A Year in Pyongyang

a book by Andrew Holloway

Introduction by Aidan Foster-Carter

While this website advertises my own work, that is by no means its only function. In fact the immediate spur to finally get it done was a desire to publicise someone else’s. Andrew Holloway lived for a year in Pyongyang, and it was all my fault. He wrote a book about it, but it never got published till now. This is my walk-on part in his tale.

It all goes back to 1986, when I at last got into North Korea for the first time. Among many memorable encounters, one was with what I’d once – as a veteran of Ian Smith’s Rhodesia: they expelled me, but that’s another story – have called a Rhodie. A middle-aged white Zimbabwean, complete with Kim Il-sung badge (meaning he worked there), propping up a Pyongyang bar – with a look that said he’d far rather be somewhere else.

His name was David Richardson, and he worked as a reviser for the Foreign Languages Publishing House. If you ever wondered how the works of the Great Leader and other North Korean propaganda at least end up in decent English (or French, German, et al), it’s thanks to people like David. The job is sometimes called polishing. First, armies of locals toil to translate the Leader’s obiter dicta into what they fondly imagine is English. But then they need a native speaker to check that it’s right. So at any given time FLPH usually has half a dozen assorted foreigners doing this job for the major languages.

Good for them. In this area North Korean standards are higher than in the South, where all too often bad English spoils the show: as recently in signs for the ‘Worldcup’ (sic). A rare northern blooper was when a hagiography of U No Hu was published in Arabic as “Kim Il-sung Is God”: not calculated to impress devout Muslims. In English it came out as “;Kim Il-sung: A Divine Man”: not so much blasphemy as high camp.

Needless to say this is not exciting work; nor was Pyongyang in 1987 / 1988 an exciting place. David had done two years, and was ready to leave – but it seemed they wouldn’t let him go without a replacement. I pledged to do my best, returned to England with a batch of application forms, sent a notice round Leeds University, and called a meeting. A dozen people turned up, mostly students soon to graduate. I warned them of the rigours of life in Pyongyang – and its risks. (Ali Lameda, a Venezuelan communist who was a reviser in the 1960s, unwisely told the North Koreans how dire their propaganda was. He got six years’ solitary confinement until Nicolae Ceausescu, no less, secured his release.)

I hope I repeated these warnings to the odd straggler who missed the meeting but came to see me afterwards. One was fortyish, not a student but a social worker. I remember wondering what would prompt him to contemplate such an unusual change of direction. Evidently serious, he borrowed some materials from Leeds University Korea Project’s small library. And that was it. As far as I recall, we only met just that once.

Being but the postman, I didn’t systematically follow up on what I’d set in chain. But I heard on the grapevine that several people did apply for the job. Some got replies, and more than one was messed around as regards on/off offers, date changes, etc: all par for the course. In 1990 I was in Pyongyang again and met two young British revisers; one of whom, Michael Harrold, was a Leeds graduate who’d come to my meeting. Michael eventually stayed six years, which must be a record. He mentioned others who’d been and gone – it happens, especially there – but I didn’t take in the names and details.

Fast forward five more years, to a spring day in 1995 when I suddenly caught up with an awful lot all at once. A package came in the university internal mail, from someone in physics that I didn’t know, Hugh Hubbard. It was a book-length manuscript by one Andrew Holloway, describing his year in Pyongyang during 1987-88. He’d written it soon after his return, but for whatever reason had taken it no further. And now never would, for in January he’d died of stomach cancer. He wanted me to have a copy.

Like I said, a terrible lot to take in all at once. It still feels weird to think I was partly responsible for a whole year in the life of someone I barely knew, and now never will. And too sad: having read his book, there was so much I’d love to have asked him. How I wish he’d got in touch. But he of course had other things on his mind; like cancer.

Since then, I’ve done all too little with Andrew’s book. I’ve shown it to people with an interest in North Korea; copies have been taken here, in America, and in (South) Korea. But I wasn’t sure if it would attract a commercial publisher; nor did I ever find the time for the editing work that the manuscript would require if it were to come out as a book. It stayed in my files, and intermittently on my conscience.

But then they invented the Internet, and a whole new way of making things known. I’d vaguely thought about having a website, but it was the idea of at last giving Andrew’s work the circulation it deserved that spurred me on. Seeking family permission led me to his son Ross – who turned out to be a web designer. Some things are meant to be.

Ideally the book still wants editing, and at some point will be. But after all this time I just wanted it out there without further delay. Besides, the odd mistake hardly detracts from a unique document. Memoirs of living in Pyongyang are rare enough, and I know none like this. Andrew brings a fresh perspective to an area beset by cliche. A socialist of the old school, he went to North Korea without the usual prejudice. Yet as an honest observer, he tells what he sees – and as Yorkshiremen do, calls a spade a bloody shovel.

This was not the best year of his life. Frank about the frustrations, he still tries to view North Korea on its own terms: to see the mad sense it all makes. He knows the people are not the government, and he brings them to life. There are unforgettable vignettes, but also thoughtful reflection and a dry humour. Andrew is unsparing of himself too, even if (as his son hints) there were a few personal adventures which he chose to omit.

That was in the 1980s, but this is by no means just a period piece. Today’s revisers lead a less lonely life, thanks to the famine which since 1995 has added a hundred or so aid workers to Pyongyang’s expatriate community. There are even weekly discos, a delight unimaginable in Andrew’s day. But has North Korea itself changed? Not in essence, I reckon; not really, not yet. Thus an account written over a decade ago can still give the authentic feel of this deeply peculiar place, and what makes it tick. And not a few of Andrew’s comments are prescient of the disastrous decline that was yet to come.

But judge for yourself. I don’t know if Andrew Holloway would have thanked me for his year in Pyongyang, but I can only thank him for what he made of it. In leaving us such an unusual and insightful account, he’s done both North Korea and himself proud. I hope he knew that; I wish I’d known him; and I wish he were still here to see his work up on the Web for all to read. Except in Pyongyang, needless to say. But that’ll come.

Aidan Foster-Carter – December 2002