seemed to be showcase after all, so why not the restaurants?), but to see non-Asian people there as well. Could it be that this was just a popular place for tour guides to take their groups?

The group was led to a cluster of tables against the wall. Kang Dae and the drivers sat together, and North seemed to be ready to join them, but Alfred caught his arm before he could sit. "We need to talk."

"I couldn't control what happened at that meeting," North said, already moving to defend himself.

"I know," Alfred said, pulling the other to sit with him farther down the table. "But we're gonna talk anyway."

After a few minutes of looking at the menu and waiting for the waitress to finish taking their orders, Alfred got down to business. Not wanting the others to hear, he leaned in towards North, his voice low. "Were you able to arrange any transportation?"

The question was met with North's usual frown. "I said I would check. I didn't say I was arranging any."

"Well, did you check?" Alfred insisted. "You've gotta work with me here."

"I checked," North said. Alfred waited. North didn't go on.

"…And?" Alfred prompted after a pause. It was like North was still going out of his way to make things difficult!

"I can arrange for four of you to leave," North answered, keeping his voice low.

Alfred's heart dropped.

"Just four?" he asked in disbelief. He was sure North would be able to do better than that if he was able to do anything! "Why just four?"

"The only vehicle I can get for you can hold four people plus a driver," North replied pausing as the waitress brought them their drinks. When she was gone, he continued. "And I still haven't been able to arrange for you to actually cross."

"Why not?" Alfred pressed.

North let out an annoyed puff of air. "Well, you only asked me last night, for one. Be patient. Don't you leave tomorrow night by plane anyway?"

"Well…" Alfred had been so caught up in the day-to-day events that he'd nearly forgotten. No wonder North seemed so bothered. He probably didn't see t he point of arranging this stuff if the Americans were going to leave in a day anyway. Alfred didn't want to push the Korean too much. He had a feeling that if he started to get on North's nerves, the Korean might stop trying altogether. And yet, this needed to get done in case something happened and the airport was shut down. "Yes, but...if something happens before then, I want to know that my people are safe. When do you think you'll know?"

"Maybe tomorrow," North answered flatly. "Maybe."

"That's not very helpful."

North huffed. "Do you want to arrange it yourself? Good luck."

"No—look, I'm sorry I'm bothering you so much about it, okay," Alfred sighed. "I just want to make sure they get to safety even if I can't. Are you sure you can only manage four?"

"Unless I can find someone with enough clearance and a bigger vehicle, yes."

"Could you maybe…check a second time?" Alfred tried to smile. This was so hard. He felt like he was practically begging—North Korea of all people. Being completely at the other's mercy in a situation like this wasn't fun at all. North must be enjoying it, he thought.

"After I make sure you can cross in the first place…maybe," North said again, being unhelpful as ever. "You could always make two trips."

"Is that two trips to the DMZ or two trips to freaking China?"

"I have yet to figure that out."

Alfred let out another sigh. "Well, thanks, I guess," he mumbled.

After that, the two of them sat in silence until the waitress returned with their food. Alfred had to wonder about his order. Despite having a rudimentary knowledge of Korean, he still ordered based on the pictures when he went to restaurants with Yong Soo. The situation had been the same today. When the food arrived, what he'd ordered turned out to be a stew of mostly vegetables with the occasional piece of tofu. The waitress finished laying out the side dishes, asked them if they needed anything else, then left.

Alfred glanced at what North had ordered and noted that it didn't look quite like anything he'd ever seen Yong Soo get when they went out. "What's that?" he asked, leaning forward to get a better look. "It doesn't look like anything I've seen at restaurants with Yong Soo."

"It's called onban," North replied, taking his chopsticks and beginning to stir what looked like another kind of stew. "It has rice, noodles, mushrooms, bean pancake, egg, and chicken in it. You haven't seen South eat it before because it is a North Korean creation he would have been too stupid to mastermind."

