On the whole the Koreans are a physically attractive people, slightly built and graceful. The women have sweet faces and melodious voices. Some of the men used to look a bit dour. I sometimes used to have the feeling that the women were more at home in their bizarre culture than the men. This is surprising because, although everyone in North Korea leads an incredibly hard-working and monotonous life, it is a culture in which the women have the tougher time. Politically he women have equal rights and have done since 1946. The Sex Equality Law promulgated in that year was one of the president’s first major reforms. At work, in the factories and one the construction sites, the women work alongside the men, sharing all but the most back-breaking physical toil. In the home it is a different story. From the moment the woman gets up half an hour before the husband to boil the rice for breakfast, she has everything to do. The typical Korean male does not lift a finger to help.
My guess is that the men suffer more than the women from the lack of good, unwholesome, irresponsible fun. There are hardly any outlets for unorganised social activity away from the workplace – a picnic perhaps with friends on a fine day, for the better-off an occasional visit to a restaurant. There is no night life for the local population at all. Korean men love to drink and their ladies are not averse to the occasional indulgence, but the supply of alcohol in the shops is limited to weekends and public holidays. The government does not want people waking up with hangovers when there are revolution and construction to be made. Nor does it wish to encourage too much informal conviviality. Throughout history bars and cafes where people can come together to relax and talk over a few drinks have been potential hotbeds of seditious ideas. The only vice routinely available to the North Korean male is tobacco, and most are avid smokers. For women it is unacceptable to smoke except, curiously, in old age.
But as ninety per cent of North Koreans know next to nothing about the outside world, they do not conceive of themselves as deprived. The people are constantly told that they are living in a workers’ paradise. Most of them in their ignorance probably believe it.
There is, however, one section of the population of the DPRK for whom life might realistically be described as something approaching paradise. I have never in my life encountered such a universally bright-eyed, charming, cheerful, polite and friendly species of humanity as the children of Pyongyang. Pyongyang is one third world capital which has no wan, pitiful, ragged urchins on view.
I saw a lot of the children of Pyongyang because the whole of one block on the other side of the street from the Ansan Chodasso was taken up by schools for various age groups. The kids never ceased to find amusement at seeing a European on their streets. Whenever I caught their laughing eyes, the younger ones would bow or raise their right hands above their heads, elbows slightly bent, in the Children’s Union salute. When I used to replay with the Korean greeting, anyon hasimniga, literally have peace of mind, they were so delighted. Sometimes they would run back so that they could stand in front of me and greet me again so as to hear this odd-looking anthropoid speak their language.
Children thrive on order and stability and these are qualities that North Korea has to offer in abundance. The children have the stability of a traditional Asian family life. Divorce is very rare and traditional kinship patterns, e.g. parents residing with the family of the eldest son, are routinely adhered to. The effects of any tension or unhappiness in the home are mitigated by the amount of time the children spend away from it. Even before compulsory education begins at the age of five, in excess of seventy per cent of the nation’s children are placed in day nurseries from the age of three months.
This practice is encouraged by the state for two reasons. Firstly, the state wants to promote the collectivist consciousness in the population from the earliest possible age. Secondly, it wants the women back at work. However much the North Koreans may harp on in their propaganda about the brilliant technological advances they are making and how modern and mechanical their industry and agriculture have become, the reality is quite the reverse. To quite an extraordinary extent the economy is powered by human muscle. Every able body is required to keep the economic wheels turning. Therefore the majority of women resume work after five months’ maternity leave. Each morning the mother straps the baby on her back and delivers it to the nursery on her way to work. The official standard working week is forty-eight hours. This does not include time for meals and other breaks, compulsory political education, et cetera. It is safe to assume then that the majority of North Korean infants spend at least sixty hours a week in institutional care.
Childbirth can involve a change of job for the mother. The country cannot afford powdered milk so the mother must be employed close enough to the nursery to go there at regular intervals during the day to breast-feed the child. Quite a few enterprises have their own nurseries on the premises.
It is not generally compulsory for women to return to work after childbirth. About twenty-five per cent opt to remain at home. I do not know, but I would imagine that this option is denied to professional women and women in specialised occupations whom it has cost the state a lot of money to train, or who are not readily replaceable. Of these women, the majority of whom choose to return to work, few will be motivated by financial considerations. All the basic necessities of life, housing, food, fuel, furniture, some clothing, are supplied free or at a token cost and strict rationing controls are in force. The women return to work because for them work is not an undesired but economically necessary intrusion on their real life, their personal life. For the average Korean the workplace is where one participates in life. Or, viewed from a negative perspective, life does not have much else to offer in the DPRK.
