Chapter 5

If my working life was dull beyond belief, my leisure hours were not much better. Pyongyang is a fascinating place to visit, but for the average foreigner it is an insufferable place to live. The majority of foreign residents in Pyongyang feel as if they are living on another planet, not just in another country.

By deliberate policy, the foreigner in Pyongyang is cut off from the life of the people. There are definite indications that the barriers against informal contact between foreigners and Koreans are in the process of being lowered, but as yet one can do little more than look over the top and say hello. The Koreans are not allowed to invite foreigners into their homes. They are only supposed to call upon foreigners if they have some specific business with them.

Previously Koreans were not allowed to meet foreigners informally in public places. This rule has recently been relaxed but there are not so many public places to meet. The Koreans are not allowed into the foreigners’ hotels except on business. Apart from the restaurants, which they can only afford to visit occasionally, there are few public places for Koreans to socialise with each other, let alone with foreigners. When Michael first arrived in Pyongyang the interpreters who were accompanying businessmen or delegations in the hotels were wary of conversing with any foreigner they were not officially with. By the time I arrived, they had been given the green light to associate freely with anyone who happened to be in the hotel at the same time, but it was still against the rules for them to go to the hotels except when they had official business there. One might strike up an acquaintance with a Korean and see him every night for a week. Then he would disappear from view for a few months until he was assigned to another delegation.

When one did come into social contact with Koreans, relations of friendship were inevitably stunted because they are not at liberty to speak freely and openly about their lives. They tend to be reluctant to divulge the most innocuous information about the realities of their daily lives. In the course of my year at the Ansan Chodasso there were two English-speaking interpreters who resided at the guest house for a few months. They were both extremely nice people and I became fond of them. However, it was impossible for friendship to develop beyond a superficial level as they were under the constant obligation to play the diplomat. I expect that it was on the basis of their ability to do this that the publishing house had selected them for a spell of protracted exposure to foreigners. The foreigners who learned the language did not necessarily get any closer to the people. The people still mouthed propaganda at them.

Even if we foreigners had not been excluded from it, in North Korea there was not much of what the rest of us call life in which to participate. For the majority of people in the real world the essential core of life is private life with family and friends. Whether we regard our work as totally alienating or deeply rewarding, we still tend to regard it primarily as a means to an end, earning our living. Ask a North Korean what his life is all about and he will most likely tell you that he is building the revolution and construction. On one level he would just be making propaganda and he knows it. But if in the event of catching him in a rare unguarded moment, you were able to press him and say Don’t just make propaganda, tell me the truth, he would probably think for a minute and then tell you, I am building the revolution and construction. This is partly because when the cultural environment consists entirely of propaganda, the distinction in the mind between propaganda and reality becomes obscured. It is also because life in North Korea consists of little else. There is practically nothing except the home and the workplace. In the communist ideology an individual’s private family life may be important and necessary but it is of secondary importance to his public life as a worker and member of the collective. Nowhere has there been a more concerted effort to translate this ideology into reality than in North Korea.

I could never find out exact details, but North Koreans spend an inordinate amount of time at their workplaces. The official working week is supposed to be forty-eight hours but this is condensed into five days, not six. On Saturdays they must attend the workplace for education, primarily of a political and ideological nature. Most factories and enterprises in urban areas also have responsibility for the cultivation of an acre of farmland.* (*The workers are transported to the fields as and when required.) The publishing house, for example, has a nine-acre farm outside Pyongyang. It is said that the Director General himself has to take a turn in the fields occasionally. I am unable to say whether time spent in the fields is included in the basic working week, or if it is a “voluntary” extra.

The workplace is also the setting for occasional organised social activities and for part-time study. Everyone is encouraged to study while working and a great many people do. At the Ryongsong Machine Factory in Hamhung, one of the country’s key industrial institutions, approximately half the technical personnel have qualified while working at the factory as opposed to graduating from university. The president has said that the ideal Juche revolutionary works eight hours a day, studies eight hours a day, and rests eight hours a day. I was variously told that workers are entitled to one or two weeks’ annual holiday. There are national holidays, May Day for example, but the workers normally have to then work Sunday instead to compensate.

Outside the workplace there are hardly any outlets for social activities, even in urban areas. There are theatres and cinemas in Pyongyang but these hold limited attraction. Except on special occasions like the Spring Arts Festival, nothing from the outside world is ever shown in them. North Korea does not produce many new films and plays and in any case these are all shown on TV. There is the Pyongyang circus. Soccer and ice hockey matches are played in empty stadiums and rinks and later shown on TV.

