Monthly Archives: November 2019


Broadcasting I enjoy maybe even more than writing. It’s more spontaneous – especially when live – and much quicker. But I don’t get it regularly, being as it’s event-driven. Sudden rushes of media focus on Korea alternate with weeks on end when no one calls.

I’d be happy to broadcast more – and am well equipped to do so, at least for radio. With an ISDN line and a Codec at home – the latter courtesy of BBC World Service – I can offer rapid response to Korean events – and in studio quality sound! TV is fine too, if you book a studio in Leeds; I need an hour’s notice. KBS even sent a crew one time.

I think I’m good at this. Hopefully well-informed on my subject, I also try to be lively. Recently I likened George Bush to Britney Spears. (He calls North Korea an evil axis, but says he’s ready to talk; she abjures premarital sex, yet is raunch incarnate.) I can also rein in such tabloid tendencies, and explain complex issues simply yet in depth. If there’s a reporter in Seoul for the actualite, a good double-act is for me to add analysis.

The first time the BBC ever called me up about Korea was in 1972. So I have a long track record, and a wealth of experience. Over the years I must have done hundreds of broadcasts. The vast majority are standard two-way interviews; but I’m just as happy with panel discussions, or to read a comment down the line (Deutsche Welle used to do this). Anything from two minutes to two hours (dream on) is fine. On topics, I tend to be typecast as North Korea/politics – but please note I also do South Korea/business.

Naturally, the BBC – especially World Service – is my mainstay. The folks at Bush (no relation) are great to work with, and I cherish longstanding ties with East Asia Today, The World Today, World Update, Newshour, et al. This tends to be down the line; but for South Korea’s last presidential election, EAT had me live in the studio to comment on the results as they came in. Similarly, their TV colleagues at BBC World put me at White City all day when Kim met Kim for the June 2000 north-south summit. Four successive hourly news bulletins, if I recall. The trick is to vary it – and that day, keep a dry eye. (Dispassionate expert be blowed. I cried buckets – but off-camera. I’m a pro.)

Less often am I heard at home. Mainly Radio 4 – The World Tonight, Today, et al – but also Radio 5 Live, regional BBC (Scotland and Wales), and commercial stations. TV is rarer, partly because the mad Birtist internal market makes it impossibly expensive for the BBC to hire its own regional studios – thus reinforcing endemic metropolitan bias. NB, producers! With notice and a train fare, I’m glad to come to London. But I’ve been on Newsnight, Business Breakfast (the dawn shift), and News 24 (the wee hours). Besides the Beeb, I’ve also done TV for Bloomberg, CNBC, Arte, and various one-offs.

Beyond the UK, I’ve worked regularly for Deutsche Welle and their French, Dutch and Austrian equivalents, though less often lately (cutbacks, in some cases). Others include Switzerland (in French, mon dieu!), the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand: and even Radio Vatican – from my aunt’s living room near York, as that’s where I chanced to be. Getting a mobile phone, before everyone did, was specifically for broadcasters; so if I were out on a sunny day walking the wuthering heights round Haworth, I wouldn’t miss that call from Vienna booking an interview for later. A true example. This is the life.

Chapter 15

If I was having my share of problems in the late spring, early summer in Pyongyang, I was not the only one having a hard time of it in North Korea. With less than a third of the two-hundred-day battle completed, rumours were rife that the populace was already exhausted. I heard that in the universities lecturers were going into their classrooms, setting the students some work to get on with, and retiring elsewhere to sleep, an example soon followed by their unsupervised students. It was proving impossible for people to teach and learn effectively when all their spare time was taken up with lending a hand on the construction sites, attending rallies, and other patriotic chores.

At the end of April, a party of diplomats was taken on a conducted tour of the sites of the Angol Sports Village and adjacent Kwangbok Street, another major building project scheduled to comprise 25,000 high-rise apartment dwellings, a new Students’ and Children’s Palace, and a new venue for the Pyongyang Circus. A Russian diplomat who went on the excursion was quite distressed by what he saw. “You should have seen the state of the workers, Andrew,” he said to me. “You could see the pain in their eyes.”

I was prompted by his remarks to take a walk out there one Sunday afternoon to take a look for myself. My impression was that they were pretty weary, but not as bad as he had described. It was the same with the workers who were building the nearby bridge. They were clearly having an arduous time of it, but I did not actually see pain in their eyes. What I most often discerned in their eyes in fact was amusement at seeing me. Most of the workforce in Pyongyang’s construction sites had been imported from the provinces – quite a few of them were soldiers. In the rural areas foreigners are never seen. By this time they had grown used to seeing parties of distinguished foreign guests coming round on guided tours of inspection. A solitary, scruffy European wandering in their midst was a different matter entirely. I was evidently a greater source of amusement to them than the itinerant brass bands who were sent out in identical work clothes to the builders to provide live on-site entertainment and raise morale. If the builders still derived any pleasure from their performances, it certainly did not show. On the other hand, their faces invariably broke into smiles when they became aware of my presence.

It soon became apparent to me that what was keeping the workers from the point of collapse was that, although they were obliged to spend long hours on the construction site, for much of the time they would be squatting on their haunches doing nothing due to a lack of organisational efficiency, a dearth of essential tools like picks, shovels and wheelbarrows, or a combination of the two. When they were in motion, activity tended to be intense. It was common to see relays of wheelbarrow pushers emptying their loads of gravel into the antiquated cement mixers, turning round, and literally running back for more.

I have to say also that the young workers in the factory next door seemed to be bearing up well and remained cheerful as ever. It may be that as their jobs were in a light industry complex they usually had less strenuous work to do, although often parties of them would be loaded onto lorries at eight in the morning and carted off to lend a hand on the construction sites.

I think that my Russian friend over-dramatised the extent of the people’s suffering. Or it may be me who underestimated it. What remains beyond dispute is that there can be no justification except in times of war or natural catastrophe for asking people on a low protein diet to work twelve hours a day, seven days a week, week in week out for more than half a year; particularly when their energies are being squandered on prestige projects like the Angol Sports Village, that are quite inappropriate to the country’s level of development and will hardly ever be used.

I remember one afternoon around this time when I was at the publishing house revising the Pyongyang Times. Whenever there was a protracted lull in our conversation, while I concentrated on making my revisions, the young translator who was with me kept nodding off involuntarily. He apologised for this and I told him it was only to be expected as people were having to work far too hard at the moment. “You do not understand,” he told me. “We Koreans do not mind because it is for the good of the country. We know we have to make sacrifices to make our economy strong to achieve the reunification of the country.” I assume he was still living the dream that one day the oppressed people South will see how well the lucky ones in the North are living, and rise up against the US imperialists and the fascist puppet clique. “We have had other campaigns before,” he announced proudly. “There was the seventy-day campaign and the hundred-day campaign.”

I pointed out that there is a big difference between a one-hundred-day campaign and a two-hundred-day campaign. He switched his tack and asked me if I had seen the new 150,000 capacity Runguado Stadium that was nearing completion on an islet in the Taedong River. “Is it not impressive?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said. “It is half as big again as Wembley.” I felt like adding that they already have the 100,000 capacity Kim Il Sung Stadium, that apart from staging the opening and closing ceremonies of the 13th Festival of Youth and Students they will have no real use for the new one, and that it is an obscene waste of money, manpower and materials, but his sincerity was touching and I did not have the heart. I returned my attention to my revising and he duly drifted off into contented slumber again.

It used to amaze me how many of these translators, who had access to foreign publications and must have had a pretty shrewd idea that economically South Korea is ahead of the North, could not come to terms with the fact that if the South Koreans ever do rise up, it will not be out of envy for the prosperity of the North. And what hopes they pin on reunification! One of my translators once said to me, “I do not have a car at the moment. But when my country is reunified, then I will drive a Jaguar.” This from a Korean who was so well informed that he knew about Jaguars, a species of car not found in North Korea. I later learned that the better informed Koreans are currently fed the line at party gatherings that South Korea is doing quite well economically, but only with light industry. Its prosperity is therefore fragile because it does not have a heavy industrial base and is dependent on other countries for primary manufactured products, steel, cement et cetera, and in any case much of the industry is owned by foreign nationals. The line is that there are only comprador capitalists in South Korea. If you told these people about the likes of Ssangyong Cement and the Daewoo and Hyundai Shipyards, or that the Seoul stock exchange is closed to foreign investors specifically to retain the ownership of South Korean industry in Korean hands, the chances are they would not believe you.

Now that I was able to walk about freely again without fear of frostbite, venturing further on my excursions, and spending more time socialising in the hotels, I was becoming aware of new developments in Pyongyang. While the bulk of the population were toiling away at their two-hundred-day patriotic battle in exchange for subsistence rations, there were indications of growing affluence and consumerism in some quarters. Wherever I went, I seemed to discover new dollar shops. When I came to Pyongyang I doubt if there were more than ten of them in the whole city. The number had more than doubled by the time I left. These shops are not large affairs. The two largest, the Pyongyang Shop and the Rakwon Shop, each have the floor space of a provincial city Woolworth’s. The others have an equivalent floor space of a typical High Street Rumbelow’s or Dolcis. The smaller dollar shops are easily distinguishable from ordinary shops because they have net curtains in the windows to conceal their contents from casual passers-by. There had been no dramatic influx of foreigners to account for the sudden mushrooming of dollar shops. Therefore it is safe to say that they were there because more Koreans have more red won to spend. Michael once told me that when he arrived in March 1987, there were still more foreigners than locals patronising the dollar shops. This had been reversed by the time I arrived. By the time I left, there were more than twice as many dollar shops, usually full of people, nearly all of them local. To an extent the crowded shops could be misleading. Not all the Koreans were in there making purchases. They love to stand and marvel at all the exotic treasures from the mythical world outside, watches and canned meat, Japanese TV sets and tape recorders, potato crisps and jewellery, bottles of whisky and bright plastic buckets – the shops tend towards the eclectic in their range of merchandise. However, if the shops were congested with spectators, there were still plenty of people buying. Some of the shoppers are repatriates from Japan who have brought their savings. There are others who have relatives living in Japan or in other overseas countries who send them gifts of money. There are Koreans who have been sent abroad on business, and brought back hard currency. There are some, like taxi drivers or hotel employees, whose line of business brings them into contact with red won. There are Korean restaurants, the famous dog meat restaurant for example, where the prices are the same in red money as in ordinary money. If a foreigner is taken to the restaurant by his guide and pays in red won, it is a racing certainty that the waitress will pocket the red won and substitute her own ordinary won for the price of the meal. Or, if she is not in a position to do this, that her manager will. I know that the girls in the Rakwon Shop are paid in red won. An interpreter was paying court to one of them and explained that this was the reason why. It may be that as Japan becomes more prosperous the Koreans living there are becoming more generous in their donations to their relatives in the homeland, but I doubt if this alone would account for the increased amount of red won in circulation, which there must be or else the shops would not be there. It is not implausible that at a time of economic crisis, the loyalty of high officials is being secured by permitting them a more luxurious lifestyle. Another indication of rising affluence for a small select minority was the increase in the number of cars on the roads.

It is now thirty-five years since the end of the war. Yet in 1988, the people were being asked to make possibly greater efforts and self-sacrifices than in the desperate days of post-war reconstruction. I was assured by old Korean hands, people from the socialist countries who had learned Korean and studied at Kim Il Sung University ten or twenty years ago and who have been coming back ever since, most of them in diplomatic capacities, that although the people now have better clothes to wear and consumer items like black-and-white TV sets, in other respects, e.g. food supply, their living standards have declined. While the majority endure their selfless toil in blissful ignorance that any other way of life than theirs is possible, there are more and more in Pyongyang who do realise that there is another world. In the past few years since the Koryo has been built and the door pushed open a fraction, more people have been exposed to the influences of the outside world. People have glimpsed the toys that the rest of the world plays with and they want them too. For most of the population the war and the Japanese occupation, no matter how often the newsreels from those eras are shown on the TV screens, are not memories but history. They have never experienced deprivation and they grow weary of austerity. It should not be surprising then that some people should have become dissatisfied, particularly when they see that for the elite everything is possible while they have nothing.