So the North Korean child enjoys stability at home within an extended kinship network, the routine of nursery, kindergarten and school, and the security within the family that all primary physical needs will always be met. There is not a lot of scope for feelings of jealousy or alienation to arise growing up in a society where everyone is more or less identically poor, no one knows anything better, and everyone shares common cultural norms – no problems for working-class children having to adapt to middle-class values at school. All school children are identically dressed in uniforms issued by the state. The streets are safe for the children to play in at all times. There is scarcely any traffic to worry about. There are no child molesters. It is most unlikely that a child will witness any disturbing scenes on the street of violence or other hysterical behaviour. In a society that is both so primitive and tightly controlled, deviance and perversion are virtually unknown.
The child may have few, if any, personal toys, but will have access to them at nursery and school. Lots of outdoor play apparatus, swings and climbing frames and so forth, are always erected in the spaces between the apartment blocks and in the school playgrounds.
With such a high degree of physical and emotional security, there is much to be said for growing up in the DPRK. To me this is quite a significant factor in the society’s favour.
Not so many years ago foreign language revisers were a rare commodity in North Korea. They were pampered beings who were accommodated in hotels and had a car and driver at their disposal twenty-four hours a day. They were even better paid. It was, I believe, 1984 when the rate of pay was cut by twenty-five per cent to take account of the strength of the dollar. The dollar has taken a few tumbles since then but the pay remained the same.
Although still living a life of opulence by local standards, the revisers have, as they say out there, being working-classized somewhat. By the time I arrived in Pyongyang, they were all accommodated together in the Ansan Chodasso. The Ansan Chodasso is one of three six-storey blocks, each consisting of twelve half-floors set in a pleasant compound near the Potang River in South West Pyongyang. The other two blocks were reserved for party members. They were quite old by Pyongyang standards, probably built in the sixties, but a family assigned to one of these apartments would have had a flat of European dimensions, a rare luxury in North Korea. It is strictly forbidden for the Koreans to invite foreigners into their homes so I never had the chance to look round any other apartments. However, while I was there they were proudly proclaiming in their external propaganda that the new apartments they were building in Pyongyang had an average floor area of one hundred and ten square metres. It is safe to assume then that most existing accommodation is substantially smaller. I am fairly sure that most families had just two rooms and a kitchen.
We were not living among the elite, but we were definitely among the haute bourgeoisie. From time to time one would see one of those distinctive features of the Pyongyang landscape, a Mercedes with blacked-out windows to conceal the passengers from the public gaze, coming in or out of the compound to convey our neighbours on official business. None of them was important enough to warrant a car for his exclusive use but I doubt if there are a thousand cadres in the whole country who are afforded such a privilege. We did have from November, 1987, one neighbour, a vice minister I was told, of sufficient status to quality for a twenty-four hour police guard. From then on three able-bodied young men of twenty-four, each armed with a revolver, took it in turns to sit in a little hut at the entrance to the compound furnished with a desk, a chair, a telephone and the inevitable photographs of the great and dear leaders, in the world’s safest city and do precisely nothing.
During my year of exile the population of the Ansan Chodasso fluctuated but at its peak there were seventeen foreign residents. There were three Chinese revisers; two East Germans, a married couple with a six-year-old daughter who attended school at the German embassy; two Cuban (or Spanish) plus the wife of one of them; two Russians plus again a wife; two English; two French; and a Lebanese who did the Arabic. The Russian contingent were unique in that they cooked for themselves. The rest of us took our meals in three separate dining rooms on the second floor, or half-floor to be more precise. The three Chinese gentlemen occupied one dining room, the Cubans and East Germans another. The remainder of us occupied a third. We had the common denominator that we were all from capitalist countries. Fortunately for me, there was a second common denominator, that everyone spoke English.
The revisers in the capitalist zone who had come to Pyongyang independently were paid several times as much as the ones from the socialist countries, who were there on contracts negotiated by their governments with the Koreans. I could not be certain, but I suspect that the Russians and Germans were better paid than their counterparts from Cuba and it was fairly obvious that the Chinese had about as much spending power as their Korean hosts, i.e. virtually none at all.
