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North Korea 1989

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As far as bars went, the establishment was pretty basic. It was on a major Pyongyang boulevard where passing pedestrians could peer in at patrons through the uneven, vision-distorting window glass that is strongly symbolic of North Korea’s economic backwardness. Drinkers stood at tall tables of rough wood and angle iron that wobbled awkwardly on the uneven stone floor. Not a single chair graced the spartan interior, not a solitary painting decorated the powder blue walls.

A hum of conversation gave way to a bug-eyed silence as we gently shouldered our way through to the steel counter that served as a bar, and where I used sign language honed over years of dedicated practice to request two beers. It was hardly difficult, as the sole fare was a cool, flat brown ale — in half litre mugs badly moulded from translucent blue plastic.

Every customer in the bar was male; the two staff were both women. Shooting a quizzical glance at the other, one of the women poured the beers and asked for Won 1.5, or about 75 US cents. But when she saw that I could only offer ‘green’ money (a currency that foreigners receive in exchange for their western money; there is also a ‘red’ money — which is rouble-based, and reportedly worth considerably less on the elusive black market), she reached over the counter and plucked a Won 1 note from my hand. I had the feeling that we were only being served because the discomfiture of having Westerners in the bar was only marginally outweighed by the fear of refusing service to strangers of unknown import.

I lingered long enough to watch customers buy drinks with local ‘blue’ money — plus little yellowed paper coupons. Like most of life’s everyday purchases in North Korea, beer too, it seems, is only available to those who have earned coupons that may be issued at the workplace.

Even staple foods are rationed in North Korea. City centre stores hold pitiful stocks of consumer durables and most of the people in the shops appear to be staring at what they cannot buy with money alone. Only in the hard-currency stores in some towns can people who have ‘green’ money buy foreign-made goods, and even then at outlandish prices.

Blue mugs in hand, my companion and I split up in search of friendly faces to foist ourselves upon, with nothing more than the vague hope of being able to strike up a conversation, any conversation.

A North Korean tourist experience tends to be a string of impersonal, painstakingly orchestrated events that shed little or no light on the lives of the hermit nation’s citizens. So the opportunity to actually rub shoulders with ‘real’ people over a glass of the local foaming brew was not to be missed.

Up until now, the only frank discussion I had enjoyed with a local had benefitted greatly from alcohol’s lubricating qualities. Getting the normally straight-laced, predictable Party-mouthpiece tour guide completely drunk one evening fuelled an emotional exchange, much of which focussed on what life is really like in South Korea — where, until last year, I had lived for five years.

I opted for a table occupied by four men. They seemed pleased enough that the foreigner had elected to join them, for I was quickly offered a piece of dried fish pulled from a plastic bag. And which I, of course, accepted. It had all the appeal of fishy, freeze-dried balsa wood. I held it up in appreciation — and quickly washed it down with a gulp of a beer that tasted worse than the blue mug looked. My theatrics back-fired almost instantly, when a complete fossilised fish and another full mug of beer came my way from my new drinking buddies who were, on closer inspection, more than a little pissed.

A semi-circle of sallow, grubby faces formed around us and peered at me unabashed from under limp flat cloth caps; their clothes were shabby, ill-fitting and worn shiny at the joints; their shoes were mostly of plastic or canvas. “They had the look of the desperately poor,” I later wrote in my diary, “not at all unlike some of the roughest characters you encounter in dockside bars in Glasgow or Edinburgh — only a lot less well-fed.” (And, I must add, a lot less intimidating. The atmosphere was one of amicable curiosity, totally absent of the threatening undertones routinely found in rougher bars in the ‘developed’ world.)

I persisted in talking pidgin English, lacing it with sign language. None of my four hosts admitted to speaking any English, though I could hear one of them, a waiter at a big tourist hotel, translating some of what I said for his friends. Which made at least one of them as much of a liar as I was, since my conversational Korean was quite good. Two of them, students at a film college, volunteered the names of the only Western films they claimed to have heard of: Love Story, and ‘James Bond 007’. When I prompted them for more, one of them thought long and hard before coming out with, ‘Walter Scott — Ivanhoe!’

After only a few minutes, one of the barmaids sidled over and asked my companions what they had gleaned from me. Struggling visibly with the information overload that was my nationality, the name of my hotel and that I was a tourist, she walked to the doorway and passed the meagre tidbit to a pasty-faced security goon with sharp sunglasses and an extra-large Kim Il-sung badge pinned to his left lapel. My hosts’ attitude towards me cooled rapidly after this, and so, after much shaking of hands and polite refusal of yet more balsa fish, I rescued my friend from what was developing into a fierce drinking session and left.

While undeniably brief, the event encompasses much of what is so palpably wrong with North Korea. This and other episodic events — some, though not all of which were viewed off the tourist trail that our guides worked so hard to restrict us to — served to reinforce the recurring feeling of eerie strangeness that North Korea inflicts upon the Western visitor.

