Chapter 9

After two weeks in hospital I returned to the Ansan Chodasso, still in very considerable discomfort which only abated very gradually over the course of the next four or five weeks. It was now November. Autumn had passed into winter. The year’s last tourists had vacated the hotels.

For the first week after my discharge I returned to the hospital each morning for heat treatment, after which I would slip up to visit my friend for a few minutes. We continued to see each other after she left the hospital, but, like so many aspects of life in Pyongyang, it was not easy.

When she first arrived in Pyongyang five years previously, the Chinese students were all warned by their embassy that they were not to associate with any foreigners apart from fellow students. They were told that to do so would give offence to the Koreans, who were concerned lest the students should divulge to foreigners information about life in Korea that they did not wish foreigners to know.

In actual fact, as I knew from contacts with the veteran African students and others, life in the DPRK had become a lot more liberal in many respects since she first arrived. Even Michael, who had only arrived in Pyongyang a month before I did, had noticed changes. The interpreters were no longer wary of approaching foreigners to whom they were not officially attached. The girls behind the bars were no longer reluctant to play tapes of western pop music on the cassette recorders. I very much doubt if in the prevailing climate any Korean would have taken the slightest interest in our relationship. Apart from anything else, it would have been pointless for the Koreans to take active steps to discourage Chinese students from associating with foreigners when they were unable to place such restrictions on the Africans, who had far more access to the places frequented by foreigners on account of their greater spending power, and who all knew a European language. Basically I think her fears that there could be serious repercussions if she was seen with me by anyone from her embassy or anyone who knew her and might report her were groundless. Nevertheless, the fears were there, and the fact that she only had a few weeks to go in Pyongyang did nothing to diminish them. The prospect of being sent home in disgrace without a qualification at this late stage was not appealing. One night she got in a dreadful panic. We had deliberately chosen to go to the Potanggang in preference to the Koryo to reduce the risk of being seen. What should be parked just beside the entrance to the hotel but a Chinese embassy car with a driver inside. It was too late to turn back but, after seeking a brief refuge in the disco bar, we left again a few minutes later, separately, she with her woolly hat pulled down almost over her eyes and her coat collar turned up as far as it would go.

We still managed to spend a few pleasant evenings together. Every few days as often as she was free and felt able to go out from the hostel to meet me without attracting suspicion, she would ring me up. Even the phone calls contained an element of absurdity. The telephone was in the interpreters’ quarters. Neither of the resident interpreters at that time spoke much English . It would have been simple for her to speak to them in Korean but she feared that to do so might offer a clue to her identity. Therefore she would only ask to speak to me in English. Until they became familiar with her voice, this led to some confusion. We would meet in the evening on Changgwant Street and go to a restaurant which she considered relatively safe because it only accepted red won and Chinese diplomats only had blue. Or we would take a chance and venture into the hotels. On one occasion we went to the disco at the Changgwangsan. Although there were only a handful of people there, she was quite delighted because she had never been to a real, grownup discotheque before. The next time we went, we arrived to find that the barman had just closed it because there had been no customers that night. Such is the way of things in wintry Pyongyang.

Shortly before Christmas she returned to her country for good. A few days earlier my close friend Sami had migrated South for the winter. That was when life became really dull.

My mood as I settled down to endure the long, cold, dreary Korean winter was not improved by something that happened in early December, December 5th to be exact.

Pay day was always the fifth of the month. That was when I found out that I was not going to be paid for the two weeks I spent in hospital. When I mentioned this to Sami, he confirmed that this was their normal practice. He said the same thing had happened to a previous reviser who had had a drink problem and had several spells in hospital as a result. Sami had not forewarned me about this but I did not hold it against him. I had already realised that it is a characteristic of people who spend a long time in North Korea that they end up being almost as guarded about giving information as the Koreans themselves.

Coming on top of my early hassle over money, I was furious, particularly as this was just after the Wall Street crash and the collapse of the dollar. It was just as well I was not on the other side of the 38th parallel within reach of a nuclear button that day. I would have solved what they call “the two Koreas problem” and put an end to the tensions on the Korean peninsula once and for all. There would have been just Korea, and it would have been an island with its northern coastline hugging the 38th parallel.