People in North Korea really are too busy building the revolution and construction to have time for anything other than an hour or two’s television before bed.

Foreigners are at liberty to enter the small number of restaurants and even smaller number of bars for the locals, but if they do not speak Korean they will need to be accompanied by an interpreter. They will also need to accept being stared at the whole time.

Realistically the only social outlets for the foreigners were a few joint venture restaurants, predominantly Japanese, which only the privileged locals could afford because they did not accept local currency, the International Club and the hotels for foreign guests. All these establishments had one thing in common. They were all largely deserted most of the time.

The International Club and the three oldest hotels, the Haebangsan Hotel, the Taedonggang Hotel and the Pyongyang Hotel, were all clustered in the vicinity of the Taedong Bridge. I seldom frequented any of these places. The International Club offered a bar, a restaurant, a pool room and other facilities, and for the DPRK unusually efficient staff, but it was not much used. I only ever went to the Haebangsan Hotel once. Many of the foreign students who were based in the provinces stayed there during their vacations. The least affluent of the Koreans from Japan stayed there when visiting the homeland. It felt more like a hostel than a hotel. The Taedonggang was the first hotel to be built after the war. A modest, three-storied affair with a granite faade, it was now a pretty shabby-looking hotel but it did have a pleasant coffee shop which was a popular meeting place for the younger Koreans from Japan, both the visitors and the ones who had taken the fateful plunge and repatriated.

Koreans who repatriate from Japan are allowed to bring with them all their savings and their possessions, including their car, from the capitalist world. They invariably live to regret it. Japanese cars do not run for ever. Spare parts have to be ordered from Hong Kong. Initially they are able to maintain a semblance of their accustomed life style. They can go to the Taedonggang and drink Suntory brandy. They can take their yen to the dollar shops to buy life’s little luxuries. The years go by. Their savings evaporate. Economic conditions in the country do not alter. Eventually they end up with the same abominably dreary life style as all the other inhabitants except that they have the fatal memory of something better. The Pyongyang Hotel, an ugly, characterless building both inside and out, superseded the Taegongang as Pyongyang’s leading hotel. I was told that it had quite a few guests sometimes but on the odd occasion that I went there, these were few customers in the bar. This may have been partly due to a chubby barmaid who seemed to regard serving customers as an unwarranted intrusion on her leisure time.

Nearer to where I lived were the Changgwangsan Hotel and the Koryo Hotel. The Changgwangsan contained on the ground floor a prohibitively expensive coffee shop, over two dollars for a bottle of Japanese beer, more than double the price elsewhere in Pyongyang, and on the 18th floor and the DPRK’s premier, in fact its only active night-spot, a discotheque which was known on occasion to hold as many as two or three hundred people. Elegant, twin-towered, forty-six storeys high, complete with rooftop revolving restaurant* (*never actually open while I was there) the Koryo Hotel, completed in 1985, is Pyongyang’s one hotel of international class, the rest being at best of average tourist standard. The Koryo and the country’s other luxury hotel, the Myohyangsan at Mount Myohyant, are remarkable for not containing enormous pictures of the leader in the entrance hall. This fact and the fact that they exist at all are symptomatic of Pyongyang’s tentative leaning towards a more open door policy and a willingness to compromise a little with the outside world.

Nearest to home were the Potanggang Hotel, which I adopted as my local, and the Ansan Club, a motel-type complex where guests were assigned little bungalows instead of rooms or suites. The Ansan Club contained a good dollar shop and Korean and Japanese restaurants which were very popular with the local people who had some red won to spend. For a brief period in 1984 it was the scene of a legendary social experiment. Although it seems improbably that the authorities in the DPRK, where it is considered indecent for a woman to wear her skirt above knee length, could ever sanction such a thing, I heard from sufficient sources to give it credence that for a few months there were professional ladies available for hire in the Ansan Club at a hundred dollars a time. The rumours conflict as to whether the girls were imported from Thailand or the Philippines. One thing is for certain. They were not Korean. Nobody knew why the experiment folded. It may have been because the prices were too high to attract enough business. Or it may have been that the girls were unable to cope with the life – or lack of it – in Pyongyang.

