Memories of Pyongyang

North_korea_bannerIn the 1990’s, when the grandfather of the current Kim was North Korea’s Great Leader, I spent a week in Pyongyang working as an interpreter for the Italian delegation at a huge conference which was attended by most of the world’s nations. I have decided to note down what I remember now, before the place becomes a major tourist destination. (Not likely, I suppose, but more improbable things have happened recently.)

At the time, the only places from which you could fly to Pyongyang were Beijing, Moscow and Tirana. We got to Pyongyang via Beijing. There were so many more people travelling to Pyongyang than usual that Air Koryo, the North Korean airline was flying a shuttle service from Beijing to Pyongyang, which meant that all time-tables had been abolished. Whenever a plane arrived from Pyongyang, the people nearest the front of the huge huddle managed to leave.

The first thing I noticed on boarding the plane was that the stewardesses were stowing real crockery on the shelves in the kitchen area. This was very impressive. The second thing which became apparent was that some of the seats were stuck in a reclining position and several of the tray tables could not be folded back in place. The plane, however, promptly began to race down the runway and as it took off two loud sounds were heard. One was the crockery falling to the floor, and the second was a blast of muscular martial music streaming out of the loudspeakers. The music never let up, all the way to Pyongyang.

This perhaps was to put us into the right mood to read the inflight magazine which was distributed, every article of which was about the latest feats of the Great Leader.

After a while, we were also brought an inflight meal. On the right-hand side of the tray there was a thumbnail-size piece of cucumber, a thumbnail-size piece of greyish Soviet-style salami and a thumbnail-size piece of intensely processed cheese. On the left-hand side of the tray were three double-thumbnail-sized “tartines”: one with a thumbnail-size piece of cucumber, one with a thumbnail-sized piece of greyish Russian-style salami and one a thumbnail-size piece of intensely processed cheese.

About twenty minutes from landing the flight attendants came round to sternly requisition our inflight magazines. We landed and the plane rolled through an airport in which we seemed to be the only civilian aircraft. Military planes and helicopters were everywhere, as well as lots of netting. We rolled right up to the terminal and we were soon out on the tarmac.

As soon as we were on the ground we found ourselves in something of a whirlwind. There were a dozen people on the tarmac grabbing people by the arm as soon as they stepped off the plane and shouting “Which country?” into their ears. The answers were then relayed up to a platform four or five metres above us where someone was filming the scene and someone else ecstatically announcing all the exciting arrivals over a loudspeaker “Belgium!!! Egypt!!! Spain!!! Paraguay!!! Canada!!! ..” It went on and on.

Inside the terminal, our delegation assembled. We were approached by a man.

“Hello, I am your friend,” he informed us. Since I was one of the very few people in the delegation who spoke English, his friendship was mostly showered upon me. It turned out that every delegation had two official friends who were there to accompany them. (This rule, as many in North Korea, was inflexible. Later I met the one-man delegation of San Marino. He also had been awarded two friends, all to himself. He said that they had accompanied him to his room in the hotel and that for a while he thought he was going to have to share his room with them.)

We boarded a bus and our friend wedged himself in beside me.

“What do you think of our country?” he began. I told him that in time I would give him an answer but that twenty minutes hadn’t been enough for me to shape an opinion yet.

“What do you think about Juche?” Luckily, I knew about Juche, since one of the articles in the inflight magazine had informed me about it, the doctrine of one Korea in two republics, although that was as far as my understanding went. “I will need to consider it”. He seemed to think the answer was satisfactory.

“What do you think about our Great Leader?”

“Yes, I have been reading about him.”

The sun set and night descended as we drove into the city. “What do you think of Pyongyang?” he asked, as we rolled through the empty streets. “Exciting so far.” What I really wanted to ask him, was why North Koreans were so fond of violet and pink neon . I could see rows and rows of it lighting up the apparently deserted offices alongside the empty avenue we were travelling on.

We reached our hotel, the Yanggakdo, the only international one in Pyongyang, 48 stories high with a revolving restaurant in the shape of a giant cogwheel on the top floor

The next day, because of jet lag, I woke up very early. I was the first person down to the breakfast hall. “Good morning, sir” the waiter standing at the door said, impeccably. I entered a huge mirrored hall. About twenty waiters were standing around it, all of them staring at the mirror so intensely that they seemed be trying to mentally dispel their reflections. My interpretation was that were all inspecting themselves. They would need to be faultless in order to save their jobs and maybe more. Having read reports of human experimentation in North Korea, I could sympathise with them.

After breakfast, I went back to the lift. A staff member walked by. “Which country?” he said. A delegate came along smoking a cigarillo. “Which country,” the staff member asked him. “Cuba?” he guessed.

Back up in my room, I heard the noise of singing. I looked out of the window and saw a group of school-children running and singing what could only have been a patriotic song. Ten yards behind there were two stragglers. And thirty yards behind one poor kid who couldn’t keep up at all.

