My Pyongyang Gig

North Korea Poster with children

the last report – promised

 

Now that I’ve started and someone shouted “more”, I would also like to share my Pyongyang experience. But don’t expect a suspenseful story like the one about Kabul. Actually, after Kabul, no stop was dangerous anymore. The most brutal in Pyongyang was the aesthetics (not only in the cityscape but also in things of daily use), and the most dangerous e.g. in Rio was my beach stay at the Copa Cabana 😊 The girls there can be very dangerous – a friend told me. And yet, if someone were to ask me which of my projects gave me the most satisfaction, Pyong Yang would come to mind.

the project

As I said, the core task of this project was to inspect the branches of the TASS news agency, then arrange for the necessary changes and present my immediate client with an office in which his sometimes delicate technology could be installed.
Pretty much everywhere I was received very friendly. Not necessarily because I’m such a nice guy, but because I was sort of a Santa to the local staff. “So you also want a better fridge? No problem. And a new sofa for Madame? Sure”. I also always brought good vodka from the duty free shops.

passports friedrich zettl
my 2 passports from the same time period

In a way, the same thing awaited me everywhere. Only Pyongyang was different. Because in this case the challenge was not a renovation, I didn’t even see the existing office, but a completely new office. This was still under construction.
It is in the nature of things that foreign missions in general – not just news agencies – want to keep their communication with the headquarters in a more intimate setting and are not very interested in unauthorized persons following this communication with excitement – as was of course the standard in Pyongyang. The only way to do that back then was to install a dedicated line directly to Moscow.

In advance of my trip, I contacted our trade representative in North Korea, explained my job and asked for his advice. In principle, that was doable, he said, after all it was about the Soviets. But I have to reckon with about 2 years until an ok comes from Pyongyang – and that with favorable wind. In North Korea, if someone wants something from a person with authority, they never get it right away, even if what you want is on their desk right in front of them. Proximity to the citizen undermines authority. 2 years might be possible.

“Ok, I’ve planned 4 days, but in the worst case I can add another.” “Never ever!”
And I did it, and hence my pride in this matter.

philosophy

Every culture has accumulated a wealth of wisdom. With us it might be sayings like: “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket”. In Nigeria your parents would have told you: “There are no shortcuts to the top of the palm tree.”

Now the Chinese have an incredible wealth of such wisdom, cheng yu (Chinese: 成语) and you can hear/read some practically every day. 36 of those you would find in the so-called 36 war strategies 三十六計. Although very old, some go back to Sun Zi (孙子, 544-496 BC), they have lost none of their importance and impact. And so I chose stratagem #6 to solve my problem. (Chapter 1: Winning Stratagems (勝戰計, Shèng zhàn jì), #6 Blow for an attack for the east, then strike in the west (聲東擊西, Shēng dōng jī xī).

the trip

I had finished a few stops now and scheduled a few days off in Beijing before heading off to Pyongyang. I had some other things to do in Beijing, but some of them had to be postponed until later. Because the first night I lay in the hotel with a slight chill. It was certainly a combination of recent efforts, the climatic differences between my destinations and the time changes.

Then it was time and I drove to the airport. There were quite a few of us who wanted to go to Pyongyang. At some point you sat down in the plane and waited, and waited, and waited. No “Ladies and gentlemen, we are sorry to say…” At some point, after a very long time, I saw Korean appartischiks stroll over, each with a considerable number of shopping bags in hand. 20-30 people on the plane had to wait for the comrade secretaries to finish shopping. No need to enumerate the rest of similar occurrences.
I still remember how, in my boredom on board, I started reading relevant propaganda material. So funny! If you were to let a halfway alert elementary school student in the West read these stories, he would immediately recognize the non-logic of what he read.

For certain reasons I had decided on the most expensive hotel (there wasn’t much choice anyway). An incredible block of biblical proportions. (Obviously they wanted to prepare themselves in time for any tourist streams from the west. I couldn’t find any other explanation for this gigantic mania).

pyongyang hotel 1988
“my” hotel in Pyongyang

Thanks to the “shopping comrades” at the airport, it was now early evening. No food on board and my breakfast had been modest. Korean cuisine is fine and I was looking forward to it. So I made my way to the restaurant. A long walk through winding, dimly lit corridors. Koreans standing behind pillars in the dark, whispering, and then the restaurant. It could accommodate the residents of a small town in an emergency. In the center of the action, ugly benches were set up alongside rather narrow rows of tables – obviously they didn’t think much of wasting space. That evening, apart from me, there was only 1 French journalist couple. Otherwise emptiness.
I took a seat somewhere, the long run to the restaurant had also whetted my appetite, and right, after a reasonable amount of time – from a Korean point of view –  the waiter came too. I’m sure they just tactfully tried to express that they weren’t dependent on me. The man didn’t bother with time-consuming polite phrases, but got straight to the point: “Is this your place?!” “I doubt it”. “Yes, THIS is your place” and he pointed to a place 3 seats away. Ok, I’m always up for a good joke and asked for the card. This looked promising and I was reconciled to the world again. The waiter came back and so we were able to deliver a sketch – good enough for prime time.

