Chapter 19

It was strange, especially in a place as peaceful as Pyongyang, to have a policeman guarding your residence twenty-four hours a day, to have to say <i>anyon kosinmiga</i> to one every time you went in or out. I often used to wonder about them, whether they ever questioned the futility of their occupation and whether it ever bothered them. I used to wonder even more when the good weather came and there would often be all three of them hanging round the entrance to the compound together, one of them on duty, the other two there because they had nothing better to do. Jean-Jacques, who knew them well, assured me that they were quite content. I expect he was right, although I can never quite apprehend how people can adapt to such uneventful and unstimulating lives. For months I used to feel sorry for the interpreters at the Ansan Chodasso, two young men having to share a room and with nothing much to do, but having to be there most of the time in case of some unexpected contingency. Later I came to realise that a stint in residence at the Ansan Chodasso was a much-coveted situation; a break from the inexorable round of hard work, an opportunity to converse with people from different cultures, the regular offers of cigarettes and coffee or a glass of beer.

Like our interpreters, our policemen were usually cheerful. The policemen may have been unproductive. They were not always idle. Like most Koreans, they were both very affectionate towards and very natural with children. They used to like playing with the children who lived in the other two apartment blocks in our compound. They used to help the older ones with their homework. They helped the residents in the garden, planting maize and potatoes and sunflowers. Sometimes I would see one or other of them reading the day’s edition of Rodong Sinmun, just like a real person in a real country reading real newspaper. The worrying thing was that of course they thought they were. As mentioned previously, they did not neglect their studies either, and two out of three of them qualified for university places while guarding us against miscreants.

I do not think I will ever be able to convince myself that the year I spent in Pyongyang was anything other than a mistake. However, it could have been a lot worse. The winter that nearly destroyed me was very mild by Pyongyang standards. When summer came, the hot water supply to our district was not cut off until the 28th June, and only from that date did we have to bathe in cold water. In previous years apparently it had been switched off near the beginning of the month.

It was around that date, just after the outing to Mount Kumgang, that my supply of work virtually came to a standstill. Up until then there had always been the occasional day, about once a month on average, when there would be no texts for me to revise. Now I entered a period when I was more often idle than I was occupied. Apart from the staple fare of the three periodicals, there was absolutely nothing else coming through except for the occasional abysmal essay from the Academy of Juche Sciences. Not only that, but the English translators on the periodicals, steadfast Juche revolutionaries to a man, had been so assiduous and shown so much talent in studying my revisions and improving the standard of their English that the texts that were coming through were taking me less and less time to correct. This was a mixed blessing. Uncongenial as the work had been, it had given me something to do. Pyongyang has little to offer in the way of amusement or recreation to the man with time on his hands.

It would be inconsistent with North Korean philosophy for me to be paid a lot of precious hard currency to sit around doing nothing. Nor was it likely that the translators would be loafing about at their desks at the publishing house in the midst of the two-hundred-day campaign. I could only assume that many of them had been drafted temporarily to help out on the construction sites and that was the reason there were so few translations for me to revise. One thing was for sure. Nobody was about to tell me the reason why, and by this time I had been there long enough not to waste my breath asking.

I had been coming round to thinking that I really ought to be putting some sort of brake on my alcohol consumption. Now, with so much time on my hands, this was out of the question. As well as the time spent actually drinking, the stupefaction of hangovers was proving at other times the best antidote to boredom.

Another mixed blessing was that for some reason the month of June saw a very marked improvement in the quality of the food at the Ansan Chodasso. It is always pleasant to eat nice food, particularly when life does not have a lot else to offer, but I had already been getting fat as a result of my unaccustomed sedentary existence. By the end of July I weighed nearly a stone and a half more than I had ever weighed in my life before.

To pass the time I took to wandering about aimlessly even more than before. Again I was lucky for, although the monsoon had arrived, it was of modest proportions. My colleagues recalled occasions from previous years when the rain had bucketed down for days at a time. 1988 had its share of heavy rain but there were few days when it was impossible to get out at all. The natural scenery along the Potang River was lovely, and there was usually some ludicrous human activity going on in the vicinity.

If the construction workers on the bridge were short of tools and implements, the students, who had been mobilised at this time to dig up and relay the paths through the Potang River Pleasure Park when they would have been much better employed applying themselves to their studies, were even worse provided for. Every day there would be literally hundreds of them squatting in groups along the river bank doing nothing. There would be a few of them active with picks and spades, and I suppose everyone took a turn during the course of the day, but for the most part most of them just sat and chattered, simply because they had no tools to do the work with. Some of them brought their books with them but these were mainly used to sit on to keep the seats of their pants clean. One day someone did find something that they could all do at once. Once of the official national obsessions is that nothing should ever be wasted. Once they had dug up a path, they had to break the tarmac down into powder so that it could be reprocessed. Hence one day I came across about two hundred of them all gathered together in their habitual squatting position, only this time the sound of childish laughter was replaced by the dull tapping of stone against lumps of tar. I could scarcely believe my eyes. They were literally using lumps of stone to break up the lumps of tarmac. Only one girl was making swift progress in the work. She was the privileged one who had been awarded the solitary hammer.