It is hard to come to terms with a nation in which, we are told, every citizen ‘volunteers’ to perform several hours of work each day for the beautification of the motherland — on top of a full days’ work.

An astonishing example of this occurred one afternoon when, after giving the tour guides the slip for a few minutes, I saw people digging. No big deal there, but what caused me to take a second look was the figure of a nurse leaning on a shovel. Further scrutiny revealed that the digging party were hospital patients, matching striped pyjamas and all, shovelling sand and mortar around a waste ground adjacent to their place of treatment.

Forty-plus years of despotic one-man rule and total isolation from the outside world have bred a nation that feeds on misplaced nationalistic hubris, and is held together by a fabric of fear and suspicion. Where else might a tourist find himself being berated from afar by a middle-aged woman pointing and screaming, over and over, ‘That bastard’s taking pictures’?

To stroll casually with a camera through an apartment area in the capital was to watch children ahead of you being swept into doorways by protective frightened mothers, as if in the face of advancing foreign invaders.

Perhaps such reactions should not be altogether surprising in a country where one foreign diplomat told me she read in a lesson in a child’s school textbook that went something like this: “If you are attacked by 21 Yankee imperialists, and you kill 17 of them, how many Yankee imperialists would you still face?” And this was in an English text at a Korean-run school for the children of foreign diplomats.

The first full day of my eight days in North Korea was the birthday of the man the citizens refer to so reverently — and in true egalitarian lower-case letters — as their ‘great leader’.

Kids in their Sunday best mingled with heavily decorated army officers and peasants in limp blue suits at the feet of a twenty-metre statue of President Kim Il-sung, each sporting flowers to lay in tribute to their great leader’s seventy-seventh birthday. Floral tributes arrived so quickly that ushers had to coreograph proceedings, allowing each band of the faithful only a few seconds in front of the grotesque statue. Just time enough for a quick bow, and off they shuffled, duty done. “If you stand here all day, you will see every citizen of Pyongyang,” gushed our tour guide. Mercifully, however, it was time to go to school. Mangyongdae Revolutionary School, no less, a gift from the great leader to his people.

Absolutely central to the maintenance of the Kim Il-sung personality cult is an all-embracing theme of the great leader’s fathomless benevolence towards his people. Never does a citizen get an opportunity to forget that if it were not for the great leader, he or she would not have their school, hospital or theatre.

In a hospital that features inexplicably on the tourist circuit, every individual item of medical equipment bore a red sticker explaining that it was there thanks only to the generosity of the great leader. Some of the equipment that was being ‘used’ in front of me was not even plugged into the mains supply. Twin portraits of the great leader and his son and appointed heir Kim Jong-il (dear leader) watched over Kim Won-hee, 25, and her five-day-old son. So far as I could determine, there was no red sticker on the baby. In the same hospital’s operating theatre, a woman who was ostensibly undergoing major abdominal surgery wore a hefty metal wristwatch on an arm that she used to gesticulate as we looked on. Abdominal surgery without a general anaesthetic on a patient wearing jewellery? And on the tourist circuit? Dramatic theatre meets the operating theatre, perhaps.

Mangyongdae Revolutionary School, second stop on the great leader’s great birthday tour, was an early totem of the good grace of the man known to his subjects as ‘The Sun of Mankind’. He founded the school in 1946 for orphans of the successful revolutionary struggle against Japanese imperialist aggressors, explained the tour guide, without a hint of irony. (A few days later, the personable, courteous military guide at the tense border village of Panmunjom started every other sentence with ‘Miguknom’, or ‘Yankee Bastards’. Life itself is propaganda in North Korea.)

In grand celebration of the great birthday, tiny kids were inducted into the Communist Young Pioneers. They then marched past a huge portrait of the great leader, after which a portrait of the dear leader, borne on an open-top car, did the same. A follow-up serenade came from a choir of ten-year-olds in assorted military uniforms, who chanted a fifteen-minute eulogy to the great leader, from memory, and with tears brimming in their innocent young eyes. ‘We were born to our mothers and fathers, but we have been raised by the great leader,’ they chanted.

It was only the first day of my first ever visit to the country, but already I was beginning to get the idea. The celebrations went on long after nightfall, when Kim Il-sung Square in central Pyongyang was the scene for a ‘soiree’ of ten thousand citizens dancing their plastic shoes ragged under the sweeping arcs of anti-aircraft spotlights commandeered for the occasion.

But not everybody had been invited to the party. As the dancers clapped and strutted into the night, thousands of inquisitive fellow citizens were kept back by police cordons. I left the square carrying with me the lingering image of these poor souls dashing to the square after the cordons lifted, only to find dancers dispersing and spotlights cooling, the ‘excitement’ over for another year.