“Ok, so I will order some rice, some vegetables and meat. Let’s take this dish with beef”. “Long time”. ?? “What do you mean with long time?”. “Long time”. “You mean, long time till it is ready?” Yes, long time”. “No problem, I am free this evening. So let’s start with the eggplant dish”. “Long time”. “I see”. “And the duck would also be long time, I guess?!. “Yes, long time”. It was clear now that some of the dishes were not available. I didn’t want him to lose face entirely, so I said. “Ok, let’s do it like this: you put something together for me, I like almost everything anyway”. He took the menu and studied it long and hard before saying, “Rice?” “Definitely.” “Hot cabbage?” “Marvelous.” “You are very hungry?” “Yes, very hungry”. “Big Rice?”

Well, that was my dinner in this $300/night hotel. I mentioned that it was a huge restaurant of a dimension I never ever saw again. It extended over both building complexes. Booths were built into the corners of this restaurant and while I waited for my modest supper I kept seeing waitresses carrying trays of food disappearing into the booths. Of course, these were Korean guests – the same species as the “airport shopping bags comrades”. Had George Orwell had the chance to visit North Korea, he couldn’t have resisted adding an additional chapter to his “Animal Farm”.

The next day I met my Russian contacts for a preliminary meeting and explained my plan to them and we coordinated our approach to the meeting with the Koreans next day. That was soon done, we visited the construction site and then they were kind enough to drive me around Pyongyang. A very educational drive. After that I said I would like to take them out for a nice meal that evening and they should suggest which restaurant. “The kitchen in your hotel is excellent!” I tried to explain cautiously that this might not be a very good idea. I also wanted to eat very well here, if possible. “Don’t worry, it will be a good meal”. And so it was. The waiter was even almost friendly. In any case, he took the order without hesitation and it was  a lot and with all the delicacies your heart desires and it was excellent.

The meeting with the Korean side was scheduled for the next day. Start 10:00 End 12:00. I knew that the leading shift was very specific about the lunchtime. End of  talks 12:00 means 11:45 last bows.
We entered the conference room and had some time before the Koreans arrived. On the wall, clearly visible: bugs. In the West, people had generally already opted for more discreet models, but here they still had to make do with earlier, bulky models. There must have been about 10 people who came in then. And they weren’t (at least those who gave me a business card) the lower ranks in the hierarchy of agencies involved.

my masterpiece

From 10:00 to 11:30 we haggled over things that were more or less meaningless for our side. Shadow boxing. Then, 11:30,  I said: “Ok, of course I understand that certain things take time and have to be examined and weighed up and it’s a pity that we can’t solve them today. I understand that. But, I’ve come a very long way from Austria and now I’m flying back with no results and losing face at home. Can’t we at least get the leased line approved?” Brief consultation. “Yes, you can have the leased line!” 😊 😊

Back in my hotel I notified my contact in Moscow. That was only possible by telex. The older semesters can still remember these devices. The text is typed on a kind of typewriter, transferred to punched tape and sent with another device. It wasn’t that easy in Pyongyang, because someone had to check “that I hadn’t made a comma mistake”, so I typed the text and handed the punched tape over to the lady in charge, who would do the rest for me.
We celebrated our success sufficiently in the evening and it was quite late before I got back to my room. I started undressing and the phone rang. In some cities it was not uncommon for a man traveling alone to get an unexpected call in the late evening. But in Pyongyang? I picked up. Again, no unnecessary waste of time with “Good evening” or similar decadent imperialist drivel. She got straight to the point: “You send telex today”. “Oh yes, so you already sent it?” “You come down now, pay”. What she tried to express was that I should go down in the middle of the night to pay my $2 for the sending of the telex. In this $300/night hotel. Again, I was surprised at the North Koreans’ subtle sense of humor.

what else?

That you would never see anyone smile?

That the market I visited only had dirty Chinese cabbage, rotten onions and potatoes? But there was a monstrous poster stuck at the exit, proudly extolling the abundance of Korean life?

About the view from my hotel room, which showed a long street with modern high-rise buildings? Which in fact were only dummies, no one lived there. According to the Russians, that wouldn’t even be possible, since the pumps would only get the water up to the 2nd floor at most.

