I have long subscribed to the view that physical illness usually has a psychological component.
I felt quite healthy the first few weeks in Pyongyang, when everything was new and I was enjoying myself. The work was absurd, of course, but it was different, it was stress-free, and a rich source of unintentional humour. The sun shone as it ought to when a chap is on holiday. When I was not working I roamed the streets like the dedicated tourist I was, devouring the sights and sounds, trying to form an understanding of the culture. I drank Scotch on my balcony, watching the factory hands at work and play. I explored the construction site. I liked to travel on the Pyongyang Underground with its murals, brass reliefs, marble floors and pillars, gaudy coloured lights and interminable escalators.
It takes a good two or three minutes to descend from the surface to the platforms on the Pyongyang Underground. The stations are deliberately deep below the surface in order to serve as air-raid shelters in the event of another war. It is forbidden to save time by walking on the escalators. At the foot of the escalators are little glass cabins in which officials are stationed to watch out for people breaking the rules. Nobody does break the rules and the officials are usually asleep.
A particular source of fascination and Pyongyang’s number one tourist attraction was the traffic conductresses in their gorgeous kingfisher blue uniforms (except in summer, when they exchange their blue tunics for white). There are traffic conductors as well, but they are far outnumbered by the female of the species and are far less interesting. These invariably stunning-looking girls stand in the middle of the road at every major junction and imperiously direct the traffic rotating with stylised movements like well-drilled guardsmen and pointing with their red and white striped batons, like miniature barber’s poles, that turn luminous at night. It may be that this occupation carries high prestige. It is fairly obvious that they are selected partly for their good looks and physical grace. For whatever reason, these young women seemed to have taken the great leader’s dictum about adopting the attitude of masters of society more to heart than any other distinguishable group of workers. Even away from their posts, they strode the pavements of Pyongyang with all the poise and assurances of millionairesses in Knightsbridge.* (*It will be a sad day when traffic lights become the norm in Pyongyang. Already they have some in place, but as yet they cannot afford the electricity to run them.)
In the context of a holiday, it was very nice to go to the Koryo Hotel of an evening and meet different people every night from all over the world in luxurious surroundings.
By the middle of October, the weather had started to turn cold, I was fed up with sitting at a desk all day revising stupid texts, I had seen as much as there was to see in Pyongyang (more or less), I was weary of striking up ephemeral friendships. I had had enough of eating rice and soup twice a day, seven days a week. We were, in fact, served other dishes as well but rice and soup were the staple at lunch and dinner. David Richardson’s predictions about the mail had come true and the lack of news from home was unsettling. In short, I had had a good, long holiday abroad and I wanted to go home. Although I was still charmed by the country and under a lot of misapprehensions, it was beginning to dawn upon me that I had made a mistake. I was coming to the realisation that in Pyongyang it would be impossible for me to establish any sort of real life for myself, even on a temporary basis. A friend of mine from Hong Kong who occasionally came to Pyongyang on business echoed what were to become my feelings when he said that it was one of his favourite places to visit, and the last place he would ever want to live. My problem was that I had given up a job in England and it would take me many months to save enough money to cushion my return.
My initial response to this emotional turnabout was denial. I tried to force myself into a positive frame of mind. I suspect the effort set up tension that contributed to my illness. Afterwards I allowed myself to loathe every minute spent in Pyongyang. I counted off the days and weeks of my sentence on the calendar like a prisoner and remained reasonably well. I also turned my vague intention to write about being in Pyongyang into a firm resolve. It seemed the only way to redeem the time.
There were many little things in life I missed in Pyongyang. I missed turning on the television and understanding what was being said. I missed having my own car outside the front door. I missed being able to walk down the street without being stared at. One of the things I missed most was playing football. In Leeds I used to keep tolerably fit by playing five-a-side football at least once a week.
There were not many opportunities available for physical recreation to the foreigner in Pyongyang. Apart from the ubiquitous table tennis tables, there did not seem to be many opportunities for sport available to the average Korean adult. For me, the only option was swimming, something I had not done for a long time in Leeds. There is a tiny pool in the basement of the Koryo Hotel. There is also an Olympic-sized pool in the Changwang Health Complex.
The Changwang Health Complex is a typical Pyongyang public building, all granite on the outside, all marble within. It contains the swimming pool and an indoor and an outdoor wading pool. But during the week, when foreigners are forbidden entry, the most popular facilities are the baths. There are two floors of baths. There are communal baths, private baths, and family baths. Nothing fancy, not Turkish baths or sauna baths; simply places for the population to come and get clean. Even today in North Korea most households are without hot running water and bathing facilities. Even in some of the newer apartment blocks, where baths and showers are installed, they are having difficulty for some reason in supplying just cold water for more than three or four hours a day. However, people evidently do not consider it any hardship to go down to the Changwang Health Complex to take a bath. I knew young people from privileged families who had baths at home and hot water, as in the Ansan Chodasso, supplied regularly for about five hours a day for two-thirds of the year, who still went down to the Changwang Health Complex for a bath and a drink in the cafeteria afterwards as a social activity. As I keep saying, there is not a lot to do in Pyongyang.