Nevertheless I was very surprised at the rumours of deviance and corruption that were circulating in Pyongyang in the spring of 1988. I heard of a diplomat’s wife who had her purse snatched while out shopping. A diplomat told me that he came out of the Koryo one night and found a Korean sitting in his car. There was a smell of what he took to be cannabis. The man was in such a state that he did not seem aware of what was happening to him, even when the hotel’s security men were taking him into custody. There was a spate of slashed tyres and other acts of vandalism against cars parked outside the Changgwangsan Hotel. A hotel guest was approached by the manager and asked if his bill could be automatically reimbursed by his company when he got home, and if so, would he like to pay more than the standard tariff and split the difference with the manager. Incidents such as these were unheard of six months previously.

Meanwhile more and more of the interpreters, guides and drivers were scrounging more and more blatantly for cigarettes, alcohol and other gifts. The scroungers were still a minority but they were an expanding minority, and becoming more and more demanding. The standard line when I arrived was, “I once interpreted for a man from your country. He was a very kind man. When he left he bought me a bottle of brandy and two hundred cigarettes.” Now many of the guides and interpreters were constantly asking foreigners for things outright from the day they arrived. Some foreigners described the continual harassment as a nightmare. False expectations may have been aroused by those who had dealings with Japanese businessmen come to explore joint venture opportunities. The Japanese have taken over from the Americans as the world’s plutocrats and they tended to lavish gifts and hospitality on their guides and interpreters, thus generating expectations that less wealthy visitors could not meet.

I am not suggesting that Pyongyang is about to degenerate into a hotbed of crime like New York or a nation of hustlers like Morocco, but in 1988 the cracks in the strict Juche code of morality were visible.

Fortunately the disease did not spread to the staff at the Ansan Chodasso. There our friendly and efficient handyman typified the norm. Whenever I had to call upon him to mend my air conditioner or put mosquito nets up at my windows, it was always necessary to go through an elaborate pantomime of how offended I would be if he did not accept in order to press a few cigarettes on him. Old hands assured me that ten years ago all Koreans were like that.

It was shortly after midnight, a few minutes into Thursday, May 5th, when I boarded the night train to Kaesong. I had been in Korea for eight and a half months and, apart from my holiday to Hong Kong, this was the first opportunity I had had to leave the confines of Pyongyang.

A reasonable case can be argued that North Korea’s transport regulations which forbid anyone to make a journey within the country without obtaining a warrant from the local People’s Committee is less of a gross infringement on personal liberty than a fair and rational means of allocating scarce transport resources. I never saw a passenger train in Korea that did not look pretty full. Some of the girls who worked at the Ansan Chodasso came from outside Pyongyang. Every year they enjoyed a week’s holiday at home for which they were issued with travel permits and rail tickets. I have no doubt that in the event of one of their parents falling seriously ill or some comparable family crisis, hasty arrangements would have been made for them to make another visit. But for my part I never again want to spend time in a country where it is not possible to put your hand in your pocket and go wherever you want, whenever you want.

It should be added that restrictions on travel and communication are a very effective means of social control. Disgruntled elements in Pyongyang cannot share their disgruntlement with disgruntled elements in Wonsan or Chongjin, or discuss ways to translate their disgruntlement into political action, if it is physically impossible for them to make contact with each other. Even if somebody has a car, and there are very few of those in private hands, permits are required to drive outside specified confines and there are security checkpoints on all roads.

As I have said, North Korean trains tend to be full. The 12.15 am to Kaesong was not exception. Every carriage was packed except for the one luxury sleeping car at the rear of the train which had been laid on specially for the comfort of us foreigners and our interpreters. When Michael had taken the train to Kaesong the year before, he and his two interpreters had had a whole carriage to themselves. It is standard practice for interpreters to escort foreigners in pairs, I expect so that each can monitor the other’s behaviour. On my trip to Kaesong, the carriage was relatively crowded. There was a lady from the Philippines who had been brought over by the United Nations Development Project to advise the Koreans on mushroom cultivation. And there was our party from the Ansan Chodasso, consisting of myself, Holmer, Astrid and their daughter Linda. We just had two interpreters between all of us, one English speaking, the other a German specialist who had a fair command of English. The English-speaking interpreter was a gentleman called Kim U No who had been living at the Ansan Chodasso as resident interpreter since January. So most of us already knew and liked one another, there was hardly any language barrier, and so we made quite a jolly little party. We foreigners were all dying to get away from Pyongyang for a few days. Our Korean friends who seldom in their lives have the opportunity to go anywhere were delighted to be accompanying us.

The privilege of foreigners was not confined to the provision of a special sleeping car. It was only as a privilege that Linda was being allowed to travel at all, because at that time there was a ban on travel for all people under the age of twenty-five. Such a prohibition would cause a public outcry in most countries. In totalitarian North Korea people accept it, and in fairness, it was another restriction on personal freedom that had some justification. There had at that time been an outbreak of cases of scarlet fever in the country. The authorities were anxious to prevent an epidemic. They could not afford the drugs to treat the disease. They did not want people having to stay at home to care for sick children or young adults having to miss work through illness, particularly in the midst of a two-hundred-day campaign. Was this ban a violation of personal rights or sound and sensible policy on the part of a struggling third world country? That it could be construed as anything but the latter did not enter the mind of the person who told me, who would not otherwise have said.

Travel is not express in North Korea. It is only 140 kilometres from Pyongyang, yet the journey takes nearly six hours. Even allowing for the many stops this is slow going. We arrived at Kaesong at six in the morning. At the station a minibus was waiting to convey us to the hotel.

Kaesong is a lovely ancient city. In the middle ages it was the country’s capital. It is actually below the 38th parallel, a northern gain from the war. Eastwards it was the South which gained territory. Because of its geographical situation, Kaesong escaped lightly from the bombing compared to the rest of the country. Consequently Kaesong and its environs contain a large number of historic buildings and monuments that are intact, and there are many old houses in the traditional Korean style, tiled whitewashed cottages like the ones that have been built in Pyongyang, but these older dwellings showed more diversity in design and some were distinguished by attractive doors and window frames. Holmer is of course an authority on Korea and had been to Kaesong on several previous occasions when interpreting for East German delegations. On the way to the hotel he started to point out all the sights to us. “Look, there’s a pagoda from the Koryo period, that pavilion over there dates from the Li dynasty.” I joined in, pointing to a mural portrait of the president on an official building and saying, “And there’s an early Kim dynasty mural.” Personally I thought this was quite a witty remark but it was received with a resounding silence.

However, it had obviously been heard and understood. Later that afternoon we visited the site of an ancient palace. There was little left to see except the foundation stones. Kim U No began to explain how the palace had been destroyed by the Yankee bombing until Holmer corrected him, informing him that it had in fact been destroyed in a fire several hundred years ago. In the surrounding fields Holmer and Astrid, with Linda’s assistance, were finding shards of ancient celadon pottery. This seemed like a good game so I decided to search too. I found a broken saucer and brought it to Holmer for inspection. “That is no good,” he said. “That was made recently. Throw it away. Anyone can see that’s an early Kim.”

The hotel at Kaesong was pleasant but basic. It was conceived as nothing more than a base for sightseeing. There was not even a proper bar, although it did have a counter where you could buy a can of beer or a bottle of Russian champagne. In true North Korean style this counter was always open when we came down for breakfast at eight in the morning, and closed when we came down for dinner in the evening.

The first stop on our itinerary was Panmunjon inside the 4,000 metre demilitarised zone, divided in the middle by a line of concrete markers right across the country to denote the border between North and South. Panmunjon is the place where the armistice that ended the Korean War was signed in July 1953. A short drive from there we came to the hut that straddles the demarcation line where the two sides from time to time engage in futile dialogue. Beside the hut, in one of those ludicrous vignettes that sum up the hopelessness of the human race, North Korean human beings in military uniform stand to attention on one side of the line while American human beings in a different colour uniform do the same thing a few feet away when they are not busy taking lots of photographs of me for the CIA files. When we had been shown round and were having a cup of insam tea, the officer asked if there were any questions. I asked him whether, as the soldiers spend several hours daily almost within touching distance of the GI’s, with whom they must become quite familiar, any human contact ever developed, any exchange of greetings, nods and smiles. He assured me that both parties carried on as if the other had no human existence whatsoever. They ignored each other completely. However, he went on, on the odd occasion when South Korean guards are present, then his men do try to engage them in conversation and offer cigarettes to them. But should a South Korean soldier make any response, he will not be seen again on that particular duty.

Two days later we were taken to the border again, this time to an observation post on the North’s front line from which we could observe the concrete wall which the South has built across the whole width of the peninsula. Apparently the air is usually loud with the sound of artillery as military manoeuvres are rehearsed, but we went on a Saturday. At weekends silence and sunshine prevail. There was even a lull in the propaganda war. Both sides are usually assaulting each other’s ears through elaborate loudspeaker systems. I asked our guide what sort of things the South say to them. He told me that they say that the North is a bad place to live and people in the South have a much better standard of living. As I looked through the telescope he directed by gaze to where they had mounted a cut-out of a car with an attractive Korean lady in traditional dress in the passenger seat. The tell the North’s soldiers that this is what they could look forward to if they came over to the South. He shrugged his shoulders in magisterial disdain. I had to admire his attitude, but personally, after eight and a half months in Pyongyang, I was sorely tempted to make a run for it across the demilitarised zone right there and then and bugger the minefields!

In between our two trips to the front we had the opportunity to visit quite a number of other interesting places in and around Kaesong. We saw a beautiful, thousand-year-old iron statue of the Buddha, Shakyamuni, whose serene and humorous face is indelibly stamped on my memory. There was apparently some reluctance to let us see this. But for Holmer we would not have known of its existence. The statue is housed in its little pavilion in a district of old tiled cottages. I would guess the official concerned relented on the grounds that we were actually living in Pyongyang and would already know that not everyone in North Korea resides in modern apartment blocks. Soon they will be able to display this magnificent statue without embarrassment as they are planning to move all the historical relics in the area to be housed in the ancient buildings of Koryo’s mediaeval university which they were in the process of renovating when we visited. I find this rather a shame. It will make life easier for the tourists they are keen to attract, but I like the idea of beautiful things remaining in their time-honoured settings within the community. As well as the iron Buddha, they will be transferring all the exhibits from the existing museum which we also visited. The present museum is situated halfway up the hill from which the mandatory towering bronze image of the great leader looms over the city. Our guide informed us that it was the dear leader (born in 1942) who decreed that there should be a museum in Kaesong. Ten minutes later she told us that the museum had been set up in the days of the Japanese occupation.

We paid a visit to the tomb of King Kongwin and his queen. He was a 14th-century ruler of Koryo, the feudal state that existed until 1392, when the founder of the Li Dynasty seized power and changed the country’s name from Koryo to Chosen. The twin tumuli are set on the top of a hill with tall mountains in the background. The approach to the summit is terraced. On the upper terrace stands a row of haunting statues of soldiers and courtiers keeping guard over the tomb. It is a marvellous spectacle that deserves more visitors.

On the second day of our excursion we were taken to a well-known beauty spot, the Pagyon Falls, for a picnic. On a ledge to the side of the falls were situated two picnic tables. One of them was fenced off by a little chain link rail. Once the great leader and the dear leader had visited the falls together. They too had had a picnic on this very spot at this very table, which had henceforward taken on holy significance and was no longer available for the use of mere mortals like us. We sat down and took our meal at the table next to it. The view was just as good. We even had a free cabaret. A part of elderly peasant women had also gathered there for a picnic, squatting at the foot of the waterfall to eat their rice. When they had finished eating, the old changgo drums were produced and they started prancing around with graceless abandon. As far as I could tell, the drummers were just thumping their instruments at random. My ears could discern no rhythmic pattern at all. This deficiency did not seem to bother these geriatric gyrators with beatific grins on their faces. I thanked Kim U No or his good intentions, but explained that when I had been nagging him the night before to produce some Juche dancing girls for my entertainment, I had something a bit different in mind.

