Chapter 21

My final weeks in Pyongyang’s timeless grip slipped by sluggishly. I remained semi-employed. Most weeks I only received enough texts from the publishing house to occupy me for two or three days. I went for walks, read books and drank heavily in the evenings. I was fortunate with the weather. It was a hotter summer than usual with temperatures consistently well into the eighties 

Around me the two-hundred-day campaign drew towards its close. In the early evenings there were more and more people out on the streets practising marching for an hour after work, this on top of their already protracted working day, in preparation for September 9th.

I was allowed to have one more weekend excursion before I left Korea. Sami had often told me how much he liked the northern industrial city of Hamhung and mentioned that a trip there always incorporated a day on the beach as well as guided tours of major factories such as the Ryongsang heavy Machine Factory and the February 8th Vindon Complex. I couched my request to go to Hamhung in terms of desire to see something of North Korea’s brilliant heavy industry in action and, although I had already had more excursions than any other reviser that summer, I was able to go to Hamhung as well.

For some strange reason, once I got to Hamhung, the only factory I was taken to see was the Ryongsong Heavy Machine Factory. I can only speculate that the North Koreans have recently woken up to the fact that their industry is now lagging behind the rest of the world, and they have come to realise that taking foreigners to see their industrial installations is likely to give them an adverse rather than a positive impression of the country. Certainly the Ryongsong heavy Machine Factory, which is one of the country’s most important industrial bases, presented a sad spectacle of well maintained plant and machinery which would no doubt have been quite impressive for a third world country twenty years ago, but is now obsolete. The official who showed us round admitted as such. All the machines, he said, had been built in the sixties and seventies. However, he assured us, in three years’ time they would be using these machines to make new machines which would take their place. 

As very little had been arranged for me on this trip I spent quite a lot of time randomly wandering the streets. As in Pyongyang, and I imagine every other town and city in North Korea, the town was built to a pattern of modern apartment blocks fronting the main thoroughfares and concealing warrens of traditional cottages behind. There was far less traffic on the roads than in Pyongyang, but more than in Kaesong. As one would expect of a centre of heavy industry, Hamhung was a greyer, shabbier place than Pyongyang, but for me the most striking difference between the two cities was that here the people did not stare at me nearly as much, not even when I was roaming among the traditional cottages, although Europeans were obviously a far rarer phenomenon here than in Pyongyang. I was particularly grateful for this aspect of the people of the Hamhung area on the Sunday, when we went to the beach twenty kilometres away. This was not a beach reserved for high officials and pampered foreigners. It was a place of recreation for thousands of Korean families on a day’s furlough from the two-hundred-day campaign, and I was the only white man on it. It had a lovely day sunbathing and swimming, which could easily have been married if the people had stared at me as if I had just escaped from a zoo. 

The Saturday evening was interesting. Instead of staying in the hotel, I bought cans of beer and went off with my interpreters to the local park. In their society which offers so few pleasures, one thing that Koreans love to do is to sit out under the stars on summer evenings. We climbed up to a pretty wooden pavilion, overlooking the city, and sat among the local people gossiping in the balmy night air, attracting I dare say a little envy at our cans of Japanese beer. On our way up we passed the city’s principal statue of the great leader. The bronze statue was illuminated by floodlights. A number of young devotees were gathered around the statue and studying the thoughts of the prophet by the beam of the floodlights in the presence of his brazen image. This is indubitably extremely silly, but when you are actually there it is also rather touching. I found it so anyway. “Do people in your country stand under statues of Margaret Thatcher and study her works?” asked Chang Yong ingenuously.

I was promised that before I left I would be taken to visit a number of places of interest around Pyongyang. I asked to visit a school, a kindergarten, a factory, and to see one of the rehearsals for the mass game. None of these outings were ever arranged but I did get to see the Pyongyang Maternity Hospital and the Students’ and Children’s Palace.

The Pyongyang Maternity Hospital is the jewel in the crown of North Korea’s national health service. Its importance is attested to by the number of plaques commemorating occasions when the fuhrer or his heir have been round to deliver on-the-spot guidance. Needless to say, I was not taken to the actual wards where the patients were. What they wanted me to see was the jewel-inlaid mosaic floor in the entrance hall and the hi-tech hardware that they had there. I was shown the closed-circuit TV system on which visiting husbands could see and talk to their wives. I said it was very impressive but would it not be easier for the husband just to go upstairs and visit his wife and new-born infant on the ward? Oh no, that would be unhygienic. I asked if fathers could be present at their children’s birth. The doctor who was showing me round was aware that this is now common practice in the West. He replied that such an idea was so alien to his culture that although it would be permissible, no father had ever yet made such a request. 

I was then escorted round the theatres and laboratories which contained some sophisticated-looking obstetric hardware, much of it bearing the imprint of Siemens of West Germany. A very embarrassed pregnant lady was obliged to expose herself to me to demonstrate an electronic scanner which the doctor said could determine the sex of an unborn infant and show if the foetus was imperfect in any way. I asked what happened if the scanner did detect a deformed infant. Then, the doctor told me quite blithely, the pregnancy would be terminated. I inferred from the tone of his response that the mother was given no choice in the matter.

When I inquired about the incidence of post-natal depression, the doctor replied that he had never seen an instance of this condition. Naturally I was somewhat sceptical about this in sight. He explained that some women preferred to rest after giving birth and to leave the care of their infants to the nurses. Presumably if they still do not feel able or willing to look after their offspring when they leave the hospital, they can pass on the responsibility within the extended family. It can be assumed than that, unless there is a fully fledged puerperal psychosis, depressed mothers are perceived merely as tired rather than ill, and do not feel the full consequences of their condition because they can evade the pressures of actually having to try and care for the child.

Pyongyang’s Students’ and Children’s Palace is a huge building in which students and children can pursue a wide range of worthwhile hobbies, from music, dance and drama to physics and electronics, under expert supervision. From what I saw the standards of achievement attained by the children in the various fields were very high. There are similar, smaller establishments in all the DPRK’s main centres of population. I would have been much more impressed than I was if Chang Yong had not in his naivety told me that the Students’ and Children’s palaces were the exclusive preserve of the honours students and that, as a lazy, underachieving schoolboy, he had been envious of the youngsters who had access to these facilities. He also told me that for the same reason he never went as a child to the Children’s Camp on Mount Myohyant. It had never occurred to him that such discrimination might be regarded as other than entirely fair and reasonable. Consequently he was astonished when I told him about a text that I had revised in which the president criticised such practices and maintained that all the children of the capital should be given the opportunity to go to Mount Myohyant, so that all should feel that the Party’s love was extended equally to everyone.