There seem to be two reasons why all these places are so dead, except for brief explosions of social activity when Pyongyang plays host to a big international convention or parties of eastern European tourists. The first reason is that there are precious few foreigners living in this city with an official population of two million, the capital of a nation of twenty million people. The second reason is that many of the foreigners who do live in Pyongyang are overcome by apathy and fail to make an effort. A Latin American diplomat once complained to me that in other cities to which he had been posted, there used to be a lot of informal socialising within the diplomatic community, but in Pyongyang there was nothing but protocol. An Ethiopian visitor could not believe the depression and despondency he had encountered among the residents at his embassy. He recalled how, living in war-torn Kabul, there had been a thriving social life among the expatriate community with people holding regular parties in their homes. Perhaps it is the absence of life as the rest of the world knows it, coupled with the total estrangement from life as the Koreans know it, that breeds the apathy and negativism that most foreigners who are condemned to live in Pyongyang for any length of time succumb to.

Although there are now more foreigners to be seen in Pyongyang than there have been for years, the foreigner is still a sufficiently rare species that is it impossible to walk anywhere without being stared at the whole time. I was told by a Soviet diplomat in April 1988 that there were only about 700 Soviet technicians in the whole country. Only a minority of these are resident in Pyongyang.

There was a tiny foreign business community in the city. I met one Yugoslav businessman who was living in the Potanggang Hotel. Simone was friendly with a Polish couple who were something to do with shipping.

There was a handful of foreigners teaching in the universities, including one American teaching English as a foreign language.

There was our little community of revisers.

During the time I was there, there was a colony of West German engineers living in the Koryo Hotel. They had come to North Korea to build a new cement factory. To a man they hated being there. Every night they gathered in the basement bar of the Koryo to try and keep their spirits afloat with copious quantities of beer and champagne.

There were a small number of foreign students studying in North Korea. To help maintain their political and economic ties, the USSR and other East European countries assign a small number of students to study Korean, most of whom spent a year or two in Pyongyang mastering the language. Holmer had spent two years as a student in Pyongyang. Quite a few of the East European diplomats in Pyongyang had first come to Korea as students. There was a representation of students from China and Syria, a country which maintains strong ties with the DPRK. Most auspicious on the social scene were the Africans. There were contingents from Guinea and a couple of other francophone West African countries. There were English-speaking contingents from Lesotho, Zambia, Tanzania and Ethiopia. Student exchanges between the DPRK and Africa had begun in 1982 in the interests of international friendship and South-South co-operation. The experiment had not been much of a success and no new African students were arriving.

Some of the students were studying at universities in Pyongyang. Some were studying medicine in the northern industrial city of Hamhung. More were studying agronomy in the East coast port city of Wonsan. Those based in Hamhung and Wonsan all used to look forward to coming up to Pyongyang for their vacations, two weeks at Christmas, six in the summer – they were allowed longer holidays than the Korean students. Pyongyang may not have much to offer but in the provinces, there is nothing. All the African students were male. There had briefly been some female students as well, but their liberal ways had so alarmed the locals that they had had to be recalled.

Whenever I felt that the emptiness of life in Pyongyang was more than I could bear, I used to remind myself of Sujar and John, Lazaro and Giland, and how much more they had had to cope with and for how much longer. I doubt if the average Soviet dissident exiled to Siberia for a few years suffers more at the hands of his government than these good-natured, fun-loving young men who had had to sacrifice some of the best years of their lives in the interests of promoting international friendship. None of the ones I talked to had the faintest idea of what they were letting themselves in for when they volunteered to go to Korea. Most of them were serving five-year sentences studying agronomy or engineering. Those studying medicine at Hamhung were condemned to seven years, but most of these had the compensation that they were getting the chance to qualify as doctors in Korea when they had not been able to gain admission to medical school in their own country.

They had all had to spend their first year learning Korean before embarking on their courses proper. To learn Korean in one year is a tough assignment. They had all become fluent in conversation, but not all of them were able to follow their lectures easily and many had to plough through their textbooks with constant reference to the dictionary.

Most of them felt that on the whole the quality of the education they were receiving was reasonable, although no better than they could have received at home.* (*Some of them criticised the teaching method which consisted to a large extent of learning by rote.) The agronomists complained that all the Koreans knew how to cultivate was rice and maize. They certainly would not have learned anything useful about animal husbandry. DPRK propaganda is full of references to modern, mechanised duck plants, pig plants and chicken plants. The Koreans will not be told that in English one cannot use the term plant in this way. They reject the word farm as too antiquated to reflected their advanced techniques of breeding animals on a mass scale. The reality is that the meat supply is abysmal. North Koreans eat meat on gala occasions like the president’s birthday. Otherwise they are lucky if they get sufficient meat now and again to flavour their soup.