It is possible that the revisers from the socialist countries may have been paid some allowance in hard currency but the bulk of their salary seemed to be paid in blue won. In North Korea there is a three-tier currency system in operation. There is the basic unit of currency, the naked, unadorned won. This is only valid in shops for the locals where, essentially, there is nothing worth buying. As a result there is no currency black market in the DPRK. Then there is the blue won, so called because the notes are imprinted with a blue stamp. This is issued in exchange for soft currencies. Finally there is the red won which bears a red stamp. This is issued in exchange for hard currencies, dollars, sterling, yen et cetera. The blue won is acceptable in some but not all dollar shops and international hotels, but there is a two-tier pricing system in operation, if system it can be called. For while some cheap foodstuffs cost the same in blue or red money, a packet of imported cigarettes cost two won forty chen in red money but more than fourteen won in blue. Between these two extremes the price differences were more commonly double or treble in blue.
Because of language barriers, the Chinese, Russians and Cubans tended to keep to themselves within the Ansan Chodasso. However, they all had social outlets through their embassies. The inhabitants of the red won zone plus the East German couple, Holmer and Astrid, who both spoke good English , interacted socially with each other to varying degrees. Relationships were on the whole civilized and cordial. This was just as well. Opportunities for normal informal contact with the local population were severely limited. Consequently, from the onset of winter at the end of October, when the hotels rapidly emptied until they started filling up again in the beginning of April, there was practically no-one else to talk to except each other. During those long, cold, monotonous, boring, lonely months of winter, my enthusiasm for the country evaporated faster than boiling water.
The Ansan Chodasso’s contingent from the capitalist countries consisted of myself and Michael from England, Jean-Jacques and Simone from France, and Sami from Lebanon. Unlike the vast majority of foreigners who find themselves cast up in Pyongyang, unlike me once my initial euphoria had worn off, they all to a greater or lesser extent liked the life out there. They were all there when I arrived and none of them had any urgent plans to go at the time I left, except Simone, who had decided to retire.
Jean-Jacques like Michael was in his early twenties. He had come to Pyongyang by a curious route. On graduation from university in Paris in 1985, he had secured a grant from the French government to go to Beijing and learn Chinese. At the Foreign Language University in Beijing, most of his classmates were Koreans. He found he had an enormous affinity with the Koreans, far more than with the Chinese. It was through the good offices of his student friends that he had come to work in Pyongyang as a reviser. He had already been living there nearly a year when I arrived. He had learned quite a bit of Korean, which opened the way for him to have some informal contact with the local population. During the day a couple of old Mercedes were allocated to us to ferry us to the publishing house or to the shops or anywhere around Pyongyang we wanted to go. Jean-Jacques spent a lot of time chatting to the drivers and to our cooks and interpreters. He also liked to hang out with the policemen at the compound gate. Occasionally he went to Korean restaurants with Korean friends he had made. He may only have assimilated himself marginally into North Korean society, but even marginal assimilation is far more than most foreigners achieve. Even the foreign students in North Korea who are sharing classes with Koreans are kept well segregated from them outside of the classroom. Although fascinated by the life and people in North Korea, Jean-Jacques felt the need to go up to Beijing for a week or two every couple of months for a breath of normality and was fortunate that he could afford to do so.
Simone was an intrepid lady in her sixties who had been a reviser in North Korea since 1983. A childless divorcee, she preferred to do something more adventurous with her retirement than sit at home in Geneva. She too found a certain enchantment with the society and the people, as did my close friend Sami.
Sami was a communist and had long-standing connections with the North Koreans dating back to the early seventies. He had revised texts for them in Beirut and written articles about the country in the Lebanese newspapers. For these efforts he had been awarded an Omega watch with the president’s name inscribed on it, which gave him a status just a few rungs down from Labour Hero. He had spent several brief periods in the country before. Then in 1985 he had taken up semi-permanent residence in Pyongyang. He too spoke Korean quite well. When I used to complain about the boredom and monotony, he used to remind me that boredom and monotony had something to recommend them when you normally lived in Beirut. However, even Sami could only stand so much of Pyongyang. He had insisted to the publishing house that he was only prepared to work in Pyongyang for a maximum of nine months a year.
Sami was an excellent friend and his quiet humour helped to keep the lid on my sanity, which was continually under threat from the unreality of my life in Pyongyang and the absurdity of the work I was doing. He was a big miss when he migrated South for the winter like the sensible person he was, abandoning the frozen, silent city and its handful of deserted hotel bars.
