A Year in Pyongyang

Prologue – Chapter 1

There are times in life when even the dullest and most complacent among us feel the need to make a change. It was at such a time in my life that a friend drew my attention to a job she had seen advertised on a Leeds University notice board. It was an unusual job in a little known country. The remuneration was not extravagant, but I estimated it would be sufficient for me to meet my ongoing commitments and save enough to tide me over on my return until I could find another job.

The country was the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, better known in the west as North Korea. The job entailed raising translations into English that Koreans had made of the works of their President, Kim Il Sung, his son and heir apparent Kim Jong Il, and sundry other propaganda.

A certain amount of kudos seemed to attach to this job. The advert stated that the successful applicant would be the first Briton to reside in this country since before the Second World War. The application forms were being issued by a Leeds University lecturer named Aidan Foster-Carter. North Korea was his special field of study. He had recently made a visit to the country when he had been asked to try and recruit a new English Language Reviser. Before submitting my application I took the opportunity of asking him what I could expect to find there. What he had to say was mostly reassuring.

Halfway through September I received a letter from Pyongyang. It was from David Richardson, a Zimbabwean and the present incumbent of the post. He informed me that I was likely to be offered the job. He had been doing it for two years. He said that there were disadvantages to living in Pyongyang, particularly “this business of the mail”, but on the whole the advantages outweighed the disadvantages. A fortnight later he rang me at work to confirm my appointment. He added that a formal offer would arrive in the post shortly. I experienced a mixture of consternation and excitement. It looked as if for the first and probably only time in my life, I was about to do something different. I quelled my apprehensions by telling myself that no matter what sort of an experience it was, at least it would be an adventure. Some adventure. Being marooned on a desert island is undoubtedly a sort of adventure, as is doing time in jail for an offence one has not committed. But looked at from the right perspective, getting up each day, going to work and pursuing one’s banal, petty bourgeois, provincial pleasures are also a form of adventure, and a lot more fun as well.

At the time I applied, all I knew about North Korea was that it was a communist state situated on a peninsula in North East Asia bordered on the North by China and the Soviet Union and opposite the islands of Japan; that it had a reputation for being bizarre and isolationist, an Asian equivalent to Albania; that there had been a war on the Korean peninsula in the early fifties in which United Nations troops, predominantly American but including contingents from Britain and a number of other countries, had participated against the north; that the war had ended in a stalemate with Korea partitioned into two countries, a capitalist south and a communist north; and most vividly I recalled that the North Korea football team had pulled off some notable surprises in the 1966 World Cup Finals. When I received David Richardson’s letter I thought I had better expand my knowledge. I went down to Leeds City Library but I could find virtually no material on Korea at all, or at least not on North Korea. I contacted Aidan Foster-Carter, who lent me a couple of books and several articles. This is the gist of what I read.

Korea, it seems has always been weird. The Koreans are an ancient people, established on their peninsula since time immemorial. For many centuries they maintained their distinct national identity, culture and independence, periodically repelling invasions from China and the Japanese samurai across the water. Independent and inward looking to the point of xenophobia, Korea was traditionally known as the hermit kingdom. As can happen to inward looking societies, for example North Korea today, the hermit kingdom began to fall behind the rest of the world in social and economic development. In the late nineteenth century it was feudal, corrupt, backward, and an easy prey for the Japanese who had long established informal domination over the peninsula before formally annexing it as a colony in 1910. It remained a Japanese colony until the end of the Second World War. When Japan fell in 1945, the Americans came in from the South while the Soviet troops descended from the North. They bumped into each other at the thirty-eighth parallel, about two thirds of the way up towards the northern border. The country of Korea was now partitioned just as Germany had been a few months earlier.

The Americans and the Russians set about installing native governments in their respective spheres of influence. They each aspired to set up the type of native government that would retain its territory within their sphere of influence after they had physically withdrawn. Among the Soviet forces was a Red Army major, a Korean who used to be called something different but had changed his name to Kim Il Sung, literally Kim the Sun, to make himself sound more impressive. He enjoyed a degree of popularity in Korea, particularly in the North. He had previously conducted a brave if ineffectual guerrilla resistance against the Japanese in the northern border areas and in South Manchuria. He was young, only thirty-three in 1945, charismatic, and a good orator. He already had his own little bit of communist political machinery in place from the resistance days. The Russians had little difficulty in installing him in power.

