The high spot of January was Michael’s return from holiday in England with a number of letters for me. David Richardson had warned me that receipt of mail could be a problem. His warning proved well founded. In my first four months in Korea, I received through the mail two bank statements, two birthday cards without letters enclosed, one postcard and two personal letters. It was fully three months before I received any news of my family. I tried to adopt a philosophical attitude. I told myself that if I had chosen as my life’s big adventure to float up the Amazon in a canoe, I might have had exactly the same problems and a few other minor inconveniences besides. Unfortunately I could not stop myself from worrying.
Before Michael left for England, I gave him a dozen letters to post for me. In some I enclosed the address of his parents in Warwickshire so that people could send letters there and Michael could bring them back with him. It was a lovely warm feeling to learn that all the people I cared most about were alive and well and still thinking about me. It was distressing to think that it might be months before I hear from them again. In my last eight months in Korea I received another bank statement, three postcards, and one solitary letter.
It would have been possible to telephone, but the expense was prohibitive. International calls still had to be booked in advance and put through the operator, and the charge per minute was about treble the cost of a comparable call made in the UK.
Incongruously, it would seem that the vast majority of the letters that I sent out reached their destination, although I am told there was sometimes a couple of weeks’ gap between the date on the letter and the date on the postmark. One would have thought that the censors would be more concerned with outgoing than incoming information. The only vaguely logical explanation I can think of why the North Koreans deprive foreign residents of news from home is that they think it might distract them from their work, and it has never occurred to them that people might actually function better when they have the reassurance that everything is all right at home. Logic, however, is not a North Korean strong point, and there may well be some other quite bizarre explanation.
I was not alone in being deprived of mail. At the time I left, the American who was teaching English at the Foreign Languages University had received nothing for eight months. A West German telecommunications engineer who spent three and a half months commissioning a new direct dial international telephone link – thirty-two lines for the entire country – received no letters in that time. I was never quite able to ascertain what the situation was with the other revisers. The revisers from the socialist countries had no problem because they received their mail through their embassies. My colleagues from the capitalist world tended to be reticent about discussing their mail situation. It is the sort of thing people in Pyongyang become cagey about. They all wanted to remain in Pyongyang and their underlying fear was that Andrew Holloway might risk getting himself sent home by making insinuations to the Koreans that they were behaving in an underhand and dishonourable fashion, so if he did, he was not going to be able to drag anyone else’s name in as well. I suppose it is the hallmark of an efficient totalitarian system that individuals regulate themselves according to the unwritten rules and become furtive and quiescent of their own accord.
As well as the letters Michael brought back other wondrous gifts, recent copies of the Guardian and the Observer. No foreign newspapers, books or magazines, not even from other communist countries, are on sale in Pyongyang. I was not totally out of touch with world events. Jean-Jacques had the weekend edition of the International Herald Tribune sent to him every week. He also used to bring back from his trips to China English language periodicals like South, the Far eastern Economic Review, and Newsweek. Still, it was good to read an English newspaper again, even if the news was uniformly bad. Newcastle were once again floundering in the lower reaches of the first division. World cricket was falling apart. Not only had Mike Gatting in Pakistan behaved in a manner that would have once been unthinkable for an English cricket captain, but he had subsequently received official backing. I could not help wondering how the TCCB would have reacted if it had been Tony Greig or Ian Botham who had behaved so disgracefully. Viv Richards had been tarnishing his legend in Calcutta. And Mrs Thatcher was about to demolish another bastion of fair play and civic decency by abolishing the rates and introducing her notorious poll tax.
I was appalled by a commentator in the Observer who seemed to think it very funny that Ted Heath had argued that redistribution of income was a traditional tenet of Conservative Party philosophy. Surely it was not so many years ago when it would have been as unthinkable for a major British political party to have no commitment to maintaining any degree of social equality and welfare as it would have been for an English cricket captain to publicly abuse an umpire and accuse him of cheating. The Thatcherite revolution has swept away the assumption of government responsibility to uphold decent human values implicit in Keynesian economics and consensus politics as comprehensively as the Juche revolution has swept away individual liberty.