That day we went on foot to the opening of the conference. Somewhere I had read that everyone had been moved out of the neighbourhood around our hotel for the duration of the conference. It certainly looked like it. No locals were on the streets and there were no cars either. The traffic ladies were hard at work though. They wore huge Soviet-style caps – the kind Russian generals wore – with chunky epaulets and bulky uniforms, which made the shorter ones look liked animated boxes. (I remember the traffic ladies as being of all shapes and sizes but some people now say they are selected on the basis of good looks and there is even a fan website called Pyongyang traffic girls.)

Anyway, none of the ones I met that morning would let you cross until they reached the right point in their posturing and signalling ritual. If you took one step off the pavement they grunted you back

Having braved the phantom traffic, we arrived at a huge meeting hall, where the Great Leader was to inaugurate the conference. There were twenty or so Korean interpreters, (normally there would have been two or three). One of them was very helpful and showed us some of the features of the building. “It is a very big building,” I said. “Oh, we have many big buildings in Korea,” he said, in a tone which made me think that he was the first dissident I had met. (First and last, in actual fact)

The official languages of the meeting were English and French but any delegation could speak in their own language as long as they brought along their own interpreters to translate into one of the official languages. At each session every delegation had seven minutes available to be divided between two speakers. The sharing didn’t always go well. One of the Italian delegates was shocked when he was interrupted half way through his very first extremely rhetorical sentence, which included quotations from Goethe and Cicero. The Italian speaker before him had spoken five minutes fifteen seconds leaving him only forty-five seconds, which wasn’t enough for him to complete his fourth subordinate clause. I remember him looking around blankly, as if he had suddenly been struck blind, stammering “but … but … but …”.

Lots of people were speaking their own languages and with the speed with which speakers turned over a queue built up outside the English and French booths of interpreters who would jump in to translate a few minutes from Spanish, Russian, Arabic, Portuguese, etc. and then scuttle out of their seats to let another interpreter jump in.

After work, I remember going to a Department Store, with one of our friends, where one of our people tried to buy two pairs of socks only to discover that one pair was the legal limit.

Back at the hotel, we had dinner on the top floor restaurant. It was further away than one might have thought, because as far as I remember the hotel only had two working lifts for forty-eight floors, so that waiting for the lift was a bit like waiting for a country bus. (I hadn’t noticed this, but recently I read that the 5th floor isn’t marked on the lift and actually houses an installation for surveillance of the hotel’s guests.) At one floor, the lift opened to reveal a cleaning lady sitting cross-legged on the floor a few feet away who was ironing clothes on the carpet. Perhaps this was the same lady who entered my room without invitation every now and then uttering “Cloth! Cloth!” and trying to seize any of the clothes I had strewn on the furniture.

The next day, at breakfast, the same waiter greeted me with a new form of address. “Good morning, madam,” he said with nonchalance. Obviously some lady had corrected him and he had taken this to be form to be used universally.

I realised I should try and learn some Korean expressions so I bought a dictionary in the hotel shop. It was very small but, as is the case in many dictionaries, a lot of words were clarified by placing them inside useful expressions. Here are examples of some useful sentences.

 Bear – The respected and beloved leader Comrade Kim Il Sung was born into the revolutionary family in Mangyongdae on April 15, 1912.

Become – The Korean people have ~ the master of powerful socialist industrial state, today

Best – the ~ things are given to children in Korea

Children – Korean ~ are the happiest

Cradle – the ~ of the revolution

Fine – a ~ communist

Hard – We study ~ the great works of the Immortal Leader Kim Il Sung

Idea – the Juche ~

Imperialism – US ~ is the target no.1 in the struggle of the world people

Instruction – the Great Leader Kim Il Sung’s ~

Lavatory – Where is the Heroic Socialist Workers’ lavatory ? (I made that one up, the dictionary only says “where is the lavatory?” but I think it was a missed opportunity.)

Mangyongdae – ~ is the place where the respected and beloved leader Marshal Kim Il Sung was born

Memorial – the Victorioius Fatherland Liberation War ~

Monolithic – the ~ ideology of the party

Puppet – the Pak Jong Hi ~ clique

Read – I’ve ~ the “Kim Il Sung Selected Works” several times

Show – Please ~ me the way to the Korean Revolution Museum

Sing – The Korean people ~ the happiness of today

Teach– Please ~ me the “Song of General Kim Il Sung”

Tell – Please ~ me about Mangyongdae

Thank – Thank you Marshal Kim Il Sung, the respected and beloved leader

Work – The “Kim Il Sung Selected Works”

You – You are Chollima Riders aren’t you?

