Happy 75th Birthday
Today is my seventy-fifth birthday. And would have been Karl Marx’s two hundredth. So where more appropriate to be than somewhere where socialism is still taken seriously?
It’s also one of the busiest days on the shoot and we’re to meet in reception at 6.30. At six o’clock, as I’m adjusting to the sharp-angled sunlight edging through a gap in the curtains, the bedside phone rings. It’s So Hyang. She informs me that, thanks to the new, improved relations with South Korea, the half-hour time difference between Seoul and Pyongyang has just been abolished. So, it’s now half-past six, and I’m late. Turns out I’m not the only one. Even the hotel staff don’t know what the right time is, as this small but significant piece of reconciliation was only decided on at midnight.
We head out to film in the main square, just behind the seafront, where a group of matronly women, dressed in white blouses, black skirts and black block-heel shoes are lining up to perform their morning routine.
As rousing music booms out through loudspeakers they snap into a smartly choreographed display of red-flag waving, with occasional, rather cursory, steps to left and right. It’s not accompanied by much emotion. Rather like the morning music in Pyongyang, their routine has an essentially functional purpose: to exhort the workers to greater efforts as another working day begins.
Here in Wonsan, there are a lot of workers who need exhorting, as a major tourist development, the Wonsan Special Tourist Zone, is taking shape out on the bay. It covers 400 square kilometres and will include hotel beds for 12,000 people, beaches, pools, mineral springs and, according to the tourist brochures, ‘more than 3.3 million tons of mud with therapeutic properties for neuralgia and colitis’.
This massive enterprise has its own airport, which local tourist officials are proud to show us. Kalma airport is every traveller’s dream: a bright, fully staffed modern terminal with no other passengers to get in the way. This is largely because there are, as yet, no flights in or out. Its future depends on attracting the Chinese (who comprise 80 per cent of North Korea’s foreign tourists) once the attractions – 681 of them, we’re told – are open. Ultimately they need the South Koreans too – a bigger potential market than even the Chinese.
The man in charge of the Tourist Zone development sees scope for attracting visitors from even further afield. He and his planners went to resorts in Spain and to Disneyland in Paris to get the most up-to-date ideas. He’d very much like the British to come out here.
It’s all a huge gamble, and one can understand why Kim Jong Un is now so anxious to show the smile, as well as the clenched fist. In fact, Wonsan is the face of both. Somewhere in the hills surrounding the town are not just holiday camps and ski slopes but also one of North Korea’s biggest missile bases.
There’s a beach just behind our hotel which I won’t easily forget, because, before we leave, I find So Hyang, still dressed in her black heels and black business suit, marking out a birthday greeting in the sand.
Today I shall have my first real glimpse of conditions in the countryside. We’re to visit a cooperative farm a few miles from the town. The further we get from the city, the more people we see, walking, cycling, or simply congregating by the roadside in front of walls covered with slogans and graphics showing the joys of greater productivity.
After a half-hour’s drive we turn off the road and along a track that leads to the cooperative. The ubiquitous patriotic music blares out across the fields, and each plot is marked with red flags. The buildings are brightly painted and well kept. It has been, I’m sure, carefully chosen for our visit.
The farmer I shall be talking to is Mrs Kim Hyang Li, a handsome woman, probably in her early forties. She has a head of dark curls, like so many women here. Her face is lightly weathered and there is a toughness in her stance and a wariness in her eyes.
I’m to be filmed working with her in one of the ploughed fields, weeding and preparing the soil for a crop of corn and chilli beans. The sun is high and hot now, but before we can start there is some urgent discussion going on amongst the minders. They are worried that my being on my knees in a field will send out the wrong message about the state of North Korean agriculture. The call has gone out for some symbol of modernity, but they’re having difficulty finding one.
Eventually a tractor is located, well used, its red paint chipped and fading. It’s moved carefully into a position where the camera can see it. The farmer and I get to work, crouched down in the furrows, scraping away at what looks like pretty poor earth.
I’m to ask her questions as we work, but it isn’t easy as she’s more concerned with correcting my hoeing technique. She tells me they have developed new scientific methods of farming which have made it easier for them, though I can’t see any evidence to back this up. This year conditions have been good, she says. (In fact, figures for the harvest in 2018 now show a 10 per cent drop in production.)
I ask her about the calamitous famines of the 1990s when North Korea’s fragile agricultural system, already reeling from the withdrawal of Russian subsidies after the collapse of the USSR, was struck by drought and floods so severe that hundreds of thousands of people perished (estimates of deaths range from 240,000 to over two million). At the time words like ‘shortage’ and ‘famine’ were considered traitorous, and the crisis was referred to as the Arduous March, an evocation of the suffering endured by Kim Il Sung and his resistance fighters during their heroic resistance against the Japanese.
