The small conference room was impeccably clean; the oval table with seats for half a dozen shone, the windows showing the enormous playing-field below us where spotless and the smartly off-white hairs of broadloom carpet looked as if though no-one had violated them with shoes before we’d entered. It smelled like newly unwrapped plastic toys.
My and my companions made some small talk, but most of our jocular remarks fell flat as we were all equally nervous; it’s not every day that you meet a dictator, let alone one that could — and probably would — have you shot if you offended him, foreign representative or not. I wanted to say that, as a joke, but somehow I couldn’t find a way of cushioning the truth of the assessment. Besides, I’m certain there were hidden microphones and cameras monitoring us, and such a remark may well have offended the Dear Leader.
As John and Mats kept on trying to fend off their apprehension with random remarks on the weather, the stock market and the situation in Ireland, I turned my gaze to the window once more. It was a panorama window, spanning the entire wall to my left, all the way to the door through which the Dear Leader was expected to enter any minute, followed by his smiling aides. The edges of the window were visibly rounded, a shape that was echoed throughout the design of the stadium. The enormous arena was all indoors, but football-field was real grass, I had been told. The guide had said that the stadium could house in excess of one hundred thousand spectators, the pride in the achievement apparent in her voice. And yet, I suspected it had never been host neither to a single game of soccer, nor a decathlon or any other game. The arena carried the same artificial plastic scent that the VIP room we currently occupied, not even a hint of earth and grass.
I stretched in my seat, it was not a very comfortable chair. In tune with the rest of the décor, this too was rounded: a hollowed out egg half, covered in a coarse woven fabric in yellow-chartreuse, standing on a single trumpet shaped leg. It struck me that the chair and the entire arena seemed to mimic design fashions abandoned in the West in the Sixties or Seventies, but apparently they were in vogue here. It reminded me of the future, as it was imagined in the early James Bond movies.
Now, I have the bad habit of leaning back too far in my chair, often balancing on the back two legs. This proved fatal, since the rounded support was already unsteady on the springy hairs of the carpet, and I fell backwards spectacularly, just as Matt rose to look out the window and announce that he could see the North Korea leader approaching now.
Panic! What was the dictator to do, when he found one of his guests sprawling on his back? I tried to get up, but chair had lodged itself in the narrow space between the wall and the table, and I was myself propped up against the back wall. Thankfully, John quickly reach with his hand, as Mats stepped up to greet the group, and with his help, and not a second glance from the North Koreans, we managed to get me standing and right the chair, in time to accept the Dear Leader’s hand, stretch out in greeting.
After formal introductions, we were seated, Kim Jong Il to my right, at the head of the table, his aides to his right. My pulse was still beating at a very high rate after the embarrassing fall, and I don’t remember much of the meeting itself. This may in part be because the meeting itself quickly detoured into the absurd; the Dictator soon produced a map book where he had marked with red dots and scrawled dates, what he communicated in his broken English to be volcano eruptions of the recent year. His accent was very heavy and his speech confused, to my ears at least, but it seemed that he wanted our opinion on a theory of his, that the volcanic activity across the globe was somehow connected. Especially a series of eruptions in the Philippines or Indonesia (I can’t remember which) and the volcanic event in Iceland last summer, the one that shut down the air traffic throughout Europe for several weeks, seemed to have peaked his interest. This not being my area of expertise at all, I could only nod and smile appreciatively at what I hoped to be the appropriate moments, while the hypocrisy of the whole farcical situation ground at the core of my being.
The meeting was soon over, but whether it was a success or not I shall never know. As we said our goodbyes to the Dear Leader, we were all glad to leave the arena for our hotel, escorted every step of the way by our North Korean hosts.
In the city of my birth, there is a speakers’ corner. In the dozen or so years since it was inaugurated, I don’t think I’ve seen it used even once.