Christmas was a particularly dreary time. Pyongyang had already been dead for weeks. In the middle of December they even started to close my favourite bar in the Potanggang Hotel at 7.30 in the evening because of lack of custom. Perversely they did not shut down the disco bar, where the western disco music blared unheeded and the coloured lights dazzled nobody except the two girls who sat in weary solitude behind the counter night after night, even though hardly anyone frequented it at the best of times. The only inhabited place left to go was the Koryo where one was not guaranteed to meet anyone except the sturdy German engineers marooned in the basement.

Sami had departed. Michael had gone home to England to spend the holiday period with his parents. Jean-Jacques had flown off to Beijing. The monotonous daily routine of trying to render into lucid and intelligent English prose the most unsalvageable rubbish went on. The food went through one of its periodic depressions when the fish, chicken and meat they gave us to augment the staple rice and soup and the pickled vegetables I could no longer look at were of poor quality. For the first time in my life on Christmas Day I worked all day, left the meal table hungry, and spent the evening alone while the machinery in the factory next door rattled on regardless.

There was some festive celebration of the new year. On December 30th, we had a banquet at the Ansan Chodasso. Our little waitresses put on their best uniforms. One of the Deputy Directors from the publishing house came and made a speech. As usual we all had to take it in turns to stand up and sing a little song. I drank copious quantities of Pyongyangsul (Korean vodka) and beer and attempted to stave off famine by nibbling slices of dry bread as I waited in the forlorn hope that in among all these lavish dishes of unpalatable Korean food, they might bring something I could eat.

New Year’s Day was a public holiday. My head of department, always a welcome guest, called round for a pre-lunch drink. Later that day I sat amid the depopulated luxury of the Koryo Hotel with a couple of Africans and we talked like prisoners discussing their sentences about how long we had been in Korea and how much more time we had to do.

A few days later we were given an outing when we were taken to the February 8th Theatre to see the annual children’s show. Whenever we were to go anywhere we were not usually told until the day before. The Korean custom of keeping people in the dark up to the last possible moment is extended to foreigners as well. On this occasion the Koreans excelled themselves. I was given ten minutes’ notice and five of them were taken up by the French-speaking interpreter trying to get through to me that I was about to see something to do with children, that, no, the children would not be coming here, I would have to put my coat on and go to them, and yes, it was “ce matin, oui, maintenant, dix minutes”.

The children’s show turned out to be a most charming spectacle. If this spectacular variety show had been performed by adults, it would have been impressive. Performed by children, it was amazing. The ages of these dancers, musicians, singers and acrobats ranged from about four to sixteen. Many of the star solo artistes were as young as nine or ten. Yet they performed dances of such complexity that they might almost have been choreographed by Busby Berkeley with the precision of a Broadway chorus. They played their instruments and sang superbly. They displayed poise and assurance and exuded an innocent sweetness that was not the least bit fey or self-conscious. I had gone with the attitude that it would be better than working. I came away wishing it could have gone on for hours.

Simone kindly sat beside me and interpreted the proceedings for me. Like everything else in North Korea, the more you understood what was going on, the more ludicrous it became. For example, one delightful song and dance sequence turned out to be a celebration of how wonderful life would be when the massive new Sunchon Vindon Complex is operational and everyone has lots of new clothes to wear. It ended with the great leader’s avuncular image projected onto a screen on the back of the stage and all the children curtseying to him and expressing their gratitude for his munificence in making this miracle possible. The magical world of childhood lives on a new socialist dimension with an original Juche-oriented slant on the archetype of the Fairy Godmother.

Simone was as impressed with the performance as I was but she had seen previous years’ productions and could not help feeling a little nostalgic. When she first came to Pyongyang and diplomats and foreigners generally were thinner on the ground than they are today, then the revisers used to attend the gala New Year’s Eve performance, which the president himself traditionally attends, and came away with gilt-edged souvenir programmes. Now the revisers are in the process of being working-classized, to use a favourite DPRK concept, and have to make do with a matinee performance along with a lot of school parties. Personally, I rather liked it that way.