On Saturdays, in typical North Korean fashion, the foreign residents are allowed in and the Koreans are kept out. It is the swimming pool’s turn to become the popular facility. I took to going down for a long swim every Saturday afternoon. On Sundays I used to ache in my left shoulder. This did not surprise me. The previous August I had incurred a nasty fracture of my left arm in a collision playing football. It happened in the same week as I applied for the job in North Korea. There was a psychological component to this injury. Anyone who is so weak in the head as to be seriously contemplating working in North Korea is in far too delicate a state to be taking part in a robust game of soccer. The fracture took a long time to mend. My arm was in pot for fully thirteen weeks. As my shoulder was consequently immobilised all this time, it was predictable that there should be some atrophy of the muscles and that they should ache after unaccustomed exercise. I could live with a certain amount of stiffness and discomfort on a Sunday. It was a small price to pay for the sense of well-being that follows a good workout and for having something to look forward to on Saturday afternoons in Pyongyang. I was not too worried when I woke up on a Sunday morning towards the end of October, in pain rather than discomfort. I thought I had probably stiffened up more than usual as a result of walking straight home after swimming, when a stiff autumn wind was blowing, instead of having a cup of coffee while my body temperature normalised. I was not unduly worried that evening when I set out for the disco at the Changgwangsan Hotel to meet some East German tourists I had befriended, only to have to turn back because I was in too much discomfort to be able to socialise with anybody. I drank a couple of beers out of the fridge, went to bed, and fell asleep immediately.
Nothing prepared me for the agony with which I was thrust into consciousness at four o’clock that morning. I spent the next ten minutes trying to lever myself out of bed with the help of my bedside table. Although the slightest movement compounded the pain, I was impelled by that blind compulsion to escape that always overrides the obvious rationale that it is impossible to move away from pain when it is inside one’s own body. That same compulsion had me pacing the floor for the next three and a half weary hours as I waited for the building to come to life so that I could seek help. I could not lie down. I could not sit. I could not read. I drank innumerable cups of coffee and smoked and paced and paced. There was only one thought that penetrated the cloud of pain that rose up out of my shoulder blade and enveloped my consciousness. What the hell was I doing here? In Leeds I would have been straight out of my front door, into the car, and into the comforting embrace of Leeds General Infirmary’s casualty department.
The time passed eventually. I went down to breakfast. I asked Michael, who was adept at both French and Spanish, to speak to the interpreters on my behalf. Presently I was whisked off to the Foreigners’ Hospital in Pyongyang, a hospital specially reserved for foreigners and overseas Koreans. It is in line with typical North Korean policy that they provide a special well-equipped and well-appointed hospital for foreigners. They do not want any unnecessary contact between foreigners and locals, and they wish to give foreigners a misleading impression of the high standard of medical facilities in the country. Not that medical care in North Korea is bad by third world standards. As one might expect in such a well ordered society, everyone is vaccinated against all major diseases. Standards of hygiene in hospitals and clinics are good. The African students felt that the standards of medical theory were reasonable. What is predominantly lacking are modern drugs which the country cannot afford. As this is a deteriorating problem, there has in recent years been a shift of emphasis towards traditional eastern methods of treatment, but these would seem to be more efficacious for some disorders than for others, and even traditional herbal medicines are in short supply. I revised numerous articles for the periodicals about how wonderful traditional Korean medicine was, but evidently the great leader had not heard about this because when he wanted to have the growth on the back of his neck removed a few years ago, he took himself off to Europe for treatment. As it happened, I was treated largely by traditional methods and I did get better in time. Since my return to Europe, friends in the medical profession have told me that traditional oriental methods were probably as suitable for my condition as any other.
I was not sure what to expect when I arrived at the hospital that morning. I was in considerable pain but I still imagined that all I was suffering from was a severe muscular reaction to excessive swimming that could easily be rectified. All the pain at that point was concentrated in one area around my shoulder blade.
The clean, well-appointed hospital building inspired confidence. I had been assured when I set off that there was an English speaking interpreter based full-time at the hospital but she was nowhere in evidence when I arrived. Fortunately, the doctor who examined me spoke a little English , enough to understand where the pain was and when it had started. She sent me for an X-ray and then to the physiotherapist for heat treatment. The heat treatment seemed to help. I was still in pain but it was no longer insupportable. I returned to the Ansan Chodasso, expecting the pain to abate gradually over the course of the next few days.
I was to be sadly disappointed. Not only did my pain intensify over the course of the rest of that day, but it spread. By the end of the evening I had a rope of fire running from the base of my neck across my shoulder blade and all down my left arm. My fingertips were without sensation and once again I found myself in the ludicrous situation where I was going to have to survive hours, in this case a whole night, of total misery before I could get medical help, when at home I could have been at a hospital in minutes.
When I finally got to the hospital the next day. I encountered further misery. Instead of seeing the doctor, I was taken straight up to physiotherapy. The physiotherapist was a delightful lady but her English was on about a par with my Korean. The range of my Korean vocabulary never extended beyond that of an average two-year-old. I tried to explain to her that I was very grateful for her heat treatment and all that, but I was in far worse pain than I had been the day before. It was all down my arm and what she had to offer was having no impact on whatever it was I had got. I urged her to let me see a doctor with an interpreter. I suppose if I had had the wherewithal to put on more of a pantomime, I might have got through to her but, being British, my impulse was to do my best to comport myself with as much decorum and dignity as my agony would permit and, because my agony was sapping all my resources, I did not have the energy to overcome my natural tendency to behave in a restrained manner. Consequently the poor woman was at a complete loss to understand what I was jabbering about but did not perceive me as being sufficiently agitated for her to go and fetch somebody else. After she left the room my driver, who spoke not a word of English but for some reason had chosen to accompany me round the hospital, presumably because it was more entertaining to watch me being treated than to wait in the car, mimed pulling his zip down and going to the toilet. He was evidently enquiring if what I wanted was to know where the toilet was. This was the last straw. My dignity went out of the window. I put my head in my hands and wept with frustration.