After our meal we climbed up the steps beside the waterfall and took a long walk along the banks of a stream through some of the loveliest countryside of rugged green hills that I have ever seen, at Holmer’s insistence straying far beyond the paved route normally designated for foreign visitors. On the way we passed one of the rest houses that the great leader has set up out of his warm solicitude for the working people’s recreation. It was deserted at the time so we took a peek through the windows at the dormitory accommodation. It contained proper beds so was probably accounted luxurious by local standards, but as it contained nothing else and the beds were barely six inches apart, it looked pretty spartan to me. We did not have a look inside the outdoor lavatories. We could smell them well enough from outside. On our way back we found a party of holidaymakers had now taken up residence. I asked Holmer to enquire if they were all from the same factory. It turned out that they all came from different factories. It was probably safe to assume then that these were model workers who had been sent there as a reward for overfulfilling their quotas. I have no doubt they were well pleased with their reward, but I would have had something to say to the travel agent if I ever ended up in accommodation like that.

If we saw one, we must have seen thirty amateur artists out sketching watercolours of that countryside that afternoon. They had little tins of paint such as we give small children for Christmas presents, and old tin cans to put their water in. Some of them were very talented. It is the sort of healthy, cultured leisure activity the party encourages and there is much to be said for it. 

Holmer knew these two ancient Buddhist temples in the vicinity. The local peasants going about their business were surprised to see Europeans straying from the usual tourist routes. They were even more surprised when Holmer opened his mouth and asked them directions in their own language.

We contrived to miss the first temple on our way out. As a result we arrived at the second temple first. It consisted of three buildings in a walled compound. Two of them were evidently inhabited. I imagine people were allowed to live there in exchange for maintaining the actual temple, which was just an empty pavilion but very clean. Comrade U No, who has lived all his life in Pyongyang and hardly ever been out of it, began to wax lyrical about how he would like to retire eventually to live a simple contemplative life in such a remote but beautiful valley, far from the madding crowd and all that, until I pointed out to him that there was no electricity and it would not be a lot of fun in the winter trudging down to the stream, pickaxe in hand, to break the ice in order to have a wash in the morning. That shut him up.

We contrived not to miss the first temple a second time on our way back. This was just as well because it was a lovely one, dating from the seventeenth century, on the site of a previous temple that had been destroyed by fire. It was memorable for the beautiful patterns painted on the walls and ceilings and the three gilt Buddhas it contained. We asked the caretaker if it was still in use. He replied that old people still came there to worship, but no young ones were interested. There was another statue of a Buddha in a nearby cave and a trough of water so clear that you could not see it at all until you disturbed the surface with the aluminium drinking bowl.

Apart from having an extremely enjoyable trip, I came away from Kaesong with two overriding impressions. The first was of the disparity between the propaganda and the reality of North Korea. The disparity is also apparent in Pyongyang, but there it is less immediately obvious than in the countryside.

Kaesong is a lovely old city. It is clean and well maintained, but its wide roads have scarcely any traffic. You are as likely to see a bullock cart trundling along the street as a motor vehicle. Beyond the city the roads are in a dreadful state of repair.

For years the president has been stressing the need to mechanise agriculture and free the peasants from their backbreaking toil. For months I had been revising articles stating that this will soon be achieved. The reality is that the most common form of tractor to be seen in the vicinity of Kaesong was the truly Juche tractor, the one that is made in Korea, fuelled by indigenous resources, and from time to time manures the soil as it moves along. There are indeed a million of these sweet and ponderous machines in operation in the DPRK. Although I believe that the country’s achievements in irrigation are, generally speaking, commendable, I did see one chap carrying water out to a small field in two buckets suspended from a wooden pole across his shoulders. Although there were some post-industrial-revolution type tractors and rice transplanting machines on view, the fields were thronged with peasants all working jolly hard performing their tasks by hand. It was not the picture of the Juche agriculture displaying its might that the authorities like to paint.

My other overriding impression was that when all is said and done, this was third world Asia and, viewed from that perspective, the reality is nothing to be ashamed of. Everybody seemed to be pretty cheerful and, unlike the adult population of Pyongyang, who frequently stare at foreigners as if they are animals who have strayed from the zoo, down there they all smiled when they saw you. Rather like the builders on the construction sites. Whenever we went past in the minibus, they used to stop work to wave at us and were highly delighted when we waved back.

In the countryside – and in Kaesong itself really – the people were basically living the same simple peasant lives as their ancestors, but because of those measures that have been taken to improve the country’s agriculture, and because the Koreans seem to have proved more adaptable to collectivised farming than the Chinese, the grain supply is more reliable than was known in former generations. Also, under the communist system the people have far more security in the event of illness or other personal misfortune than they ever had in the past.

The two young womenI saw washing clothes in a stream are not likely to have their photo taken like that for Korea or Korea Today. Nevertheless, they possessed the same smart blue smock as every other female child in the country. They were able to attend school, and there they would acquire the rudiments of good personal care and routine and probably become literate enough to read Rodong Sinmun and charming anecdotes about the peerless great man, the worship of whom will fulfil all their spiritual needs.

These people exude contentment and bonhomie. Naturally it does help that they do not know anything better. Even the world on the other side of the frontier just a few miles away is a closed book to them. Lest those who own or have access to a TV set should ever be tempted by curiosity to break the law and tune in to South Korean broadcasts or, far more pernicious, American Forces Network, the government comprehensively jams all transmissions from the South. I know because I pressed every channel on the TV in my hotel room.

Kaesong itself has more of a rural than an urban feel to it, in spite of its 100,000 population. The city has no heavy industry. We were able to sample its light industry on a visit to the embroidery institute. The institute’s products are on sale in all the dollar shops and hotels in Pyongyang. I always found them quite attractive but people who know about these things used to be disparaging of them and add that they were overpriced. We were received at the institute by the director and a manageress. We were shown two rooms where the embroiderers were at work. Usually I feel uncomfortable when being shown round places where people are at work. I feel as if I am being placed in a role of superiority which I do not relish. But these ladies seemed so pleased to see us that for once I failed to feel embarrassed. Almost certainly, like everyone else in North Korea, they will be working too long and too hard – in their case at a task which I imagine is better performed in short bursts of concentration. However, the working conditions were pleasant and the atmosphere very amiable and relaxed. I was told that they worked on piece rate and that the average monthly salary was 110 won, with one or two exceptional workers earning as much as 250. I was assured that even the slowest was capable of earning eighty per cent of the average.

Out for a walk, we came across a party of kindergarteners enjoying a picnic lunch in an ancient pavilion. It was a charming, happy little scene, marred only for me by a degree of embarrassment when one of the teachers insisted I sample a Korean delicacy, a little sweet rice cake that was green in colour because it had been smeared with grass. I knew it would be revolting, and it was. I took a tentative nibble and could not go on. Comrade U No, who seemed amused by discomfiture, assured me that no offence would be taken if I threw it away which, having no alternative, I reluctantly did.

Another interesting place to which we paid a visit while we were in Kaesong was a rather novel hotel that was under construction. The hotel consisted of a complex of, if I remember correctly, seventeen newly-built tiled cottages in the traditional style, except that there were fitted luxury bathrooms suites and ornate wooden screen doors and little yards with high walls where people could sit outdoors in privacy. A little footbridge over a stream gave access to a main building which was to contain restaurants, bars and other amenities. The concept was that people could enjoy a holiday living in the traditional Korean manner, with all the appurtenances of modern living thrown in, and doubtless this will hold considerable appeal for the Korean expatriates coming over from Japan.

One can only assume that the two-hundred-day battle was raging away behind the faades of Kaesong’s empty, sun-drenched streets for there was no outwards sign of frenetic activity anywhere. The prevailing atmosphere in the city of calm and tranquillity was evident in the attitudes of the builders of the hotel who were going about their business slowly and methodically – and looked as if they were going to make a damn good job of it. In Pyongyang, when the workforce is not squatting around idly, everything is done at a rush. Consequently the upper floors in the Potanggang Hotel are uneven, the electrical wiring in the Koryo I am told would not pass safety regulations in the West, and the finished buildings in the Angol Sports Village looked less impressive than their design models. 

It was evident in the summer of 1988 that the DPRK is keen to develop its tourist industry. I realised this when I was called upon to revise a number of leaflets from the Korean International Tourist Board. At the moment tourism in North Korea is on a small scale and almost exclusively confined to visitors from eastern Europe. These people simply do not have the money to spend, so there is little profit in it for the government.

The Koreans are now so anxious to attract hard currency spenders from the affluent capitalist countries that they are advertising in their leaflets that anyone who has any difficulty in obtaining a visa before departure can be issued with one on arrival at Pyongyang airport. What the person who translated the text for the leaflets actually put was that passports could be obtained at the airport. I felt this was a little over-generous, so I took the liberty of amending it to visas. It is quite likely that neither translator nor author would understand the distinction between a passport and a visa even in their own language.

Typically the North Koreans, who go round in a different orbit from the rest of the planet, are clueless as to what is likely to appeal to the outside world, they have no idea how to market their product, and they have not properly researched what other countries do to promote tourism. They probably had not even thought where they were going to send their leaflets once they were printed. Undoubtedly North Korea will attract a trickle of visitors, people who want to go somewhere different out of curiosity, but the Koreans will have to brighten their ideas up if they want to turn that trickle into a flood.

I did my best to help them by trying to make their leaflets more sensible. For example, wherever they promised “three meals a day,” I changed this to “full board”. When they exhorted, “Golfers, Come to Korea, and play a few rounds on the country’s brand new and only golf course,” I changed the sentence: “The course has eighteen holes, nine in and nine out,” to something on the lines of “It is a challenging new course that winds its way through the most delightful scenery.” I had no guarantee of course that they would not change it back again.

If the author of the leaflet was so entirely ignorant of golf not to know that all standard golf courses have eighteen holes, he did not reveal noticeably greater knowledge of his own country’s indigenous pursuit, Taekwando, in the leaflet he composed for the special Taekwando study tour they are offering. Another special holiday on offer is a month in Pyongyang learning the new alphabetic dance notation which a team of North Korean researchers has recently invented and hope will revolutionise the study of dance around the world. The leaflet for this holiday modestly claims, “As people once considered it the greatest honour in life to go to the place where musical notation was invented [where was that?] to learn how musical notes can be written down, so now they consider it the greatest honour to come and study in Pyongyang, the birthplace of the world’s first comprehensive alphabetic dance notation.”

It may be that the Koreans have conducted extensive research and located a potential market but I cannot imagine there are many wealthy people wanting to spend five weeks on the shores of Lake Sijung having their “genital disorders” treated by mudpacks.

To be fair, they do claim that the slimes of Lake Sijung are efficacious for many other ailments as well. There is a set price for this holiday but it does not include the actual cost of treatment. An application of a mudpack to a part of the body will cost 25 dollars. Applications of mudpacks to the whole of the body will cost 50 dollars. A full mudbath will sent the punter back 75 dollars a time.

Realistically, the country does have some tourist potential on account of its scenery. There must be plenty of people who would enjoy a quiet holiday somewhere unusual amid beautiful scenery and lovely people. There is already an infrastructure of hotels: a luxury hotel at Mount Myohyant and tourist standard hotels at Mount Myohyant, Mount Kumgang, Kaesong and the coastal resort of Wonsan, but they will have to do something about the bone-shaking roads if they are to satisfy the expectations of sightseers who have paid a lot of money to come, and about the quality of the food in the hotels. Other people assure me that the Korean cuisine in these places is fine, but I always ordered European fare which was usually mediocre or worse. At Kaesong, I ordered French fried potatoes. They were served me as if they were an hors d’oeuvre at the start of my meal and they were stone cold and greasy.