They sent one of the translators from the publishing house to the New Year banquet at the Ansan Chodasso to translate the Deputy Director’s speech to me. During the course of the meal he suddenly announced,  propos of nothing, “The greatest sorrow in my life is that my country is divided.” My initial impulse was to smile and say something on the lines of, “Now steady on, old chap, I’m not too keen on the way my country’s going at the moment but it doesn’t do to take these things personally.” I restrained myself because he was a nice man and I sensed that he really did feel his country’s misfortune as a personal tragedy.

Koreans generally seem to be a pretty nationalistic lot. I have read that the people in South Korea too entertain passionate feelings about an eventual reunification of their country. If nationalistic fervour is an innate trait in the Korean character, it is also something which the North’s propaganda machine cultivates for all it is worth. Night after night the TV screens are filled with pictures of South Korean students demonstrating on the streets and chucking petrol bombs at the riot police. It does not matter if the students have been quiescent for a few weeks. There is plenty of footage from the summer of ’87. The cameras linger on scenes of police beating up protesters, scenes that are genuinely shocking to the citizens in the North, where outbursts of aggression are exceptionally rare. Day after day from childhood the populace are reminded about the terrible calamity of national division that has been inflicted on them by the US imperialist aggressor and has the compatriots in the South eke out meagre lives of poverty and servitude under the yoke of the US colonial rule and the fascist repression of the puppet military dictatorship. Day after day they are told that it is the most ardent desire of every Korean to see his country reunified. I suppose if people are told often enough that this is or ought to be their most ardent desire, it is not surprising if a lot of them take it all very much to heart.

As is well known, the first attempt by the North to achieve reunification was by force of arms. Needless to say, the North claims that it was the other side that started the war. If that were the case, the North must have had its counter-attack very well prepared. Hostilities commenced on June 25th 1950. On June 28th, the Korean People’s Army entered Seoul.

When three years later the Korean War ended in a stalemate, the North pinned its hopes on rapid economic development. The idea was that the North would become more prosperous and the people in the South would be overcome with envy. Then they would rise up and overthrow their government, expel the Yankees, and demand to be taken into the fatherly embrace of the great leader. As Kim Il Sung put it in 1954, “An important condition for achieving the reunification and independence of our country is to consolidate the economic basis of the northern half of the Republic, make the people’s life more bountiful and turn the North into a prosperous land of bliss”. There is no doubt that when our economy and culture develop and the people live more happily, the people in the southern half suffering from hunger and groping in the dark will hate more and more the US imperialists and the Syngman Rhee traitors and rise up against them and will trust more deeply and follow our Party and the Government of our Republic. Then the question of national reunification and independence will be easily solved.” (CW, Vol.9, p.19.) Brave words from ahead of state who at that time presided over little more than a ragged and hungry populace dwelling among charred rubble and burnt-out fields.

Ten years later, in a speech delivered at the Eighth Plenary Meeting of the Fourth Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, he was advocating a more directly interventionist approach to stirring up the laggardly southerners, presumably by means of intensified propaganda, infiltration, and setting up underground organisations. I have to say presumably because the final section of this speech carries the heading “On Concrete Ways to Reunify the Country”, but all it says underneath the heading is “Contents Omitted”. Clearly at that time there was a quite definite and open commitment to exporting the revolution South, although one can only speculate as to how extreme the methods were that he was recommending.

In recent years the official stance has modified somewhat. For almost a decade there has been a proposal on the table from the North that Korea should be reunified under a confederal system and that the reunified country should be rechristened the Democratic Confederal Republic of Koryo. It is proposed that under this system a central government body composed of equal representatives from both sides would determine issues of foreign policy and defence, while either side would exercise regional autonomy and retain its existing political system and ideology. This sounds an eminently fair, if impractical, proposal. One could make out a case that it is not as impractical as it first sounds on the basis that North Korea is a committed member of the non-aligned movement and has a commendable record of upholding its political independence when this has sometimes meant keeping both its powerful communist neighbours at arm’s length, even at the sacrifice of much-needed economic and technical assistance. How serious the North is, or ever was, about this proposal is another question. It may have been serious in 1980. In 1988 South Korea is a newly industrialised country with one of the world’s fastest growing economies. Corporations like Hyundai, Daewoo, Samsung and Sosangyang have emerged as major forces in the international market place. In 1987, South Korea had an international trade surplus of getting on for ten billion dollars. In the same year, according to Time magazine (5.9.88), North Korea imported “2.1 billion dollars’ worth of machinery, oil and other necessities largely from the Soviet Union, and shipped out 1.5 billion dollars’ worth of minerals, clothing and seafood”. North Korea’s economy is strictly small time and running at a loss. As yet the fruits of the new-found prosperity may not have filtered down to the common man in South Korea but living standards are rising and will almost certainly continue to do so. It is equally likely that North Korean living standards will remain rooted in third world poverty, albeit a well managed poverty, for the foreseeable future. The more the economic gulf widens between South and North, and is reflected in workers’ living standards, the less the North can afford North-South contacts, let along reunification, if it wishes to maintain its present system. The time is coming if it has not already arrived when it is the people in the North would be likely to become disaffected if they knew how the other half lived.