I ended up being driven all the way back to the Ansan Chodasso on the other side of the city. There Jean-Jacques explained for me to our interpreters that I was in excruciating pain and needed to go straight back to the hospital. On this occasion we made a detour to the publishing house to collect one of the English translators to interpret for me. I should add that, given the state of some of Pyongyang’s roads, these car journeys were doing nothing to alleviate my condition.
When we got back to the hospital, I was examined by a different doctor and given my first taste of traditional medicine. I had to lie prone on a couch. The doctor took half a dozen glass bowls. He put wads of cotton wool into the bowls and set fire to them. He then stuck the bowls in strategic positions all down the left side of my back. The burning cotton wool evidently creates some sort of suction effect because the rims of the bowls gripped like clamps into my flesh. The effect was rather like being bitten by a crocodile. The connection between mind and physical pain is an unfathomable mystery: why does the toothache always feel easier when one is sitting in the dentist’s waiting room? I do not know why it was: the relief of at last having an interpreter with me, the doctor’s air of professional assurance, or the dramatic physical quality of the treatment. You don’t notice your backache when a crocodile’s biting you. Whatever the reason, when he eventually removed the cups, I placed the palms of my hands on the couch and levered myself up with both arms without the slightest twinge of pain. Words could not express my admiration for this oriental wizard who had driven out my agony. Through the interpreter I asked how it had worked and whether there was any danger of the pain returning. I was told that the treatment worked on the central nervous system and that it was possible that the pain might return.
Just how possible I discovered on the drive back to the Ansan Chodasso. Almost before we got there I was back to square one. In almost thirty-eight years in Britain I only ever spent two nights in a hospital. I had been in Pyongyang for just over two months and I was about to spend the next two weeks in the Foreigners’ Hospital.
The standard of the accommodation in the Foreigners’ Hospital in Pyongyang is like I imagine a private clinic in the West would be. The North Koreans spare no expense when it comes to impressing foreigners. I had a private room with a refrigerator and a colour TV set, a bathroom en suite and a balcony. The balcony proved indispensable. The regulations against smoking in the building were so strict that cigarettes were not even permitted in the day room.
The immediate boon for me about going into hospital was that I had a firm hospital mattress under my back and a high hospital bed with handgrips in the frame, which made getting in and out of bed a hundred times easier. The actual treatment seemed at first to have little impact on my condition. Every day I was given a vitamin injection and sent to physiotherapy for heat treatment. Every two or three days I was given acupuncture and the glass bowls again. I remained in considerable physical pain. The only way to avoid it was to lie flat and keep perfectly still. I was also by now extremely worried. It is alarming when a body that one day swims a kilometre with ease is two days later hardly able to get itself in and out of bed. I had been admitted to hospital but I had still not the slightest idea what was wrong with me. I knew very little Korean and I was being treated by a doctor and nursing staff who knew very little English . It was a great relief then when on my third day as an inpatient I received a visit from the fabled hospital interpreter. I asked her to arrange for me to see the doctor in her presence so that I could find out from him what it was I was suffering from and what his prognosis was.
She returned to my room with the doctor that afternoon. I had been in Korea long enough by then. I should have anticipated what sort of response I would get to my enquiries. By coincidence, just at the time when I was admitted to hospital I had been revising in a book of fairy stories about the indomitable woman revolutionary fighter Kim Jong Suk, the president’s first wife and the mother of the dear leader, a passage in which she tells the leader of a village children’s corps that there are two essential virtues which a good revolutionary needs, and that one is punctuality and the other is secrecy. The fetish for secrecy is one of the dominant traits in North Korean society. The Koreans are not only secretive in their dealings with foreigners. They are secretive in their dealings with each other, in the sense that nobody is told anything he does not need to know, nor is anyone ever told anything before it is absolutely necessary for him to know. A Korean who is to be temporarily dispatched to another town or even another country will be lucky to get a week’s notice of the date of his departure. There is method in this madness because it serves to create a social climate in which the individual feels totally at the mercy of the state and must therefore, if he is to preserve his equilibrium, adopt an attitude of perfect trust towards the state and its authorities. They must trust what Kim Jong Il refers to as “the material Party and paternal leader” (Education in Juche Idea, p.26), as a child trusts his parents. Already I was aware that secrecy was the norm in North Korea but I had yet to appreciate the absurd lengths to which it is taken. Consequently when, after a lengthy conversation with the doctor in Korean, the interpreter turned to me and said, “The doctor says when there is something you need to know, he will tell you,” I was so taken aback that for the moment I was stunned into silence.
The following day I redoubled my determination. I again assembled the doctor and interpreter in my room. I explained that it was normal in my culture for a patient to be told what was the matter with him and what was being done about it, and it was therefore disquieting to me not to have this information. I was reluctantly informed that I had neuralgia, that the doctor was confident he could cure it, but it would be a slow process and I would have to remain in hospital for about a fortnight. I then asked the interpreter to ask the doctor why he could not have said this yesterday. She declined to translate my question.
