Chapter 17

In early June the nation passed the halfway stage in the two-hundred-day campaign. In spite of everything, whenever I observed the factory workers from my balcony or took a walk round the construction site, they all looked to be bearing up quite well, although obviously their lives had been reduced to an interminable routine of eat, work and sleep. On the other hand, life in the DPRK does not offer a vast deal else under normal circumstances.

One thing that it does offer is education, albeit most of it education in the Juche idea. I saw the most extraordinary sights. A man reading a book as he trudged across the construction site with an A-frame basket of heavy rocks strapped to his back, literally studying while working. A group of construction workers sitting cross-legged on the ground around a tree to which a cadre had nailed a blackboard, an instant outdoor classroom.

One night Sami and I were on our way home from the Potanggang. As we mounted the dike that separated the grounds of the hotel from the construction site of the bridge we saw about a hundred people digging in groups of three, standard practice in North Korea. One person holds the shovel. A length of rope is tied to the shovel. The other two members of the trio each hold an end of the rope. The person with the shovel pushes it into the ground. The ones holding the ends of the rope help him pull it out again. In this way a hundred people would toil all night to accomplish what a man with a bulldozer could do in half an hour. Sometimes they used to sing. Sami produced his torch and we picked our steps across, avoiding the puddles. Then we stooped under the barrier at the site entrance where there was a watchman’s hut with a light outside it. On this particular night two young men were keeping watch. There was nothing for them to watch out for. Criminals are almost as rare as tigers in Pyongyang and everyone comes and goes at will across the construction site. There is no potential shortcut anywhere in North Korea outside the militarised zones that does not become a public thoroughfare. In those days, though, it was advisable to take good note of your surroundings as you made your way to the Potanggang in daylight, as the thoroughfare altered daily with the advance of the construction. That way you reduced your chances of disappearing down a hole or sinking ankle-deep in mud when you made your way back again pissed up in the pitch darkness. These two watchmen were not wasting their time as they kept watch over a public thoroughfare. Using the light on the hut as a reading lamp, one of them was reading aloud from a book to the other who murmured solemn assent to every sentence. I asked Sami if he knew what was being read from. He told me it was a book of famous quotations from the president. Bible study on the construction site at midnight.

The number of projects that were being vigorously carried out during the two-hundred-day campaign was putting a strain on the nation’s electricity supply. From time to time there were power cuts. On the first Sunday in June, electricity and water supplies to our district were severed for several hours. We foreigners were not at all pleased. The people on the construction site, however, were overjoyed. They all had a legitimate excuse to sit around idle in the sunshine for a few hours. There were not many opportunities like this for them in the summer of 1988.

The following week a team of girl students in their green uniforms appeared each day either in our street or on the path beside the river to practise for hours on end a graceful marching routine with wicker baskets of plastic flowers and strips of flowing pink chiffon under the implacable eye of their instructress, who walked alongside them carrying a portable cassette recorder. As the crocuses herald the spring, the appearance of these girls marked the onset of preparations by Pyongyang’s adult population for the great march past the tribune on the morning of September 9th before the children took the spotlight for the afternoon’s mass games. I was unable to imagine British undergraduates putting up with this sort of thing under public scrutiny. Even those born and bred Juche students seemed to feel they had outgrown such antics. Or perhaps they only felt embarrassed when there were foreigners around observing them.

Earlier in the year the South Korean students had proposed a meeting with their northern counterparts to discuss issues related to the reunification question, like the North’s demand to co-host the Olympic Games and a proposal to hold an athletics meeting between the students from both sides. The North Korean students were keen to attend such a meeting and received official encouragement. The date of June 10th was designated for initial talks at Panmunjon. On that date the North’s representatives arrived there at the appointed time and waited two hours. South Korean students were refused permission to attend, but a number of demonstrators set out anyway. When they came to the bridge that gives access to Panmunjon they were stopped by troops. The North Koreans saw this as a propaganda coup. In my opinion, if the American and South Korean authorities had had any sense, they would have let the meeting take place. It might have given these passionate young activists in their designer jeans and sweatshirts a jolt to encounter in the flesh their northern peers, with their school uniforms and peaceful lives of simple virtue.