Holmer was another who liked being in Pyongyang. He normally lectured in Korean at the Humboldt University in Berlin and had spent two years as a student in Pyongyang a decade earlier, when by all accounts life was even more restricted for foreigners than it is now. He had been back on several occasions as an interpreter for delegations, but this was his first opportunity to live in the country since his undergraduate days. He was a fluent Korean speaker and a Korea expert living in his field of professional study. He also had his family with him. If Holmer was in his element in Pyongyang, his wife Astrid did not share his enthusiasm. She was highly delighted when they were recalled to Berlin unexpectedly early.
One of the factors that fuelled my initial over-enthusiasm for North Korea was probably that my arrival in Pyongyang coincided with a flurry of treats and excursions that would not be repeated for a long time.
I had only been there a few days when I was taken with the rest of the revisers down to Kim Il Sung Square in a minibus to witness a torchlight parade to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of the Young Communist League.
Kim Il Sung Square is a wide expanse of granite flagstones beside the embankment of the Taedong River. At the top of the square, under the Grand People’s Study House facing the Juche Tower on the opposite bank, is the tribune, a spectators’ gallery a bit like a rather elegant football stand. At the centre of the tribune is an elevated, covered area where the dignitaries and high officials, including on the big occasions the president, take their places. On either side of what one might call the stand where the dignitaries can sit are the open terraces where the lesser mortals stand. As the tribune can only accommodate a few thousand people at the most and admission to any of the functions in the square is by invitation only, the lesser mortals are still quite elevated.
The interior of the tribune incidentally is intended eventually to serve as Kim Il Sung’s mausoleum where his mummified remains will be displayed to posterity, la Lenin in Moscow and Mao in Beijing.
We arrived at about seven and took our place on the right hand terrace, amid Pyongyang’s diplomatic community. I looked up in the hope that the president or his son might be present but sadly I did not have an opportunity to see either of them in the flesh during my whole time in Pyongyang. The square below was filled with row upon row of young people in alternate lines of boys and girls, all identically dressed, the boys in black trousers and white shorts, the girls in white blouses and their navy blue school smocks.
In the DPRK children must wear their school uniform at all times throughout their school career. Under the eleven-year compulsory education system, children must enter kindergarten at five, proceed the following year to primary school for four years, and then to Senior Middle School for a further six. In practice most children enter kindergarten at the age of four having already spent most of their life in nursery.
The boys wear navy blue vindon suits, the girls navy blue vindon smocks. The state provides all school equipment including uniforms at token cost. The uniforms are smart, practical and hardwearing, and impose a rigid egalitarianism on the world of the child, which is highly conducive to promoting the collectivist spirit. Although there are differences in living standards between different strata of society, small by the standards of other societies but there nevertheless, these cannot be expressed in the clothing of the children, not even in their footwear, jumpers and blouses, because the range available in the shops is so narrow. Even when they leave school, the young people who progress to further or higher education must still adhere to strict conformity in dress. The students wear green uniforms like old-fashioned grammar school and high school uniforms in England.
I would imagine that all the children of fifteen and sixteen years of age from every school in Pyongyang were assembled in Kim Il Sung Square that evening. I am no good judge of size or distance but I would hazard a guess that the square is about two hundred yards long by a hundred yards wide and it was full of boys and girls, line after line of them. I do not know how long they had been standing there already when we arrived. It was still light when we came, and another half hour was to elapse before the last light of day ebbed from the sky. Then the torches were ignited and the vast square became a blaze of light. Above the blaze of light in the square glowed the dark red torch of the Juche Tower. The twin fountains that have been installed right in the middle of the Taedong River sent jets of water thirty feet into the air. On the facades of the building that flank the square, ideological symbols and slogans were announced in neon and speakers pumped stirring music into the teeming silence.
Then with astonishing precision and co-ordination this vast crowd of youthful torch-bearers began to assemble themselves into a variety of intricate groups so that the light from their torches formed a series of patterns, shapes and symbols, some of which echoed the ones picked out more permanently in neon to the sides of them. At the same time the unoccupied road between the square and the tribune filled with complementary symbols as a vast parade of the nation’s youth, phalanx after phalanx, all bearing torches, marched briskly by. The parade went on for an hour and a half. I was not sure I approved of what I was seeing. It evoked half-remembered images of old newsreel cuttings of Germany in the thirties. But I found it impossible not to feel a slight sense of exhilaration.