Meanwhile the North Koreans continue to do everything they can to promote the illusion that everything on their side of the 38th parallel is wonderful, in the hope that some people in the North will believe them. They continue to tell their people that the reason they have to work so hard for so little is to make their economy so prosperous that the people in the South will rise up in revolt to be reunited with them, and then they will all suddenly lead affluent lives. Also the North in no way modified the confrontational attitudes expressed in its propaganda in response to the political changes that took place in South Korea during the time I was in Pyongyang.

In the summer of 1987 the South Korean dictator, Chun Doo Hwan, succumbed to public pressure at home and diplomatic pressure from his US sponsors to allow democratic elections to be held later that year. The candidate for Chun’s Democratic Justice Party, his long time friend and colleague Roh Tae Woo, was elected president on December 16th, 1987, with thirty-six per cent of the vote. Neutral observers were in agreement that Roh’s supporters boosted his share of the vote through fraudulent practices, but not sufficiently to affect the overall result. Roh was able to scrape home because the two principal opposition leaders, Kim Young Sam and Kim Dae Jong, could not agree on a united platform and so split the opposition vote. In February 1988, Roh’s power base was eroded when his party failed to secure a majority of seats in the elections of candidates for the South Korean parliament. Although Roh was undoubtedly party to the political repression and abuses of human rights perpetrated by the Chun regime, since his election he has given every indication of having adopted a genuinely more liberal and democratic attitude. There is a theory that he is only maintaining this attitude to ensure a peaceful social climate for the Olympic Games and that he will afterwards revert to dictatorial type. From what I have read, though, the reality in South Korea seems to be that events have moved too far forward for him to do that if he wanted to, unless some quite exceptional situation arose. These changes in the South have not been reflected in the North’s propaganda, which is still all about the traitor Roh Tae Woo and his puppet fascist clique who are manipulated by the US imperialists who wish to maintain South Korea as their colony to serve American economic interests and as bridgehead for aggression in Asia. In July 1988, Roh announced a new policy towards the North. From now on the South would actively try to bring the North out of its isolation .South Korean history books would be rewritten with a softer anti-communist bias. He proposed cultural and economic exchanges. Japan, at Seoul’s request, offered to set up a trade mission in Pyongyang. Kim Woo Choong, the chairman of the Daewoo Corporation, stated that his company had already built a refrigerator factory in China and would be happy to set a precedent for other South Korean firms by building factories in the North. The North was not interested, which suggests to me that the Kim dynasty is more concerned with maintaining Juche than achieving either prosperity or national reunification except on its own terms.

In spite of its economic difficulties, North Korea continues to invest 25% of its gross national product in the military. There are at least three-quarters of a million in the armed services and in 1988 it took delivery of advanced Soviet missiles and war planes, including top of the Mig 29’s. It would be wrong to necessarily assume from this that North Korea is currently harbouring thoughts about another southward invasion. The South Korean armed forces are numerically smaller at 629,000. They are estimated to have only approximately half the North’s 2,900 tanks and 6,000 artillery pieces. However, their equipment is generally more sophisticated and they are augmented by 40,000 US troops with a nuclear arsenal of no less than a thousand warheads. It could equally be assumed that the North feels compelled to maintain its arms buildup to safeguard itself against an invasion from the South. Every year since 1976, South Korean and American troops have staged a joint military exercise known as Team Spirit. From modest beginnings, Team Spirit has grown each year until now it is of two months’ duration and involves over 200,000 servicemen. In content, it amounts to a full scale rehearsal for an invasion of the North, complete with tactical nuclear strikes. In a tense situation where there are always frequent incidents along the demilitarised zone, for which each side always blames the other, should such an exercise be classed as a reasonable deterrent or an adventurist provocation? Even if one accepts that it is intended to be the former, one should not be surprised if the North evinces a high degree of paranoia.