Alfred frowned at the slight against Yong Soo, but held his tongue. North might actually be making an effort to have a conversation with him here.

The Korean glanced at what Alfred had ordered. "Yours is called doenjang jjigae. Made with bean paste, vegetables, and tofu."

Alfred scooped up a spoonful of broth and vegetables, blowing on it softly to cool it before taking a sip. He mulled over the taste for a moment before deciding he liked it.

"It's good. Is this one a North Korea exclusive?"

"No. It's eaten all over Korea."

"Are there any more North Korea dishes I should know about?" If anything, Alfred figured getting North to talk about something he was proud of was a way to get on his good side.

And just as he thought, North seemed to jump to the opportunity, his eyes lighting up as he sat a little straighter. "There's Pyongyang cold noodles, Pyongyang dumplings, nakji samgyeopsal bokum—"

"Whoa, slow down, you lost me at that last one," Alfred broke in. "Tell me about that one…"

With the meal finished and North seemingly in a much better mood, the group set out again for the state-sanctioned afternoon of sightseeing.

Once again, the minivans were the only cars on the road. The landscape seemed chill and brittle, the fields and mountainsides turned gray and white by the winter. The sky was clear and crisp and the few clouds floating by seemed like frozen feathers in the icy air. Except for each other, they were alone.

Their first stop was an apple orchard. Had it been summer, Alfred was sure the trees would have been a very impressive sight, with sprawling green branches and the beginnings of fruit that would grow into apples. But as far as the eye could see, the trees stood gray and bare in the winter air. Today, with the snow hanging on the trees' brittle branches, the whole thing just seemed kind of sad.

The group was told a brief history of the orchard. The first trees had been planted years ago in more prosperous times and had been providing food for the people and the military ever since. Alfred had to wonder how much of it actually went to the people, but he didn't ask, sure the guides would dodge the question anyway.

There wasn't much to see of the orchard itself, so the group was led farther down the road to a lonely little cottage.

North stepped forward to knock on the door himself. After a moment of waiting, an elderly woman opened the door a crack. She looked North over for a moment before a smile spread across her face, and she pulled him forward into a hug, babbling excitedly in Korean. Alfred held back a chuckle, amused by the embarrassed expression that had painted itself across North's face.

They were invited inside, and the delegation graciously stepped into the comfortable heat of the cottage. The cottage was inhabited by the elderly woman and her family, which included her children and grandchildren. The sprawling orchard nearby had once been inspected by the Dear Leader, who had stopped by to visit the cottage as well. Spotless portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il hung on the wall in the living room, testament to the home's history.

While Mr. Blitzer and the other members of the delegation asked the old woman about her home and life, a little boy toddled out of one of the other rooms and waved cutely, chirping, "Annyeong! Annyeong!" at each person he passed.

"Annyeong!" Ms. Dillingham cooed, waving back at the boy. She turned to Ki Young, pulling something from her coat pocket. "Can I take a picture?"

Ki Young, who had seemed to be the stricter of the guides about pictures in the past, simply made a gesture inviting her to go ahead.

After a few pictures, the boy became interested in the camera and pointed at it. After a quick lesson from Ms. Dillingham, he was running around the room, taking pictures of his grandmother and the American delegates.

While everyone else was distracted, Alfred turned to North. "So, is that lady like your grandma or something?" he teased, throwing his arm around the Korean and smiling widely as the grandson toddled up to them for a picture.

North refrained from pushing the American off only until the boy had passed so as not to cause a scene, but as soon as he was gone, he pushed Alfred off.

"Of course not," North huffed, straightening out his uniform peevishly. "I was with Mr. Kim when he visited this house. She recognized me. That's all."

"What did she say to you? She looked awfully happy."

"Oh. She was just going on about how I hadn't changed."

"…How long ago was this?"

North paused for a moment. "Maybe ten years?"

"Does she know who you are?"

"Yes. She was told."