In early February I was surprised to encounter an English guest at the Koryo. This Englishman, moreover, had been visiting North Korea on and off for a dozen years. He was a marketing consultant whose services were engaged by the government from time to time. Although no communist, he was full of enthusiasm for the country. His enthusiasm reawakened some of the positive feelings I had had in the beginning, feelings that had been dissipated by months of boredom and indifferent food. He reminded me of the things which I had initially found inspiring but which I had stopped noticing: the gentleness and kindness and dignity of the people; the fact that everywhere was safe, clean and orderly, and that the people were adequately fed, clothed and housed. I had been there long enough to know that the people were by no means as well provided for, even in respect of the basics, as at first appeared. They did not get as much to eat as they would like. They had very few clothes. Many lived in quite primitive accommodation. Many who lived in modern apartment blocks suffered from the cold in the winter; I had learned that not all the apartment buildings had as reliable a central heating supply as the Ansan Chodasso. As for the workplaces, they were barely heated at all. Whenever I went to the publishing house to discuss my revision, I had to keep all my outdoor layers of thick winter clothing on indoors. That was in the rooms I was entertained in, which had carpets and curtains helping to retain a little heat. It must have been even colder in the bare rooms where the translators did their work. This, however, was not Europe. This was Asia. This was the third world. Yet nobody was homeless or starving. Everybody had security. Everybody had a place in society and the vast majority were contented.
He was also optimistic about the country’s economy. He did not see it as stagnant. He had been coming for a dozen years and could see the changes. When he first came, he told me, there was hardly a car to be seen on the roads. When I came to think about it, the volume of traffic seemed to have increased just in the short time I had been there. I recalled how a few days previously, returning from the Pyongyang Shop at about 6 pm, there had been almost a traffic jam building up on the Okryu Bridge across the Taedong River.
He reminded me how much the country was liberalising. Only a few years ago it would have been out of the question for us to be sitting at a bar with western pop music playing on the tape recorder, holding a conversation about the country with no Korean lurking close at hand to listen in to what we were saying. I took his point, but had to add that the country would have to liberalise a whole lot more before I would ever consider a return engagement.
He sighed a bit when I asked him what it was like to advise them on their marketing. It was difficult to get through to them. Their own culture was so out of step with the rest of the world of which they had so little understanding. They failed to comprehend how the rest of the world thinks and functions. He mentioned their ginseng products. The ginseng root flourishes in Korea. Although the term is unfamiliar to the outside world the North Koreans insist on calling ginseng by its Korean name, insam. They manufacture a range of products from it: insam toothpaste, insam soap, insam lotion, a liquor called Insamsul, even insam cigarettes. He rightly pointed out that, apart from the odd-tasting cigarettes, all these products are of a high standard. He was having difficulty in educating the Koreans in the fact that these products are only going to competitive in the world market when they are professionally packaged and intelligently advertised and promoted.
By coincidence, the following day I received the February edition of the DPRK’s magazine, Foreign Trade, a glossy brochure which serves as a vehicle for promoting the country’s exports. Incredibly it was something I was never called upon to raise, although one would have thought the Koreans would consider it a more important publication than, for example, the utterly ridiculous Pyongyang Times. What should I find in Foreign Trade but a double-page spread in Insam-based tonics, which read in part: “Kaesong Koryo Insam exerts a favourable action on all systems including the central nervous system, the cardiovascular system, the urinary-generative system, the muscular-bone system and hematogenous system, and is wide in its action. It enhances the mental-physical activities, dissipates one’s fatigue, increases resistance to internal and external unfavourable factors, prevents the ageing of cells or promotes their regeneration and improves metabolic process as a whole. Namely, it has an affirmative action on every side of activities of organism.”
And that is just for starters!
How on earth did I survive that dreadful Pyongyang winter? I suppose before I start complaining I should record that I was actually quite lucky. By Korean standards it was an exceptionally mild winter and there was very little snow.
It was an unusual winter too, inasmuch as it turned viciously cold when it was still only November and then became milder in mid-December. For the next three or four weeks, although there were cold spells, temperatures were little worse than one would normally expect in Britain at that time of year. This was a bit of a disaster for the locals. At the beginning of each November, each household is issued with several kilos of cabbage to which the people then add spices to make their revolting national dish called kimchi, which supplements their grain ration. Refrigerators are a luxury. The households that do have one do not have large enough ones to store a whole winter’s supply of kimchi. Everyone therefore stores it out of doors in earthenware jars, relying on the sub-zero temperatures to keep it fresh. When temperatures in December 1987 rose as high as eight degrees centigrade, this had a most deleterious effect on the quality of their diet.
