Encounter in Pyongyang

The Study House in Kim Il-sung Square

The Study House in Kim Il-sung Square

Strolling through the North Korean capital, Dalrymple finds himself

in the enormous and almost deserted square in front of the Grand People’s Study House. (All open spaces in Pyongyang remain deserted unless filled with parades of hundreds of thousands of human automata.)

A young Korean slides surreptitiously up to him and asks:

Do you speak English?

It is, says Dalrymple, an electric moment, for in North Korea, unsupervised contact between a Korean and a foreigner is as unthinkable as shouting, ‘Down with Big Brother!’ Dalrymple nods. The young Korean says:

I am a student at the Foreign Languages Institute. Reading Dickens and Shakespeare is the greatest, the only pleasure of my life.

It is a

searing communication. We parted immediately afterwards and of course will never meet again. For him, Dickens and Shakespeare (which the régime permitted him to read with quite other ends in view) guaranteed the possibility not just of freedom but of truly human life. Orwell and Huxley had the imagination to understand why—unlike me, who had to go to Pyongyang to find out.

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