On a personal note, the most cataclysmic event in Pyongyang in early June was an overnight doubling and in some cases trebling of the price of liquor in the dollar shops. I was more glad than ever that I would soon be leaving. About the only redeeming feature of living in Pyongyang had been the availability of reputable brands of Scotch at five or six dollars a time. Vodka was even cheaper. Presumably a side-effect of Mr Gorbachev’s crackdown on domestic consumption, from early 1988 half-litre bottles of Stolichnaya were selling in Pyongyang for just over a dollar. Suddenly, in a concerted hike by all the shops simultaneously, a bottle of whisky that cost ten and a half won one day was twenty-four won the next. The Stolichnaya jumped from two won forty chen to four won eighty. Fortunately there were only a matter of weeks left before my release date and, being a cautious sort of person, I already had half a dozen bottles of Scotch and four of Stolichnaya in my cupboard. Also, the hotels were rather slower to raise their prices. I immediately bought two additional bottles to be kept behind the bar with my name on them at the Potanggang before the disease of inflation infected my local. I suppose that instead of responding to the crisis in this way I might have made it a pretext to moderate my drinking. I have always entertained a fondness for alcohol and there are probably three or four occasions in an average year when I go over the top and cannot recall all that happened the night before. By this time this was happening three or four nights a week, and there was not a single night when I went to bed sober. But I never seriously considered cutting back. I preferred the prospect of alcoholism to depressive psychosis.

The price of cigarettes also rose dramatically. A pack of Rothmans or Dunhill jumped from one won fifty to two won forty. Rothmans International leaped from one won seventy to four won fifty. Luckily these rises did not affect me so much. The only time I used to buy imported cigarettes was when I was taken on a trip. The rest of the time I made do with the local grade II cigarettes I was given free each day as one of the terms of my employment. As far as I know there are three grades of North Korean cigarettes. If there are grade four or grade five cigarettes, I dread to think what they are like. In the first grade are a range of cigarettes which are on sale in the dollar shops and hotels to impress the foreigners. These are not bad, although not of good enough quality to compete on the world market. The brand I used to be issued with, Pak Ma (White Horse in English), were a grade two cigarette. These are not generally available to foreigners. They are smokable and that is the best that can be said for them The locals consider them a luxury cigarette, and indeed they are in comparison to the working man’s Grade III untipped cigarettes, which are vile.

To be fair to the North Korean tobacco industry, and to put things in a proper perspective, Pak Ma are superior to the popular indigenous cigarette of India, Charminar, and even the humble Grade III cigarettes are preferable to a bidi.

It was around this time that rumours were circulating that the supply of cigarettes to the locals had been curtailed in the interests of public health. It seemed a cruel blow to deal to the working man in the midst of his two-hundred-day carnival of toil.

I have stated how drastic the June price rises for alcohol and tobacco were. I ought to add that I was referring to prices in red won. The price increases for holders of the humble blue won were far, far worse. Our Russian colleagues at the Ansan Chodasso were horror-stricken. Our Cuban and East German friends could only console themselves with the thought that they were very nearly at the end of their contracts.

Around the middle of June I received another batch of comedy scripts to revise from the Monty Python crew down at the Korea International Tourist Bureau.

Perhaps some joker from Planet Earth had seen their brochure for the month-long medicinal mudbath holiday, taking the slimes at Lake Sijung, and had rung up to make an ironical inquiry. Whatever it was, something had inspired them to take the concept one step further and offer a twenty-eight day package holiday for those wishing to receive traditional Korean medical treatment.

In principle this need not be as ridiculous as it at first sounds. When I was in Hong Kong I read that the people there, who are nobody’s fools, use the public western-orientated health services for some ailments and the private traditional Chinese medical sector for others. I myself was treated effectively, if slowly, largely by eastern methods. Astrid once sprained her ankle. The only thing a western-trained doctor can do for a sprained ankle is to bandage it up tight and tell you to try and keep off it for a few days, while Doctor Time works his course. Astrid was taken to the Foreigners’ Hospital for one treatment of acupuncture. It was all she needed. Relief from pain was instantaneous. And within twenty-four hours the swelling had entirely subsided and she was on her feet again as if nothing had ever happened.