As January advanced temperatures plummeted to somewhere near the Korean norm, reaching as low as minus twenty centigrade at night. And that was where they stayed for weeks and weeks on end. Day dwindled into dismal day with mindbending monotony. Every morning I would get up at twenty five past seven for breakfast. Because breakfast was the only meal of the day guaranteed to be edible, even on Sundays I had to force myself to get out of bed for breakfast, although I did go back to bed again afterwards. The food, which was never brilliant at the best of times, plumbed new depths in the winter. Some of the cuts of meat we were served were only fit for pet food. I never actually went hungry in Pyongyang. I ate enough each day for the maintenance of health, but most days that was not as much as I felt like eating. In this I was sharing the same experience as the local population, except that in my case I was being served quite substantial quantities of food that I rejected because it was so revolting. To my embarrassment, the Koreans sent a deputation to see me to express concern that I was not eating enough. They asked if I had any requests to improve my diet. How could I tell these sweet, kind-hearted people to whom any meat was a luxury that what I was being served was only fit for pet food? I told them they must not worry. I was not about to starve to death. It was probably a good thing that I was not eating too much when I was not taking any exercise – since my hospitalisation, I had not dared to go swimming again – because it kept my weight down. Afterwards on their initiative they started giving me an extra round of toast in the morning, which was actually very welcome.
After breakfast I went back to my study-bedroom and set to work on my texts. It was the work that drove me crazy as much as anything else. I was not used to sitting alone in a room at a desk all day long, day in day out, for forty-five hours a week. Social work in Britain may be an occupation where the pay does not reflect the pressures and responsibilities, but at least it is interesting and varied; it offers occasions for humour and drama, and the sense of doing something worthwhile. Nothing could be less worthwhile than revising the Pyongyang Times. However, in spite of the futility of my task, I always applied myself to it diligently. For a start I was being paid for it. Also the translators were lovely people. It seemed to me that if these nice people were doing their utmost to translate the rubbish that was being published to the best of their ability, then I owed it to them to revise their translations to the best of mine, particularly as they used to study my revision each week in order to improve their standard of English.
Once a week, usually on a Tuesday morning, I used to have a little outing to ease the monotony. This was when I was taken to the publishing house to revise the Pyongyang Times in situ. In the winter months this was a mixed blessing. Although it was nice to have a change of scenery, from November to March the interior of the building was always freezing cold. I used to sit there dressed in my overcoat, scarf, two thick pullovers and two pairs of socks, and I would still be blue with cold by the end of the morning. There was a thermometer in the room I worked in. It usually registered about fifteen or sixteen degrees centigrade. It must have been even colder in the bare, uncarpeted rooms where the translators worked. Such low temperatures were typical of North Korean workplaces in winter. In the shops and department stores for the locals, I used to see the salesgirls standing behind their counters swathed in their overcoats and voluminous headscarves. We were fortunate in the Ansan Chodasso. Most of the time a comfortable temperature of around twenty-five degrees was maintained, although we did have a few days of misery when it slipped down to twenty or twenty-one. Whenever I went to the publishing house in winter, I was always relieved when the time came to return to the warmth of the Ansan Chodasso. Nevertheless I still preferred to go there than not, as it meant at least some variety in my daily routine. Otherwise I spent the whole of every working day in my room.
I once asked an interpreter when I thought he was off his guard what heating conditions were like for the average Korean living in an apartment block. He told me frankly that the heating situation was variable. Half the time the temperature would be quite comfortable, at other times it would be like it was in the publishing house, pretty dire, albeit above the level where old people are likely to expire from hypothermia. I was told that the power stations have been having difficulty keeping pace with the increased fuel demands of industry and also domestic consumers, as more people have been rehoused in modern flats from the traditional cottages which have their own coal-burning stoves, and are not connected with the centralised heating system. The Koreans cope with their spartan conditions by wearing several layers of underwear. I noticed that all the men wore track suit bottoms under their trousers. I assumed this was to keep themselves warm in winter, until I saw that a lot of them continued to wear them, even in spring and summer.
I did not often venture such questions to Koreans. Apart from the fact that one could not always rely on a truthful answer, asking questions puts them on the spot and can create uneasiness. Once they get to know you, they are torn between the natural human desire for genuine communication and the duty to make propaganda. If they cannot bring themselves to lie to you, they tend to resort to evasion. Usually such excessive secrecy defeats its own purpose. In the absence of knowledge there arise wild speculation and rumour. It is not surprising that there are diplomats living in Pyongyang who seriously believe that most Korean apartment blocks are provided with no form of heating at all. As long as foreigners are not allowed to visit Koreans in their homes, such erroneous beliefs will persist. Of course I cannot prove that my informant was telling the truth. I can only trust my judgement that he was.