Mrs Kim remains tight-lipped.
‘Are things better now?’ I ask.
‘Yes,’ she says. ‘Things are better now.’
The director judges that we have enough footage of us working away and we both straighten up. My farming companion is asked how it was having me as a helper. To general half- suppressed laughter her verdict is translated.
‘He is unnecessary.’
Which is not really what you want to hear. Especially on your birthday.
We tramp through the fields to her home. This cooperative consists of ten villages, comprising 650 farmers and 1,700 residents in all. Farmers work in teams, set their own targets and give a portion of their produce to the state. In return they get to own their own houses. Mrs Kim is one of the team leaders and lives in a well-kept, spacious bungalow. As we go in she shows off the vegetables growing in her garden. She’s especially proud of the thick-leaved Korean white cabbage, which, she says, makes the best kimchi. Her small plot looks to be a far more productive space than any of the co-owned land I’ve seen, and almost as well kept as the garden around the memorial to the Great Leaders that overlooks the village.
At the door I meet her son, twelve or thirteen years old, I should think. He greets me with a winning smile. I try out my best ‘Annyonghasimnikka’ to which he replies, shyly but clearly, ‘Pleased to meet you.’
Mrs Kim Hyang Li and her husband have three children: her elder son is an officer in the army, her daughter is a teacher.
Whilst his mother works away in the kitchen, her younger son shows me a collection of family photos in a frame on the wall. Most of the men and most of the boys are in military uniform. I ask him what he wants to do when he leaves school.
‘Army,’ he says, smiling proudly.
He has some English homework to do and, whilst his mother prepares the meal, I look over his shoulder at the textbook he’s using, and we try out words to match the illustrations. ‘Clock’, ‘hand’, ‘tree’. His pronunciation is spot on.
The house is sparsely furnished and I’m served food sitting cross-legged on a patterned carpet beneath a wall that is bare, save for portraits of the Great Leaders. Hyang Li lays out half a dozen platefuls in front of me – sweet potatoes, persimmon, apples – then sets before me a brimming bowl of soup and kimchi.
The minders hum with approval.
She watches solicitously as I eat, giving me instructions every now and then.
‘You must finish the kimchi.’ ‘Now drink the soup.’ I sense that this is her way of dealing with my impertinent questions about famine and scarcity.
Before we go, there’s one last thing she wants to show us. Leading me to the framed photos she points out a picture of her, looking proud as a peacock. ‘This is a picture of me receiving fish from Kim Jong Un for doing well at my job.’ She turns to me with a radiant smile, all trace of severity gone.
By the time we’re back in Wonsan, the sun is setting and we’ve put in a twelve-hour day. Everyone’s desperately hungry, so after a drink in the bar we walk through darkened streets to the modest restaurant we discovered last night.
Frustratingly, the minders are taking an age to join us. Are they debriefing? Checking the material we shot today? It’s part of our agreement with them that they can look at the footage.
Eventually they appear. But still no food. They’ve always been punctilious about making sure we’re served promptly, but tonight Mrs Kim, brow furrowed, is in deep conversation with the restaurant manager. There’s a palpable sense of crisis.
Then all becomes clear. We are shown into a small back room where a long table is set out, decorated with balloons and tinsel. As soon as we’ve sat down the formidably dour Tall Li comes in with a huge bunch of flowers which he hands across the table to me. This is followed by what I assume must have been the reason for all the subterfuge, an enormous cake, candled and coated in thick cream and presented to me by So Hyang. Cameras flash and, with faces flushed, they all sing a rousing Anglo-Korean chorus of ‘Happy Birthday’. Mrs Kim, smiling anxiously, hands me a present.
I give a short speech. In thanking them all I say that I never really expected to be seventy-five and never in my wildest dreams could I have expected to spend the great day digging in the soil of a farm in North Korea. This has been the most extraordinary and wonderful birthday of my life, only equalled by my thirtieth birthday performing in a Python show at the Birmingham Hippodrome, when the entire audience sang ‘Happy Birthday’ at the end of the Dead Parrot sketch.
Back at the hotel reception, European Champions League football, the first manifestation of anything from outside the DPRK, has replaced the two leaders on the television. In my room a warm wind is beating against the windows, sucking the net curtains out and then thrusting them back. It’s late, but I’m no longer tired. I arrange my birthday cards on the table, put my flowers in water, and open Mrs Kim’s present. It’s a book of photos of North Korea.
There are some shouts out in the street, then silence.