There must be plenty of well-off people in the world whose lives are blighted by chronic health problems that are not responsive to conventional methods of treatment. In principle it ought not to be too difficult for the chaps at the Tourist Bureau to get in touch with an expert on Korean medicine and find out what precisely are the ailments which are more responsive to traditional Asian than to modern western medicine and what traditional methods can realistically offer specific illnesses in terms of cure or relief, and then use the information to turn out an intelligent leaflet or brochure and work out where to target it.

If, say, arthritis is less intractable when treated by traditional Asian methods than by western drug treatment, they could target a leaflet at associations for arthritis sufferers in the West and offer free trials initially to a small number of patients in order to gain publicity and establish credibility for future commercial ventures.

In practice they do not have the slightest idea about marketing their products to the outside world, and probably would not know the term marketing if they read it in Korean. They probably have no clear idea what they are to do with their leaflets, how and to whom to distribute. I do not suppose it ever occurred to them to go and talk to a doctor about what Korean medicine genuinely has to offer. As far as these chaps are concerned, all the propaganda that has been churned out about the wonders of traditional Korean medicine in recent years since the country can no longer afford to import decent quantities of modern drugs is absolutely true. So they turn for their information to their internal propaganda, and proudly announce that if you receive “manipulative [hand] treatment” only once or twice, “invertebral synarthrosis, myositis of lumbar nerves, spondulosis, deformative spinal arthritis, brachial plexitis, scapular polyarthritis, intercostal neuralgia, lung and various muscular pains can be cured completely”.Of course some ailments take a little longer to clear up. It takes forty days to get rid of those “acute pains from blood vessels” under the famous “Nanchinai Treatment” and a full sixty days for the same treatment to do the trick for “arterial sclerosis and presbyopia”. Pity the holiday is only for twenty-eight days.

No price is quoted for this holiday. Perhaps the price is dependent on the nature of the illness and the requisite treatment. They are evidently not expecting visitors to be too incapacitated, however, because in addition to receiving treatment, a full programme of outings is included in the package. The ailing tourist gets to visit the International Friendship Exhibition at Mount Myohyant, the Pyongyang Maternity hospital, the zoo, and even to get bounced around like a beach ball on the bumpy road to Panmunjon.

The other new inspiration from the chaps at the Korean International Tourist Board was the Wedding Tour, as I rechristened it, the Honeymoon Package. So if you are thinking of getting married soon and you have not yet seen the leaflet, this is what North Korea has to offer you.

Itinerary 1 (five days and four nights)

First Day: Arrival in Pyongyang. Warm reception with congratulatory flowers. First meal served with champagne in the hotel room.

Second Day: Tour of Pyongyang. Visit to the old home in Mangyondae where President Kim Il Sung was born. Relax in the Mangyondae Pleasure Park.

Third Day: Visit to the Pyongyang Metro, a crche and a kindergarten. Relax in the Taesongsang Pleasure Park. Visit to a Koreans’ wedding hall.

Fourth Day: Relax at Moranbong Park. Visit to the Pyongyang Maternity Hospital. Boat trip on the Taedong River. Watch circus performance.

Fifth Day: Return home.

A snip at 723 dollars a head even if you do have to make your own travel arrangements to Pyongyang. If the prospect of a visit on your honeymoon to the Pyongyang Maternity Hospital and a ride on an oriental tube train has whetted your appetite for more, you can pay 945 dollars a head and have:

Itinerary 2 (eight days and seven nights)

First Day: Arrive in Pyongyang. Warm reception with congratulatory flowers. First meal served with champagne in hotel room.

Second Day: Sightseeing tour of Pyongyang. Visit to the old home in Mangyondae where President Kim Il Sung was born. Relax at Mangyondae Pleasure Park. Watch artistic performances.

Third Day: Relax at Moranbong Park. Visit to the Pyongyang Maternity Hospital, a crche, and a Koreans’ wedding hall. Depart for Mount Myohyant by train.

Fourth Day: Visit to the International Friendship Exhibition. Visit the Sangwon Hermitage on Mount Myohyant. Sail in a flower-bedecked boat on a lake. Have supper on the boat.

Fifty Day: Visit to the Pohyon Temple. Rest or visit the beautiful Manpok Valley. Depart for Pyongyang after dinner.

Sixth Day: Relax at the Taesongsan Pleasure Park. Visit to Pyongyang Metro and the Pyongyang Students’ and Children’s palace.

