Chapter 20

Earlier in the summer Jean-Jacques had bought a car, a twelve-year-old Toyota Crown, for two thousand dollars from an Algerian diplomat. One gorgeous Saturday afternoon when the sun was blazing down but the humidity levels were relatively low after a deluge the night before, we took a drive out to the DPRK’s much vaunted new golf course. It turned out to be a well maintained and interesting course, set amid some very appealing scenery. It contained several challenging dog-legs to be negotiated as it wound its way round the shores of a reservoir. I would have loved to play a round on it, but at seventy-five dollars a time it was way beyond my means. If they had charged something more reasonable, it might have been well patronised by the foreign residents. As it was, the prohibitive cost made it the exclusive preserve of a handful of visiting businessmen from Japan and the Egyptian ambassador, a man of independent wealth as well as a career diplomat. Jean-Jacques and I had to content ourselves with a swim in the tepid waters of the lake.

The North Korean countryside is always an edifying spectacle. Everything is so neat and orderly. The grass verges on the roadside are always well trimmed. The cottages are well cared for too. However, all that could be seen of them on this day was the roofs.

There are two types of collective farm in operation in the DPRK. There are those that still operate on the co-operative system of profit sharing. Then there are those on which the state pays each peasant a fixed wage, like an industrial worker. For ideological reasons the government wants the latter model to eventually become uniform throughout the country, so these types of farm are better supplied with fertiliser and machinery to give them the ascendancy. On either type of farm the individual peasant family is allotted a small patch of garden around their house to cultivate for their private benefit. They can sell the produce from their garden at markets that are held in discreet places in the urban areas.

Thus it was that there was scarcely a cottage to be seen for the stalks of maize taller than a man’s head that thronged every garden.

On Thursday, 14th July, I took the evening train to North Korea’s premier tourist resort, Mount Myohyant. It was less than three weeks since I had returned from my last trip to Mount Kumgang, but I was not complaining. My capacity for coping with Korea was exhausted and I was in need of another break.

This time my own companions were two Koreans. One was An Yan Mok, who had replaced Mr Min as head of protocol. Mr Min had disappeared from view some months previously. This was a source of some sadness to Sami and Simone. They had known him for several years and entertained a lot of affection for him. They were saddened not only by the fact of his departure but at the manner of it. He simply disappeared from view. It had not even been possible for him to call at the Ansan Chodasso and say a brief personal farewell. It is highly unlikely that there was anything sinister about his disappearance. He may well have been promoted. It was just typical of the extent to which foreigners are denied knowledge of the most mundane of Korean affairs, and how Koreans are discouraged from developing relations with foreigners that extend beyond the requirements of courtesy and protocol.

Direct communication between myself and An Yon Mok was somewhat limited as his foreign language was Spanish. However, my other companion, Chang Yang, who had taken U No’s place as resident interpreter at the Ansan Chodasso in May, did sterling work interpreting between English and Korean. Chang Yong had come to work as a translator the hard way. On leaving school he was not recommended for a university place by his teachers. Undeterred, he had in exemplary fashion studied English for three years in his spare time while employed as a labourer on construction sites before being taken on as a trainee at the publishing house.

