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of sophisticated technological expertise and most of their industrial plant and equipment is twenty or thirty years out of date.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>