I asked the interpreter who was with me how long it would have taken them to rehearse such a large and intricate spectacle.
“A week at the most,” he replied.
Then he added, “This country owes a great debt to the Americans. They made us become a very disciplined people. We have had to be to survive. The other great favour they did us was when they bombed us to the ground they blew up all the churches as well, and put an end to Christianity in this country.”
That sort of irony was rare in a North Korean. I liked this interpreter very much. He was the same one who accompanied me on my first two days when I was sightseeing. After that evening I never saw him again. That is the way of things in the DPRK. We had no further business together, and if a foreigner and a Korean have no business together, they have no business meeting.
Although things are easing up considerably, the DPRK is still a country where informal contact between foreigners and locals is discouraged and restricted. There do not seem to be any firm guidelines on whether locals can meet foreigners in public places but there are very few public places, apart from the street and a handful of restaurants, to which both have free access. Koreans are not, for example, allowed in the international hotels except on business. In the absence of firm guidelines, most Koreans anyway fight shy of arranging contact for fear of getting into trouble. Koreans are not supposed to call on foreigners and are definitely not allowed to bring them into their homes. I suspect this policy is sold to the locals on the grounds of national security. The country is under siege from the forces of imperialism and you never know who might turn out to be a spy or saboteur.
The real reason is that the government does not want the foreigner to find out from the local the real conditions under which people are living because it wants the rest of the world in general, and the South Korean people in particular, to think that things are a lot better than they actually are. Even more to the point, they do not want the local to find out from the foreigner that the world in general, and South Korea in particular, are not as he has been told – in short, that he is being fed lies. They want the people to go on believing that if they are not living in a paradise already, they soon will be. If the ruling circles have finally admitted to themselves that the South Korean people are never going to rise up in revolt out of jealousy of the prosperity of the North and demand to be assimilated into a reunified Juche Korea, they have yet to admit it to their people, who are still being exhorted to work harder and tighten their belts to hasten reunification. The danger for the ruling circles today is that if the masses in the North knew how prosperous their compatriots in the South were, it is they who might become rebellious.
To put things in a fair perspective, North Korean living standards are firmly rooted in third world poverty, as I gradually discovered. On the other hand, it is a country that has a commendable record of supplying the whole population with the essentials of decent living, food, housing, hygiene, literacy and a subjectively happy life experience. The average North Korean lives an incredibly simple and hardworking life but also has a secure and cheerful existence, and the comradeship between these highly collectivised people is moving to behold.
It could reasonably be argued that it is in the people’s best interests to be allowed to continue living in a dream. It is only the ones who know or suspect that they are living in a dream in whom one can detect any discontent. Even then these people are so highly indoctrinated that their discontent is more likely to take the form of sorrow and frustration that their system is not succeeding than anger and rejection of it.
The minibus made slow progress leaving the square that night, edging through droves of youngsters making their way home on foot. It must have been a long evening for them. Two-and-a-half hours is a long time to be on your feet if you can’t shuffle about at will. But if it had been a chore for them, it didn’t show. They all seemed highly animated and excited and groups of them kept bursting out into spontaneous song.
The sort of mass spectacular we saw that evening is something of a Korean speciality. I was to see another example the following week, albeit only on the screen. To commemorate some anniversary or other we were invited down to the International Club to see a film show. We were shown two films. One was a Korean feature film of which the less said the better. The other was a documentary of a parade through Kim Il Sung Square by a million people on August 15th, 1983, the fortieth anniversary of the country’s liberation. The parade was startling and impressive in itself but I was even more interested in the footage of the president presiding in the tribune. It was my first chance to have a good look at him in action. Up to then I had only seen photographs, paintings and murals.
One thing for sure about President Kim Il Sung is that he is a most extraordinary man. He has survived in power for over forty years in spite of numerous crises and power struggles, including a disastrous war. Although the success of his long reign is open to question, there is no doubt that as far as the overwhelming majority of the people are concerned, he is the great leader. Even the younger, better informed people who want change, who are anxious to see an end to austerity and for their country to liberalise – it should be emphasised, incidentally, that they do not want to fundamentally change their system – revere their president.
No matter how much propaganda is pumped out about a man being the great leader and the father of the nation, if the people are to be truly convinced, the man has to look the part.
