A Year in Pyongyang
by Andrew Holloway
There are times in life when even the dullest and most complacent among us feel the need to make a change. It was at such a time in my life that a friend drew my attention to a job she had seen advertised on a Leeds University notice board. It was an unusual job in a little known country. The remuneration was not extravagant, but I estimated it would be sufficient for me to meet my ongoing commitments and save enough to tide me over on my return until I could find another job. The country was the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, better known in the west as North Korea. The job entailed raising translations into English that Koreans had made of the works of their President, Kim Il Sung, his son and heir apparent Kim Jong Il, and sundry other propaganda. A certain amount of kudos seemed to attach to this job. The advert stated that the successful applicant would be the first Briton to reside in this country since before the Second World War. The application forms were being issued by a Leeds University lecturer named Aidan Foster-Carter. North Korea was his special field of study. He had recently made a visit to the country when he had been asked to try and recruit a new English Language Reviser. Before submitting my application I took the opportunity of asking him what I could expect to find there. What he had to say was mostly reassuring. Halfway through September I received a letter from Pyongyang. It was from David Richardson, a Zimbabwean and the present incumbent of the post. He informed me that I was likely to be offered the job. He had been doing it for two years. He said that there were disadvantages to living in Pyongyang, particularly "this business of the mail", but on the whole the advantages outweighed the disadvantages. A fortnight later he rang me at work to confirm my appointment. He added that a formal offer would arrive in the post shortly. I experienced a mixture of consternation and excitement. It looked as if for the first and probably only time in my life, I was about to do something different. I quelled my apprehensions by telling myself that no matter what sort of an experience it was, at least it would be an adventure. Some adventure. Being marooned on a desert island is undoubtedly a sort of adventure, as is doing time in jail for an offence one has not committed. But looked at from the right perspective, getting up each day, going to work and pursuing one's banal, petty bourgeois, provincial pleasures are also a form of adventure, and a lot more fun as well. At the time I applied, all I knew about North Korea was that it was a communist state situated on a peninsula in North East Asia bordered on the North by China and the Soviet Union and opposite the islands of Japan; that it had a reputation for being bizarre and isolationist, an Asian equivalent to Albania; that there had been a war on the Korean peninsula in the early fifties in which United Nations troops, predominantly American but including contingents from Britain and a number of other countries, had participated against the north; that the war had ended in a stalemate with Korea partitioned into two countries, a capitalist south and a communist north; and most vividly I recalled that the North Korea football team had pulled off some notable surprises in the 1966 World Cup Finals. When I received David Richardson's letter I thought I had better expand my knowledge. I went down to Leeds City Library but I could find virtually no material on Korea at all, or at least not on North Korea. I contacted Aidan Foster-Carter, who lent me a couple of books and several articles. This is the gist of what I read. Korea, it seems has always been weird. The Koreans are an ancient people, established on their peninsula since time immemorial. For many centuries they maintained their distinct national identity, culture and independence, periodically repelling...
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