It would be wrong of me to give the impression that the great socialist construction was uniformly stranded, literally, in the Stone Age. It was around this time that brand-new push-button automatic gates were installed at the entrance to the factory next door. These caused a sensation for the first few days. All day long the people’s guard dolls were inundated with requests from the workers to give a demonstration of this miraculous innovation. They had read in Rodong Sinmun and heard on television and radio about the mythical robotisation and computerisation of Juche industry. Now before their very eyes the myth was being translated into reality, in their own humble factory. One could imagine them as they watched the gates glide open and shut at the press of a button, saying to one another, “If only our compatriots in the South could see how advanced we are becoming. Then they would be astonished and rise up as one to oust the puppet clique and drive out the US imperialist aggressor in order to share in our prosperity. But Chun Doo Hwan and Roh Tae Woo tell lies about us and keep the people in darkness.”

Although the young workers at the factory looked as bright and enthusiastic as ever as they attained the two-thirds stage in the battle after over four months of continual toil, and still had enough energy to spare for their noisy games of soccer and volleyball every lunchtime, not excluding the days when it was teeming down with rain, they are only flesh and blood and they must have been feeling extremely weary at times. I expect it was in an effort to boost morale and raise flagging spirits that my hero, the party secretary, organised the factory brass band to stand at the gates each morning and pipe the workers in with stirring tunes, while a girl, selected for her piercing tones, shrieked out revolutionary slogans in between numbers and a cast of extras stood around shaking plastic flowers. From then on there was hardly any point to me setting my alarm clock. I imagine it was for the same reason that he had them all up on the top floor of the central building after work each day for hymn singing. Their sweet voices wafting across the yard never failed to lure me out onto my balcony. It was absurd, I told myself, contemptible, a deliberate perversion of the human spirit. Only the moistness in my eyes acknowledged that I was in the presence of something lovely.

Meanwhile the dancing girls with their baskets of plastic flowers and strips of pink chiffon had transferred their theatre of activities to Chollima Street on the square besides the Sports Palace. Their place in our street was taken by troops of students and workers practising the goose step and shouting “Manse!” (pronounced man-say, the Korean version of hooray!). Sami told me they were rehearsing for a march of as many as a million people through Kim Il Sung Square on the morning of September 9th. This would precede the mass game in the afternoon. As if the people did not have enough to contend with already, working twelve hours a day every day, they now had an hour’s marching practice after work several evenings a week. Perhaps the frisson they would experience for those brief moments on the big day when they went through their paces under the benevolent gaze of the father leader himself would make it all worthwhile.

Sami had also heard from his student translators to whom he gave lectures at the publishing house that they had been learning new dances for the soire that was to be held in Kim Il Sung Square on the evening of September 9th. A couple of days after he mentioned this, we saw a number of the girls from the factory excused labour to pirouette around the yard all afternoon in the charge of a dance instructress.

I was sorry I would be missing all the great spectacles of September 9th, but not sorry enough to put up with a few more weeks of trying to live in that lousy country just for the sake of that.

By this time I was having great difficulty in maintaining a clear distinction in my mind between hating my life in the country and hating the country itself. Apart from having been there for far too long, what was really alienating me was mounting anxiety about my family at home. I had been allowed to receive one letter from them in November and a postcard in December. Michael had brought a letter back from England with him in January. In March I had received a postcard. Since then, nothing. I was being woken in the night with nightmares about nasty things happening to them. Although I never interpreted my bad dreams as portents of disaster in the real world, they were something I could well have lived without.

A couple of days after the contingent of English and German revisers departed Pyongyang Central Station for Mount Kumgang, the great leader President Kim Il Sung set off from the same place with rather more of a fanfare for the People’s Republic of Mongolia on one of his rare state visits. When the news of his intended visit to Mongolia had been first announced on TV, our redoubtable chambermaid Kum Sing, as true-hearted a Juche revolutionary as ever was, had happened to be visiting Sami. On hearing the news, she became quite concerned for him. It was too much, she said. Such a long train journey at his time of life. Already he has done so much for the working people, yet still he will not allow himself to rest and take things easy.

She need not have worried. The old man has nothing if not endurance, and the royal train looked sufficiently well appointed to ease the rigours of the journey. He travelled northwards through Manchuria and then turned left for Ulan Bator. He had cordial and constructive talks with Comrade Jamryn Batmunkh, General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party and Chairman of the Presidium of the Great People’s Khural of the Mongolian People’s Republic. They discussed a wide range of issues and reached a full consensus of opinion on all of them. What issues did they discuss and what conclusions did they come to? The media supply no answers to such questions in the DPRK, where the working people are fully fledged masters of society and state power.

He made his return journey through Soviet territory, stopping off at Khabarossk for talks with Vsevolod Murakhovski, First Vice Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the USSR, and other senior officials. It was not disclosed what they talked about either, but for the next few weeks after the president’s return home on July 6th, footage of his journey clogged all TV channels. For the first few days after his return the film of his visit was shown every night. On Sunday, 10th July, it was broadcast at eleven in the morning, three in the afternoon and seven in the evening – and, for all I know, it may have been shown again after the nine o’clock news.

We viewers were treated to lots of shots of him strolling along red carpets with his curious rolling, splay-footed gait, while hordes of Mongolian citizens went into well-rehearsed hysteria. We saw him bestowing kisses on bouquet-bearing children, attending banquets, and hosting conferences of distinguished visitors aboard the royal train. And was it the cunning focusing of the Korean cameraman or just that enormous and undeniable personal presence that enabled him to dominate every scene and reinforce the image that the North Korean public has of him as the spiritual emperor of the times to whom all the progressive people of the world pay spontaneous homage?

Meanwhile his less photogenic progeny was out in the sticks, keeping up the dynastic tradition of on-the-spot guidance in North Pyongan and North Hamgyong Provinces. His activities were extensively reported verbally on the television and in the newspapers, but his image was modestly withheld from public scrutiny.