As an alarm sounded in my ear, I awoke with a start. I felt myself trembling; I was in a half-dark room in a strange country. After a moment of confusion, I remembered: I am on the 40th floor of the international tourist hotel in Pyongyang, the capital of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The noise that shook my sleep was not an American bomb or a missile test taking place under the hotel—it was the telephone. I had not noticed earlier that my room contained a heavy, old-fashioned telephone, the kind with terrifyingly loud clanging bells. I looked at the clock. It was 6:15 in the morning; outside the window I could see the first rays of the sun peeking through. Who would be calling me at this hour, and why?
I picked up the phone with some apprehension. On the other end of the line came a shrill voice with the icy tone of someone accustomed to giving orders.
“It’s 6:15, dear sir.”
“Yes, I see that.” As far as I can recall, I did not ask for a wake-up call, certainly not at the crack of dawn. I am pretty sure that at this ghastly hour, even the little Korean boy with his finger near the nuclear button is still asleep in bed—probably not too far from where I am.
“According to the plan, the honorable gentleman is to get up at six o’clock.”
“Yes…” I stammered.
The voice continued: “Dear sir, there is a scheduled plan, please follow it.”
I remember now. Yesterday, right before we parted, exhausted and tense, John, my private guide (or my private warden, it felt like), handed me a sheet of paper printed with words in poorly-typed English. I didn’t really have time to look at it. Now I took it out to study it better and saw what the disturbing call was about. At the top of the page was the date of the first day of the tour, in the Juche year 105. That is, 105 years since the birth (in 1912) of the eternal leader—Kim Il-sung—whose omnipresent picture is hanging on the wall in my room.
The program stated as follows:
6:00 Wake-up and coordinated preparation
6:45 Continental breakfast in the hotel restaurant
7:15 Preparing for the day of travel
7:30 Boarding the bus together
8:00 Visit to the Tower of Friendship between China and Korea.
The printed schedule continued on and on in precise detail describing the day’s agenda.
I look around the room quickly. It is pleasant and simple, looking very much like a typical, but slightly outdated, Western hotel.
I turn east toward a huge window that faces the river. The city below me is beginning to awaken. I wrap myself in my tallis and tefillin and daven Shacharis. I am almost certain that no one has ever said the words of Shema Yisrael in this dark atheist state before.
I finish and start to prepare my things for the day. Below, along the river’s edge, I see residential towers, and bicycles reflecting in the sunlight. I hear loud voices and music emanating from loudspeakers, spewing what I believe is nationalist propaganda. There are only a few cars; some of the loudspeakers are mounted on them.
I turn away from the window and go into the hallway. Silence greets me. There is not a living soul. I go into the elevator and look for the button that will take me downstairs. As I am about to press the number five, I suddenly pause and wonder: How did the voice on the phone know that I was still asleep at 6:15? I try to convince myself that it was just a courtesy call to make sure I was ready, and not that someone was watching me sleep and decided to do something to get me moving. I have to believe that I am not being watched so invasively, or else I cannot survive here.