On Saturday 25th June 1988, the thirty-eighth anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War, bloodthirsty sermons were preached to a packed congregation by assorted Juche priests and bishops in Kim Il Sung Square. Fortunately I was not there to hear them. I was on my second trip outside Pyongyang, on this occasion to Mount Kumgang.
As usual we left Pyongyang by a night train. There were a party of us, myself, Michael, Holmer, Astrid and Linda, and two interpreters. Originally only Michael and I had been scheduled to go the week before. However, I made remonstrations that the request of Holmer and Astrid, who were due to leave Korea on July 7th, to visit Mount Kumgang was being overlooked. As was usual there, if you made a fuss you got what you wanted. The trip was deferred for a week and then off we all went together.
It had been glorious weather all week in Pyongyang, but when we arrived in the West coast port city of Wonsan on the Friday morning it was pissing down. We took breakfast in the hotel in Wonsan and then set off in two ancient Volvos for the mountain. The journey is only one hundred and twenty kilometres, but the road is in such a bad state of repair that it takes three hours. From time to time we passed gangs of construction workers toiling with their bare hands or the most basic of tools to renovate and widen parts of the road. It was a pretty hopeless, patchwork exercise. Once we were delayed for several minutes until a lorry could be brought to pull a bus that was blocking our path out of the mud where it had got stuck.
In this area, as around Kaesong, the mechanisation of agriculture evidently still had a long way to go. The paddy fields were full of peasants bent over in the rain, weeding. They were wearing thin plastic-hooded coats like the one in the museum that Kim Jong Il gave to the soldier. For ever tractor we saw, we must have seen thirty draft animals. Still the villages and townships we passed through looked clean and well cared for. The children all worse the standard navy blue uniforms and doubtless had schools in which to wear them. On our way back two days later in the sunshine, I noticed that all the adults out here were as well groomed, and wore the same clothes, as the people in Pyongyang. Everybody smiled and waved as we drove past and were suitably delighted if we took the trouble to wave back. I began to feel a bit like the queen.
If the Koreans are serious about attracting affluent tourists from the West, they ought to do something about the state of that road; like tearing it up and burying it under a new one. They could also do with ensuring a more adequate hot water supply to the hotel at Mount Kumgang. It was barely tepid while we were there. Other people who have stayed there said we were fortunate to find it that warm.
Whether as a reprisal for my insisting that Holmer and Astrid came on the trip, or a routine penny-pinching measure on the part of the publishing house, Michael and I were assigned a shared room. This reaffirmed my conviction that if there ever had been a good time for anyone to be a foreign language reviser in Pyongyang, it was now over. Sami and Simone recalled a time when the Koreans were anxious to take the revisers on trips every few weeks. Now it was necessary to pressure them to get anywhere at all. Yet it is difficult to complain when you know that for a local to go to Mount Kumgang is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It was, for example, the first visit our English speaking interpreter had made there, and would quite possibly be his last. Also it has to be said that if you do put pressure on the locals, these delightfully kind people really to prefer to meet your wishes even though they cost money.
The rain poured down incessantly all Friday afternoon. We became despondent. It is by no means uncommon once the rainy season is under way, which can be any time from the end of June, for it to pour for three days consecutively. We need not have worried. Saturday and Sunday were both beautiful days. We spent a day and a half roaming some of the most beautiful scenery I have ever come across, jagged cliffs, cascading waterfalls and emerald pools, and swimming in the still, warm waters of a beautiful lagoon, Lagoon Samil. Even Lagoon Samil has its religious association. There is a red marker buoy to mark the spot where that indomitable communist woman revolutionary, Mother of Korea and crack marksperson Comrade Kim Jong Suk, is alleged to have potted a wild duck with a pistol at two hundred metres.
There were some other people about that weekend: a party of Chinese tourists, a Hungarian delegation and a group from the East German Embassy. Sadly, although there were plenty of empty rooms in our hotel and more vacant accommodation in another, older hotel and a couple of rest houses nearby, the only Koreans to be seen were guides, interpreters, drivers and compatriots visiting the homeland from Japan.
According to the Korean Review, “Mount Kumgang, which has been developed into a pleasant recreation ground for our people, is visited by a large number of working people, youth, students and children for sightseeing and recreation every year” (p.248). Unfortunately, this particular weekend and, I suspect every other weekend in 1988, they were all too busy building the revolution and construction to come and enjoy it.
The only disappointment with this trip was that it was far too short. It used to be that the trip to Mount Kumgang was a five-day tour. But times are tight these days in North Korea and the foreign language reviser has become a devalued species. After lunch on the Sunday we had to set off on the bumpy road back to Wonsan. We did have one further treat in store for us, though. We broke the journey for an hour or so to sunbathe and swim in the East Sea of Korea (known to the rest of the world as the Sea of Japan). This very pleasant beach, situated behind a tea-house for the use of foreigners and cadres, is one of the few places where there is a break in the five-foot-high electrical fences that run the length of the country along both East and West coastlines. It is doubtful if these fences would hold up an American invasion force for more than five minutes, or even deter a South Korean spy or saboteur determined to gain entry to the country. What the electrical fence does do, apart from wasting valuable electricity, is remind the local population that the war is not yet over so they had better tighten their belts and put their faith in the great leader if they want to survive it.