It was not proving so easy for the Americans down in the South to find a comparable political figure who could be relied upon to adhere to the ideals and policies to which they thought a good Korean should adhere and who could command sufficient popular support to maintain stable government. Reunification of Korea was out of the question. To the Americans it would have meant delivering the whole peninsula on a plate to the evil forces of communism. Kim the Sun was popular throughout Korea as a resistance hero and he had enough organisation to impose his will on the dissenters. As it was, even with all the resources of their military government, the American authorities had more than enough trouble rigging elections to give a veneer of democratic legitimacy to the puppet dictatorship on the man of their choice, Syngman Rhee.

In 1950, Kim the Sun decided that the time was ripe to reunify the nation. The Korean War started on June 25th, 1950. Three days later the North’s forces entered Seoul, the capital of the South and formerly of the whole country. Syngman Rhee was not terribly popular. His troops did not fight enthusiastically. Within a few weeks the North’s forces had nearly taken over the whole country. The Americans manipulated the United Nations into authorising a UN expeditionary force to drive the communists back.

Troops from sixteen nations took part in the invasion of Korea under the aegis of the UN, but by far the bulk of the men and armour were supplied by the USA. Confronted by better trained and infinitely better equipped forces, the men of the Korean People’s Army were driven back North as quickly as they had initially come South. They were driven all the way back to the Amnok River on the Chinese border. There they were reinforced by a small detachment of a million Chinese. Now it was the turn of the UN forces to retreat.

The fighting came to an end three years later. An armistice was signed. Territorially everyone was more or less where they were when they started. The country remained divided roughly along the thirty-eighth parallel. Demographically, the population of the North had been reduced from eleven million to nine million. The countryside of the North had been ravaged and napalmed. Its towns and cities had been bombed to rubble. In 1950 the population of Pyongyang was estimated to be around 200,000. According to the Americans’ official statistics, they dropped approximately a quarter of a million bombs on it. The North Koreans predictably contend that this is a gross underestimate but one and a quarter bombs per person sounds like pretty serious warfare by anyone’s standards.

It came as a considerable shock to me to discover the extent of the destruction that had been inflicted on the North of Korea. I always considered myself a reasonably well-informed sort of person but I had no idea, and I doubt that was atypical in this, that the carnage in Korea had been on a scale comparable to Vietnam. Shortly after my arrival in Pyongyang, a British film crew came over to make a television series about the war and so perhaps people are now better informed. I hope so because the Korean War should take its rightful place alongside the war in Vietnam as a permanent symbol and reminder of the hideous excesses of post-war US foreign policy and the dangers of irresponsible militarism. Also it is impossible to understand why North Korea has developed as it has over the past thirty-five years without a true appreciation of the holocaust that swept the country between 1950 and 1953. And the developments in North Korea and the Korean peninsula generally ought to be better understood, because the thirty-eighth parallel is one of the world’s most sensitive potential trigger points for global disaster.

Of course it could be argued that the North Koreans were lucky to have got off so lightly. If MacArthur had had his way and not been recalled by Eisenhower, he would have dropped the atom bomb on them and their Chinese allies.

Incredibly, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea did emerge phoenix-like from the ashes of war with Kim Il Sung still in power. In the twenty years after the war it achieved what was by all accounts a miraculous economic recovery. The towns and cities were rebuilt. The countryside was revived. Industries were restored and expanded. The transport network was repaired. By the early seventies the DPRK had a very healthy economy by the standards of developing countries. It had achieved remarkable success, not only in terms of living standards but in creating an economy that was independent and to an extent immunised against the effects of first world recessions, unlike many developing countries, including quite prosperous ones, whose economies still depended on a few primary commodities to pay for imported goods, and whose industries were substantially owned by first world capital. The DPRK chose to minimise oil imports by exploiting its natural coal and water resources to generate power. It made its own cement. It made its own steel to make its own trains, trucks, and tractors. In spite of the fact that its terrain is predominantly mountainous and arable land scarce, it became virtually self-sufficient in food. It even managed to clothe its own population by inventing an anthracite-based synthetic fibre called vindon.