The revisers who were working on the president’s collected works used to have detailed discussions with their translators about the revisions they had made. The Koreans regarded their president’s works as sacred. Great importance therefore was attached to faithfulness to the original in the translations. Much more latitude was allowed in translations for the periodicals and the other texts that came my way to revise. All that mattered in these was that they should read satisfactorily and communicate the same information as the original. Usually the translators accepted my revised versions just as they stood. I was always told that I was going to the publishing house for a discussion about the Pyongyang Times but what actually happened was that I would revise articles while I was there and the translators would take it in turns to sit with me while I did them, as a learning exercise. They could ask questions about the amendments I was making and practise their spoken English by making conversation with me. It was a congenial arrangement from my point of view. I was always pleased to chat to the translators. There were some I would have loved to be able to mix with socially. From the work point of view, however, I could never concentrate as well at the publishing house as I could in the solitude of my room.
I often used to receive a brief visit on a Tuesday morning from the chief translator of Korea magazine, who was a particular favourite of mine. He was a genial little man and as a translator he had a good feel for the English language. His command of idiom and vocabulary were no better than any of the other translators but he had the right idea about English style and sentence structure. Korean sentences are like Latin periods, long and complex, full of subordinate clauses, with the main verb tantalisingly deferred until the end of the sentence. I remembered from my school days how I used to make a literal translation from the Latin and then go over it again, breaking down what was still essentially a Latin period with English words into a number of short English sentences. At first many of the translations I received reminded me of my original draft translations from Latin at school. They consisted of Korean sentences with English words. By the time I left, all the translators had learned from my revisions and were presenting me with English sentences. My friend from the pictorial magazine was one who already grasped how contemporary English should be written.
I was constantly being asked what I thought to their translations. It was a hard question to answer. I was not sure how a competent English linguist specialising in a very alien language like Chinese or Arabic would fare if required to make written translations from English into the foreign language instead of the other way round. I was aware that those people laboured under very considerable disadvantages. They had very, very few opportunities to converse with native English speakers or even to hear English being spoken on films. Their access to contemporary English language books and periodicals was severely limited. Their staple fare seemed to be things like Moscow News and China Daily, or Britain’s own Morning Star, although I had the impression that the situation was slowly improving. I once saw a young translator with a copy of Newsweek.
Sometimes I used to answer them that the quality of the translations was less of a problem than the quality of the original articles. I pointed out that their propaganda was pitched at an incredibly naive level while many of the articles were rambling, ill-informed and incoherent. My remarks cause the translators some embarrassment. They were not at liberty to say as much, but it was evident that they were already aware of this problem. Moscow news, China Daily and Beijing Review may not provide the optimum models of English prose but they are all characterised in recent times by a willingness to engage reality in putting over the state’s viewpoint. From their reading of publications such as these, the translators could tell that the sort of nonsense their country was putting out was out of step even with the rest of the communist world. They sensed that to portray everything in their country as perfect was to invite derision from the outside world. They knew enough to know that their government’s version of what South Korea is like was less than truthful and would therefore make no impression on foreigners who had access to plenty of other sources of information. I sensed with the translators, as with most educated people in North Korea, that they were committed to their revolutions, but realised that changes were needed and that abandoning naive and self-defeating propaganda was one of them. I sensed that they felt frustrated at not being able to do anything to rectify things. In North Korea all decisions are passed from the top down. Comments and criticism from grassroots level are not encouraged.
Of the three English language periodicals, the publishing house attached least importance to having the glossy pictorial magazine, Korea, revised. My friend the chief translator was determined that if I did not have time to make a careful revision of translations each month, then I would make time. He employed a variety of amusing methods to spur me on. One of them was to contend that I should give priority to his magazine because it was the most important and prestigious propaganda organ of the DPRK. He pointed out that it was printed on high quality paper and packed with bright photographs that would attract people’s attention and convey a favourable impression of his country.
He was not being entirely serious but I, for my part, was inclined to agree with him. Primarily a pictorial magazine with brief articles, his magazine had little space to devote the expounding the Juche Idea, and, apart from an obligatory piece each month about the heroic struggle being waged by the South Korean people against the military fascist puppet regime of traitor Roh Tae Woo, it was relatively free of polemics. It concentrated instead on portraying in words and pictures the genuinely attractive aspects of North Korean society, a society which is striving to develop independently and maintain a benign and decent social system. The system may be failing but its intentions are fundamentally good. “Still, in principle,” my friend Sami used to lecture me from time to time, “in principle they are right.”