There are holidays on offer to the celebrated centres of natural beauty and at quite reasonable prices. The only thing is, transport to and from the country is not included in the cost. Prospective holidaymakers have to make their own arrangements for getting to North Korea and it is neither a particularly cheap nor easy place to get to. The leaflets for the sightseeing holidays were also poor. They were probably written by someone who had never been to any of the places he was purporting to describe.

One group of visitors who will be going to North Korea are the participants in the 1989 World Festival of Youth and Students, an estimated 20,000 of them. Preparations for the event are so far advanced that leaflets were already available in June 1988. The Koreans did not have the sense to pass the English language ones to me for revision. People who read them will be most amused by the quaintness of the expression, the bad grammar and idiosyncratic phrases like “drastic drugs” and “sultry publications” among the list of “Goods prohibited to take in and out”.<br><br>

Chapter 14

During the early months of 1988 the focus of DPRK outrage moved away from the South Korean allegations that the North was responsible for the disappearance of the South Korean airliner, to the Team Spirit Joint Military Exercise staged each year in the late winter/early spring by American and South Korean forces.

This exercise has been staged each year since 1976. Each year it has been expanded in terms of duration, scope, and the number of troops involved. 1988 saw the biggest yet. It involved over 200,000 troops over a period of several weeks, plus aeroplanes and warships, some carrying nuclear weapons. The justification for the scale of the exercise was to deter any untoward acts of aggression by the North in the year when the Olympics were due to be staged in Seoul.

When the nuclear weapons the US has deployed in South Korea are left out of the equation, the North may at best be equally matched militarily against the South. Economically it is incomparably weaker and it only has half the population of the South. Therefore it cannot entertain realistic hopes of mounting a successful invasion of the South at this time. I assumed that the Americans for their part had no intention of launching a full scale war against the North, complete with limited nuclear strikes, in reprisal for any terrorist outrages the North might have perpetrated. In which case Team Spirit struck me as a pretty silly exercise in provocative sabre-rattling.

Predictably the North’s reaction was not exactly the embodiment of good sense and moderation either. Instead of just issuing reasonable protests against America’s behaviour, the Supreme Commander of the People’s Army, ever victorious, iron-willed, brilliant Comrade Kim Il Sung ordered the armed forces on full combat alert. Bellicose speeches were made. The Korean people will retaliate a hundredfold, a thousandfold, against any act of enemy imperialist aggression. Nuclear weapons don’t scare Juche revolutionaries. And every effort generally was made to wind the whole population up into a mood of heroic and self-sacrificing patriotism. We even had a few evenings of blackouts in Pyongyang to rehearse the civilian population for air-raids. The girls at the Ansan Chodasso thought it was terrific fun, running up and down the stairs, issuing us with candles and making sure our curtains were drawn properly. Fortunately the Koryo was excused from all this nonsense. It became literally an oasis of light in a darkened city. I was able to seek refuge there and have a few beers until the hysteria died down.

By way of compensation, we revisers were able to down pens early on Thursday afternoon to be wheeled down to Kim Il Sung Square to take our places on the tribune at a mass rally. We and the socialist bloc diplomatic community and various other foreigners were presumably meant to represent the progressive, peace-loving peoples of the world who are looking on at the situation on the Korean peninsula with mounting apprehension as the adventurist war manoeuvres of the US imperialists and the fascist South Korean puppet clique exacerbate the tensions to the ultimate extreme. Personally I was not complaining. It is always nice to knock off work early and the whole spectacle was highly entertaining. A large gathering of the working people of Pyongyang had been mobilised to attend the rally. They lined up in orderly ranks like soldiers on parade and listened patiently as five separate speakers made the same predictable noises. They were so predictable that my interpreter eventually grew weary of repeating himself. By mutual unspoken agreement he stopped translating halfway through the third speech. The Pyongyang Times reported that the speakers were interrupted by frequent loud shouts from the crowd. This was a distortion of the truth. The crowd was much too well disciplined and polite to break into spontaneous expressions of passion. They waited until they were cued in by a girl with a shrill voice. Then they all extended their right arms and chanted their support for the Supreme Commander’s communiqu and pledged to maintain themselves in a state of vigilance and full combat readiness. Their responses were as stereotyped as a church congregation chanting the litany.

At the end of the rally by chance I became detached from my colleagues. I decided to station myself at one of the exits to the square where the minibus was bound to pass by later. While I was waiting I was able to take a good look at the people as they left the rally. I imagine that anyone who saw a film of the rally and heard the speeches would have formed the impression that these North Koreans are a pretty belligerent bunch. The contrast between that impression and the cheerful, friendly, neatly dressed people I saw making their way home could scarcely have been more marked. Once more a church metaphor came to mind. I was reminded of a congregation of kindly Christian souls coming out of a fundamentalist chapel on a Sunday morning, feeling pleasantly smug and righteous after hearing a particularly satisfying fire-and-brimstone sermon. Even as I warmed to them, I could not help shuddering at the thought that there were armed troop loads of such sincere and fanatical believers lined up all along the demilitarised zone, ready to lay down their lives rather than submit to the forces of US imperialism – just like people in our culture who would rather be dead than red. And when I thought how easily border skirmishes can escalate into full scale conflicts, I felt releived I was going far away from Korea for good in a few months’ time.

A wonderful thing happened to me in Pyongyang in early April. I was out for a stroll one Saturday afternoon when I became aware that I was too hot with my overcoat on. After so many months of bitter cold, fear of the elements was deeply ingrained in me. It took me a minute or two to take decisive action on my discovery, but eventually I did find the courage to take my coat off and walk all the way home with it hanging over my shoulder. The hours passed and I was showing no symptoms of hypothermia, frostbite or pneumonia. This was it then. Spring had finally sprung in Pyongyang and I had survived to greet it.

At around the same time, the sixth annual Pyongyang Spring Arts Festival started. This is a two-week extravaganza when dancers, singers, musicians and circus artistes from all over the world converge on Pyongyang and there are shows every evening in the various theatres scattered around the city. In 1988, there were dancers from India, singers from Madagascar, jugglers from Cuba and troupes from Siberia, Mongolia and China. For the first time in many months the Koryo was like a real hotel again and not just a luxury hostel for German engineers, and the eighteenth floor disco at the Changgwangsan was crowded every night. Recordings of the shows were constantly broadcast on the television during the festival. The same half-dozen shows may have been shown over and over again, but at least they provided something else to watch than propaganda documentaries and Korean feature films.

This isolated gala of international culture in the North Korean calendar is timed not only to celebrate the coming of spring. It also coincides with the most important national festival, the North Korean Christmas, the birthday on April 15th of the great man himself, seventy-six in 1988.

On the Sunday before the birthday we were all taken out to Mangyondae for the morning to join the queue of believers filing past the nativity set and then to visit the funfair. On the following day preparations for the festivities got under way at the factory next door. Icons were set up in the factory yard. One which was typical consisted of a golden-hued painting of the little house at Mangyondae and a poem in praise of the father leader with the date 15:4 displayed in flashing red neon on top. The usual lunchtime games of football and volleyball were suspended in favour of dancing. The dancers form into pairs and stand round in a big circle. There are few mixed couples. Mostly girls dance with girls and boys with boys. In the centre of the circle are an accordionist and two girls who have already learned the steps. When the music starts, the couples move round watching the two girls in the centre in order to imitate their movements. The nearest analogy I can find to contemporary North Korean dancing in my own culture is barn dancing, but this is much more sedate and, it must be said, extremely graceful.

On the evening of the big day the workers return to their factory in their best clothes this time for more dancing. On the day itself, even in the midst of the two-hundred-day campaign to make September 9th, the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Republic, a great festival of victory, the revolution and construction come to a halt. But the workers are still at their workplaces before eight in the morning, as on the dear leader’s birthday, for more dancing, tug-of-wars, volleyball competitions and three-legged races. It is all good, clean fun of a sort which would excite derision from adults elsewhere in the world, but these people love it. They start to disperse around midday. They all go home and have a nice meal with the special foods that have been issued to them for the occasion. They will also be able to have a drink because alcohol will have been released to the shops that week.

April 15th, 1988, in Pyongyang turned out clear, warm and sunny. I went for a stroll around the construction site to get more oxygen to my hungover brain in preparation for the afternoon’s banquet at the Ansan Chodasso. For the first time, at any hour of the day or night, on any day of the week, I did not see a flicker of constructive activity on the whole site.

At the banquet we were honoured by a brief visit from the director general of the publishing house before he went off to attend a more lavish affair with the president. He opened the proceedings with a speech. He said that this was the most important national holiday of the Korean people. The president’s birthday had been declared the greatest national holiday of the Korean people by the dear leader, Comrade Kim Jong Il. Comrade Kim Jong Il had thus demonstrated his boundless loyalty to the great leader. In the past the Korean people had suffered many misfortunes and humiliations. It was only when they were blessed with a great leader that they had been able to extricate themselves from misery and build a new life free from suffering and oppression. I sat there wondering how a grown man could bring himself to parrot such crap, let along believe it. I kept my thoughts to myself and dutifully raised my glass to the respected leader’s long life in good health.

After the meal, when everybody was somewhat drunk, we had the obligatory round of singing. To ensure that nobody missed a word of the director general’s speech, an interpreter was present for each language group. These were all intelligent people. Each had mastered at least one foreign language. Most had made at least one trip abroad. But all of them, when it came their turn to sing, displayed by the quaver in their voices and the moistness in their eyes as they extolled the fatherly marshal’s virtues, that they had found nothing absurd or childish in the director general’s address.

When the banquet was over, I took myself off on another walk to clear my head again before the evening’s session in the bar. It was a beautiful day still. The apricot blossom was out everywhere and the citizens of Pyongyang were promenading in their best clothes, and the children and students looked exceptionally smart because it is in the run-up to the birthday that they are all issued with their new uniforms for the year – gifts from the father marshal. Ordinary mortals receive presents on their birthday. On his, comrade Kim Il Sung bestows presents on everyone else. Such is the infinite magnanimity of the great leader who lives only to dedicate himself to the service of his people.

In the evening by tradition there is dancing by the young people in Kim Il Sung Square. In previous years the revisers had always been invited to observe the proceedings from the tribune. This time, much to Simone’s chagrin, we were overlooked. After supper she and I decided to make our own way down to the square by public transport. It was worth the journey. It was the same sort of dancing as I had been observing all week in the factory yard, except on a much grander scale, and the girls looked gorgeous in their traditional flowing brightly-coloured silk gowns. However, it was all highly choreographed and dancing was evidently by invitation only. There were security men on the perimeter ensuring there was no spontaneous participation by unsolicited spectators. From the tribune the young people would have presented a breathtaking spectacle. Watching from street level, I was not convinced that they were actually enjoying themselves very much.

They don’t like people to stay out too late in Pyongyang, so dancing finished at 8.25 pm prompt. Simone and I decided to go for a drink to the nearest hotel, the Taedong Gang. In the bar Simone ordered a whisky. She was told that they did not sell whisky by the glass. If she wanted a glass of Scotch, she would have to buy a whole bottle. We laughed it off and decided to carry onto the next hotel, the Pyongyang, a quarter of a mile a way. On the way we joked about how this was the sort of thing you could only encounter in Pyongyang in what was purporting to be an international hotel. It was no longer a joke when we got to the bar in the Pyongyang only to be told the same thing. By this time we were both footsore an weary and in need of a drink. The next watering-hole, the Koryo, was half a mile away. Simone resigned herself to buying a bottle. That was not the end of our difficulties. The girl behind the bar only had an English vocabulary of about twenty words. It took Simone the best part of ten minutes to get her to understand that she did not intend to drink the whole bottle there and then, and would she bring the cap of the bottle to our table to enable her to take it with her with she let.

This was typical of the niggling little inconveniences one constantly ran up against in Pyongyang, and which served to aggravate the general misery for the foreigners who had the misfortune to live there. A few evenings before I had gone to one of the bars in the Koryo. When I asked for a beer, I was presented with a bottle of the Korean Ryongsong brand. They do not usually serve this to foreigners there, and I had been expecting a can of imported German or Japanese lager. “Don’t you have any other type of beer tonight?” I asked the girl.