Mount Myohyant vies with Mount Kumgang as the North’s outstanding area of natural beauty, and boasts the added attraction of the International Friendship Exhibition. Therefore it has the most developed facilities for tourism. The road surfaces are smooth and there are at least four hotels, including one reserved for Koreans from japan and one for senior cadres. For foreigners there are the country’s other hotel, apart from the Koryo, of international standard, the pyramid-shaped Hyangsan Hotel, and a small hotel further up the valley, where we stayed. The Korean translators always prefer to stay at this little two-story hotel of no more than a dozen rooms, I think because they find it less impersonal and less daunting than the Hyangsan. The hotel epitomised all that is best and worst about North Korea. The staff were all charming and friendly, while the manager in his dealings with them displayed a suitable popular work style and method. But when I wanted to buy a drink it took a quarter of an hour to find a girl to serve me, and it was forty-eight hours later before she could give me my change because they had run out of red won. In my bathroom a rim of black mould was settling above the bath, the stopper in the sink no longer functioned, and when I pulled my towel from the plastic towel rail, the rail snapped in half because it was not properly secured to the wall. One of the two screws that held it in place had fallen out, and no-one had bothered to replace it. Personally I did not mind these inconveniences, although I might have felt differently if I had been paying the bill and not the publishing house. What did make me very angry was when we came back from the Hyongsang Hotel, to which we adjourned in the evening because our hotel did not run to a proper bar, only to find ourselves locked out at ten past midnight. While I ranted on about how the manager seemed to think he was running a Children’s Union camp, not a hotel, my Korean friends, who did not seem to see anything particularly untoward in our situation, scrabbled out in the dark, trying to find some means of access. It was fully fifteen minutes before they succeeded in locating a lighted room at the read of the building where a few of the staff were playing cards. By the time they appeared at the front door to let me in, my patience had snapped. I was trying to draw attention to my presence outside the locked door – and venting my frustration in the process – by singing raucously at the top of my voice, as a result of which I received some evil looks from the half-dozen other guests at breakfast the following morning.

For all its luxurious fittings, the Hyangsan was hardly more efficient. The first night we arrived there were a few guests having a drink at the little bar in the lobby. For some reason the management of the hotel did not want us to drink there. They offered instead to open up another bar on the first floor for our convenience. At first I refused to accept this arrangement because I suspected that we were being classed as too low-caste, coming from the little hotel up the road, to rub shoulders with guests of the Hyangsan. I changed my mind when I discovered that the only cold beer on offer in the lobby bar was the Korean Ryongsong brand. So within no more than thirty minutes of our arrival they had opened an upstairs bar, found a girl to serve us, and we finally had a drink in our hands. In the end it was quite a pleasant evening. We were served by a sweet girl of twenty-one who told us that her ambition was to get married, have five children, and bring them all up as fine Juche revolutionaries. When we left, she asked us to come back the next night, which we did. On this occasion there was nobody using the ground floor bar so they told us we would have to use that one, as the first floor bar had that very day been closed for renovations. Then we had to wait a quarter of an hour while the girl went upstairs to fetch down some chilled cans of imported Japanese lager for me to drink

The International Friendship Museum is an extraordinary phenomenon. It has been established protocol for many years that any official visitor to North Korea presents the great leader, and latterly the dear leader as well, with a gift as a token of esteem and friendship. According to the Korean Review the president has now received over 28,000 valuable gifts from “heads of state, parties, governments, revolutionary organisations and people from all walks of life in 146 countries”. Some years ago the International Friendship Exhibition was built on Mount Myohyant as a museum for all these gifts. Putting the gifts on display for the public was intended to serve a twofold purpose: first of all, to reinforce in the minds of the people the concept of their country as a marvellous success story, and more especially a success story made possible only through the incomparable leadership of president Kim Il Sung, whom the rest of the world regards with reverence and looks to for guidance. In the words of the Review (p 213), it “reflects the profound respect and reverence held by the revolutionary peoples of the world for the great leader President Kim Il Sung”. The second purpose was educational: to let the people see interesting and beautiful things and learn a little about the art and culture of other countries.

The second purpose has in practice been overlooked. Visitors are herded through the sixty rooms – plus the annexe containing the donations to the dear leader – as if they were on a conveyor belt. They only have time for a passing glance at the gifts on display. The lights in each room are on a time switch so anyone who lingers too long is plunged into darkness. Visitors are not expected to examine the gifts, only to marvel at such irrefutable evidence of the great leader’s global popularity. This is a great pity because there, jumbled among Rolex watches, tape recorders and other mundane bric-a-brac, are many beautiful and valuable antiques and art objects. Some Asian and African countries have been particularly generous. I made rather a nuisance of myself by insisting on having a good look at some of the items. The staff reacted to my eccentricity with good humour and tolerance. If the lights went out before I had finished looking, they turned them back on again for me.