Korea magazine is full of celebrations of the banal achievements of factory girls and railway workers, ordinary citizens whose only claim to fame is that they have overfulfilled their production quotas, people like the ladies of the Kin Chaek Knitwear Factory: “At the entrance of the next shop, we saw a bulletin board which displayed the results of workteams Nos. 2 and 3, awarded the Three Revolution Red Flag. ‘Pang Yong Sun and Choe Jung Hui have overfulfilled today’s quota by five per cent’
“Kim Suk Gyong, chief engineer, who was taking us round, remarked, ‘Most of our workers are women. They are hard-working and keep their factory clean. The Broad Bellflower brand of women’s sweater has won a gold medal at a national fair’
“Their products are attractive and the quality is good. The workers look after the factory like a palace and its compound like a park. They truly love their workplace.” (Korea, March 1988)
Even the naivety of style and content seem less inappropriate in this publication, perhaps because they reflect the way things are in this hard-working society, where simple people have a simple outlook on life.
Another tactic my friend used to stir me up on his behalf was flattery. “All the time,” he used to say to me, “whether I am walking in the street or lying in my bed at night, always I am thinking how can I improve the standard of my translations. Always I look forward so much to receiving your revisions. I think your style of English is so clear and concise. I am able to learn so much from you. Always I study your revisions with the greatest care so that I can learn from your corrections. Every morning I am waiting to see if you have returned my translations yet. I am so disappointed when I have to wait and wait. So please in future try to send them back as quickly as possible to help me improve my translations.”
He was not averse to a spot of emotional blackmail either. He would remind me that he was fifty-four this year, deaf in one ear, and having trouble with his eyesight, “and so I cannot do with so much criticism. If you do not return my translations in good time, then they are late for the printers. I say it is not my fault, the reviser did not send them back in time. Then they say it is still my fault because I should have kept urging you on to get them done. When I have to wait so many days for you to revise my translations, I cannot sleep at night for worry.” He was saying this to me in a tongue-in-cheek fashion, but I sensed, as is often the case when people are speaking frivolously, an underlying seriousness. His tone and manner were not intended to suggest that he really was unable to sleep at night for fear of harsh criticism, but I did get the impression that he was subject to a certain amount of pressure he could do without.
From my observations, I would say that people in the DPRK are not subject to brutal coercion, but they are constantly subject to intense psychological pressure to conform in thought, word and deed and to push themselves to the limit in building the revolution and construction. Collectively, people are continually exhorted to work harder by posters, slogans, loudspeaker vans, newspapers, radio and TV. From time to time special campaigns are launched. In February 1988, the biggest ever was launched, a two-hundred-day campaign during which people would work a twelve-hour day, seven days a week, to step up production. The intention was to fulfil all the economic targets for the whole year by September 9th, the fortieth anniversary of the founding of the Republic, and make the occasion a “great festival of victory”. The campaign was heralded by a mass rally in Kim Il Sung Square which was broadcast live on television. Reports on the campaign’s progress, uniformly and unrealistically glowing, dominated the North Korean media over the ensuing months.
I do not know, because in the DPRK it is impossible for foreigners to know, how pressure is brought to bear on people on an individual level, but one can be fairly sure that cadres and party officials make extensive use of criticism. Kim Il Sung is a great advocate of criticism. “Criticism is meant to train people, and they need it in the same way as they wash their faces every day. If a man does not wash his face, it becomes dirty. So he must wash his face every day. Just as washing is needed to keep our faces clean, so is criticism to keep our minds clean.” (CW, Vol.27, p.113)
It is not sufficient for people to passively submit to criticism. It is important that they acknowledge the relevance of the criticism they receive and are prepared to criticise themselves. On the subject of self-criticism, he refers to the thoughts of his mentor Josef Stalin – until as recently as 1980, one of Pyongyang’s main thoroughfares was still called Stalin Street:
“We have the sharp, tested weapons of criticism and self-criticism to use in the struggle to temper party spirit. Wielding this weapon, we must sweep away all tendencies that run counter to party spirit and expose and rectify defects and errors in our work and thus improve it constantly.”
“Comrade Stalin has said, ‘Should we fail to recognise or to bring out into the open in all frankness and honesty, as behoves Bolsheviks, the shortcomings and mistakes in our work, we will be barring ourselves from the road to progress. But we want to advance. And precisely because we want to advance, we must pose to ourselves as one of the most important tasks, the task of honest and revolutionary self-criticism. Otherwise there will be no advance. Otherwise, there is no development.'” (CW, Vol.7, p.335)
Nor will criticism in Kim Il Sung’s view be effective in itself. It must be accompanied by kindness and understanding. The prescription he offers in the following passage has a military context but it could equally well be applied in a civilian one. Just as the Korean People’s Army, like all communist armies, has a dual hierarchy of military commanders and a political commissariat, power in commercial and industrial enterprises is shared between the director or manager and the party secretary.