Seventh Day: Visit to the West Sea Barrage and the Pyongyang Handicraft Institute.

Eighth Day: Return home.

If you are looking forward to having suppler on a lake in a flower-bedecked boat, do not go between the end of October and the beginning of April or you will be boating on ice. If you go in July or August, watch out for the monsoon. Needless to say, the author of the leaflet did not consider such details worth mentioning.

No religion would be complete without its quota of shrines, relics and holy places. If the nativity set at Mangyondae is the Mecca of the Juche religion and the Museum of the Korean Revolution its leading cathedral, the manipulators of consciousness in the DPRK have been assiduous in establishing other holiday shrines across the country to help strengthen the bonds of religious servitude.

The most famous outside Pyongyang is the International Friendship Exhibition at Mount Myohyant. This is where the gifts which visiting heads of state and delegations and notable fans from abroad have presented to the leadership are stored and displayed. But there are many others: the secret camp on Mount Paekdu, the Pochonbo Revolutionary Battle Site, the Ponghawa Revolutionary Site dedicated to the legendary revolutionary activities of Kim Il Sung’s father Kim Hyong Jik, and the Chilgol Revolutionary Site dedicated to the memory of his mother, Kang Bong Sok. Until recently Kang Bong Sok rejoiced in the title of Mother of Korea. From now on she will have to settle for being the Grandmother of Korea, as her erstwhile title has lately been usurped by the president’s late first wife and mother of Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Suk, who has her own statue, museum, revolutionary site, straw thatched nativity set, and sundry other sacred relics installed in her native town of Hoengong.

More recently a number of monuments and revolutionary sites dedicated to the dear leader have been established. As yet these are not being advertised to foreigners, but I did get to hear of one in Pyongyang city so I took a ride out on the underground one Sunday morning to Ryonmotdong overlooking the main road from Pyongyang to Ryongsong to take a look.

This site is associated with the historic widening of the road in 1961, a task entrusted to the students at Kim Il Sung University when Kim Jong Il was in attendance. According to Kim Jong Il’s official biography this was a time when, “inspired by Kim Jong Il’s personal example, many of the students performed exemplary and laudable deeds. When, by accident, there was a leak in the sewage pipe during excavation at a work site, the men plugged the hole with their bodies, singing a revolutionary song and competing with each other in the struggle.” (Kim Jong Il, The People’s Leader, Vol.I, p.288)

The site features the humble cottage where Kim Jong Il lived while leading his fellow students in the construction work and a kindergarten to which he once paid a visit during that period. The kindergarten is now a museum. One room contains nothing but a circle of tiny wooden chairs on which it is said the children used to sit, but one of them has a specially upholstered cover because it is the one upon which the dear leader sat as he gave dazzling on-the-spot guidance to the kindergarteners. The other room contains photographs and drawings of the young Kim Jong Il mingling with the workers and students. One of the photographs has had Kim Jong Il’s head superimposed on the original so clumsily that it was obvious even to my untrained eye. There are also such sacred relics as the plastic coat which he took off one stormy night and gave to a soldier who was helping on the road-widening project insisting, out of his magnanimous spirit of boundless self-sacrifice and warm solicitude for the people, that it was he and not the soldier who should endure the scourge of the elements. There is also the original bucket that he took from an old lady and insisted on filling with stray scraps of coal from the construction site for her.

By a happy coincidence it was on Mount Maeng, a picturesque hill just on the other side of the road, that Kim Jong Il used to engage in military manoeuvres during his military service. Miraculously preserved there among other marvels is the sniper’s emplacement which he occupied while leading, guiding and inspiring his comrades. There need be no confusion at to which emplacement was Kim Jong Il’s. It is the only one there. All the rest have been washed away by the elements over the years.

If all this sounds as silly to you as it does to me, I ought to add that the party of Korean women who were being herded round while I was there all seemed to be taking it perfectly seriously.

I do not know whether the country was anticipating trouble with the run-up to the Olympics, or if it was just becoming more combat-conscious as June 25th, the thirty-eighth anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War, drew nearer. For whatever reason, our pretty doll soldiers, the people’s guards from the factory next door, seemed to be out in the street at some point during every day now, doing bayonet drill. It has to be said they were somewhat lacking in ferocity, but they were very graceful and balletic. They seemed to find it all a bit of a giggle but maybe they were just embarrassed when the foreigner joined the regular audience of junior schoolchildren who sat along the kerb watching them.