Needless to say, individuals are not free to wander into the Exhibition unescorted and take a look round whenever they feel like it and happen to be in the vicinity. They are taken round by prior arrangement in large parties. It is one thing for a single Englishman, accompanied by two interpreters, to hold up the conveyor belt because he actually wants to examine the objects on display. This would not be feasible for an individual Korean who was part of a group of thirty.

Mount Myohyant, like Mount Kumgang, was as beautiful as the feature writers for Korea Today said it was, a rare instance when North Korean self-publicity corresponded to reality. Another nice thing I saw on Mount Myohyant was that there were actually some Korean people in evidence, out enjoying themselves, who were not escorting foreigners. We were otherwise lucky with the weather but on the afternoon of our second day there was heavy rain. Yon Mok and Chang Yong decided that weather conditions were too inhospitable for sightseeing. They settled for staying in the hotel playing pool, a game which Koreans love but which they only get to play when they have access to the haunts for foreigners. I borrowed an umbrella from the hotel and set off alone to follow the path we had taken the day before through the Manpok Ravine. I told my friends later that their trouble was they had earned their trip to the mountain too easily simply by virtue of knowing foreign languages. For that afternoon the Manpok Ravine was thronged with Koreans. I guessed that many of them were staying at a lodge which Holmer and Astrid had told me about, which consisted of a kitchen and two bare rooms in which a hundred people at a time squeezed together to sleep on the floor. These were people who had probably won their once-in-a-lifetime trip to legendary Mount Myohyant by overfulfilling their quotas for the two-hundred-day campaign in less than a hundred and fifty. For some of them it would be the first time they had ever had the chance to leave their native places. They were not going to squander their golden opportunity sheltering from the monsoon. If anything the torrential rain had enhanced their festive mood. While the older generation picnicked and sang songs under the shelter of overhanging rocks, the young people took the attitude that if they were going to get soaked, they might as well do it properly. I saw people waving and splashing in the mountain pools and taking showers under cascading waterfalls. It was one big party in the monsoon and the mountain. The hilarious arrival of an umbrella-bearing, pot-bellied white man with short fat hairy legs protruding from cut-off denim shorts, an absolute outrage against North Korean standards of modesty, was all they needed to make their day complete.

Earlier that day on another stretch of the mountain, Chang Yong and I had come across a vestige of the old world. We came upon a little temple that contained a beautiful bronze statue of Shakyamuni. In the temple’s other rooms lived an old man who looked after it. He showed us in and even performed a little chant for us. He did not know his exact age but said he was over sixty. He told us he lived alone in the temple and devoted himself to prayer and meditation. I asked him how many years he had lived there. He did not know, but said the Japanese were still occupying the country when he started living there. He was not a monk. He was dressed like an ordinary Korean worker. He accepted the offer of a cigarette. People still came to worship, he informed us, mainly old people but some young ones. He was a memorable man, our hermit of Mount Myohyant. If he had not yet attained nirvana, he had an aura that suggested he was well on the way. If I had thought at the time, I should have asked him if the local party secretary had been round to tell him to put in a few extra hours of prayer as his contribution to the two-hundred-day campaign.

We found further evidence that Buddhism is not yet extinct in the DPRK the following morning when we visited the Pokyon Temple. The Pokyon Temple was an important centre of worship for many centuries. If our little hermitage of the day before was like a bijou country church, the Pokyon Temple was a cathedral. It was a partly mined cathedral, as several of its buildings had not survived the war. However, being a Far eastern centre of worship, it consisted of a number of small buildings instead of a single edifice like our cathedrals in the West. The buildings that remains were well worth seeing and contained some memorable statues. They also contained a community of seven Buddhist monks. Those monks are a recent innovation. Although as far as I can ascertain, the communist government has never actively repressed religion, it has actively discouraged it. The reintroduction of monks to the Pokyon Temple would seem to indicate a desire on the part of the government to encourage a vestigial Buddhism in order to preserve the country’s cultural heritage now that the authorities feel secure in the belief that Buddhism no longer poses a serious threat to Juche as the creed of the working masses.

