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.
“No. China Changsha.”
This evidently confused her. “China?” she asked.
“Yes. China. Changsha in China.”
“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.