“Two won, sixty,” came the reply.

“No,” I tried again “Do-you-have-any-other-type-of-beer-apart-from-Ryongsong?”

She looked puzzled for a moment. Then she said, “Two won, sixty chen, sir.”

When I got back from Hong Kong, I decided to send a thank you letter to the Chinese who had entertained me to a meal on my journey to Guangzho. I went into the post office at the Potanggang Hotel. It cost one won sixty to post a letter to England, so I naively assumed it would cost no more than one ten for a letter to China. The girl told me I needed one twenty. No problem. I went back the next day with exactly one twenty. This time there was a different girl on duty.

“Where to letter?” she asked.

“China,” I replied.

“China Beijing?”

“No. China Changsha.”

This evidently confused her. “China?” she asked.

“Yes. China. Changsha in China.”

“China Beijing?”

“No. China. But Changsha. Not Beijing.”

She stood for a few moments in perplexed silence. At last she asked me for one won sixty. I remonstrated with her. I tried to explain that I had been in with the letter the previous day and the other lady had assured me the cost was one won twenty. It was obvious she did not understand anything I was saying, and eventually I gave up.

I was so cross I thought of taking my letter to the International Post Office. On reflection I decided against this. It was not her fault that she neither understood English nor knew that there were any other cities in China than Beijing. And at least like everyone who worked at the Potanggang she could normally be relied upon to be friendly and courteous, something that could not always be said about the staff at the International Post Office.

I made a third attempt to post the letter a few days later. This time I had unlimited funds with me. The girl who had served me the first time was there and the price had gone back down again to one won twenty.

For the great national festival of the DPRK, television closedown was extended to the unearthly hour of 11.15 pm. Consequently I was home in time to catch the last twenty minutes of the highlight of the evening’s viewing, a recording of that evening’s show at the Mansudae Theatre where the artistes who had been adjudged the outstanding contributors to the Spring Festival gave a special performance in front of the birthday boy himself. At the end all the artistes came on stage for the curtain call. The camera panned to the president standing up and applauding. Then audience and performers applauded together at the great man made his stately exit, accompanied by his best friend, that other notable late twentieth century proponent of hereditary monarchy, Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia.

It is amazing what constant exposure to propaganda can do to you. Not for the first time I found that the sight of the old man on the television was arousing in me something akin to the emotion I used to experienced whenever Malcolm Macdonald ran onto the pitch at St James’s Park when I lived in Newcastle.

I should add that I was not the only foreign resident of Pyongyang who was susceptible to these responses, and it was not just the weight of propaganda that accounted for them. However cynical one may be about the grotesqueness of his personality cult, there is no doubting the charisma of this extraordinary man who has survived in power for the best part of half a century. I never met the man personally, but I met a number of people who had. All without exception testified to his extraordinary presence and charm.

The advent of spring and a few more people to talk to of an evening certainly made life in Pyongyang a lot more bearable than it had been in the winter, but Pyongyang is still Pyongyang, a silent, dreary city where one feels to be living in a vacuum, cut off from the local community, isolated from all the normal pleasures and amenities that we in the rest of the world call life, and where nearly everybody who is not Korean feels to a greater or lesser degree disaffected and depressed.

It was nevertheless ironic that, having maintained my mental equilibrium quite successfully until shortly before my sanity-saving trip to Hong Kong, I began to wobble at a time when life had vastly improved and when I was counting down the weeks to my departure as opposed to counting up the weeks I had spent.

There were probably a number of factors which contributed to the decline in my mental state during the later part of April. Perhaps a key factor was that I had dangerously relaxed the siege mentality I had adopted months previously, so that the yearning for things that were impossible, including quite mundane ones like kicking a football or getting behind the wheel of a car, came flooding to the surface. Suddenly having new people to talk and drink with, though very welcome in itself, may have contributed. The people I would hang out with for a day or two, a week or two, even a couple of months, seemed like embodiments of a better life to which they soon returned, while I remained stranded. Another factor was the sheer erosion of the spirit by excessive exposure to the Pyongyang experience, exacerbated by the continued lack of information about friends and family. My excursion to Hong Kong had been invaluable, but it had not been long enough to fully restore the wellsprings of vitality and optimism. The week when we had to work seven days in a row must also have played a part.* (*The president’s birthday, which in 1988 fell on a Friday, is such a momentous event in the DPRK calendar that the public is given the following day off as well. Then they have to go to work on the Sunday to make up for it. On this occasion the revisers were required to work the Sunday as well.)

Working seven days in succession is wearisome whatever one is doing. But seven days sitting at a solitary desk, hour after hour, revising insane propaganda, is not just exhausting, it is downright unhealthy. The tiredness that ensues after doing a worthwhile day’s work with the concomitant gratifications to the ego can usually be dispelled by a good meal, a hot bath and a couple of pints. The torpor that comes from engaging the brain in a futile exercise in buffoonery is not to be shaken off so easily.

Absurdly, it was in a very pleasant social environment, at the end of an oh so singularly full and enjoyable day, that I found myself perilously on the edge of losing my grip. The first of May is a great public holiday in the DPRK, as in all socialist countries. It was disappointing that in 1988 it fell on a Sunday. There was no chance of having the Monday off work instead in North Korea. However, it ill becomes me to complain, because I was given a full day’s entertainment. At the rather early hour of half eight in the morning we were loaded onto a minibus and taken to Mount Taesong beyond the eastern boundary of the city, passing en route the stately and imposing faade of the presidential palace – well you would hardly expect him to live in a tent.

It was a perfect early summer day, hot and cloudless, with just a hit of a breeze. In the morning there was an outdoor entertainment of Korean singing, traditional dancing, and acrobatics. The stage was the Oriental-style South Gate pavilion, not the original – that was destroyed in the war – but a meticulous replica. I doubt if the event will linger in the memory as vividly as the Rolling Stones concert in Hyde Park, but it was pleasant and colourful and passed the time. It is unwise to expect more than that in Pyongyang. Afterwards we were driven to the top of the mountain for a picnic. The environment was perfect. The weather was ideal. The view across the Taedong River valley, with Pyongyang partially submerged in a heat haze, was stunning.

After a mellow afternoon drinking in the sunshine, we were taken back to the Ansan Chodasso to sober up and change as we were due to attend the state banquet at 5 pm. There had been some protests from the diplomatic community about the early timing of the banquet because Ramadan was in progress. This meant that the representatives from Iran, Pakistan, Libya, the PLO et cetera would all have to sit there feeling ravenously hungry while they watched other people gorge themselves. The Koreans dismissed these protestations on the grounds that the banquet was being staged for the benefit of the working classes and not Islam. So I took my place at the bottom table below the Korean generals and politicians and the foreign diplomats and other such typical proletarians, and partook of what, to my pleasant surprise, turned out to be a fairly western-oriented meal. I actually felt full up for the first time since I left Hong Kong.

Once again there was dancing in Kim Il Sung Square. This time the revisers were on the guest list, so after the banquet we went down there and took our places on the tribune. This time the dancing looked to have a more spontaneous flavour than on the president’s birthday. It looked far less choreographed. The dancers were more numerous. And they were clearly having a lot of fun. But fun is a commodity to be strictly rationed in the workers’ state. It is no good having people staying out late and enjoying themselves when they have to be up bright and early in the morning to build the revolution and construction. So once more the music stopped at half eight, and everyone made their way home.

On the way back I had the minibus drop me at the Potanggang where I found congenial company. It had been as pleasant a day as one could ever hope for in Pyongyang. But as the evening wore on I found myself overcome by acute feelings of unease and distress amounting almost to panic. I noticed that I was drinking too fast and smoking too much, and I judged that it would not be a good idea to let myself get too drunk in the state I was in that night. Outwardly I must have been comporting myself normally in spite of my inner turmoil up to the moment I decided to leave, because I remember Berndt expressing surprise that I was leaving so early and urging me to have another drink. I reacted to his kind offer as if he was offering me a dose of some lethal drug and not a glass of Johnnie Walker. In bed that night I quieted myself by saying, “Tomorrow I will tell them I cannot cope any longer. They must fly me home without delay. They must understand. It does not matter that I have not saved enough money yet. I have to go. I have to get out of here. I have to get out of here.”

By a strange coincidence, the following day was one of those days that came along now and then when the supply of work ran out. I divided the day by immersing myself in a trashy but highly escapist spy thriller and directing a little psychotherapy at myself. I made a list of all the problems I was experiencing in Pyongyang, starting with vague, general ones like boredom and loneliness and moving on to more specific difficulties like unease with people who do not speak my language and sense of failure at having placed myself in such a ridiculous situation. I divided my problems into permanent ones and transient ones. I rationalised to myself the origins of the transient ones and made up my mind that, as I had lived the rest of my life before Pyongyang more satisfactorily than not, I would be fine again once I left Pyongyang, but that I would cope much better with life after Pyongyang if I had some money in the bank. By the evening I had reconciled myself to surviving another four months. I consoled myself with the thought that in two days’ time I was due to go on my first trip outside the city.

Chapter 13

The DPRK has not only been successful in abolishing squalor, primary deprivation, and insecurity. It has not neglected the cultural aspect of people’s lives in terms of educational provision and organised recreation and has created a decent social ambience, within which people can live simple, virtuous hard-working lives and can feel good about themselves and be nice to one another. Sadly the country enjoys no prosperity. It lacks the means to manufacture the material goods that make people’s lives more comfortable and more rewarding. It lacks the money either to import them or to import the technology that will enable it to manufacture them in the future. The national debt is relatively modest, about five billion dollars, but since the mid-seventies it has been incapable of servicing it and, until very recently, has tended to adopt a cavalier attitude towards meeting its financial obligations. North Korea does not ask for debts to be rescheduled. It simply ignores them. As a result it has the greatest difficulty in obtaining any further loans. Given that the majority of the population are quite contented, the country’s economic problems would still not be all that desperate were it not for the obsession with reunification with the South on favourable terms and the related need to try and keep up with looming South Korea.

Perhaps it is the pressure generated by the South’s advances, perhaps North Korean minds are becoming tangled up in their own propaganda. Whatever the reason, North Korea is not displaying much wisdom at the moment in its efforts to get the economy moving again.

The official line in their propaganda is that the economy is brilliant, independent and thriving, and that all the factories are equipped with the latest technology that has been developed by the Koreans themselves, using their own scientific techniques.

The reality is that there is a dearth of sophisticated technological expertise and most of their industrial plant and equipment is twenty or thirty years out of date. Their industry can at a basic level service existing domestic needs but cannot compete in world markets. At the moment they are investing as much foreign currency as they can lay their hands on in purchasing new technology. Unfortunately, because the official line is that their factories are furnished with all the latest equipment, they are tending to succumb to the temptation of trying to translate their propaganda into reality by buying the very latest, when informed opinion has it that investment in an intermediate level of technology would be cheaper and more in line with their current developmental needs and existing levels of scientific expertise. For example, they recently built an Orlon-spinning mill in Anju, South Pyongan province, complete with the latest in hi-tech machinery. The mill was built under the supervision of engineers from East Germany. The Germans were not optimistic about the mill’s future. They feared that in a few years all the expensive new machinery will be in a sorry state. The machinery needs to be running constantly. In North Korea there are often interruptions in the power supply. In addition, they were sceptical as to whether adequate quantities of raw material could be supplied to feed the machines continuously. They were also doubtful as to whether the local technicians had sufficient expertise to maintain the machinery correctly.

Interestingly, when Kim Il Sung went to Anju to preside over the official opening ceremony at the mill in the autumn of 1987, the Germans were sent away for the day. Was this simply because their presence would have been incongruous when the great leader made his stereotyped speech about the notable achievements of “our own technicians using their own techniques and local raw materials”? Or could it have been because the ageing autocrat is no longer in touch with what is going on in his country and someone did not want him to know about the involvement of foreign technicians?

