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>