I was still in pain. The slightest physical effort provoked agony. Sitting on the edge of the bed to attempt the dreadful meals they brought me, going out on my balcony to smoke, taking a shower, all involved complicated battles to master my pain. But at least I knew now that all I was suffering from was neuralgia, a not very serious condition with a pronounced psychosomatic factor, probably attributable in my case to a physically susceptible area of the body plus the tension created by having to adapt to a strange and increasingly uncongenial environment. I settled down with an easier mind to wait for rest, time and medical intervention to restore me to health.
It was helpful that I had confidence in the doctor. Subscribing to the national cult of secrecy was not his only eccentricity. His diagnostic method consisted of prodding me in the back and snarling, “Pain? Pain? Where pain?” or pulling my ark back sharply until I exclaimed, “Pain! Pain! There’s the pain, you bastard!” Nevertheless, he always had the air of knowing what he was about, and in his less playful moments he looked precisely what I suppose he was, a distinguished, middle-aged consultant physician. His characteristic demeanour suggested intelligence, shrewdness, self-assurance and, untypical in a North Korea, urbanity and sophistication. I often used to wonder what he thought in his private moments to the bizarre society he lived in, how such a man viewed the naive and all-pervasive propaganda and the presidential personality cult.
I could guess what the pensioners of Pyongyang thought, the old people who gathered every Sunday afternoon when the weather was find in the vicinity of the Juche Tower in the Taedonggang Pleasure Park. The old women put on their best traditional costume and gathered round in circles to dance their traditional peasant dances to the beat of the changgo drum, similar to a conga drum except that it is hung on the drummer’s shoulder and played at the horizontal. While the ladies danced, their menfolk preferred to squat around playing cards or Korean chess. Whenever I used to come upon these geriatric gyrators, their good-natured faces lit up with conviviality, I sensed that these good people, who had grown up under the Japanese colonial rule and fled as young adults from the American bombs, never entertained the slightest doubt that they were living in a communist paradise and that their great leader was a Moses who had led his people out of the wilderness into the promised land. These people would have had little knowledge and less interest in the world beyond the boundaries of Korea. All they knew was that they lived in this magnificent modern city that they had resurrected from the rubble of war under the guidance of the great leader. They had enjoyed thirty years of peace and security, thirty years when they had never gone hungry. In old age now, they had little to worry about. If they fell ill, there were doctors. In extremis, they knew they could rely on the state to look after them, but they need have little concern for that eventuality. The ancient obligations of kinship are alive and well in Kim Il Sung’s Korea. Old people live with their children and grandchildren but they do not depend on them for their food or pocket money. They have their own daily grain ration and their pension.
Only among young educated Koreans can one discern serious doubts about the health of their society, and then the doubts seem to give rise to more emotional confusion than critical thinking.
I once commented to Sami on how little many of the ones who had travelled or even lived abroad seemed to have been affected by their experience. His theory was that they were so deeply indoctrinated that they were encased in their ideology like a cocoon that made them impervious to outside influences. He had known Koreans serving as diplomats in Beirut, including before the troubles, in Moscow, and in Paris. In his experience few of them felt a strong attraction to the fun and freedom available in the outside world. Most were homesick for the familiar world of Juche Korea.
;While I was in Pyongyang there was plenty of evidence to suggest that exposure to affluent foreigners made North Koreans greedy and materialistic, but it did not seem to be giving rise to much ideological questioning. The system under which they have been raised, of course, is hardly conducive to the development of a capacity for critical thinking.
It was usually among older Koreans that I occasionally detected the light of irony and sensed a lurking capacity for critical thought. I discerned these qualities in the head of the English department at the publishing house, a taciturn but charming man who used to call on me from time to time. He was the sort of chap who in England would have been a gentle, shabbily dressed don with a wry sense of humour and a penchant for the bottle. Even when he had made deep inroads into my whisky bottle, he always remained far too discreet to express any overt political views, but my impression was that he looked upon the cult of the great leader and the Juche Ideawith whimsical detachment, but he could remember bitter days and was not on the whole displeased by the way his country was developing. I would have been very curious to know what sort of thoughts passed through the mind of a man of my doctor’s calibre when he turned on the television in the evening to an endless stream of propaganda.