Having said that North Korea harbours no intentions at the moment of invading the South, that is not to say that it may not do so in the future. At present the northern masses are content with their simple life style and united in their worship of the great leader. Kim Il Sung has proved himself no fool. He is not about to do anything reckless. If, however, over the next few years living standards decline rather than improve, which is quite possible, and should the great leader prove mortal and the dear leader have difficulty in sustaining his father’s hold over the masses, both of which are likely, then a desperate and erratic response to a perceived external threat in order to hold internal dissent in check cannot be ruled out. Whether this justifies a continued American military presence in South Korea is open to question. One may not approve of what America has been up to in Korea over the last forty-odd years. In the name of democracy, they have sponsored a succession of authoritarian dictatorships. Nevertheless, under these tyrannical regimes, South Korea has prospered. The aspirations of the people are for the sort of western style democracy they have recently achieved. What pro-communist sympathies remain in South Korea are largely fuelled by resentment at American domination over South Korean affairs. In the event of armed hostilities between the two Koreas, the military usefulness of American troops to the South could be cancelled out by the adverse political effect they could have on the internal situation. If Americans were participating on active service in another Korean war, and even commanding the South Korean army, the North would be asking the South Koreans whose war they thought they were fighting and there would be bound to be some who would be susceptible to the implied line of reasoning. It would certainly be in nobody’s long term interests for the Americans to employ nuclear weapons against North Korea. The North has only half the population of the South. It is far behind technologically and economically. It would be most unlikely to obtain active support for an armed conflict from either the Soviet Union or China. Even its numerically vast army should not be overrated. Putting undernourished peasants into uniforms and setting them to build factories is unlikely to produce top quality fighting men for modern, technological warfare. Therefore, it would have very little chance of winning prolonged war against the South, unless the South were undermined from within by widespread dissent. On the other hand, the North Koreans might well prove fanatical foes who would not easily be swept aside. If they obtained some early victories, there would inevitably be a temptation to resort to nuclear weapons to stop them, particularly if there was a danger of some of the nuclear weapons deployed in South Korea falling otherwise in to the hands of an advancing North Korean army. The possible repercussions of nuclear weapons exploding on the doorstep of both Russia and China does not bear thinking about.

On the assumption that the main reason American nuclear weapons are deployed in South Korea is to contain the “Soviet menace”, then this purpose could be served just as well if they were relocated in Japan, which is unified, stable, prosperous, committed to capitalism and already in the process of becoming a junior partner in the Star Wars programme. I am not saying that America should discontinue military support to South Korea, but that nuclear weapons are quite inappropriate in the situation, and that actual involvement of American troops on the peninsula may soon be counter-productive.

Northern paranoia reached a fever pitch in early 1988, when a renewed request for talks on arms limitation was rejected by the South side, which levelled accusations that the North had been responsible for the disappearance over the Thai-Burma borer of a Korean Airlines passenger plan, with a hundred and forty people on board, in November 1987. This was followed by the announcement of sanctions against the North by the United States and Japan. 

North Korea has been no stranger to terrorist activity in the past. There was the notorious bombing incident in the Burmese capital of Rangoon in 1983, when four visiting South Korean ministers were killed. Pyongyang is widely reputed to supply funds to the Japanese Red Army. Whether it was really responsible for the disappearance of the KAL plane remains debatable. The wreckage of the plane was never found. It was suspected that a couple travelling on Japanese passports, who left the plane at Dubai, may have planted a bomb. The man committed suicide before he could be questioned. The woman was brought to Seoul for questioning in a blaze of publicity on the day before the South Korean presidential elections. She did not resurface until January, when she made a public confession at a press conference that she was a North Korean agent, and had planted a bomb on the plane on the instructions of Kim Jong Il.