The new cement factory built by a West German firm is also blessed with all the latest state-of-the-art technology. A billion deutschmark investment, it is intended to play a vital part in fulfilling the seven-year plan target of nearly doubling cement production by 1992. The West German engineers expressed greater optimism about their factory’s future but, again, the machinery must be kept in constant motion. The Koreans will be hard pressed to provide uninterrupted power to the factory and harder pressed to do so without diverting energy resources away from domestic consumers.

Someone has told the Koreans that optical fibre cable is the latest thing in the telecommunications industry. Although this is still in the experimental stage in the developed countries, they are hell bent on squandering their money by trying to use it in expanding their communications network. They even went so far as to set up a factory to try and manufacture it themselves. This predictably ended in a fiasco.

A foreign scientist told me about being taken to look round an office complex somewhere in the North of the country. He was shown a highly sophisticated and expensive computer system that had been imported. Unfortunately nobody had a clue how to use it properly, so they were more or less using it as an adding machine.

Nor will they invest money for their scientific and technical personnel to have proper training. Man is the master, sayeth the Juche philosophy. There is nothing he cannot accomplish if he has the will and the determination. The president has been telling his people for nearly half a century that they must overcome the mystique that surrounds machinery. The official propaganda has it that their standards of scientific knowledge and expertise are nearly as high as anywhere in the world. Therefore local scientists and technicians will be capable of working everything out for themselves if they can just get their hands on the hardware. Consequently, as I was reliably informed, when they are costing possible projects with the United Nations Development Project, the first item of expenditure they always cross off the list is Training and Development. Then their scientists have to try and bridge a technological gap of ten or twenty years by their own efforts or, if they are working alongside foreign experts, try to learn from them in spite of daunting communication difficulties due to inadequate language skills.

North Korea recently purchased from Siemens of West Germany a new international telephone system comprising no less than thirty-two direct dial lines to the outside world. In theory, further lines can be added onto the existing system ad infinitum. The Korean hope was that their technical staff would work it all out and do just that. In practice, the engineer who installed it did not think they would be capable of maintaining it. Apart from any other difficulties, the instruction manual was in English, a language that none of them understood too well. He probably underestimated their assiduousness and willingness to learn. His boss, who came out later to put the system into commission, was confident that they would be able to maintain it, but as for their adding new lines, well . . . 

If anything went wrong with the system, the Koreans were on their own. They had chosen not to pay for any after-sales service and they were so late in meeting the payments on the contract that the two-year guarantee had expired before the system was even commissioned. Because of North Korea’s abysmal credit rating, Siemens insisted on payment in cash. When eventually the Koreans had saved enough money, an official from Siemens was sent over to Pyongyang to count the banknotes as they were loaded into two containers which were then driven across Asia and eastern Europe to be handed over at the Czechoslovakian border.

I am sure there are plenty of scientists in North Korea who know that a more modest and realistic approach is called for in updating the economy. I am also sure that they are not in a position to take final decisions and that they have to be careful in making recommendations not to imply that anything is beyond their personal capability lest they be accused of the heinous crimes of “passivism” and “defeatism”.

Apart from all the other problems North Korea experiences in updating its economy, there are some projects which are agreed with the UN Development Project that never get off the ground because export licences are refused for the requisite technology by countries like the USA, Japan and Britain. This is often quite malicious, involving withholding technology that can have no military application. It is also stupid, just the sort of thing to push North Korea into the arms of the Soviet Union, which it has been trying for years to keep at arm’s length.

When the North Koreans are not squandering foreign currency on ultra-modern technology that is inappropriate to their level of development, they are supplying raw materials to the USSR in exchange for obsolete plant and technology. In 1987, they compromised their stance of political independence by at long last granting the Soviet navy free access to their ports – an invaluable resource, as Korea’s eastern ports remain ice-free in winter, unlike those of Soviet Asia – in exchange for further military and economic assistance.

Another recent money-spinner for North Korea has been selling arms and munitions to Iran for the Gulf War and acting as a middleman for the sale to Iran of Chinese missiles. As the Iranian ambassador used to cheerfully acknowledge, “That’s what I’m here for.”

With regard to Korean decision-making, everyone I ever spoke to complained about how slow and tortuous a process it was and of frustration at never meeting the people who held ultimate authority. This is one of the classic problems of an overly rigid and centralised economy. The problem is likely to be compounded in the case of North Korea because it is unlikely to be the most suitable people who occupy the positions of highest eminence and take the important decisions. In a society in which first priority is explicitly given to the ideological revolution, which is defined as closely arming every citizen with the Juche Idea, the monolithic ideology of the Party, it is more than likely that advancement is dependent upon the ability to parrot the thoughts of the leadership. In a culture in which the highest virtue is boundless loyalty to the leadership, one cannot help wondering whether a lively, questioning intelligence would be more of a handicap than an asset.

I suspect as well that another factor in advancement may be nepotism if other senior cadres are able to follow the presidential example. Not only is Kim Il Sung’s son the heir to the throne, his wife is a member of the central committee and he is rumoured to have many other relatives installed in high places.

As long as North Korea remains an essentially theocratic society, it is the priests of Juche, the parrots, be they sincere or cynical parrots, who will remain in control. Like priests everywhere their judgements will be influenced more by considerations of faith and dogma than by reason and pragmatism. They are likely to continue to mismanage the economy. Even if the penny does drop and they start to take some sensible measures, like investing their scarce resources of hard currency in more appropriate and cost effective technology and delegating powers of decision-making, there will remain considerable obstacles to the country’s economic advancement. Thirty-two direct dial telephone lines to the outside world, assuming they manage to maintain them, is not a lot for a nation of twenty million inhabitants. Although they are building a larger airport in Pyongyang in readiness for the thirteenth World Festival of Youth and Students in 1989, there are at present only four scheduled flights a week between Pyongyang and Moscow (two each way), four between Pyongyang and Beijing, and two between Pyongyang and Khabarossk, to supplement the daily train service between Pyongyang and Beijing and weekly between Pyongyang and Moscow. At the International Trade Bank a routine transaction, remitting monthly maintenance payments to the UK, turned out to be an inordinately costly and time-consuming operation. The stage is not set for international commerce on a grand scale. 

North Korea has at last been making some effort during the last year to pay off its foreign debts, but it has a long way to go before it can obtain a sufficiently respectable financial status to obtain extensive credits. Until it does, it will have to make do with handouts from the USSR, China and other socialist countries. The legends about foreign loans that the DPRK has quite simply ignored are legion.

On the train journey from Beijing to Pyongyang, I met a Finn who had been sent by his government to try and extract some payment for a paper mill which the Finns had built for the North Koreans some years previously and for which they had so far received not a penny. An elderly diplomat who was travelling with us found his mission highly amusing. He told him the Koreans would throw banquets in his honour all week. There would be lots of toasts to Korea-Finland friendship, but he would be damned lucky if the question of payment was even discussed. He said he had already been warned that this was what might happen. He was determined that there would be no socialising until some satisfactory financial arrangements had been agreed on. The old diplomat laughed at this. He told him he might as well make up his mind to enjoy the free booze-ups because that was all he was ever going to get out of his trip.

The Koreans are enthusiastic advocates of the South-South co-operation movement. The South-South movement is about developing countries easing their economic dependence on the advanced countries by helping each other, offering each other mutual technical co-operation and other economic assistance such as bartering commodities. A diplomat told me how his country agreed to swap a shipload of mineral found in his country for a shipload of a different mineral from Korea. His country fulfilled its part of the bargain. Nothing arrived from Korea. Remonstrations were made to the Koreans. Their response was that they were not going to honour their commitment because all they had received was worthless dust. They even drove an official from the embassy to the port where the mineral had been delivered to show him. A pile of dust was what the official did see. It was a small one, consistent with the residue that would be left over after the mineral had been loaded onto lorries and carried away. He pointed this out to them. He asked what had happened to the rest of the alleged consignment of worthless dust. He was told that the wind had blown it away.

It would be an overstatement to say the North Koreans are not doing anything right. As mentioned earlier, they are starting to rectify their shortcomings in foreign languages, particularly English, and they have opened the door a fraction to foreigners. To accommodate them, they have built the Koryo Hotel, a hotel of international standard that does not contain any images of the great leader. Since 1984 they have allowed joint venture companies to be set up, although so far there have been few taken apart from expatriate Koreans living in Japan. Strangely, one joint venture that has been set up is with a French company to build and operate a hotel in Pyongyang, as if there was not enough surplus hotel accommodation in the capital already. In recognition of the fact that they do need the outside world and have to make concessions to it, interaction between foreigners and locals, although strictly limited by any normal standards, has been greatly relaxed by theirs. Nevertheless they are still reluctant to emulate the Chinese example by decentralising some decision-making and throwing the door wide open to basically revitalise the economy by offering foreign capital their cheap labour and facilities in return for investment of funds and access to new technology.

Ultimately the Chinese road is the only road open to them, but as yet they are only taking a few faltering steps down it when they ought to be running. There are understandable reasons for their reluctance to do so. First of all, it could be seen as a dilution of ideological purity. Secondly, it would entail an admission that everything is not as they would have others believe. That would be almost tantamount to abandoning their campaign to con the South Korean working class into thinking they could have better lives in the embrace of the great leader. Thirdly, the impact of an open door policy could have a very unsettling effect on the internal situation.

At the moment the masses are contented with their simple lives. One of the reasons for this is that they do not know any better. The indications are that while some Koreans are so cocooned in their ideology that exposure to foreign influences will only have a superficial impact, there are others who, once they have glimpsed alternative ways of living, are bound to start feeling that theirs is a hard, limited and unrewarding life, and wondering if there is any need for it.

Among the interpreters who frequented the international hotels, there were plenty whose faith in their system seemed inviolable. There were others with whom you only had to scratch the surface for intimations of disenchantment to ooze out. Some of them had acquired a very distorted picture of the way the rest of the world lives because nearly all the foreigners they had come into contact with came from the more privileged echelons of their own societies. No matter whether or not contact with foreigners had a significant effect on their ideological orientation, there were few indeed who did not become susceptible to the craving for alcohol, foreign cigarettes, western pop music and everything else that makes life fun. More and more of them, in the brief time I was there, degenerated into blatant hustlers.

Foreign books were another much coveted commodity. As far as I could tell from what they have translated into English, their contemporary literature, written under the direction of the Party, consists entirely of naive tales with a clear ideological message, an uncomplicated plot, and rudimentary characterisation. Some of these have a certain charm. Others are merely pathetic. There may well be a large and appreciative audience for them among the masses of simple but literate workers and peasants, just as there is a large audience in our culture for simplistic literature like Mills and Boon romances. The problem in North Korea is that there is no alternative literature to satisfy the more intellectual members of society.

The big dilemma for the North Korean rulers is that to make any further economic progress they have to trade, they have to get access to new technology, and frankly they need some help. They need to open up. Unfortunately, the wider the door is opened, the more people will find out that the propaganda they are constantly fed is a load of fairy stories. This can only lead to increased discontent. Reluctant to take this risk, they try to boost the economy by asking the people to work harder. They resort to lunatic two-hundred-day campaigns where people are required to work twelve hours a day, seven days a week on a low protein diet. They have had similar campaigns before: a seventy-day campaign, a hundred-day campaign. But two hundred days is different; just short of seven months of nothing but relentless toil. No matter how high the ideological consciousness of the masses is raised, the body rebels against such demands. So this too must lead to discontent, especially when so much energy and resources are being wasted on absurd prestige projects like the 105-storey hotel and the Angol Sports Village.