Another guest at the small hotel on Mount Myohyant while I was there was a young lecturer from the Sorbonne. He had been invited by the DPRK government to spend three months at the Academy of Juche Sciences instructing the people there in the philosophies of other countries.

I had always been intrigued by the Academy of Juche Sciences. Located on a campus about thirty kilometres from Pyongyang, it was a community of intellectuals composed of the cream of North Korea’s non-scientific academics. The only member I ever met was a young man who was interpreting for a delegation from the Korea-Denmark Friendship Society. I was very impressed by his flawless command of English. Yet the articles in English translation on economics, politics and philosophy emanating from the Academy that came my way to revise were quite appalling. I am not exaggerating when I say that an English undergraduate turning out such drivel would not have survived a university course. Why were people who must have been possessed of considerable intelligence incapable of mounting a logical and coherent argument?

The young Frenchman explained that even at this elite centre of learning there was a pitiful dearth of foreign literature available to supplement the national intellectual diet of speeches by the president and his son, supplemented by inane propaganda. Of the foreign literature that was available at the Academy, little had been translated and published in Korean. The academicians were therefore obliged to wrestle with a limited quantity of literature in the original foreign language. They are not only starved of good literature to stimulate their minds; their cognitive abilities are further stultified by another factor. It is not permissible for them to address any issue in a spirit of honest and open enquiry. Instead, a specific mission has been ordained for them by the dear leader. They are to write: “books and articles which give profound explanations of the Juche thought and theory . . . and strengthen the struggle against reactionary bourgeois ideals and all kinds of opportunist ideological trends and staunchly defend the purity of the Juche idea” (On the Juche Idea, p.84).

They are to “make the great Juche Ideatheir firm belief and should ensure that all scientific and theoretical activities are geared to studying and propagating, defending and materialising the Juche thought and theory; they should also explain and disseminate the greatness and validity of the Juche Ideabroadly and profoundly” (On the Juche Idea, p 85). It can be safely assumed that failure to do so will result in instant ejection from the comforts and privileges of the ivory tower to join the ranks of the sweaty labourers in the two-hundred-day campaign.

The Frenchman also informed me that the groves of Juche Academia were not immune to the plague of corruption that was sweeping Pyongyang in the summer of 88. Things were so bad there that, although he had a car and a driver at his permanent disposal, he seldom ventured into the city because such excursions were proving too expensive by the time he had had to ply his driver and interpreters with cigarettes, meals and refreshments. He told me that his driver would just pull up outside a hotel unbidden, and then the interpreters would say to him, “Now you will buy us all a meal.”

On Mount Myohyant I relaxed in between excursions with a fortnight-old copy of the International Herald Tribune which I had borrowed from Jean-Jacques. On the front page of the Singapore edition for July 2nd-3rd was an articled headlined “A Shift in Policy for Seoul”.

“President Roh Tae Woo, enunciating a major shift in policy, said Friday that South Korea would no longer seek to isolate the communist North but would ask the United States and other allies to help integrate North Korea into the international community.” It seemed that Roh Tae Woo had now decided that given South Korea’s incomparably greater economic prosperity, the general easing of East-West confrontation on the international scene, and a rising tide of anti-American, pro-reunification sentiment at home, the time had come for rapprochement on the Korean peninsula. The same article quoted the chairman of the Daewoo Corporation expressing willingness to set a precedent by being the first South Korea company to build a factory in the North.

I had seen no mention of a radical shift in South Korean policy in the Pyongyang Times. I asked my Korean friends if they had heard anything about it. They had not, and so did not believe the Herald Tribune’s story.

They did know that there had been a recent proposal from Roh Tae Woo to hold top level North-South talks which their government had turned down. They explained to me that it would be a betrayal of the heroic struggle of the South Korean people to oust the tyrant Roh Tae Woo, if the North were to enter into negotiations with him.