It is perhaps a little unfair to dismiss Korean television as nothing but an endless stream of propaganda, but only a little. During my two weeks in hospital I watched quite a lot of television. It made a change from reading and it was something I could do standing up. For some reason I found it much less painful at that time to stand than to sit. By the end of a week I could endure to stand up for half an hour at a time, whereas I could not sit for more than five minutes before the pain drove me back into bed. An astonishing amount of viewing time is given over to documentary-style celebrations of the great leader, the glorious achievements of the Juche revolution, and also to the architectural splendours of Pyongyang and the natural beauty of the Korean countryside. The people are encouraged to take a great pride in their country’s natural beauty. But they do have dramas and light entertainment. Every week there is an amateur song contest, when the workers and peasants get the chance to put on their finery and step into the spotlight. Koreans, as mentioned before, love to sing and these amateurs turn in very stirring performances. Their eyes shine and they make impassioned gestures as they perform the well-loved revolutionary ditties that extol the virtues of the great leader and the victories of the socialist revolution, to the accompaniment of accordion and guitar. When they have poured their hearts out, impassive judges press buttons. A red light comes on if their performance has gained the judge’s approval. A green lights denotes failure. Then the performer has to stand and listen to the judge’s criticism before departing the stage. The performers do not mind. Public criticism has become a standard part of daily life in their culture. It is considered good for people. Before they pour their hearts out, the performers announce their names and occupations. They have exciting jobs like fitter at the Kum Song General Tractor Plant, electrician at the February 8th Vindon Factory, or sub-work-team leader on a co-operative farm. At any rate they perceive their jobs as exciting. For this is a society where the highest honour is not to be made a knight of the realm, but to be decorated as a Labour Hero. Outstanding sportsmen and entertainers enjoy a modest celebrity but the quintessential heroes of the Juche Korea are the workers and peasants and men of the Korean People’s Army, who exceed annual production quotas, grow record crop yields, or build the West Sea barrage, and the media do not let people forget this. There are no chat shows where glittering celebrities offer tantalising glimpses into their personal lives on North Korean television. Instead there are images of determined men up to their waists in foaming, icy water laying pipes or building factories in the snow. These are the activities that are portrayed as glamorous in North Korea.
At nine o’clock each evening the news comes on the television. Just like in the real world. There all similarities end. The newsreader always starts off with the same words, “Waidehon Sungong Kim Il Sung Donzi”, “the Great Leader Comrade Kim Il Sung”. Then follows a rsum of what the great man has said and done today. Then there are likely to be some announcements about the activities of the dear leader. Nobody else gets much of a mention. As far as the general public knows, other high officials and ministers of state are merely “attendant lords, ones that will do/To swell a progress, start a scene or two”. The only time any of them get much of a write-up is when they are safely dead.
The rest of the world hardly ever gets a mention on the North Korean news except for South Korea, when the students and workers take to the streets in protest. Scenes of confrontation between South Korean students and police are shown over and over again. The rest of the news is just propaganda about the brilliant successes of the national economy. There are reports on factories which have broken production records, and interviews with the cadres who always have to say that their success is entirely due to the great leader and his heir. This is meant to be good for the national morale and to feed the self-esteem of the average worker. Not such a bad thing. In any society there are more average workers than there are stars of the entertainment industry. It is not unreasonable to regard the daily heroism of the miner as more worthy of note than the private agonies of a soap opera star. The brave wiremen workteam of the Yonggwant district branch of the Yonggwant County Power Distribution Station, who insisted that the power should be kept running while they laid new electric wires over extremely high-voltage wires because they did not want to interrupt production at local factories, deserved their fame. The trouble is that most sectors of the North Korean economy have not been performing well in recent years. Even a people as simple as the North Koreans, when they watch the news or read the paper, must wonder why, when they have such a brilliant national economy, they have less to eat than they did ten years ago.
Korean drama must be high on ideological as well as artistic merit. In other words, it has to serve principally propaganda purposes. Consequently Korean films are deficient in characterisation, subtlety and verisimilitude, but they do have their share of romance, melodrama, action, tension and even violence. There are North Korean martial arts movies that are every bit as violent as anything made with Bruce Lee. One thing you do not get is comedy. Cultivation of the comic outlook on life could have a very damaging effect on people’s attitude toward the Juche Idea. I do not suppose the standard of programme on North Korean television is so much worse than the average peaktime viewing rubbish in the West. However, it is a small, poor country and cannot produce enough programmes to fill two channels seven nights a week. The same programmes and films are repeated over and over again. The song contest is probably shown three times a week. Not surprisingly, people become bored. At the weekend the whole of the population turns over to the third channel. The Mansudae channel has been in operation for the last few years, broadcasting dubbed foreign TV programmes and films, mainly from China and eastern Europe. Most of what is shown is not very good, and there is a preponderance of ancient Russian war movies, but at least it gives the people a bit of variety.
Korean television normally begins transmission at six in the evening and closes down promptly at eleven. Staying up late is not encouraged. There are broadcasts during the daytime on Sundays and, if I remember correctly, on the 11th, 21st and 31st of each month. These are the days when the peasants are allowed to take a break. They are less privileged than the urban workers, being only entitled to three days’ respite a month from toil. For some reason there is also one day a month when there is no television at all.
I think it was during my spell in hospital that I first began to realise how poor the people actually are. My balcony looked out across the hospital gardens over the road to a compound in which were set rows of tiny whitewashed cottages with crudely tiled roofs. There was a well in the compound where the women used to squat and wash their clothes. I had seen this type of accommodation before in the countryside, but had not thought it still existed in the city. In the months to come, as my explorations of Pyongyang took me further off the main thoroughfares, I found more and more of these traditional cottages. The pattern is the same throughout the city. All the main roads are fronted by relatively attractive modern apartment blocks. Step behind these apartment blocks and there will be shabbier blocks or else rows and rows of these comparatively primitive dwellings, discreetly hidden from the view of the casual passer-by. It is like stepping backward in time. You never see photographs of this type of housing in Korea Today. The cottages contain neither running water nor modern sanitary facilities. The residents share latrines that in summer emit a powerful stench.