“The company commander must treat his men just as he does his own younger brother, and when any of his men has made a mistake he must criticise him sternly and intelligibly. The company political instructor must, like a good-natured elder sister [sic], deal with the men kindly and gently.
“Suppose a man made a mistake and was criticised severely by the company commander. Then, the company political instructor must see him and explain to him kindly that he must not complain of the criticism made by the company commander, that his mistake was a fact, that the criticism will benefit him because it will stimulate him to improve and that he should try to correct the mistake with the help of his comrades. If, instead, the political instructor joins the company commander in criticising the men, the men will not follow the commander and the political instructor enthusiastically. They will say that they have no-one to depend on in the company, and become homesick.
“Only when the company political instructor treats the men with the tenderness of an elder sister, will the men come to see him and speak their minds. The political instructor must listen to what they have to tell him and, if he hears any serious error, he must persuade the man involved to correct it immediately and maintain secrecy about those matters which he must keep to himself.” (CW, Vol.28, p.439.)
I have digressed from recounting my own personal miseries. Apart from my weekly outing to the publishing house, I spent the rest of the week trapped in my study-bedroom with my texts. This was something I did not much care for at the best of times. At least in warm weather I could go for a short walk if I felt too restless or just take a turn on the balcony. In winter the cold was too extreme to step outside without physical and psychological preparations. Meals offered some respite but they were nothing to look forward to.
Nearly every day at five o’clock I padded myself out in two pairs of socks, a thick pair of trousers, two thick pullovers, scarf, gloves and woolly hat. I also wore two overcoats. I augmented the coat I had brought from England, one which had proved more than adequate for the winters at home, with a cheap, outsize, fur-lined Chinese raincoat which I purchased locally for a few dollars. It was an unsightly garment, a stereotype flasher’s mack. I did not care. Vanity is a luxury to be dispensed with in wintry Pyongyang. The important thing was that it was big enough to fit over the top of my other coat and afford an extra layer of insulation.
There were days when I was so keen to escape from my room, I was down the stairs and out at five o’clock sharp like a greyhound bursting from the trap. There were other days when I dreaded the thought of stepping out into the icy blast that raked the streets of Pyongyang, these streets that had looked so attractive when I first arrived and there had been green on the trees and flowers everywhere, but which now looked utterly drab, dreary and monotonous. There were a few days when I succumbed to apathy and stayed indoors. I always regretted it the following day as my feelings of claustrophobia would become more intense. It was easier to motivate myself to get out if I had something to buy from the shops, a biro, a jar of coffee, a bottle of whisky. Having a purchase to make gave a sense of purpose to my expedition. Sometimes I could only force myself to stay out for ten or fifteen minutes. On other days, if the wind was still, I might manage a whole hour. There were times when I enjoyed my walk as the sun went down over the Potang River and the first stars emerged in the darkening sky. Often, though, my walks had the character of a grim necessity. I felt I had to get outside for a little fresh air and exercise each day if I was to hold onto my health and sanity. I was very conscious of the fact that I was following a more sedentary occupation than I had in England and not participating in any sport either.
I doubt if there are many cities in the world that can be both as attractive in the summer and as desolate in the winter as Pyongyang. Shorn of its flowers and foliage, North Korea’s capital was revealed as stark, drab and functional. The women who had looked so graceful in summer, now cowled in their thick headscarves, were like wraiths swept along by the wind.
On returning home from my walk, I would read until supper time at seven o’clock. Reading is not an ideal activity when one has been poring over texts all day, but there was no alternative. From the end of December I virtually abandoned going out in the evenings. There was nowhere to go except the Koryo. Everywhere else was completely dead. Even the Koryo was virtually kept open for three months for the exclusive convenience of the West German engineers. It seemed almost eerie to me, this big luxury hotel devoid of activity or guests. And it was such an effort to drag oneself out in the cold to get there. I would go there every few days only when I was compelled by an urgent need to get out of my environment at all costs. Sometimes I would bump into an acquaintance and it would be quite pleasant for a while. Then I would have to keep checking my watch because it was imperative to get to the underground station by ten thirty to be sure of catching the last tube train. Since the collapse of the dollar I had been reluctant to take taxis. With the initial problem over my salary and my illness, my finances were not looking to healthy, and taxi fares in Pyongyang are not cheap. After 11 pm they double. Then it costs the equivalent of four dollars in red won to go from the Koryo to the Ansan Chodasso, which is no more than two miles away if that. It is no good trying to leave just a little bit earlier. The taxi drivers vanish between 10.15 and 11 pm and reappear when it is time to double the fares. The thought of walking back at night in such weather was insupportable. I did it once with Jean-Jacques, and the journey seemed to go on forever. I bitterly resented not having a car. If I had had a car, I could have popped down to the Koryo each evening for a change of scenery. If there was no-one there, I could have stayed for one drink and then left. When I met somebody to talk to, I need not have had to worry about getting home. As it was, by foot and underground it took the best part of half an hour just to get there and another twenty minutes to thaw out on arrival.