When the little samurai returned to their sentry posts, alternative street cabaret would often be provided by the burgeoning array of female undergraduates, sometimes as many as fifty of them, marching up and down the road learning their complicated routine with their baskets of artificial flowers and pink chiffon streamers under the steely eye of their martinet instructress.

While the people’s guards prepared to safeguard the revolutionary gains at the cost of their blood and the youth and students rehearsed endlessly for the September 9th celebrations, and the rest of the population were absorbed in the two-hundred-day campaign, corruption was becoming rampant among those privileged and informed enough to become disillusioned. It was less than three months since foreigners had started returning to the hotels again in any numbers after the winter closedown, but more and more visitors had more and more complaints about guides, interpreters and drivers sponging off them on a scale that would have been quite unheard-of less than a year previously, when I first arrived. People were being bombarded with demands for gifts all day long. South Koreans were ordering alcohol and cigarettes from hotel or restaurant and putting the charge on their client’s bill without his knowledge.

One businessman from the Middle East arrived with a couple of dozen watches and Parker pens he had picked up cheaply in Dubai to distribute as a goodwill gesture. This proved to be a dreadful error. The people he was dealing with immediately formed the false impression that he had a bottomless bank account. Consequently, from the day he arrived his wallet was under continuous siege. The Koreans were quite shameless about begging from him. One to whom he had given a ladies’ watch told him the next day that his wife liked it very much, and asked if he could have another one for his daughter. One evening he entertained some of them to dinner at the Ansan Club. He was shocked at the end of the evening to be presented with a bill for six hundred dollars. He was puzzled that an undistinguished meal in a third world country could set him back a hundred dollars a head. I asked him if any of his guests wee carrying away parcels when they left that they had not had when they arrived. He replied that they all were. I explained to him that each of them, and probably the driver too, would have screwed him for about fifty dollars’ worth of cigarettes and alcohol. I also dispelled any hopes he might have had that the largesse he was distributing, both wittingly and unwittingly, might exert a positive influence on securing a favourable contract. One of the frustrations that foreign businessmen encounter in dealing with the DPRK is that the people they are physically negotiating with are not empowered to make decisions, but have to report back to others for consultation. The valid reason for this otherwise absurd practice is that it stops officials making injudicious contracts because they have been bribed.

It is customary for a visitor to North Korea to be entertained to a banquet on his last night before departure. The vultures who beset this unfortunate gentleman lied to him and told him it was the custom for the visitor to treat his hosts to a dinner. He accepted this, and so the vultures were able to enjoy their banquets and share the cost of the meal which the state authorities, unaware that the foreigner had already paid for it, would later pay over to the hotel manager. They also tried to purchase more drink and cigarettes on his account after the meal, but he was now wise to what was happening, and when the girl brought him the bill for this, he refused to pay it.

The initial contract the Koreans had drawn up for his consideration for purchasing much-needed equipment from him was unrealistic. Nevertheless, having ventured thus far, he had been considering a return visit for further negotiations. After they screwed two or three hundred dollars out of him on his last night – and tried for more – he knocked that idea on the head. He left the country determined never to return. He had decided to write off the whole bad experience as a sorry waste of time and money. Half a dozen Koreans had eaten well for a couple of weeks and built up a healthy stock of imported booze and cigarettes for themselves, and left the country no further forward. It would be wrong, however, to think of these Koreans as crooks and swindlers. They are more like naughty children. The trouble is that even up to quite a high level – one of the culprits in this case was the director of quite an important state enterprise – the North Koreans are so unsophisticated and so ignorant of the outside world that they simply have no idea of the value of money. They do not have a clue what constitutes a lot of money to a foreigner and what does not. I very much doubt if these people would have been as greedy and irresponsible if they had been capable of gauging the implications of their actions; but they were not.

It is only fair to record that although this sort of behaviour was becoming more and more common and more and more outrageous over the summer of 1988, it was still by no means universal. In the same week that these events were taking place, another overseas businessman was telling me what a pleasure he was finding it to do business in North Korea, where the people were so honest and industrious.