The most common image of Kim Il Sung you see in Korea, the one on the photographs in every room, the one on so many of the murals, dates back twenty years. He is wearing a high-button Chairman Mao jacket. His expression is unsmiling and severe. But the rotund, elderly gentleman with the broad smile I watched on the screen that day not only exuded enormous presence and dignity, but it was a presence imbued with an almost Pickwickian benignity.
It occurred to me as I was watching this film that I had come to Pyongyang expecting to be living in a grim, rigidly ordered society presided over by an austere dictator. What in fact it felt like and continued to feel like was living in a very strict boarding school run by a kindly but firm and autocratic headmaster. To what extent his powers actually are autocratic is open to debate. Sami always took the view that the Kim Il Sung personality cult was the creation of the party and that it is the party that is in control in North Korea. Apart from the fact that this view is in contradiction of the officially stated ideology about the leader, I doubt whether the president could have designated his son as heir apparent unless he possessed absolute authority.
For the thing that struck me most in this film after the president’s undeniable presence was his son’s singular lack of presence. Kim Jong Il is a short, plump, almost effeminate looking man in his mid-forties. His main claim to fame seems to be that he has systematised and elaborated the Juche idea, which remains a rather nebulous concept in the references scattered through his father’s work over the years, into a coherent ideological system. He is usually seen on films trailing around in his father’s footsteps and looking decidedly uncomfortable. Interestingly he is not often seen on television although his activities are extensively reported. Nor is he present except on very rare occasions when his father receives foreign delegations. In most Korean homes and workplaces his photograph is now displayed alongside that of his father, but I never sensed any strong public emotion about him. The propaganda machine is working energetically to build up his public image but his unprepossessing appearance poses a major problem.
Autumn is a very pleasant season in Korea. When summer ends, the humidity level plummets but it remains very calm. From early September until well into October, one can rely on what we would describe as perfect English summer weather. During the autumn there are two important anniversaries in the North Korean calendar when the people are allowed a rare day off from building the revolution and construction to go and enjoy themselves. September 9th is the anniversary of the founding of the Republic in 1948. October 10th is the anniversary of the founding of the party in 1945. Whenever they are allowed any free time the North Koreans’ favourite recreational activity is picnicking out of doors.
On both public holidays the revisers were ferried out to the hills outside Pyongyang and treated to lavish picnics. In a country where economising and not wasting anything are sometimes carried to ludicrous extremes, the opposite policy prevails when it comes to putting on a show to impress the foreigner. Invariably far more food was provided at these affairs than could possibly be consumed. The first time I was appalled at the amount of food that was wasted. That was before I had realised what people’s living standards were really like, or had discovered that because the country’s animal husbandry is in such a disastrous state, that year’s fish exports, normally a valuable hard currency earner, had had to be cancelled so that the people could have something now and then to augment their frugal diet of rice and pickled vegetables.
Our picnics may have been unnecessarily extravagant but they were always jolly occasions helped along by general quantities of Pyongyangsul, the local equivalent of vodka, full of chemicals but OK now and again, and compulsory singing. Towards the end of the meal everybody was always expected to take it in turns to stand up and sing a song. The Koreans can be very persistent people, so it was virtually impossible to wriggle out of it completely, but one could usually get away with groaning through a few lines of Blowing in the Wind.
People are always singing in North Korea. They sing at picnics and other social gatherings. They sing on trains. The school children sing as they march – literally march in columns four abreast – along the street. It is not uncommon to hear the workers toiling on the construction site break into the occasional chorus. Kim Sung, who had a voice like a skylark, used to sing as she cleaned my rooms in the morning, breaking off incongruously when she came to the bathroom sink to expectorate enthusiastically in the best oriental tradition.
I imagine that this propensity for singing is a traditional national characteristic. It is a characteristic which the government has exploited as a potent device for instilling love and loyalty towards the leader in the hearts of the people.
The Korean public has no access to the popular music of the outside world. When Koreans purchase a radio, they have to take it to a special place to be adjusted so that the dial cannot be tuned to switch stations. It is not only forbidden to listen to anything other than state radio. It is rendered a practical impossibility. As for foreign records and tapes, like foreign books and magazines, they are not even available in the dollar shops.