Interestingly, these humble dwellings were clean and adequately furnished, many contained television sets, and the residents were as well-groomed as the rest of the population. The fact that such poor quality housing stock proliferates even in the capital, the national showcase, testifies to the gulf between North Korea’s propaganda and the reality of its economic development. The fact that the residents of these dwellings maintain such high standards of household and personal care testifies to something else. The only reason why these houses cannot be classed as squalid slums is that the people who live in them do not permit their homes to degenerate into slums or themselves into slum-dwellers.
Another thing I noticed was that the nurses in the hospital, although always immaculately turned out, wore the same clothes day after day. Afterwards I noticed that the waitresses at the Ansan Chodasso, the girls who cleared the rooms, the translators at the publishing house, even the staff in the hotels, were wearing the same clothes, the same skirts and blouses and cardigans, the same jackets and jumpers and shirts, day after day. Yet they all managed to look neat, clean and presentable. It is a good thing that Koreans know how to look after their clothes when they have so few of them. They either do not sweat like the rest of us, or there must be a lot of washing clothes at bedtime and hanging them to dry overnight going on. They are certainly keen on clothes being folded and put away. The nurse who usually attended on me in the hospital was forever picking up my scarf and jumper from my chair where I had dumped them in readiness for my next foray onto the balcony for a cigarette. She used to fold them and put them away in the cupboard and hiss at me, “Clothes, Andrew, clothes in cupboard.”
This admirable, if perhaps excessive, impulse towards cleanliness, neatness and order is endemic in every aspect of Korean society. To what extent it is deeply rooted in the national culture and to what extent it is a product of the political system, I am not in a position to judge. It is certainly something that the president has always been very keen to promote. These comments that he made in a speech delivered to the secretariat of the Central Committee in February 1973 are very typical:
“The league organisations must ensure that the young people and children are dressed neatly in keeping with the socialist way of life.
“At present, some members of the Children’s Union go about in slovenly clothes. This is because their parents do not take good care of them, but the main reason is that their schools and league organisations neglect their education and control. The schools and league organisations must improve the education of school children and tighten up their control so that all the school children must always go about neatly dressed.
“Young people must always wear neat clothes. At present, some of them are careless about their clothes; they seem to think that a slovenly appearance is the sign of simplicity and frugality. Slovenly clothing is not a virtue of frugality. Young people must go about in good clothes and wear neckties and always dress themselves in clean clothes.
“Young people and children must also keep the rules of hygiene thoroughly. The league organisations must ensure that they bathe themselves and have haircuts frequently, wash their feet before going to bed and brush their teeth every morning.” (CW, Vol.28, p.203.)
For anyone who finds the necessity for children to wash their feet before going to bed to be an unusual topic for the president of a republic of nearly twenty million people to be addressing at an elite gathering of one of the highest organs of state power, here is another delightful passage from the same speech:
“The members of the Children’s Union must launch a campaign to eradicate flies, mosquitoes, and other harmful insects. On many occasions I have stressed the need for them to kill flies everywhere, but this work is not yet going well. The League and Children’s Union organisations must see that the union members carry out a general campaign to kill flies and mosquitoes and thus eradicate all harmful insects.”
For my first few days in hospital I was too unwell to be bored. It was sufficient to lie on a firm hospital mattress and feel no pain, to be able to get on and off my bed without too much difficulty or discomfort. By the end of a week I had revived sufficiently for tedium to set in. Apart from my daily trip to physiotherapy I did little except read, smoke on the balcony, or stand and stare uncomprehendingly at the TV. I did receive occasional visits from my colleagues at the Ansan Chodasso, who also brought me fruit and chocolate to supplement the truly appalling hospital cuisine. But their visits tended to be short as the drivers were waiting and others might want the use of the car. There were always two or three cars on hand up to seven in the evening for the convenience of the revisers, but there were quite a few of us to share them and it was antisocial to monopolise them for much more than an hour at a time. In the halcyon days when revisers were less numerous and more cosseted, each reviser had a car and a driver at his personal disposal around the clock, but these days were long gone.
One morning during my second week in hospital I was out on the balcony having a cigarette under the clear azure sky of a Far eastern autumn, watching the leaves turn golden in the lofty birch trees, feeling thoroughly pissed off and cursing myself for landing in such a ridiculous situation, when a vision of loveliness suddenly appeared two balconies to my left. It was about five and a quarter feel tall with a luxuriant growth of long soft dark hair, full lips, laughing eyes, and carried itself with the sort of grace that made even the shapeless regulation issue striped hospital pyjamas look elegant. I smiled at the vision and the vision smiled back. I turned away wistfully. I did not speak Chinese.
It was a very pleasant surprise then when later that day the vision of loveliness presented herself at my door and asked in my own native tongue if she could come in. She was not only a singularly attractive girl, but remarkable in other ways too. Now aged twenty-three, she had been sent to Korea five years ago under a student exchange scheme to study agricultural engineering in Pyongyang. As well as mastering her subject, she had also obviously had to master first the Korean language, and she had also taught herself English in her own time through reading and practising conversation with the African students and any other foreigners she chanced to meet. She already spoke English pretty well and she was keen for me to help her improve it. I was very happy to oblige.