North Korea is not a sporting nation but even before it made its bid to co-host the 1980 Olympic Games, Pyongyang already had an Olympic-sized swimming pool, an ice rink, a modern sports hall and the 100,000 capacity Kim Il Sung Stadium. Since then they have been building a 150,000 capacity stadium, a smaller 25,000 capacity stadium, a new swimming complex, and separate gymnasia for badminton, boxing, table tennis, weightlifting et cetera, in order to substantiate their claim that they could have realistically co-hosted the Olympics. These de luxe sporting facilities will probably never be used in the immediate future; they will be preserved in pristine condition to show foreign visitors for propaganda purposes. The majority of the facilities were still incomplete when I left Pyongyang in August, just a few weeks before the Olympics were due to start. Whether they could have been completed in time, I cannot say.

What I can say is that their effort to make political capital out of the Olympic issue is typical of the low level of thought that characterises the DPRK leadership at the moment. It is almost incredible that the leadership failed to grasp the simple concept that the Olympic Games are allocated to a city and not to a country. In this context their hopes that all the socialist countries, which originally voted en bloc against holding the Olympics in Seoul, would go as far as to boycott the games over the co-hosting issue were naive in the extreme. The amount of manpower and resources invested in building the facilities for co-hosting the games could not have been justified even if a significant proportion of the events had been conceded to Pyongyang. The country simply could not afford the expense. When the country’s priority is to court international prestige before improving living standards, and two-hundred-day campaigns are imposed on the people, then the country is degenerating into the sort of slave labour camp that prejudiced observers in the West would prefer to believe that it always was.

To whose account must these follies be laid? Given that power resides in the hands of the triumvirate of the president, his son and O Jin U, whose influence can be assumed to be minimal since his “accident”, then it must be either the man himself or his son. While I was in Pyongyang, rumour was rife that the president has adopted a largely ceremonial role and left the day-to-day running of the country in the hands of the dear Comrade Kim Jong Il. If this rumour is correct, perhaps the old man should resume the reins of power before the genuine achievements that were made under his rule are irrevocably undermined.<br><br>

Chapter 12

When I arrived back in Pyongyang at the end of March, the sun was shining. It was still cold. The spring had not yet sprung. But it was no longer bitter, bollock-freezing, horrendous cold. It was still what we would class as winter in Britain, but that is nothing by Korean standards. Now, I thought, the worst is over. I had seen off the winter. My holiday had restored me to sanity. From now on I could count down the weeks of my sentence remaining as opposed to counting up the weeks completed. I was cheered to find that my friend Sami had made a safe return from the Lebanon while I was away. In an unjustified burst of optimism that did not survive a fortnight of revising texts, I entertained hopes that I might enjoy the remainder of my stay.

As well as feeling more optimistic for myself, now that the scales of misery and boredom were temporarily lifted from my eyes, I could see again those aspects of the country that had made me fall in love with it when I first arrived seven months previously, although it seemed much longer. I was better informed now and my vision was less naive, but I again noticed with appreciation the cleanliness and the care for the environment and the orderliness, and once more my heart went out to the people for their gentleness and kindness, their warmth and simplicity. I remember saying to Sami something along the lines that all they needed to create a paradise for the Koreans – it could never, of course, be a paradise for somebody conditioned to a more normal type of society – was a bit of prosperity. Whether prosperity can be achieved in the DPRK without changing the essential nature of the society is doubtful.

Undeniably much progress has been made. The country has been resurrected from total devastation in the war. Living standards are frugal, but the whole population is adequately provided with the basic necessities. The people enjoy a very high degree of security. As long as they behave themselves, they have nothing to worry about. All the children go to school. There is a rudimentary free health service. School, factory and farm offer facilities for organised cultural and recreational activities.

A constant refrain of the president’s is that for a country to be truly independent, it must be self-sufficient economically, politically independent, and self-reliant in defence. Needless to say, he claims brilliant successes for his country on all three counts. He contrasts the situation in his country with that of South Korea, where the Americans exert a decisive influence on the internal politics, have supreme command of the army, and supply much of the military hardware.

His claims are exaggerated, but not without substance. North Korea is a member of the non-aligned movement and can claim a laudable record over the years for asserting its political independence from the Soviet Union and China. There is a school of thought that the world would be a safer place if North Korea was under Soviet control.

Militarily Pyongyang relies on Moscow for advanced weaponry but, according to an American professor, Edward Olsen, writing in the Far eastern Economic Review (14.5.87), “still stresses the need to be self-reliance in weaponry via domestic arms production, and in most categories of weapons it is self-reliant”.

By the standards of developing countries, the North Korean economy is pretty self-sufficient. Agriculturally, in spite of limited arable resources due to the predominantly mountainous terrain, they grow enough rice and maize to feed themselves. There have been years when they have had to import additional cereals. There have been years when they have had some surplus rice for export. Lately the food situation has not been so good. The weather has not been conducive to bumper harvests. The population is gradually expanding and, although they have a programme for reclaiming tidelands, there are no other additional arable resources to exploit. I have been told that if they could produce more chemical fertiliser they could increase per hectare yields, but this would be at the risk of exhausting the soil. It is a risk they seem prepared to run. One of the targets for the third seven-year plan, 1976-93, is to expand annual grain production to 15,000,000 tons. This is the same target incidentally as was set in the previous plan, 1978-84. Apart from grain, there is not much else to eat. Vegetables are not abundant.* (*They catch plenty of fish, but these they generally prefer to export.) Their animal husbandry is a disaster. One of the reasons for this may be that there is not enough grain to spare for the animals. There are only 200,000 beef and dairy cattle for the whole country. They have sought expert opinion and been told that the best hope for improving the national food supply lies in sheep. There are at present half a million sheep scattered around the country, but the numbers could be expanded very considerably. Many of the hillsides could be cleared of scrub and seeded with grass for sheep to graze on. Whether there is the political will to make the initial investment and pursue this option remains to be seen. One of the attractions of grain is that it can be stored up for time of war and easily distributed.

Industrially, the policy has been to give priority to the development of heavy industry and emphasis has been laid on the utilisation of domestic raw materials; North Korea enjoys extensive mineral wealth. The Koreans use their indigenous resources of coal and water to generate electricity. They manufacture steel. Korean-built trains run along Korean-built railway lines. Korean-made trucks convey to the sites of peaceful construction Korean-made building materials, including cement which their Hong Kong-based agent once told me is one product they do manage to manufacture to competitive world standards. He added that his difficulty lay in persuading prospective buyers that the cement was of genuine high quality because the general reputation of the country’s manufactured products is so low. In addition to heavy industry, they have sufficient light industry to provide the population with all the everyday necessities: clothes, cutlery, crockery, pots and pans, furniture et cetera. Nothing exciting and nothing of high quality. It may well be that they would do better to manufacture a narrower range of light industrial goods to an exportable standard and to import others. Still, if the rest of the world closed down tomorrow, North Korea could muddle along without it pretty well as it does already. This is no mean achievement, especially when one thinks of the third world countries which have a precarious reliance on a small number of primary commodities for export. Moreover, although the claim that the North Koreans have accomplished this all by themselves is not only an exaggeration but an act of ingratitude to their allies the Chinese, estimated to have donated a billion dollars in aid in 1987, the Russians, and the other socialist countries, it is true that the Koreans have probably received less foreign aid and technical assistance than most developing countries. Contrast, for example, the maximum of 1,000 eastern bloc technicians in politically independent North Korea, population approximately 20,000,000, with 35,000 eastern bloc technicians in Soviet satellite Mongolia, population approximately 2,000,000.

If Kim Il Sung’s goal for the country’s economy is self-sufficiency, he can claim to have done quite well. If another goal is prosperity, there is a long way to go and not much sign of getting there.

When talking about North Korean priorities, it should be remembered that the North Korean people are not just “energetically engaged” in the technical revolution to occupy the “material fortress of communism”, they are also carrying out the ideological and cultural revolutions to occupy the ideological fortress Win accordance with the plan for the complete victory of socialism expounded by the great leader Kim Il Sung” (Korean Review, p.65). And both Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il have stressed on numerous occasions that it is the ideological revolution that is of prime importance.

North Korea’s ideological revolution aims at nothing less than the remoulding of man, the creation of a new specimen of humanity, the communist revolutionary of Juche type. Every vestige of bourgeois individualism and selfishness is to be eradicated from the minds of the new communist men and women. They are to be conditioned to find self-esteem and fulfilment not by defining themselves as individuals against the background of society but through merging their personal identities with the collective. The sole aim of all their endeavour is to benefit the collective. Any benefit that accrues to the individual will only be in so far as he is a participant in the collective’s benefit. The Juche revolutionary will be boundlessly loyal to the leader and the party (in that order), an ardent patriot, a dedicated and uncomplaining worker, well-mannered but proud, simple-hearted and kind. He will have worthwhile hobbies and the morals of a Sunday school teacher. The good revolutionary will be guided through life at every step by the torch of the Juche Ideawhich is held aloft by the leader. The torch was originally kindled by the great leader who has divine status. The spark of his divinity has been transmitted to his son and heir. He may be expected to transmit it in turn to his son and heir and so on down through the generations.

The Juche state is not a loose economic coalition of individuals and their families like a bourgeois democracy. It is a total institution. The process of institutionalisation begins in childhood, for most citizens when they are admitted to nursery at a few months old, and continues through life. Since returning to England, I have been asked if life in North Korea is like the society depicted in Orwell’s 1984, where Big Brother is watching you. The answer is that the structure is similar but the texture of life is quite different. I return to the analogy of the vast boarding school where the fatherly leader, headmaster Kim Il Sung, imposes a strict but paternalistically benevolent regime on the pupils in his care. The restrictions are not resented because the people perceive them as schoolchildren perceive school rules, irksome but reassuring, imposed in their best interests by kindly and responsible adults. There is a safe feeling huddled together with one’s peers behind the arbitrary parameters of the rules. Each citizen is not only a pupil of the big school, he is also a member of a House within the school, a school or factory, a co-operative farm or office. Life, both productive and recreational, is largely lived within the sub-institution of the House, which duplicates the ethos of the greater institution, the school.

The actual schools in the country naturally play a crucial role in indoctrinating the young with the collectivist spirit. “We must strengthen the ideological education of the pupils,” Kim Il Sung tells a national meeting of teachers.

“We must educate the pupils in the spirit of collectivism.”

“Collectivism constitutes the basis of social life under socialism and communism. In a socialist and communist society the interests of the collective and society include those of every working man and woman; they are identical with those of the working people themselves. It is, therefore, an essential requirement of socialist and communist society that all people should work helping each other under the slogan of ‘One for all and all for one.”

“In order to equip pupils with the collectivist spirit, they must first be awakened to the fact that the force of the collective is greater than the force of individualism, that collective heroism is superior to individual heroism and that the organisational or collective life is more important than the private life of individuals. The pupils must be encouraged from childhood to reject individualism and selfishness, to love the organisation and the collective, and devote themselves to society and the people, to the Party and the revolution.” (CW, Vol. 26, p. 479)

If North Korea is like a school, it is a school with strong religious affiliations. The Juche Ideais like a state religion and the people literally the author and embodiment of the Juche idea, great leader Comrade Kim Il Sung.

Religious instruction is an important aspect of a child’s education in North Korea. At school the children are equipped with the “collectivist spirit”. They learn unquestioning obedience and unfailing politeness. They are trained to be orderly, clean and tidy. Like schoolchildren everywhere, they acquire numeracy and literacy. They learn to accept responsibility for the collective property; in Pyongyang I often saw children at school sweeping the yard, painting the doors, or cleaning the windows. And all the while they are reading or hearing legends about the infinitely wise, infinitely kind, infinitely brave father leader and learning hymns about him which they chant together as they march through the streets.

When the children leave their organisational life behind at the end of the day they return to another strictly regulated and largely stable institution, the traditional Asian family. In the bosom of their family, they watch television or listen to the radio and are exposed to further indoctrination.