"And everyone's okay with that?"

"This house is isolated enough. They won't tell."

"Hm," Alfred hummed, a little unsure of what to make of the situation. The cottage was basic, but more than what the majority of North Koreans got, he imagined. This family was probably well-off due to the fact that a simple visit from their leader had made their house almost sacred. As long as they didn't upset the state, they would probably be well-off for a long time. Really, they had no reason to tell anyone North's true identity. Still, it didn't seem fair. Most of the country didn't get to live like this.

After saying their goodbyes, the American delegation was ushered out and back to the minivans. From there, they were driven back to the hotel for some free time.

"You're free to do anything you want on the hotel grounds," Kang Dae told them before they could step out of the van. "Meet in the banquet hall at 6:00. You'll be having dinner with the Vice Foreign Minister."

Kang Dae paused, shooting a pointed look at Mr. Blitzer, who was seated next to Alfred, his camera cradled in his lap. "Off the record," Kang Dae added before dismissing them.

Alfred stepped out of the van and snagged North by the arm as soon as he saw him. "Hey. Will you be around later?"

"Yes. I'll be here at dinner."

"What about right now?"

"…I have some things to do."

"Is one of those things…checking up on our transportation situation by any chance?"

North frowned, seemingly annoyed again. "I will get to it."

"Do you promise?"

North sighed. "Yes. I promise. I will do it tonight."

"Okay…thank you," Alfred said, genuinely thankful that North was doing this for them. As far as he knew, Kang Dae hadn't done anything. "I know it must be weird. I mean…we're not supposed to like each other or help each other. So…thank you."

North simply waved a dismissive hand at him. "It's fine. I wouldn't want to cause an international incident by refusing to help you."

Well…Alfred wasn't sure if that was supposed to be a joke or if the Korean was dead serious. It was hard to tell, as always. Alfred just smiled and gave the Korean an encouraging pat on the shoulder. "Haha, well, either way, I'm thankful. See you tonight?"

"Yes. Tonight…"

As it turned out, dinner with the Vice Foreign Minister was the least tense event of their trip so far. The Minister was extremely amiable, spoke English well, and had a way of putting the rest of the group at ease. Mr. Namkung especially seemed to take warmly to him. If the fact that the Korean Peninsula was at the brink of war hadn't been tugging at everyone's minds, it might have even been an exceptional night.

After dinner and before Alfred could return to his room, Mr. Richardson caught him and pulled him aside. "Did Mr. Im say anything to you about transportation today?"

"He said he's working on it," Alfred responded. "He said he can arrange for four people at the moment."

"Four?" Mr. Richardson echoed in disbelief. "Just four?"

"Yeah. He said we could make two trips?"

"Is he planning on having us cross at the DMZ?"

"He doesn't know yet."

That thought seemed to make Mr. Richardson very anxious. "I hope he knows what he's doing. We meet with North Korea's vice president tomorrow, but I'm not sure what all we can do at this point. The South Korean exercises start soon. Hopefully we can just leave by plane as planned before then. Go get some sleep."

With those words weighing on his mind, Alfred dragged himself back to his room for the night.


AN:

- A lot of homes in North Korea don't have electricity. The one the group visits is very lucky.

- Onban - literally means "warm meal" and resembles a Korean meal (soup, rice, sides) all combined into one.

- Doenjang jjigae - soybean paste soup, the ingredients can vary by season and location, but it usually includes tofu or seafood

- nakji samgyeopsal bokum - I'm not 100% sure on this one so forgive me if I'm wrong - cuts of squid and pork simmered in a salty, spicy sauce and served alongside vegetables

- Pyongyang is also known for it's mul naengmyeon - cold buckwheat noodles, but it's mostly a summer dish - and its Pyongyang dumplings, which as far as I can tell are just pork dumplings, maybe with some ingredients a little more unique to North Korea

-"Annyeong" - "hello"