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.