If first priority is given to the ideological revolution, the cultural revolution is by no means neglected. The national literacy rate is high. In accordance with the leader’s instructions, all the children are taught to brush their teeth every morning and wash their feet before going to bed, so that even the ones who live in the meanest of whitewashed cottages look clean and presentable. Adults are encouraged and given opportunities to study in their spare time. Both adults and children are encouraged and given opportunities to pursue creative leisure interests. I met an impressive number of ordinary Koreans who could play a musical instrument; one of my translators played the trumpet, one of the policemen who guarded our compound played the guitar, and of the two girls who served at my favourite bar in the Potanggang one played the flute, the other the violin.

On completing the educational phase of their organisational life, young people move on to the adult institution, the workplace. Not only do they spend long hours working there, it is also the setting for much of their leisure activity. Even on the two major public holidays, the dear leader’s birthday and the great leader’s birthday, they turn up at the workplace in the morning for fun and games and on the evening before for dancing. On these occasions I watched from my balcony the factory workers in the yard below having volleyball tournaments, three-legged races, and tug-of-wars under the supervision of the tall, distinguished looking party secretary, a man whose authoritative bearing instantly marked him out as someone of standing even though most days he came to work in the same simple clothes and canvas shoes as everyone else.

As the weather grew milder, I started venturing out on my balconies to observe the workers more frequently. Once again I could not help being impressed by how they all seemed to enjoy their working lives. They always looked so cheerful when they arrived for work and they were all, like everyone else in Pyongyang, immaculately turned out; even the manual workers in their dark blues or olive drab working clothes looked clean and tidy and were neatly coifed. When they were told to cram into the back of a lorry to be taken out to the fields, or to help out on a construction site, they all acted as if it was great fun. They seemed to regard it not as an imposition but as an adventure. Often they would be squeezed on to the lorry for a good fifteen minutes before it was even ready to depart, but I never saw anybody grumbling about it.

Shortly after I came back from Hong Kong, they built a shed on to the side of the factory. One day I watched as a party of young female workers climbed onto the roof of the shed. As she set out on this awkward but not particularly perilous ascent, each girl would give a little pantomime of trepidation, which would be countered by shrieks of encouragement from her playmates. There were hugs and congratulations when she reached the summit. Slowly the numbers on the roof swelled until there must have been about twenty girls up there. They all thought it was wonderfully exciting. Once they were all up, they squatted in a row with their backs against the wall of the factory and did nothing except chatter and giggle and touch one another – North Korean girls are very physical in displaying their affection towards each other. After a while a couple of girls did set to work to perform the task they had been sent up there for: to spread tarpaper down on the wooden roof. No doubt more girls would have joined in and helped except that there were only two hammers and one bowl of nails between the lot of them. It was all perfectly charming, more like watching young children at play than young women at work. It was a typical North Korean scene; sweet, endearing, innocent people, without a clue what they are doing. These people may not be creating much wealth but they have a happy time being together. They are leading the collective life they have been trained for and they know nothing else.

I can honestly say that the citizens of sinister, Stalinist North Korea are the nicest people I have ever met in my life. They were nice to me, and they are nice to each other. The comradeship of the girls on the roof was touching to see and it was the sort of thing I saw all the time. It was touching when I came back from Hong Kong. The interpreters and the domestic staff at the Ansan Chodasso were people who had never been anywhere or had an adventure in their lives. Most were never likely to. Yet, far from being jealous, they were all genuinely thrilled that I had had a nice time. It was the same when I was negotiating over money. The people I negotiated with had a duty to minimise the publishing house’s expenditure but really they wanted me to have more money, they wanted me to be happy. In view of the frugal lives they had to live, they had every right to be resentful of my demands, but they were not.

In a whole year in Pyongyang, I only ever witnessed a handful of unpleasant incidents. There were a couple of occasions when I saw a scuffle as people tried to squeeze onto overcrowded buses and trolley-buses. It surprised me that this did not happen more often, particularly in winter when tired, underfed bodies, blood sugar levels depleted at the end of a long working day, had to wait in long queues for transport home in sub-zero temperatures. One Saturday afternoon I cam across two young men shaping up for a fight in a pedestrian underpass in Chollima Street. Once, walking in the streets, I saw a van driver stop his van and chase after a small boy for no apparent reason. He proceeded to give the child a good hiding until other citizens intervened. On another occasion, walking beside the Potang River, I saw a demented-looking chap hurling big stones at the ducks swimming in the middle of the river. It may be that throwing stones at animals is a national vice. At the zoo I saw several children, and worse, young adults, doing it. Another time I was present when a couple of young drunks barged their way through a crowded platform on the Metro. They calmed down after people gently remonstrated with them. I have seen more unpleasantness in a single evening in urban Britain on a Friday or Saturday night.

I have not forgotten my Chinese friend’s comment that there are bad Koreans but they dare not misbehave. However, it was my impression that it was not just close supervision and possibly a harsh legal code that caused North Korean people to maintain good standards of conduct. I felt there were positive factors at work as well. People tend to behave nicely when they feel all right about themselves, as most Koreans, guaranteed a fairly equal standard of living and a role in society, do. Before I left, there were indications that standards were falling, and I except them to continue to fall if living conditions continue to deteriorate and disillusionment seeps in. Even so, the deterioration is likely to be a slow process as people’s basic material needs are still being met, nearly everybody shares a common penury and, most important of all, everyone lives with the feeling of assurance that their needs will continue to be met. Security is the one commodity the citizen of the DPRK enjoys in abundance Between the support of the traditional Asian extended family and a comprehensive welfare system that guarantees employment, shelter, food, clothes, warmth (up to a point), free education and medical care, no one has too much to worry about. In this traditional Asian culture there are not even the stresses of competing in the sexual market-place. Most marriages are still arranged, commonly through the intercession of a matchmaker. The party has in recent years been encouraging young people to seek their own partner and fall in love, but so far, I am told, it is only the more highly educated who are responding. One interpreter told me that he was introduced to his wife as a potential partner by one of his friends. They then met a few times and once went for a walk by the river. He knew he had been accepted as a suitable bridegroom when she invited him to join her family on Ancestors’ Day for a picnic by the grave of one of her relatives. He said that prior to the mnage they had never touched, not even held hands, and that he actually would have preferred the girl who introduced them. Different Koreans I spoke to gave equally odd accounts of their courtship. I only ever met one who had enjoyed what we would consider a normal romance with his future wife.

The first book I read on my return from Hong Kong was Eric and Mary Josephson’s famous 1962 compilation of writings on the theme of alienation in contemporary capitalist society, Man Alone. It was the first serious book I had attempted in work. During the winter all I had wanted to read were escapist novels, of which Michael had a generous supply to lend me. There is a piece in Man Alone entitled Life in the Crystal Palace, by a writer called Alan Harrington, in which he relates his experience of working for a big American corporation which offered its staff idyllic terms of service and where promotion tended to be based on loyalty, reliability and seniority rather than on dynamism and initiative, and where it was “practically impossible to be fired, unless you drink to alcoholism or someone finds your hand in the cash box”. In this environment, Harrington comments, “Every so often I hear my seniors at the corporation inveigh against socialism, and it seems strange. I think that our company resembles nothing so much as a private socialist system. We are taken care of from our children’s cradles to our own graves. We move with carefully graduated rank, station and salary through the decades. By what marvellous process of self-deception do we consider our individual enterprises to be private? The truth is that we work communally. In our daily work, most of us have not made an important decision in years, except in consultation with others.

“Good people work here. Since joining the company I have not heard one person raise his voice to another in anger, and rarely even in irritation. Apparently when you remove fear from a man’s life you also remove his stinger. Since there is no severe competition within our shop, we are serene.”

It would seem that, whether in a rich American corporation or a poor third world country in Asia, it is possible to bring out the nicest qualities in people by giving them security. The other side of the coin may be that, as Harrington goes on to suggest, people lose an edge to their personality under such a benign system. He doubts whether his company could sustain its easy-going, paternalistic ethos if the product it was manufacturing faced stiffer competition in the market place.

Not only are all the citizens of the DPRK granted material security, they are also assigned a role to play and a religion to believe in. People are not susceptible to feelings of alienation because they are united as members of the same congregation with their president as prophet, if not God. Their religion gives them the common cause of fulfilling the great leader’s prophecy of a communist paradise on earth through building together the revolution and construction. As in all the most potent religions, the forces of good are displayed against the forces of evil which are incarnate in US imperialism and the South Korea puppet clique. The incarnations of evil are all the more sinister and threatening when they are invisible. No pictures of Chun Doo Hwan, Roh Tae Woo or Ronald Reagan are ever published in the DPRK. Denied human form, these creatures of darkness take on mythological dimensions in the popular imagination, like Satan or Beelzebub.

The Josephsons comment in their introduction to Man Alone: “Implicit in most approaches to alienation is the idea of an ‘integrated’ man and of a cohesive society in which he will find meaning and satisfaction in his own productivity and in his relations with others. As Emile Durkheim expressed it, man in a ‘solidaristic’ society ‘will no longer find the only aim of his conduct in himself and, understanding that he is the instrument of a purpose greater than himself, he will see that he is not without significance’.”

The North Korea in his highly organised, highly cohesive society, is fortunate to be the instrument of two purposes greater than himself: in the long term, the realisation of the fully communist society; in the shorter term, the achievement of national reunification. The latter is a particularly effective goal in terms of uniting the populace because it is less abstract than the other and appeals to the almost chauvinistic patriotism which seems to be inherent in the national character, and which is played upon ceaselessly by the propaganda machine. The common people still believe what they are told about the lamentable condition of their compatriots in the South, and that if they make sacrifices to build up a mighty national economy, this will inspire the South Koreans to rise up against their puppet rulers and their US masters in the struggle for a reunified Korea under the great leader and the banner of the Juche Idea.

Perhaps this sense of mission is another reason why the ordinary manual worker in North Korea likes being at work, even though he is performing the same unappealing tasks as manual workers everywhere. Whenever, years ago in vacations from school or college, I worked at manual occupations, I found that, while it would be an overstatement to say that manual workers actively hated their jobs, nearly all of them regarded their work as a necessary evil and something apart from their real lives, offering no intrinsic pleasure or interest but unavoidable if they were to have a decent standard of living.* (*With greater or lesser resignation, the worker put himself into cold storage when he clocked in in the morning and resumed himself when he clocked out at night.) The Josephsons would confirm my impressions. They cite a survey of industrial workers that showed “that for most of them work is not a central life interest. Nor do many of them value the informal associations with fellow workers that jobs offer. Durbin writes: ‘Not only is the workplace relatively unimportant as a place of profound primary human relationships, but it cannot evoke significant sentiments and emotions in its occupants.’ Other observers of factory life have made it abundantly clear that most workers are not happy in their jobs, that they feel trapped and degraded by their working conditions, that they have a powerful desire to escape from the factory, and that what drives them on is the incessant demands of our consumption economy.”

There is no question of North Korean workers being driven on by the “incessant demands” of their “consumption economy”. They are at work because they have to be of course, but it would never occur to them to be anywhere else. If they were not at work, there would be nothing else for them to do. On the positive side, being at work they are occupied, they are acquiring immortal socio-political integrity, and they get to have adventures like climbing on a roof or going for a ride on the back of a bumpy lorry with their friends. From kindergarten if not nursery they have lived most of their working lives collectively in institutions. They are conditioned to find themselves among their colleagues in the work institution. Being part of the collective at work is what life is all about. Being a worker carries status in their society. Gifted sportsmen, actors and singers enjoy a modest celebrity in their society but the main heroes, the subjects of media attention, are workers. The state can award no higher honour than that of Labour Hero. In North Korea, the worker is not regarded as a failure or an object of exploitation. The worker is the archetypal hero.


Burn yourself out
don’t burn by halves
burn and burn
till you turn to ashes
what use is a halfburnt stump?
If you’d stop halfway
just don’t starts
tay unburnt like greenwood
but if you’re for burning
burn yourself out
burn all the way
burn to ashes

“Love” by Lee Un-sang (Rohsan), 1903-1982
Translation adapted from Master Sijo Poems From Korea, Classical and Modern, 
selected and translated by Jaihiun Joyce Kim. Seoul: Si-sa-yong-o-sa Publishers, 1982