The last few days in hospital passed quite pleasantly. I did not spent the whole time with my new friend. The day after we met, she had the minor eye operation she had come in for and she needed to convalesce. I still had to spend a lot of time lying on my back. But we spent time together each day. I helped her improve her English while she generally charmed me and opened my eyes a fraction to the culture of North East Asia that surrounded me. Our friendship seemed to cause some concern among the hospital staff. Whenever we were in each other’s rooms, we seemed to get more nursing attention than cardiac patients on an intensive care ward.
My friend was, and to a large extent remained, an enigma to me. She was an exceptionally intelligent, self-assured and astute young lady, but often when we were together I felt as if I was talking to one of my thirteen-year-old daughter’s friends rather than to a young adult.
Her father was a scientist and university teacher in Beijing. Both her parents, I gathered, were originally from privileged backgrounds. She remarked that they had “such good lives before liberation”. As a small child, she had been cared for in a residential nursery for six months while her parents did their stint in the countryside as part of Chairman Mao’s cultural revolution. Her parents had not relished the experiences. The peasants were primitive and dirty people. Her father was often sick as a consequence of the poor hygiene. When I asked if her father had a car, she told me that he did not, “because although he is a professor, he is not a party member”. She told me that when the family were obliged to display Mao’s photograph in the living room, they had positioned it as high up the wall as possible and seldom bothered to dust it. She told me that much of the paraphernalia of Kim Il Sung’s personality cult and political ideology was of Chinese derivation: the photographs, the badges, the monuments and the concept of the three revolutions. Now, as any good revolutionary warrior of Juche type will tell you, there is only one Great Leader, ever-victorious, iron-willed and brilliant commander in time of war, infinitely sagacious and far-sighted in time of peace, so if there was any copying going on, it must have been on the part of the Chinese. Not that this implies any criticism of the Chinese. It is a wise man who emulates the uniquely great. Not being a revolutionary warrior of Juche type, I did not contradict her. Sometimes she used to tease the nurses by saying to them, “We used to have a Great Leader. All the time it was Mao Ze Dong, he say this, Mao Ze Dong, he say that. Then he died.”
“You must not say that,” they would hiss in genuine alarm.
Like, I suspect, most educated and relatively privileged young Chinese, she did not fundamentally oppose her country’s system but she was grateful for the changes that have been effected since Deng Xiao Ping has held the reins of power. Her father now earns four times as much as a porter at his university. Each member of her family, herself, her parents and her younger brother, have their own cassette recorder. The family has a colour TV. She is proud that her country can now manufacture such articles and no longer has to rely on importing them from Japan.
Her father no longer has to learn the newspaper by heart each day to be able to reiterate exactly the current party line, lest he be caught out at a group study session and lay himself open to criticism or even loss of position. She told me how once, when she was only eleven, her class were given a homework assignment to write a criticism of Deng Xiao Ping. She did not know how to proceed. She was only a small child. She knew nothing of politics or Deng Xiao Ping. She asked her mother’s assistance, but her mother was ignorant of these things also. Then her mother had the idea of finding a critical article in the newspaper and copying it out word for word.
Happily all the other parents of her classmates also had the same idea so nobody got into trouble. She held the opinion that if the staff at her university were able to devote less time to studying the Juche Ideaand spend more time on scientific research, then the country might progress faster. Needless to say, no Korean student, no matter how gifted he may be at his subject, can hope to pass his course without passing the examinations in the Juche philosophy.
As well as the relaxation of ideological oppression by the party and the new consumerism for the more privileged classes, she also welcomed the advent of western popular culture that was banned until a few years ago. She listened exclusively to western pop music, but I am sad to say that her tastes were execrable. She adored a gruesome compilation of disco music that Jean-Jacques had brought back from a trip to Hong Kong which offered at best Mel and Kim’s <i>Respectable</i> and hit the pits with a number that went “Boom, boom, boom, let’s go back to my room to have some boom, boom, boom,” while she decided to make a copy of my treasured selection of sixties Motown classics to give to her mother because “that sort of music is nice for older people”.
Although she was not enamoured of Pyongyang, she did not regret that she had been sent. She suffered from homesickness, particularly because she had only been able to return home once a year for the six-week summer holidays. She was incredulous when I told her that English students only attend college for thirty weeks and year and had both Saturday and Sunday free of classes. For her, coming to Pyongyang had been an adventure. She had never had the opportunity to travel even in her own country before. The first time she had left the environs of Beijing was to come to Pyongyang in 1982. She said that she had had more opportunities to talk to foreigners and learn English in Pyongyang than she would if she had stayed at home to study. And in Pyongyang she could go out in the evening. “My daddy say: must not go out after dark. Many bad people about. In Pyongyang bad Koreans also but they dare not do anything. Is different in my country. Many, many people. Cannot control them.”