The Africans were not too dissatisfied with the quality of their Korean education, but they were aware that it would count for little in terms of prestige when they got home. Moreover, they had to put in long hours to earn that qualification. They may have been granted longer holidays than their Korean classmates, but vacations were still minimal by international standards and they had to attend classes six days a week. Because of financial constraints and the distance involved, the most they could hope for was to spend one summer at home in a five-year stint. In other years the only breath of freedom they enjoyed was a week or two in Beijing or Hong Kong.

Money was tight for them. Although well-off by local standards, their allowance when converted into blue won was such that a night out meant nursing a couple of small cans of beer. One thing they all agreed upon, however, was that no matter how bad life was in North Korea now, it was infinitely better than when they first arrived. There had been no Koryo Hotel then, no Changgwansan disco. There was not even a proper bar then in the whole of Pyongyang, and there were far fewer foreigners passing through to meet. They had had to report to the college authorities whenever they went in or out and, they assured me, they really had been followed everywhere they went. These practices had only ceased after they made protestations through their embassies.

The one thing that really got these chaps down, though, was not the monotony of life, the hard work, the lack of cash, the surveillance or the homesickness. It was the lack of sexual opportunity. North Korean girls are not readily seducible. The prevailing moral code is chastity before marriage. There is compelling social pressure on the female to preserve her purity for her future husband. The society is also nationalistic almost to the point of xenophobia. To have sex out of wedlock is very bad. To have sex with a foreigner is unspeakable. Although the foreign students had the advantages of speaking the language and being able to communicate and to make informal contacts at college, the psychological barriers they had to break down were immense. They then encountered the further problem in such a closely supervised society of lack of privacy and opportunity. In the foreign students’ hotels lived Korean guides who were there ostensibly to assist them, but also to keep a careful eye on them. Many of the female students would be living at home with their parents or, if they lived in a students’ hostel, they would be sharing rooms. As one African explained to me, the only chance you get is late at night and then you end up doing it in a bush.

Contraception is another practical problem. North Korea is not a place where you can walk into a chemist’s and pick up a packet of Durex from the counter. I am told that married women are routinely given contraceptive injections at the clinics, a method of contraception deemed far too medically damaging for normal use in developed countries.

Some students did register the occasional success. A Zambian friend told me that he had managed two relationships with local girls during his five years. The first relationship ended abruptly when the girl made a sudden disappearance from the campus. He tried to find out what had happened to her but nobody would say anything. His conclusion was that their relationship had been discovered and his girl friend had been executed. From my observation of the society, I personally think it far more likely that she had been deemed unworthy of higher education on account of her moral weakness and been packed off to a construction site to push wheelbarrows for the rest of her life. Having said that, my friend was an intelligent young man who had lived in the country for five years, and I later met another African who postulated the same fate for a girl he had been associating with who made a sudden and mysterious disappearance.

The only other significant group of foreign residents in the DPRK are the diplomats.* (*The DPRK is recognised by all the communist countries, most of the developing countries, and among advanced capitalist countries by the Scandinavian nations and Austria.) However, many countries which maintain formal links with North Korea do not maintain an embassy in Pyongyang. Instead, their ambassador in Beijing doubles as ambassador to Pyongyang, making only the occasional visit on business or for a special occasion like the president’s birthday. Of the diplomats who do reside in Pyongyang, one does not see so much. The Russians are numerous enough to create their own little social microcosm in the embassy. There is even a special satellite to beam Soviet TV programmes to the embassy. There are diplomats from poorer third world countries whose social activities are curtailed because they only have blue won. Many are invisible because they have simply given up a life in Pyongyang and have adopted a policy of waiting out time. An Asian diplomat told me that his country allowed diplomats to take emergency home leave twice in their career, and everyone who came to Pyongyang found some pretext to use up on of their options.

Without access to the local community and with such a small and incohesive expatriate alternative, one largely relied on foreign transients for social stimulus and interest. As well as the Koreans visiting the homeland from Japan, there is a steady stream of tourists passing through from the socialist countries during the summer months. Then there are scientists and technicians whose visits have usually been arranged by the United Nations Development Project. There are even people coming over to try and do business. Theirs can be a frustrating undertaking. As one young businessman from Hong Kong explained to me, “We’ve been here seven times this year trying to do a deal. The trouble with these people is they’ve got no money. They never will have any money unless they modernise their industry. If they don’t buy our equipment, they can’t modernise. They ask for more and more discount and we can’t give them any more. We waste hours and hours going round in circles. As soon as you think you’ve got somewhere, the guy says he has to go and consult somebody else before he can make a decision. Now we’ll probably have to raise the price because the dollar’s fallen. These people are just so stupid.”