Or that our trade delegate’s little daughter learned in preschool there that the sun would only rise because of the great chairman? Or that I once turned the television on and quickly turned it off again. A report of a construction site was shown. The film was played faster to express how hardworking the Korean workers were – silent film greats like Buster Keaton would have been delighted.
Since I was a bit bored, I tried to discover the bug in my room – just for fun. 2 minutes and I can’t even be proud of it. If there is an even worse floor lamp in a swanky, tasteless hotel room that doesn’t fit in at all, the “find the hidden treasue game” is no fun.

PS: As already mentioned, I love curiosities. So when I traveled to the USA (privately) a year later, I used my special passport with the entries from communist countries. In the worst case, I still had my regular passport. I got my US visa in this passport without any problems. Now I had these visas and more all in one passport and was able to add a nice addition to my collection.

passport with 4 visa

As the saying goes, a picture says more than 1000 words, so I’d like to end with some nice posters from the period. (I’ve picked them from the internet and don’t remember I saw any of them in the streets. I rather remember  that kind of “bumper harvest thanks to the great leader”- type and how great and bright the future was going to be….)

korean propaganda posters

korea posters korea posters

 

Zettl Friedrich

alive and well and having fun

18 comments on “My Pyongyang Gig

I’m glad you included pictures of the posters. I’ve had a long fascination with Bolshevic and Communist propaganda art.

Yes, there are quite a few good ones. The Chinese learned from them and developed their own kind, definitely less good. And the North Korean learned from the Chinese. By then it has become pure propaganda without much of artistic value.

Fascinating read!

Thank you! If i was asked to describe my impression in one word it would be: absurd.

Great story, what a strange world it was and probably still is. Love the restaurant scene. Maggie

Thank you, Maggie! Yes, strange and most of all absurd. Very different from all places I have been so far.

What a surreal experience! And the posters are unbelievable!

Thank you very much! Surreal and absurd. And disillusioning.

” I was reconciled to the world again” Seems like we’re always having to do that…

— your food choices remind me of dinner my first night in Guangzhou at the Bai Yun hotel. They had “joak” with chicken and joak with fish in spite of the 8 page menu they gave me to look at. Lucky for me, I liked joak right away.

I was always conscious in China of the people who had grown up with this picture of Americans. I seldom encountered the latent attitude, so seldom that when I did, it shocked me. The only posters of this nature that I saw in China were in Haikou City which as you know was so far away from the main events on the mainland, and, at that time, so impoverished, that these ragged weathered things were still on buildings.

Surreal is exactly the word and knowing that it’s a reality SOMEWHERE might be the most surreal thing of all.

When I was still in the foreign language institute, the Chinese students suddenly very excited: the first American students were about to arrive! Some even knew when, and so a fairly sizeable group of Chinese colleagues was standing at the gate when the car with the 3 (?) students arrived.

And then they got out. The first with a beard, long hair and a cowboy hat…. A world has collapsed for some.
I was never able to ascertain a fundamental rejection of Americans, but American politics was certainly criticized in personal conversations.

This is insane! I have always been fascinated by North Korea.

I was in North Korea for a short 5-day trip with my university friends (I was in Beijng 2010 – 2014) and we certainly could not go anywhere without our tour guide or security personnel.

What collectibles did you purchase? I bought books and stamps from the book store / gift shop in the hotel I stayed in!

Thank you for sharing!!

I was also in China for a long time (1978-85) – we have similar experiences 🙂 When you were in Pyongyang, many things were certainly different. But you’ve probably noticed something similar, that in China it was very easy to make contact with the Chinese, that the poorest radiated something like joie de vivre…Pyongyang was sad in every respect.

I bought quite a bit of ginseng and it was packaged in beautiful wooden boxes which I still use today.

I fully agree! The Chinese were very welcoming but in Pyongyang, there were sadness in their eyes. we took the metro and were in a train full of locals but even then, we couldn’t tell if they were real commuters or not

The ginseng and wooden boxes sound lovely!

Since you bought stamps: do you know that N K stamps are not listed in American stamp catalogues? Many years ago I offered some at fleebay an my account was frozen immediately.,..

[…] my last 2 postings on Kabul and Pyongyang (in the broadest sense also a kind of metaverse 😊) I would like to come back to my personal […]

What an absolutely fascinating experience you have shared! Sounds so very real and at the same time like Alice in Wonderland!

Thank you very much, Steve! Just absurd in every respect. What I never could find out and would interest me most: what’s going on in the brain of ordinary people. It’s not quite likely that all believe that propaganda.

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