Most evenings, then, I sat in my living room. When I could summon the will power, I used to work on this book. When I went out to Pyongyang, I had a vague intention of writing about my experiences. It took the awfulness of winter to really galvanise me into literary activity. Writing gave me something to do to pass the time. It is a sad thing when time is something to be killed as opposed to spent. Writing also shored up my self-esteem. I felt less of a fool for being in Korea if I could define myself as an anthropologist in the field, making a study of a reclusive, little-known tribe. I could not always summon the will power to write. When I could, I could seldom sustain the effort for more than an hour. I always spent part of the evening reading. Then I would put on the television or play tapes while I drank enough alcohol to ensure a good night’s oblivion.
Before the end of January I felt as if I had reached the limit of my coping capacity. I was far short of saving a respectable amount of money to come home with, but I was thinking that whatever problems I might have on my return, anything would be better than the limbo in which I was living in Pyongyang. On the other hand, I felt that to go home at this point would be an admission of defeat. I had given up a secure job and taken myself off to the far side of the world, and up to now I had seen nothing. If I stuck it out, I would be able to travel across China to visit Hong Kong, I would have the opportunity to see something of Korea other than the capital, and I would be able to accumulate enough material for a book. To return prematurely would make the whole venture an irrevocable waste of time. To stay was not a pleasing prospect. Faced with this dilemma, I decided to up the stakes and see what happened. I told the Koreans I wanted an eighteen per cent pay rise to take account of the fall in the value of the dollar. Otherwise it was not worth my while to stay and they must fly me home in March.
I had been there long enough to know what was going to happen next. Nothing. They played a waiting game. The hope was that I would interpret prolonged silence as refusal and retract my ultimatum. If I did not, and they were going to keep me, they would at least save themselves a few dollars by delaying my pay rise as long as possible. I gave them nearly a month. Then I told them that I must have a decision soon. They chose to keep me dangling for a few days more. Finally they told me in February that they would grant my request from the following month, on condition that I would guarantee to remain until August and that I told no-one else, not even Sami, about my pay increase. I did not like being sworn to secrecy but it seemed expedient in the circumstances. To come away after twelve months with a book and something like my original savings target might enable me to define my year in Pyongyang as time invested rather than time wasted. The extra money I was to receive would just about cover the money that earlier they had, as far as I was concerned, cheated me out of.
By the time this was sorted out, I was still living in a fog of depression, but at least I was only a few weeks away from a sanity-saving holiday in Hong Kong. At the end of the long, dark tunnel of winter in Pyongyang beckoned the bright lights of Hong Kong. I gritted my teeth, took my later afternoon walks through the frozen streets, ate my rice and soup, and drank myself to sleep. It was one of the few compensations of life in Pyongyang that liquor was extremely cheap. Until June 1988, when the prices of alcohol and cigarettes doubled overnight, reputable brands of Scotch could be bought for as little as five or six dollars a bottle. Vodka was even cheaper. A half-litre of Stolichnaya cost a little over a dollar. I imagine this was due to Mr Gorbachev’s clampdown on drunkenness. The vodka that the Soviet authorities would not release on the domestic market was being sold off to friends and neighbours at bargain basement prices.
Naturally life was not all unremitting tedium. For example, I spent some extremely pleasant evenings in the company of Holmer and Astrid, with whom I became fast friends. I derived immense pleasure from re-reading Lord of the Rings for the first time since college days. But all in all winter in Pyongyang was not an experience I would wish to repeat.
Weekends were almost worse than weekdays. I was glad of the respite from revising ridiculous texts but time on Saturday afternoons and Sundays used to weigh heavily on my hands. Once nice thing was that I was able to make my daily excursion earlier in the day while the cold was less intense. In Pyongyang in winter the air is very dry, and there are many days of sunshine and clear skies. When there was no wind, it could be very pleasant out in the middle of the day if one was well wrapped up. Sometimes I would be out for two or three hours, exploring the city – not that there is so much to explore, because it is all so homogeneous – or strolling along the banks of the Potang River, or even walking on the frozen river itself, always a novelty for a native of more temperate zones.
