Chapter 7

The Ansan Chodasso was handily situated for observing the construction in progress. This was not an inconsiderable asset. There is not much else to see in Pyongyang. Pyongyang is a nice, clean, orderly place and offers some pleasant walks by the river, but it has little variety and none of the colourful street life that makes other third world cities so fascinating to wander about in. Because it has all been recently built and is the city of what is truly a nearly uniformly working-class society, Pyongyang is a pretty homogeneous place. It is the same throughout the city: wide main roads fronted by blocks of multi-storeyed apartment buildings and, discreetly tucked away behind them, meaner apartment blocks and rows of little white tile-roof cottages for the less advantaged citizens. As for street life, when they are not hard at work building the socialist construction or participating in some other approved, organised activity, the people are at home watching the locally assembled black and white television sets they saved up for months to buy.

The Ansan Chodasso overlooked a light industry complex which included a printing works and a briefcase factory. Both my rooms gave on to spacious balconies. From my bedroom balcony I overlooked the entrance to the complex and I could watch our dainty doll-like people’s guards, automatic rifles at the ready, bayonets fixed, in inaction as they safeguarded the revolutionary gains. All the factories and enterprises in North Korea, including the publishing house, have armed guards on duty at the gates around the clock. It is an extraordinary precaution in a country with precious little crime. Officially their presence is to guard against spies and saboteurs as well as criminals. The real purpose for this and other similar phenomena in the DPRK is to impress upon the people that they are living in a society under siege from hostile forces, so that they will adopt n appropriate siege mentality where one accepts that it is necessary to work jolly hard to survive and unrealistic to entertain expectations of greater reward, and where everyone must pull together and trust their leaders because danger is lurking just outside the door. As an additional security precaution a few workers are assigned each night to sleep at their factory.

It was a dull old life being a people’s guard. Our little girls, however, could look forward to some variety in their day’s work as they took it in turns to guard the back of the factory as well as the front. Every so often two of them would march in single file diagonally across the yard and disappear behind the building opposite. A few minutes later the two they were relieving would march back towards the front gate. They usually performed this ritual in correct military fashion but once I saw a pair of them lose their discipline after stopping to banter with some of the boys from the factory. They finished up crossing the yard side by side, giggling and holding hands, rifles still slung incongruously over their shoulders.

My living room balcony overlooked the yard and the three main buildings of the complex, two of which had been erected in the space of just one month in 1986 with the minimum of mechanical assistance, through what they call a “vigorous speed campaign”. Two years later, hardly any of the windows had been glazed. Polythene sheets held wind and rain at bay. Glass is expensive and the construction can be built quite satisfactorily without the luxury of windows.

Several hundred workers were employed there. Most of them were young. Every morning I would see them arriving eagerly for work on foot. Not even the director general or party secretary warranted a car. There was a factory car, a small Toyota, but it was strictly to convey senior management on official business. No-one came to work on a bicycle. Although common elsewhere in North Korea, the use of bicycles is severely restricted in Pyongyang, presumably because bicycles would make the country’s showpiece look untidy and give the place a third world air. At lunch time the young workers would all be outside playing noisy and energetic games of volleyball and football, just like in a school playground. When they had to go and work in the fields, they were packed like sardines into the backs of lorries. The girls used to put sheets of cardboard down on the floor of the truck to keep the seats of their pants clean – Koreans are very fastidious like that – and squeeze up together with their knees tucked under their chins. They thought it was a great adventure. All round the clock old-fashioned machinery hummed and boomed, the pulse and heartbeat of the great socialist construction.

The nearly construction site of the bridge could be a considerable nuisance when one wanted to go to the Potanggang, but it was also a focus of interest. Apart from a few cranes that in Europe would have been rejected as too dilapidated for an industrial museum, there was no machinery permanently on site. The bridge was erected with the help of slow, antiquated cement mixers, wheelbarrows, spades and base muscle. I saw workers dragging great slabs of concrete into position with the aid of nothing more than ropes. They did not have proper scaffolding with which to support the structure of the bridge, but improvised with rough-hewn timbers nailed together.