The only music Koreans get to listen to is traditional folk songs, which are still popular. These might be described as their secular music, although quite a few of them have been given new words to make them ideologically sound. Then there is the sacred music, the Juche-oriented revolutionary music, the compositions of the past forty years, stylistically in the Korean folk tradition but heavy in ideological content. About three-quarters of the songs are paeans of praise to the leader or his son. For example: “The Song of General Kim Il Sung”, the immortal revolutionary paean, and “Long Life and Good Health to the Leader” are widely sung among our people. These are successful compositions which give artistic expression to the fervent loyalty of the entire people.
“In addition, there are The Leader’s Noble Idea Flowers Out, We Sing of His Benevolent Love, This Happiness of Having the Leader and many other excellent compositions which celebrate the happiness of our people under the paternal care of our leader and enrich the cultural life of the people.” (Korean Review, p.175.)
Recent hits include “The Leader Comes to our Farm”, a song about a presidential visit to a co-operative farm on one of his tours of giving on-the-spot guidance, and a catchy number with a slight rock feel to it that contains the lyrics, “I’m longing for you, dear leader, I’m longing for you, honour to you, dear Kim Jong Il”.
The salient characteristic of these songs is that they are composed in the folk tradition for the primary purpose of being sung by people as opposed to being performed by professional entertainers. Every time the people in North Korea give vent to their emotions in song, as they frequently do, they reinforce in themselves the state ideology.
On September 9th we not only had a picnic during the day. In the evening the Government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea requested the pleasure of our company at a banquet on the occasion of the 34th anniversary of the founding of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea at the People’s Palace of Culture. It was probably by international standards a modest affair and we revisers were assigned to the bottom tables. Still, it is not every day that a provincial social worker from Leeds gets to mingle with ministers, generals and ambassadors and be waited upon by an army of monkey-suited flunkeys. It was a pity about the food. People assure me that Korean food is not the worst in the world, that Japanese food is far worse, but I find it a bit hard to believe.
On October 10th, the anniversary of the founding of the party, we were taken before having our picnic to the funfair at Mount Taesong. Situated a few kilometres to the East of the city, in ancient times this picturesque mountain served the citizens of Pyongyang as a natural fortress to which they could retreat in times of peril. Some of the fortifications they built are still standing. Today it has been developed as an alternative recreation centre to historic Mangyondae. The Revolutionary Martyrs’ Cemetery, where the busts of the departed heroes, who took part in the armed guerrilla struggle against the Japanese, watch over the city in the plains below, has been established there. It also contains the national zoo, the botanical gardens, and a funfair.
My most vivid recollection of that outing is of the reaction of the female domestics from the Ansan Chodasso who came with us. Although they looked like adolescents, they were young women in their early twenties. Nearly all young adults in North Korea look young for their years. A friend of mine had the theory that this is a side-effect of virginity. At the funfair, Kum Sung and Myong Ok, A Ok and Sun Il, were enraptured like small children.
“I can’t believe this, ” I said to Sami. “Look at the expressions on their faces.”
“You have yet to understand,” he explained to me, “these people lead such simple lives.”
One Sunday morning shortly after my arrival I went for a walk with Simone on Moran Hill, an attractive area of parkland in central Pyongyang, Pyongyang’s equivalent to Hyde Park. Simone was telling me why she loved North Korea. She said it was above all because of the people. “Constantly I am fascinated by them. I feel almost maternal towards them. They are such delightfully simple people. I do not mean simple in the sense that they are stupid. They are very far from being stupid. I mean it in the sense of Gauguin’s South Sea islanders. They are unspoiled.”
A few weeks later I found myself in need of medical attention. There were always two translators from the publishing house in residence among us at the Ansan Chodasso to distribute the texts, arrange transport for us, and generally be of assistance. Neither of the two who were in residence during my first few months spoke English. One of them spoke French, the other Spanish. I had therefore to enlist Jean-Jacques’ assistance to act as an interpreter for me. As soon as he heard that I was in pain, the Korean’s face became a picture of alarm. He seized the telephone and began making frantic arrangements for me to be transported to the Foreigners’ Hospital at once. I felt somewhat embarrassed by his reaction. I asked Jean-Jacques to tell the chap to calm down, to tell him that I did want to see a doctor as soon as it was convenient but I was not an emergency, I was not about to expire. “No,” said Jean-Jacques, “I know these people. They cannot understand such subtle distinctions. For them if something is not absolutely urgent, then it can wait all day. They are a very simple people.”