The only time any of the hotels actually becomes crowded, however, is when Pyongyang is playing host to an international conference. During the first few months I was there, Pyongyang was the venue in quick succession for the first film festival of non-aligned countries, a World Health Organisation regional conference, a conference for denuclearisation in the Pacific region, and the annual conference of the World Federation of Democratic Youth, among others. It was possible to park oneself at one of the bars in the Potanggang or the Koryo with a reasonable expectation that one would fall in with interesting people from all corners of the globe, all of whom, whether they came from Sweden or Venezuela, from Indonesia or from Ethiopia, were, if they were going to talk to each other, going to have to do so in English.

The opportunity to meet a diversity of interesting people from different countries, different societies and different walks of life was one of the few positive aspects of my year in Pyongyang. I returned with a wallet full of cards that I had been presented with by nice people, whom I will never be able to afford to visit. Like most other aspects of my life in North Korea, constantly meeting new, interesting people became less of an attraction the longer I stayed there. Although it has much to be said for it in the short term, in the long term it is no substitute for ongoing friendships and the sense of belonging within a community. Moreover, even in the summer months, Pyongyang is by no means teeming with visitors and there were weeks when the hotels could be almost as deserted as in winter.

The opportunity to meet other foreigners brought with it the opportunity to meet more Koreans. Wherever in North Korea there are foreigners, there must needs be interpreters. Where there are English speaking foreigners, there must be English-speaking interpreters. As previously stated, the interpreters were at one time uneasy about talking to foreigners they were not officially attached to, but this had changed by the time I arrived. The authorities presumably came to the sensible view that if the country is going to open up somewhat to the outside world, and as Pyongyang is scheduled for an influx of 20,000 foreign visitors for the 13th World Festival of Youth and Students in the summer of 1989, they can no longer shelter their polyglot elite completely from the pernicious influence of the outside world. From the Korean point of view there is an element of risk in this. They are concerned lest the interpreters divulge more to the foreigner than the foreigner ought to know. They are concerned lest the foreigner disclose more information to the interpreter about the outside world in general, and how the outside world views North Korea in particular, than is good for the interpreter. The interpreter will hear a lot more open speech if he is among an informal group of foreigners drinking together, all half-pissed, than if he is with an individual foreigner or specific group of foreigners in a relationship analogous to host and guest.

Most of the interpreters were young and the vast majority were male. The Koreans did not like to expose their women’s purity to unnecessary danger. Interestingly, on one of the few occasions when I did meet a female interpreter, they had assigned her to an African gentleman who could have been a prototype for Othello. The poor girl was in visible turmoil as he put his quiet charms to work on her. Many of the interpreters seem to be from privileged families. I met two whose fathers had been ambassadors. With their privileged backgrounds, their knowledge of languages and the opportunities for both travelling and meeting foreigners at home, the interpreters were quite sophisticated by North Korean standards. By any other standards they were like children. Early on I remember being amazed when I came across a group of young women in their late teens or early twenties whom I guessed to be college students playing tag on the banks of the Potang River. It was not just that they were playing a childhood game, but they were playing it with the high-pitched abandonment that does not survive the junior school playground in the West. Later I understood that childhood is a protracted process in North Korea, but it still seemed an extraordinary thing for unmarried university teacher of thirty years of age to excuse himself from the Koryo at quarter to ten because his parents had only given him permission to stay out until ten o’clock.

I got to know a few of the interpreters but, with one or two exceptions, I did not cultivate their acquaintance too much. This was mainly because they did not have any money, and so if you bought a drink for yourself it was awkward not to always buy one for them as well. Some of them were greedy and would ask you to buy them cigarettes as well, or order drinks for their friends without telling you, and expect you to pay. From the point of view of researching this book they sometimes proved a good investment. Sometimes they would tell you things when they were drunk that they ought not to. Just as often, they would tell you something that was obviously true which they naively thought was good propaganda, but which in fact was quite detrimental. They were invariably in awe of the freedom and affluence enjoyed by the foreigners they met. It did not happen to me because I kept them at arm’s length, but Michael and Jean-Jacques were subjected to the most tedious and sycophantic hero-worship.