The reason this economic recovery has been described as miraculous is that it was accomplished from scratch with limited foreign aid and technical assistance. As well as being decimated by the war, the country had been subject for thirty-five of the previous forty years to Japanese colonial rule. Although there had been development during this period in line with Japanese interests, the bulk of the administration and technical expertise had been supplied by Japanese personnel. At the time of liberation in 1945, there was not a single institution of higher education in the North of Korea. So in 1953 there was a chronic shortage of professional and technical expertise to go with a ravaged countryside and a bombed-out industrial base. 

Financial and technical assistance was forthcoming from the Chinese and the Soviets. There is no way that the North Koreans could have managed without it. However, the scale of assistance was limited due to Kim Il Sung’s obstinate refusal to accept political conditions in return for aid. There were even times when his independent attitude led to a withdrawal of aid. From the outset of liberation from the Japanese, Kim Il Sung was determined that his country was going to be fully independent and not a Soviet satellite like the Warsaw Pact countries, nor for that matter a client state of China either.

Another factor that must be taken into account in assessing the DPRK’s achievement is that ever since the war it has felt it necessary to invest an extremely high proportion of its budget in military expenditure. If the Americans and the South Korean authorities are sincere in their expressed anxiety about possible aggression from the North, then the North is equally apprehensive about them. Technically the war is still in progress. No peace agreement has ever been signed, only an armistice.

I learned that the North Koreans had shown considerable ingenuity in accomplishing their economic miracle in the face of such daunting odds. I read how their scientists would, for example, take an imported tractor to pieces and reassemble it, identifying each part and working out how the parts linked together, until they were able to manufacture a tractor by themselves and to progress from there to the mass production of tractors and a fully fledged indigenous tractor industry.

The other ingredients for the economic miracle were discipline, organisation, frugal living and hard toil, which were guaranteed not by terror but by outstanding totalitarian organisation and ideological motivation supplied by the Workers’ Party of Korea, under the apparently highly autocratic leadership of Kim Il Sung. It was known that there were purges of opposition factions, particularly in the fifties, but unlikely that they were carried out on a large scale, being confined to prominent public figures and not involving sections of the general public. Even in recent times it has not been unknown for recalcitrant ministers to be reported seriously injured or killed in road traffic accidents, which is odd because the DPRK has an extremely low volume of road traffic and, moreover, most of the roads in and around the capital tend to be very wide, having been planned in anticipation of an age of glorious prosperity that was expected to follow the rapid industrialisation of the fifties and sixties. I read that Kim Il Sung had secured his authority by gaining the unquestioning loyalty of the masses through a personality cult that exceeded those of Mao or Stalin, that he was always referred to as the Great Leader, and that he was about to establish the world’s first communist dynasty by preparing for his son, Kim Jong Il, known as the Dear Leader, to succeed him.

I also read that since the great leap forward of the early post-war years, the rate of economic growth in the DPRK had slumped dramatically. If the economy was not totally stagnant it was lagging far behind the leading developing countries, which include South Korea. Although the DPRK had succeeded in building an independent national economy on its own heavy industrial base, further development was impeded by an acute shortage of hard currency. North Korea was able to supply its own population with all the basic necessities without relying on imports, but it was not producing quality goods to compete in the export market. Without adequate income from exports, it lacked the hard currency to import consumer luxuries and, more important, to buy access to the sophisticated new technology that has in recent years revolutionised industrial processes in the rest of the world, and without which their industry must become increasingly obsolete and their exports even less competitive. The country cut itself off from the normal channels of international monetary assistance by adopting a policy in the seventies of refusing to pay debts in time of difficulty instead of requesting reschedules. I gathered that the dilemma facing North Korea in the late nineteen eighties was how to gain access to the new technology to improve its economic performance without compromising its economic or political independence, and that the dilemma was all the more acute because the other Korea’s economy, developed with American and Japanese capital, is booming.

Armed with such sketchy information, when I eventually arrived in Pyongyang, I found myself immeasurably better informed that the average North Korean citizen, who has been conditioned to believe that the Japanese capitulation in World War Two was precipitated not by what happened at Hiroshima but by the unstoppable advance of the Korean People’s Revolutionary Army under its brilliant, iron-willed, ever-victorious commander, General Kim Il Sung, sun of the nation and lodestar of liberation, and that in 1950 they were not driven headlong to the northern border by the UN forces. They were merely making a temporary strategic retreat as a result of which they quickly recovered the lost ground again, thanks to the outstanding military genius of the aforesaid commander. Certainly a number of Chinese volunteers did cross the border to lend comradely assistance, but this figure of one million must clearly be dismissed as US imperialist propaganda designed to cover up the ignominy of the mighty imperialist military machine being unequal to the confrontation with the valiant Korean people under the inspired leadership of Great General Comrade Kim Il Sung. As for South Korea today, everyone knows about the distressed living conditions of the working masses who long for the great leader’s fatherly embrace, but are brutally suppressed by the US imperialists and the military fascist puppet dictatorship.