One section of the population which evidently had no objection to the winter was the children. Everywhere there was ice, and wherever there was ice there were ebullient boys on skates. For some reason, I never saw many girls skating. As for the adults, they were as usual too busy building the revolution and construction. The younger boys did not usually have proper pairs of skates. They used to squat on a tiny wooden platform mounted on a single skate and propel themselves along on this peculiar device with two spiked sticks, like crude miniature versions of the ones skiers use.
In February, to mark the dear leader’s birthday, we were taken on an outing to the International Club for a film show. The first film was an hour-long propaganda documentary dedicated to the promotion of the dear leader. This was quite interesting. It was evident that there had been an awareness that the poor chap tended to come over as a bit of a drip, trailing diffidently in his father’s footsteps, and that a conscious effort had been made to give him a more dynamic image. To some extent I think it is fair to say that the film makers had succeeded, although I do not understand these things sufficiently to attempt an analysis of how they did it. I remember there were quite a few shots of him gesticulating expansively with a cigarette in his hand. Nevertheless, whatever his real intellectual and political capabilities may be, I was left in no doubt that this tubby little man in built-up shoes will never managed to fill the role of monarch and high priest of the Juche religion around whom the Party and the people unite firmly in unquestioning loyalty and obedience.
The other film was a Korean feature film called Broad Bellflower. I had revised so many articles about this film for the periodicals that I felt as if I had seen in already. In September 1987, Pyongyang had provided the venue for the first Film Festival of Non Aligned and Other Developing Countries, and Broad Bellflower had been awarded first prize, so the Koreans were incredibly chuffed about it. The film is, like so many things North Korean, rather charming and patently absurd.
The story concerns Song Rim, an orphan girl who lives with her younger sister in a remote mountain village. The villagers live in thatched cottages and have no electricity. She is in love with a talented young man called Won Bong. Won Bong is dissatisfied with the limited horizons the village offers and the low standard of living. He wants to move to an urban environment to better himself. He asks Song Rim to go with him, but she refuses. She insists that it is their duty to stay and work to raise the quality of life in their native place, instead of looking elsewhere for easier opportunities. Won Bong remains determined to move to the city in search of a better life. Song Rim will not go with him. So they separate, although they love each other dearly. Song Rim plays a leading role in organising the villagers into modernising their village, until one day she is buried in an avalanche while trying to rescue a sheep during a storm. A quarter of a century after his departure, a despairing Won Bong returns to his village with his teenage son. He is in despair because he had discovered the important truth in life that it is impossible for a person ever to find true happiness outside the place where he belongs. He knows that he is persona non grata in the village because he turned his back on it all those years before, but he wants his son to have the opportunity to live life as it should be lived, as part of the community to which he rightly belongs. He sends his son on into the village while he remains looking down from the path above. Once his son is out of sight, he sinks to his knees and scoops up handfuls of his native earth and weeps. The villagers initially make his son welcome, but when they discover who his father is, controversy rages as to whether he should be allowed to remain in what is now a thriving little community with tiled roofs on the cottages, electricity, and a fleet of tractors. The makers of the film do not seem to have considered that this controversy reflects badly on the villagers’ humanity, or that Won Bong’s abject despair says little for the relationship he has with his son or with the boy’s mother.
Nevertheless in spite of all its absurdities, it was not a bad film. The acting was very good. The photography was stunning. It was even enlivened with a couple of catchy songs, one of which included the immortal lines sung by Song Rim’s sister, “I’m not going to get married until I’m a fully qualified tractor driver.” Most people who saw it felt that the people who made it had the ability to make a film of genuine quality if they were freed from the restrictions of socialist-realist canons of art, the obligation to subordinate artistic considerations to getting the Party message over, the message in this case presumably directed at the younger peasantry who have doubtless been getting a bit restive since television was introduced into the community hall down on the co-operative farm.
There was another event to mark the dear leader’s birthday to which we humble revisers were sadly not invited. This was the banquet for the diplomatic community which was thrown at the sumptuous new Workers’ Party of Korea headquarters. Something extraordinary happened on this occasion that made it an instant legend in Pyongyang. The foreigners were treated to a cabaret that included a display of dancing by scantily-clad Korean nymphs. From all accounts, it was pretty tame stuff by international standards, but for North Korea it was quite without precedent and became the main topic of conversation on the diplomatic circuit for weeks afterwards. Not everyone was pleased by it. The Pakistani ambassador expressed outrage at being exposed to such an immoral spectacle. His Indian counterpart told him that if he did not like it, he could have closed his eyes. On the assumption that the girls had had previous practice, speculation hardened that a small elite at the pinnacle of Pyongyang society may be enjoying a less lofty morality than is advocated for the rest of the population.