Chapter 22

I believe it was as early as April when Comrade An Yon Mok came to see me and asked me when I would be leaving. In August, I told him. On which date? he asked. Did I have to stipulate a precise date so soon? Oh yes, he replied, everything must be booked well in advance. I asked if it would be possible for me to travel back as far as Moscow by train. The train journey from Pyongyang to Moscow takes a week. One travels more or less due North through Manchuria to join the Trans-Siberian for the long haul across Soviet Asia. It is said to be a tiring journey through much barren and monotonous scenery, but at least I thought it would be an experience, and I wanted to salvage as many memorable experiences as I could from my year in Pyongyang.

From then on I assumed that it was all settled, and in late summer I would be making an epic overland journey through the mysterious hinterland of China and the Soviet Union. I was looking forward to it immensely. Once again I was to be reminded that nothing in North Korea should ever be taken for granted. It was less than a month before I was due to depart when An Yon Mok came to see me again and announced without any explanation that it would not be possible for me to go by train after all. When would I like to fly to Moscow? I gave him a date and an alternative date in case the flight was fully booked, and he said he would arrange it. Two weeks later he came back and told me that it was not possible for me to fly on either of those dates. I would now be leaving the following Monday. By then I was past caring. All I wanted was to get away.

I arranged to pay a visit to the bank with Chang Yong. For some months the publishing house had been paying a large part of our salaries in small denomination notes of twenty, ten, five and even single dollars. I took in a fat wad of these notes to the value of $2,300 dollars and asked for twenty-three $100 notes in exchange. The clerk told me this could not be done. She said they did not have any $100 notes in the bank. I pointed out to her through Chang Yong that this was the International Trade Bank of the DPRK, one of the key financial institutions in a country of 20 million inhabitants, and it was inconceivable that there were not twenty-three $100 bills in the whole building. I knew that foreign exchange shortages were a perennial problem in North Korea. Work had had to be briefly suspended on the cement factory on more than one occasion because they had run out of foreign exchange with which to pay the West German company. The same was happening with the hotel that was being built as a joint venture with a French company. But I refused to accept that things were this bad. After about half an hour of argument, the clerk agreed to go and consult the manager. Before she did she asked Chang Yong what my position was in Pyongyang. In view of this question, I would imagine that if I had been an ambassador or an important visiting businessman, twenty-three $100 bills might have been forthcoming. As it was, she came back with a compromise offer: she would exchange $1,300 worth of my small denomination notes for twenty-six $50 notes. When I demanded to speak to the manager personally, I was told that he had “just gone out in a car”. At this point I gave up. It was just another typical little tribulation of life in Pyongyang.

The evening before my departure I was given the customary farewell banquet at the Ansan Chodasso. One of the Deputy Directors from the publishing house presided. He asked me if I would be able to find someone to replace me when I got back to England. I was able to inform him that at that very moment a likely candidate was actually present in his country.

On my visit to the Student’s and Children’s palace a few days earlier, I had made the acquaintance of the secretary of the Korea-England Friendship Society who was on a visit to the country and staying as a guest at the Academy of Juche Sciences. When I told him what I was doing, he said he would love to have the opportunity to work in Pyongyang as a reviser. He was an educated man, a librarian by profession, and would have almost certainly been eminently suited for the job. I relayed this information to the Deputy Director and told him that he was not due to leave Korea for another four days. One might have expected the Deputy Director’s response to be that he would contact him by telephone at the Academy the very next day to arrange an immediate interview. However, normal reactions are not the norm in North Korea. To take such an initiative there would be to fly in the face of bureaucratic procedures that run on such rigid tramlines through every aspect of the society that it never occurs to anybody, not even a man of the standing and undoubted intelligence of this Deputy Director, to try and circumvent them. He responded to my information with pleasure and urged me to try and get in contact with this man when I got home.

At the airport the following afternoon I embraced Chang Yong and An Yon Mok with genuine affection. I soon felt rather less well disposed towards them when I discovered that the flight they had booked me on was a small Korean Airways passenger plane of comparable size to the ones that are chartered to convey package tourists to Europe. My flight from Moscow to Pyongyang on an Aeroflot Jumbo a year earlier had taken eight hours. My return flight took twelve. There were two stops for refuelling, at Beijing and at Novosibirsk. At Novosibirsk we were not permitted to leave the plane so we could not stretch our legs properly. It was a damnably uncomfortable and wearisome journey. By the time I had passed through customs, including a tedious delay while all my small denomination bills were laboriously counted out, I was feeling pretty ragged. My mood was not improved on finding that there was no-one from the Korean Embassy waiting to greet me and escort me to the embassy as I had been promised. Fortunately Comrade Li Jong Bin, Third Secretary at the Embassy and an English speaker, was there although he was not expecting me. He had come to meet a contingent of Korean students who had been sent to Moscow to master Russian and a party of assorted foreigners who had been on a study visit at the Juche Academy. I sought him out and explained who I was and he readily accepted that I was his responsibility. He packed me with the others onto a congested coach with our luggage clogging the aisle.

The rations on the plane had been shamefully frugal and I was looking forward to getting something to eat and drink on our arrival at the Embassy. We were not provided with so much as a cup of tea, and were assured that there was nowhere nearby where we could purchase refreshment at what was by then quite late in the evening. Worse still, there was barely sufficient accommodation for all the foreigners. An Indian man and woman, who were neither married nor in any way related to each other, were obliged to share a room for the night. I had to share with a Tunisian university student who, fortunately turned out to be a thoroughly amiable and easy-going companion. He had only been in Korea for a couple of weeks but he was nearly as relieved to get out as I was. But then he had been a victim of the scrounging and harassment that I had somehow avoided.

Li Jong Bin said he could arrange for me to fly on to London in the morning, and wanted me to do so. I refused. I had been promised a few days in Moscow as a guest of the Korean government, and I was determined not to be denied my opportunity to see this famous city.

The North Korea Embassy is one of the largest in Moscow, a testimony less to the importance of its relations with Russia – after all, the DPRK is not and never has been a Soviet client state – but to Kim Il Sung’s inflated expectations of the importance his country and his own Juche philosophy would assume in the communist world. Like its brilliant heavy industry, North Korea’s Moscow embassy is in a state of premature decay. The wing where foreign guests are accommodated is no more than twenty years old, but the carpets and furniture exude that characteristic musty scent of cheap hotels, the televisions in most of the rooms have broken down, and cockroaches have taken up residence in the bathrooms. However, the hospitality of the Korean domestic staff who, after my inauspicious arrival, could not do enough to make me feel at home, more than made up for the deficiencies in the accommodation.

My overriding impressions of Moscow were of its beauty and of the queues in the shops. The heart of Moscow remains unscarred by the depredations of speculators and property developers, intent on profit and careless of the architectural heritage. Prince Charles would be impressed.

Having said what a lovely unspoiled city it is, it is not a city I which I would like to live. Muscovites seem to spend half their lives standing in queues. They have to queue up to buy quite basic foodstuffs and I saw long queues for very mundane articles of clothing. Outside all the restaurants there were people queuing for tables. I am told that the people of Moscow are relatively lucky. They have to queue up to buy. Elsewhere in the country, there are no things to buy.