While I was reading up on North Korea and deciding that I would defer my appointment until after Christmas, I was in daily expectation of some official written communication regarding terms of contract, visas, and transport arrangements. Days turned into weeks and nothing happened. I began to think that I would never hear from North Korea again. Then one day came a phone call at work. “When are you coming to my country?” asked a funny little voice. “Why do you not come?” I explained that I did not have wings and if they wanted me to fly to their country, they had better send me an airline ticket and a visa. This was the start of a confusing and inconclusive conversation. There were two major barriers to communication. First of all, the person I was speaking to did not have a good command of English . The other barrier was that he was evidently incapable of understanding what my problem was. If he had ever heard of airline tickets, he had no idea that they might be quite expensive. He certainly did not know what a visa was. This was the first in a long series of ludicrous telephone calls I was to receive over the months to come.

I took the next initiative myself by writing to the Foreign Languages Publishing House in Pyongyang, my prospective employer, and explaining to them what arrangements they needed to make. I suggested that they make the arrangements through their embassy in Copenhagen. Among western capitalist countries, North Korea only had diplomatic relations with the Scandinavian countries and with Austria. There are no formal links at all with Britain.

Shortly afterwards the little men from Pyongyang rang me again at work, while I was out. They left a message that it would not be possible to make arrangements through their Copenhagen embassy, but that I should contact their consulate in Paris. Typically it never occurred to them that it might be helpful to let me have the Paris address or telephone number. I rang International Directory Enquiries but they had no listing for a North Korean consulate in Paris. I contacted Aidan Foster-Carter again and through him obtained the address of their permanent mission to UNESCO in Paris. I duly sent off another letter to Paris. This initiated a series of frustrating phone calls in French, a language of which I have only the flimsiest command, a fact which must have been instantly obvious to whoever I was speaking to.

By the time they had the sense to put me in communication with someone from Paris who spoke English, almost five months had elapsed since my initial contact from David Richardson. The original motivation for applying for such a ridiculous job had diminished and I was having serious doubts about the wisdom of going to this strange, remote, possibly sinister little country, which seemed to be administered by crazed and incompetent officials, in the unlikely event that they ever proved capable of arranging my passage. Consequently when the English speaker asked me if I would be willing to pay my own fare as far as Moscow on the understanding that I would be reimbursed on my arrival in Pyongyang, I told him that not only was this unacceptable but that too much time had now been wasted and I had no further interest in the post. He either failed to understand what I had said or for some obscure reason chose not to, and so the phone calls from Paris and Pyongyang continued. I played along with them, although I no longer entertained any serious intention of going, partly because they were a source of mild amusement, partly because against all common sense and better judgement I was still tempted by the prospect of doing something so extraordinarily unusual as going to work in North Korea. It was in this same spirit of keeping the game open and seeing what transpired that I filled in the visa application form which they finally sent me at the beginning of June.

A couple of weeks later a situation in my personal life altered my mood so that I was in a receptive frame of mind when I picked up the phone one day and heard on the other end of the line a sane English voice. The voice belonged to Keith Bennett, political editor of the Asian Times. He was ringing to say that the Koreans in Paris had authorised him to buy me an airline ticket to Pyongyang, and did I still want to go. They had asked Keith to undertake the task of buying my ticket because he knew how to go about obtaining cheap air fares and could thus save the nation a few hundred precious dollars. This sort of thing is absolutely typical of the way this country of over twenty million people is run. It turned out that as well as being an authority on bucket shops, Keith was also a person who had been four times to North Korea. His answers to my questions about the place were on the whole encouraging. Before I knew where I was, I had handed in my notice at work.

I left Heathrow on the 11.30 am Aeroflot flight to Moscow on Sunday 23rd August, 1987. I picked up a connecting flight at Moscow and within twenty-four hours I was in Pyongyang. I arrived in Pyongyang in the early afternoon, Pyongyang time, on Monday 24th August. It was almost exactly a year to the day since I had submitted my application.