There were several aspects of the woman’s confession and the South Korean explanation of the incident in general that were not entirely convincing. Even if the woman really was a North Korean or a sympathiser with the North and had planted a bomb, there were reasons for thinking it unlikely that she was acting on official instructions from Pyongyang. The timing for such an outrage could hardly seem less in keeping with North Korean interests. The first democratic elections in years were about to be held in the South. The reactionary candidate and close associate of Chun Doo Hwa, Roh Tae Woo, was by no means certain of winning. Much of his appeal was based on the fear of the communist threat and his reputation as an intractable opponent of communism. Nothing could better serve his electoral cause than a terrorist outrage on the eve of the elections which could be laid at the North’s door. If he did not win, both the leading opposition figures, Kim Young Sam and Kim Dae Jong, were essentially centrist. Neither of them were about to hand over the keys of Seoul to Kim Il Sung. But they could be expected to adopt a more conciliatory attitude to the North, to be more amenable to talks and contacts with a view to possible eventual reunification, in fact, to hold out the sort of olive branches that Roh Tae Woo started to dangle in the summer of 1988.

In view of Pyongyang’s response to Roh’s overtures, one wonders if the North might in fact have deliberately arranged a terrorist atrocity on the eve of the elections precisely because it did not want a more sympathetic government in power in the South. In many ways, a US-sponsored fascistic dictatorship in Seoul was in the Kim dynasty’s interests. While Chun Doo Hwan was denying the South Korean people basic democratic rights and imprisoning dissenters without trial and condoning torture, Pyongyang could claim the high moral ground in the international arena. While the South Korean stance towards the North remained one of outright antagonism and confrontation, Kim Il Sung could more easily justify the imposition of austerity and military discipline in the North’s civilian population on grounds of national security. While the South side refused to enter into reasonable dialogue and dragged its feet on promoting mutual contacts and exchanges, the North had some justification for adopting a similar attitude. And the less contact the people in the North have with the people in the South, the simpler it is to lie to them.

However, at the time when the South was accusing the North of blowing up the passenger plane, it seemed at face value as if this was the last thing the North would want to do at such a time. Northern reaction to the accusations was angry and voluble. I was deluged with articles and speeches to revise about the missing airliner incident. Sadly, not one of them contained an intelligent refutation of the charges. Not one of them pointed out that it might have been against the North’s interests to have done such a thing. Not one of them offered a coherent demolition of the South’s rather flimsy evidence, or went on to castigate the South Korean authorities for irresponsible opportunism, for trying to make political capital out of a tragic air disaster. Instead there were wild counter-accusations that the treacherous Chun Doo Hwan-Roh Tae Woo puppet clique, at the instigation of their US masters, had blown up the plane themselves so that they could then turn round and blame the North. These totally unsubstantiated accusations were accompanied by a lot of sabre-rattling rhetoric. Some of it was so belligerent that I experienced a physical revulsion in revising it.

Here is an extract from one of the more sober effusions of that time, a press statement issued by O Jin U, the Minister of the Armed Forces, on January 27th.

“A desperate situation has been created on the Korean peninsula in which some slight accidental factor could easily precipitate a nuclear war. The Korean people are entering a crucial phase where they are balanced on a knife edge between peace and nuclear war.”

“In this dire situation when the nation stands at the crossroads between a life of peace and the havoc of a nuclear holocaust, it is absolutely vital that all Koreans rise up in the nation-saving struggle to prevent a nuclear war.”

“However, the South Korean rulers, utterly indifferent to the destiny of the country and the nation, are zealously assisting the US imperialists in their moves to provoke a nuclear war that would bring immeasurable calamities to the whole nation. They are imploring the Americans for the protection of their ‘nuclear umbrella’ and for a permanent occupation by their aggressor forces. Worse still, they are taking an active part in the US imperialists’ large scale nuclear war exercises directed against their fellow countrymen.”

“The criminal acts of the South Korean puppet clique are unpardonable treacheries intended to draw the whole country into the US imperialists’ nuclear war shambles and sacrifice our nation as victims to their nuclear war.”