The period when I was there coincided with an orgy of construction work in Pyongyang. They were building a new airport and enough high-rise apartment blocks to house a projected 25,000 families. To put a veneer of reality on their bid to co-host the 1988 Olympic Games with Seoul, precious manpower and material were being squandered on building a complex of sports halls and gymnasiums known as the Angol Sports Village, the 150,000 capacity Runguado Stadium, and a number of hotels including a world-record-breaking 105-storey hotel to augment the hotels they already have standing empty for ninety per cent of the time. Consequently the capital could not furnish enough manpower for all these building projects and young workers had had to be mobilised from the provinces to build the bridge. The young workers not only worked on their construction site, they lived on it in cramped temporary barracks which they put up themselves and where they slept side by side on the floor with scarcely room to turn over. They kept their accommodation scrupulously clean. They slept on a raised floor. Just inside the door was a gully where they left their shoes so as not to drag dirt into the sleeping area. They were warm in winter, thanks to the proximity of their comrades and underfloor heating. The traditional Korean cottage boasts a rudimentary but effective central heating system. The kitchen stove is at one end of the cottage, but instead of the heat being discharged straight up a chimney, it is carried through a pipe beneath the floor and expelled at the other end of the building. As the workers’ kitchens were housed in a separate building, they lit a fire in an outside fireplace at one end of their barracks and employed the same principle.

Both men and women were mobilised for this construction project. The women endured the same spartan living conditions as the men and performed the same arduous toil in sub-zero temperatures in winter or in the torrential monsoon rain in summer. Like workers in more permanent establishments they were expected to augment their food supply by cultivating their own vegetable patches. They even kept a few pigs. In the autumn they clogged one stretch of river with a particularly repulsive-looking water plant that nobody could tell me the English name for: a sort of grotesque cousin to the lotus, it was bright green in colour and rubbery in texture. Pigs apparently love it.

An outsider might have reasonably compared their living conditions to a slave labour camp. They did not see it that way. They were discharging their revolutionary duty and exalting their youth. They were sharing the joys of comradeship. They might well have accounted themselves privileged to have been given the opportunity to leave their native places and stay for two years in the famous metropolis.

Scattered around the construction site were noticeboards plastered with revolutionary posters and slogans exhorting them to work harder, and also charts showing the number of workpoints that were being scored by each work-team and individual worker. Some pecuniary award attached to high scores but it was not substantial. The chief motivation remained personal pride and prestige. Top scorers each week had their photographs taken, something North Koreans love, and displayed on the noticeboards for public admiration.

As on all North Korean construction sites, they were visited at intervals throughout the day by loudspeaker vans to spur them on with stirring revolutionary music interspersed with slogans shrieked out in a shrill falsetto. Less frequently itinerant brass bands would come round and treat them to a live concert.

These young people are the communist revolutionaries of Juche type who have been moulded behind North Korea’s sealed frontiers, immunised from any corrupting influence from the outside world, any breath of doubt or freedom, any knowledge of an alternative life. From early childhood they have been trained to live disciplined, organised and collective lives. Had it not been financially impracticable, Kim Il Sung would have preferred all the children to be educated in boarding schools so that their conditioning could have been more rigorous. They are conditioned to behave as soldiers, ready to obey any order at any time, no questions asked, without thought for their personal safety or well-being. They must trust their cadres in the chain of command that descends from Supreme Commander Great Leader Comrade Kim Il Sung to have thought of that for them.

They are taught that they live in an ideal society where the worker is master of the state and of his destiny, enjoying benefits and privileges denied to workers elsewhere in the world, and that they must at all times behave in a manner befitting masters. In their culture the worker is constantly portrayed as hero. Everything they read, see and hear throughout their lives reinforces those messages. They are also inducted into the community, comfort and consolation of the state religion. They are united in worship of the great leader. Doubt and deviance are dealt with paternalistically by the cadres who must be priests of Juche first, managers and technicians second, and who are expected to try and emulate the qualities of the fatherly leader.

These people are the sort of labour force Mrs Thatcher must dream about. Utterly quiescent, they will go anywhere they are needed in the economy. They will put up with the most basic living conditions. They will accept minimal wages. They will perform back-breaking toil without protest or complaint on a daily diet of pickled cabbage and seven hundred and fifty grams of grain. They do not strike. They are patriotic and grateful for what they are given. Most of them are even chaste. There are some workers who, when their day’s work at their own work place is done, go voluntarily to another work place or construction site to lend a hand in their spare time.