Diary: North Korea

‘Diary’ by Tariq Ali for the London Review of Books, January 26, 2012

The letter came via a local Communist known as Rahim ‘Koreawallah’, secretary of the Pak-Korea Friendship Society. Short, paunchy, loquacious and full of beer, he was out of breath as he handed me the letter from Pyongyang. I had to leave straightaway, he said. Why? Because the North Koreans were convinced that the US was preparing to invade and needed global solidarity. In January 1968 the Koreans had captured the USSPueblo, a naval intelligence vessel, and arrested its crew. Relations between the two countries remained poor. Could I leave next week, Koreawallah asked? I laughed and said no.

I was on my way to what was then East Pakistan. North Korea was a distraction. Koreawallah was both angry and insistent, but his argument was weak. There was no evidence that Washington was preparing for war. I had experience to back me up. A few years earlier I had spent six weeks in North Vietnam and, as well as crouching in air-raid shelters during US bombing raids on Hanoi, I sat through several military briefings by senior Vietnamese officers who made it clear that they would eventually win the war. For the Americans, already overstretched in Indochina, a new war in Korea would be suicidal.

I had other reasons not to go. I thought Kim Il-sung a ridiculous and abhorrent leader, his regime a parody of Stalinist Russia. I turned down the offer again, this time more forcefully. But my parents, both of them Communists, thought I should take advantage of the opportunity to see the country (they had never been). And Koreawallah would not be deterred. With a sly smile, he let drop that I could go via China, taking a train from Beijing to Pyongyang. That decided the matter. I was desperate to visit Beijing and this seemed my only chance. I just said I couldn’t go until mid-June.

When I returned to Dhaka after two gruelling weeks in the countryside, a problem had arisen. The East Pakistan trade unions had called a one-day general strike – a show of strength against General Yahya Khan’s transitional regime in Islamabad – on the day I was due to get an early morning flight from Dhaka to Canton. I took it personally. Friends asked the Communist leaders of the taxi and rickshaw drivers’ unions for a 30-minute exemption so I could get to the airport. Their pleas were rightly rejected. When the local student leaders stepped in, the unions relented. There could be no motorised traffic on the streets, but I could travel by cycle rickshaw.

My suitcase and I were too much for the emaciated driver. After ten minutes of huffing and puffing we’d got nowhere. Worried I might miss the flight, I asked him to get in the back and pedalled like crazy for the five or so miles to the airport. Apart from stray animals, there was nothing else on the road. When we got to the airport the rickshaw-wallah, seeing me bathed in sweat, grinned broadly and refused to accept my money. I stuffed it down his dry vest and ran to the plane. Soon after it took off, the strike committees closed down the airport. I had predicted that Pakistan was about to break up but I didn’t think as I watched the morning sun rise over the paddy fields that it would be my last glimpse of East Pakistan.

In Beijing posters decorated the streets, loud music blared from speakers and groups of children bowed before portraits of the Great Helmsman. A stream of bicycles flowed along unpolluted thoroughfares. How lucky they were, I thought, not to fetishise the car. I wandered away from the hotel, managed to find Tiananmen Square, discovered a cheap and good restaurant, then headed back to the hotel, where two Korean Embassy officials were waiting to take me on a low-key tour of the Forbidden City. We appeared to be the only foreign visitors.

Later that afternoon, I packed for the two-day train journey to Pyongyang and we set off for the station. There was no phrasebook in the hotel. The only Chinese I knew was ‘Mao Chushi Wansui’ – ‘Mao Zedong will live ten thousand years’ – which wasn’t much help in ordering a meal or finding the lavatory. Mercifully a Sikh courier from the Indian Embassy came into my compartment before the train left the station. By chance, I think. After we had exchanged greetings in Punjabi he told me he was fluent in Mandarin and, much more important, that his wife had cooked food for the journey and he hoped I would share it.

Just before the train began to move, two PLA officers also entered the compartment. No, they laughed, they were not going to Pyongyang. My efforts to draw out their thoughts on the Cultural Revolution failed, but they were eager to discuss Pakistan and surprised to hear my criticism of its military dictators: Chinese propaganda portrayed them as ‘anti-imperialist allies’. They hadn’t heard about the recent uprising. The jollier of the two warned me about the ‘personality cult’ in Korea and my Sikh friend roared: he never stayed more than a night at the embassy in Pyongyang. The PLA men got off at Beidaihe, a seaside resort east of Beijing. Once frequented by emperors, their wives and concubines, it had become a favourite spot for Communist Party leaders. ‘If these two are holidaying here,’ my fellow traveller muttered, ‘they must be important or related to someone who is, just like in our part of the world.’ Unlike me, he found this thought reassuring.

Colonised by the Japanese between 1910, when they annexed the country, and the end of the Second World War, Korea experienced both ‘modernity’ and extreme brutality and repression. The country’s mineral wealth was used to buttress Japanese militarism; local workers were paid starvation wages; tens of thousands of women were treated as prostitutes by the occupiers but not paid for their services. The Japanese aimed at total integration: Korean was forbidden in schools, Korean-language newspapers were banned and people were to use Japanese names. Agriculture met imperial needs – thousands of farmers were expelled from the land and the bulk of the rice and wheat produced was sent to Japan – leading to mass starvation. A Japanese proconsul admitted that every spring half of Korea’s farmers lived off grass and bark. The two million Koreans transported to Japan as slave labourers were lucky in one sense: they were fed.

All this, unsurprisingly, led the Koreans to develop strong nationalist feelings, though fear limited the number who joined clandestine groups. Indigenous Communists were active in these groups: they worked alongside the nationalists and were widely seen as heroic figures. During the Second World War a resistance movement gradually took shape, at its strongest in the South. Its members – students, intellectuals and peasants – faced the usual penalties of occupation: torture, rape, mass killings and burial in unmarked graves.

The defeat of Japan in 1945 was greeted joyously, and popular committees sprang up in a number of cities. The future of Korea wasn’t discussed at Yalta where the division of Europe was decided, but Moscow and Washington privately agreed on a similar division of the Korean peninsula. The Red Army marched into North Korea, with Kim Il-sung reportedly in one of its tanks; the United States took the South. General MacArthur flew into Seoul with a valuable piece of hand luggage: Syngman Rhee. Rhee had little support, however, so MacArthur used the Korean members of the Japanese Occupation Army to keep control of the new state. This in itself was enough to alienate the people. Dissent was crushed, people were imprisoned en masse, Communists and anti-American nationalists were disappeared or openly assassinated. ‘The jails in Seoul are overcrowded with political prisoners,’ Frank Baldwin, an adviser at the US Embassy, reported:

Six weeks ago I inspected a police jail in Inchon. The prisoners there were living under conditions which I hesitate to describe in this letter. It reminds you of a sense of the Divina Commedia. Goya could have painted what we saw there. What is going to happen to the almost 10,000 political prisoners in case the capital is to be surrendered? It is hard to imagine the acts of vengeance and hatred which people will commit if they survive the conquest of Seoul by their ‘liberators’.

The involvement of the US and the Soviet Union had put an end to any chance of Korean autonomy, but Soviet prestige was still high and many believed that the Russians would help liberate and reform the whole country. Few believed partition was permanent. Kim Il-sung, installed as leader of the People’s Committee by the Soviets, was barely known, but local Communists had no reason to doubt him.read more

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