“I, on behalf of the entire Korean people and the officers and men of the People’s Army, vehemently denounce the thrice-cursed nuclear war moves of the US imperialists and the South Korean puppet clique, who, having converted the entire territory of South Korea into a nuclear base, are seeking to inflict a nuclear catastrophe upon our nation. There are no grounds whatsoever for the United States to ship nuclear weapons into South Korea.”

“The whole world knows that there are no nuclear weapons in the northern half of the Republic.”

“If the nuclear weapons deployed by the United States in South Korea are in reality aimed at other socialist countries, then the US imperialists ought to withdraw them now that they have concluded a nuclear disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union.”

“The Korean peninsula must be converted into a nuclear-free peace zone to meet the aspirations of all the Korean people and other peace-loving peoples of the world.”

“The US imperialists and the bellicose elements of South Korea should acquaint themselves with the miserable ends of all previous war maniacs who have had a fondness for playing with fire.”

“If the US imperialists and the South Korean puppet rulers think that they can frighten anyone with nuclear weapons, they are making a serious miscalculation.”

“The US imperialists must withdraw from South Korea at once, taking all their nuclear weapons and forces of aggression with them, before it is too late.”

“The Chun Doo Hwan-Roh Tae Woo group must cease to act as servants to the US nuclear war machine. They must desist from further acts of criminal treachery that are liable to lead to the extermination of their fellow countrymen. They should accede to the demands of the people and step down from power without delay.”

“The Korean people and the officers and men of the People’s Army will continue to keep watch with increased vigilance on the reckless manoeuvres of the US imperialists and South Korea puppet clique to provoke nuclear war. They will respond to any acts of enemy aggression with a thousandfold retaliation.”

O Jin U occupies an interesting place in the North Korean hierarchy. Officially he is one of only three members of the presidium of the politburo of the central committee, the highest organ of government which makes all major policy decisions. The other two members of course are Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. Whether he is now able to exert any active influence on decisions is highly debatable. He evidently had ideas of his own at one time, because in November 1976, he was the victim of one of the legendary Pyongyang “road accidents” which was almost certainly arranged for him by his two colleagues in the presidium. He sustained serious injuries in the crash but survived. He was packed off to eastern Europe for medical treatment. Incredibly, after his recovery he was allowed to resume his position, presumably having learned his lesson and promised the fatherly leader to be a good boy in future.

I have quoted from his statement at some length because it is a fair sample of North Korean rhetoric. Very fair, in fact. The usual standard is much worse. Can such a senior minister seriously equate a doubtful accusation of terrorism with a provocation to all-out war? Does he really expect this sort of outburst to attract the sympathy and support of the peace-loving people of the world? As far as I can see, his tone of hysteria, his call for “all Koreans” to “rise up in the nation-saving struggle to prevent a nuclear war” and the threat to “respond to any acts of enemy aggression with a thousandfold retaliation” can only confirm the official South Korean view that the North is still a highly erratic and dangerous foe, bent at the very least on fomenting insurrection, and lend justification to the continued American military presence in the South.

One cannot help wondering whether this sort of muddled hysteria is merely representative of what high ministers of state in the DPRK regard as effective propaganda, or whether they actually think like this. The latter is a disturbing possibility and a very real one. In a society where so much power is invested in one person that no point of view other than his is permissible, where all critical thinking is suppressed in favour of the parroting of received ideas, and where advancement is dependent on conformity to those ideas, it is conceivable that even the occupants of highest office are incapable in thought or speech of doing more than parodying the ideas and rhetoric of their great leader. This would help account for the stupidity that prevails in all spheres of activity in North Korea today, and explain why the country is in decline.

I could not help smiling at the unconscious irony when I came across this passage in a talk the president delivered to Spanish journalists in 1980. “To establish Juche in ideology means, in short, being conscious that one is the master and acquiring the idea and viewpoint of participating in the revolution and construction of one’s own country with the attitude of a master. If one fails to establish Juche in ideology, one’s independent cognitive faculty will be diminished so that one will be unable to display any creativity and end up following implicitly without discerning between right and wrong. If one loses originality like this, one will, in the end, make a mess of the revolution and construction.”