Chollima Riders were heroic workers, the equivalent of Stakhanovites. I was now certainly equipped to have a stirring conversation with one of our “friends”. Later, however, when I discovered North Korean music and its fascinating song titles I regretted that the examples hadn’t been based on them. For example:

My Youngest Daughter, Pok Sun, Became a AA-machine gunner

Song of blood transfusion

I like rifle

The Joy of Bumper Harvest Overflows


(if you would like to read other fantastic titles of North Korean songs, have a look at my post on the North Korean music scene).

Some of this music was stocked in the hotel shop alongside statuettes and videos about Chollima Riders. Apart from that, it was roughly divided into two areas –

1) plastic goods– buckets, sandals, clothes (all synthetic)

2) ginseng – ginseng soap, ginseng toothpaste, ginseng face cream, ginseng everything.

The food we were given was also heavily fortified with ginseng, which even outdid the kimchee. The amount of ginseng in the food and the use of ginseng soap and sometimes toothpaste is in my opinion related to the fact that one night I woke up at three with my arms and legs quivering like an insect which has been sprayed with insecticide.

One night we were invited to the President’s palace for dinner. For some reason, I ended up with five invitations in my pocket. A Canadian lady in front of me was denied entrance because although she had an invitation she hadn’t brought the envelope it was originally contained in. I was able to slip her one of my envelopes-with-invitations behind the guard’s back, which made me feel as close to a secret agent as I ever have been.


Inside, the seating had been arranged so that one side of each table accommodated conference participants and the other North Korean party members. Neither side attempted to exchange any words. We talked among ourselves and the Koreans said nothing, not even to each other, but stared severely into the radiant future.

The meal began with ice cream and continued with chicken (stuffed with ginseng).

Enthusiasm for North Korean food was never very great, I remember that there were great celebrations when mediocre frozen pizzas were delivered to the hotel café after three days of exclusive NK fare, but people’s appetites waned even further one day. I remember going into the breakfast room and hearing shouts and screams and seeing ladies standing on chairs. Then I saw the cause. A big black rat walked slowly back under a buffet table.

During the week, I made several attempts to walk around the city. The few people in our neighbourhood had all been trained to ask “What country?”. Initially this seemed friendly but the conversation never progressed beyond the first question and I quickly became convinced that there was a control room with little flags tracing the positions of everyone at the conference because, twice in my explorations, I ran into one our “friends” who said “What a coincidence meeting here! Let’s go back to the hotel.”

But one day, it was the First of May, and there was an excursion I didn’t take part in – it was either to the Great Leader’s birthplace or his favourite dam or to a model farming complex. I left the hotel and there were no friends to have a coincidental meeting with. I made my way to the metro, bought a ticket by inserting coins and pressing random buttons, got on a train and sat down. There was a gentle kimchee breeze blowing through the train. Presently, a woman with a baby got on. She sat in the row in front of mine. On her back, in a kind of papoose, was an infant boy, who ended up staring at his first ever European.

As we exchanged glances, his face changed colour, going to squeaky pink, bright red and finally a pulsing blue, at which point he launched into a piercing scream of desperation. The cause, I realised, was the unfamiliarity of my features. Unless he had already been indoctrinated and had identified me as a target no.1 US imperialist.

I decided it was  best to get off the train. Up on the surface I found myself in a huge square where there was a monument which looked identical to the Arc de Triomphe (later I read that it was bigger than the one in Paris). All around the square were groups of schoolchildren running and singing the kinds of songs I had heard from my hotel window early in the morning.

The first group that approached faltered and lost their step when they noticed me. I was afraid they would all scream like the little boy on the underground. Instead, they rattled back into shape, started running in step again and one girl near the back waved at me. I waved back and all the kids in sight waved too.

So when the next group came by, I waved first and they all waved back. I played this game for ten minutes or so and felt like I was a Soviet dignitary watching the May Day parade in Moscow.

It was a hot day and I went to a kiosk to buy some water. At that time, there were three currencies in the country. One for Western countries, one for former Soviet countries and one for the North Koreans themselves. As I waited for my change, I noticed that in the till there were North Korean bank notes for North Koreans. The lady noticed my gaze and slammed it shut. Basically everything in North Korea was a state secret.

That night we were taken to see a spectacle at a sports stadium. The event was entitled “Monolithic Solidarity”. The whole pitch and the half of the stadium opposite was full of children. It was one of those things where people hold up a series of coloured cards, which when combined produce pictures or compose graphs of steel and coal production. In this way, we received a one hour briefing on the state of the country. Most of the foreigners were enthusiastic, although it seemed sad to me that so many children had spent so much time learning something so useless. Still, I spent a lot of my childhood learning to multiply pounds, shillings and pence, furlongs, chains, ounces and pounds, which while being equally useless never generated any enthusiasm in foreign visitors.

When we left the country, it was hard not to feel sorry for the people who had to live in this bizarre state. Others just felt relief. As the airport came into sight, the Italian delegation spontaneously burst into song and, for a few seconds, ‘O Sole Mio streamed out of the bus windows like a sudden shaft of sunlight.











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