It was interesting to hear her talk about food. Food is not something that we in the West give a lot of thought to. Our conversation is not peppered with allusions to the subject of food. Clearly even for the relatively well-off in socialist Asia, food is a major preoccupation. Even if one is not personally experiencing scarcity, the possibility of scarcity is never remote. “Always at home we have very good food. My daddy he say you can have to eat whatever you like.” Although on this occasion she actually did require medical treatment, she told me that she had been in the hospital five times before. She said that she pretended to be unwell because if she spent a few days in hospital, she received large quantities of free food and she could then claim a rebate from the student’s hostel for the meals she had not taken there. This helped to augment her meagre spending allowance. She told me that when she went home and got a job, she would continue to live with her parents and give all her money to her mother because that way she would be sure to have plenty to eat. It was through talking to her that I first discovered how frugal was the diet of the Koreans around me. Rice or maize, a little pickled vegetables, and soup if they are lucky, three times a day. Meat, except a little to flavour the soup, was for festival occasions. A bar of chocolate or a packet of biscuits was a rare extravagance. The day that she was discharged from hospital, she told me that she had been to the Pyongyang Shop, the biggest store for foreigners which accepts both blue and red won, to buy presents for the nurses. This was a typically kind-hearted gesture because I doubt if her monthly spending allowance would have been any more than fifty blue won. I assumed that she had bought them sweets or biscuits or something like that. No, she had bought them vegetables. Not even vegetables are available in ample quantities. This is not to say that anybody in North Korea goes hungry. It is not that sort of place. Almost the entire population has the same relentless diet: a ration of grain, preferably rice, soup, a little pickled cabbage or radishes, washed down with hot water. Coffee is way beyond their price range. Nor can they afford to drink tea or soft drinks except occasionally. People cannot always be bothered to boil the water, so colitis is endemic in Pyongyang. Quite a few adult males desist from drinking alcohol when they have the opportunity because alcohol exacerbates the condition and causes stomach-ache.
One day while I was in her room she received a visit from a slightly older Korean woman. She was one of the guides who look after the foreign students and are at the same time expected to keep a watchful eye on them. What made her remarkable was her clothes. She was not wearing a low-cut dress or a miniskirt or anything like that. I fancy it will be a few years yet before any such garment is seen on a North Korean woman. The style of her clothes was conventionally plain and modest. She was wearing knitted tights, a pair of plain leather shoes with a low heel, a raincoat, a skirt of just below knee-length, and a jumper; but she also had a pale blue silk scarf tied round her neck and every one of her garments declaimed by their texture and cut that they had not been manufactured locally. They had either been purchased abroad or at one of the local dollar shops where the prices of imported clothes is astronomical. When I commented on this, my friend explained with a certain amount of awe in her voice that this young lady’s father was a very high government official, “only just below the president,” she added. “I have been to her house. It is in one of the new blocks near the Koryo. There are five rooms for one family.”
This was interesting. I did not know at that time that that section of Changgwant Street, a block away from the Koryo, which is closed to the general public, contains apartments of the central committee, so I never ascertained whether she meant that this young lady’s family lived there or in one of the modern apartment blocks adjacent to the Koryo. Assuming that the lady’s father was quite elevated but not quite of central committee standing, and that it was in the latter, publicly visible housing that the family resided, this would confirm my impression that North Korea is a genuinely pretty egalitarian society. From what I could see, the occupants of these flats enjoyed no higher a standard of living than an affluent working-class family living in one of Britain’s more desirable council estates might realistically aspire to. Although the quality of this young woman’s attire stood out in Pyongyang, in Europe she would have passed as just an ordinary young professional woman. There is a wide gap between the standard of living enjoyed by the occupants of this class of accommodation and the occupants of the tiled cottages. On the other hand, this gap cannot be compared to the gulf that divides the Rolls Royce owners in Britain from the destitute seeking shelter at the Salvation Army.
Because one cannot see, one can only speculate on how the central committee are living. The fact that they live in apartments in the city centre and not in villas in the country may give some indication. Similarly one has to speculate as to how the country people are living in the rural areas where foreigners are not normally taken. However, visiting experts and technicians who have had to be taken off the beaten track for the sake of their projects invariably report that living conditions are quite reasonable by the standards of rural Asia. For example, one agriculturalist was taken to the extreme North of the country near the Soviet border to a remote area where it was wintry for nearly two-thirds of the year, and in the depths of January, such fierce winds prevailed that although it was frequently snowing the snow never settled. To provide maximum shelter for themselves the people built their houses half underground. Even up there electrification had been introduced and there were schools and medical services, not to mention badges and photographs of the leadership.
It should be remembered in judging today’s communist societies that they neither claim to have achieved complete equality of wealth nor aspire to achieve it in the immediate future. These societies subscribe to the ideology that they are in the transitional phase of socialism when the dictatorship of the proletariat holds sway, that marks the passage from capitalism to communism proper. Their immediate aims are the exploitation of labour and the elimination of institutionalised class distinctions and privileges. Over twenty years ago Kim Il Sung made his view plain that the dictatorship of the proletariat must continue in the DPRK until the country’s productive forces have reached an advanced stage, the peasantry has attained the same levels of affluence and cultural attainments as the urban working class, and all traces of obsolete ideologies have been eradicated from the minds of individuals. And even when a totally classless and technologically developed society has been created, “while ever the revolution has not brought victory on a worldwide scale” and “as long as capitalism remains in the world”, then “the dictatorship of the proletariat will not vanish, and we cannot even talk about the disappearance of the state” (CW, Vol.21, p.226).
Sounds like he is anticipating a long reign for the Kim dynasty. In the meantime, according to Kim Il Jong, it is “the socialist principle of distribution according to the quality and quantity of work done” that should be applied. He modifies this by adding that “neglecting the political and moral incentive and placing the main emphasis on the material incentive runs counter to the essential character of socialist society” and is “a very dangerous and harmful tendency” which “fosters selfishness among the working people and makes them mercenary and acquisitive” (On the Juche Idea, p.69).