Category Archives: Pyongyang

North Korea is at one of the unpleasant edges of human possibility

Dalrymple writes:

I think it was Jean Améry who said that once you have been tortured you remain tortured. I do not mean to claim any kind of equivalence in the experience, but once you have been to North Korea, you never forget it, either—as, for example, you might forget whether or not you have ever been to Stevenage or Welwyn Garden City.

In 1989, Dalrymple embedded himself in a delegation to the World Festival of Youth and Students (run by the World Federation of Democratic Youth), which was then being held in Pyongyang. (He was neither a youth nor a student at the time.)

Ever since, he says,

I have been drawn to pictures of the Kim dynasty, whether of Kim the First, Second, or Third. There is a fascination to this horrible family that makes the Borgias seem like philanthropists. The Borgias certainly had better taste.

He adds:

You feel, as you look at pictures, that if only you stare long and hard enough at them, you will pluck out the heart of their mystery—an absurd notion, of course.

In his 1991 book The Wilder Shores of Marx: Journeys in a Vanishing World (also published as Utopias Elsewhere), Dalrymple observes closely some of his fellow delegates on that trip, commenting thus about a female cadre:

A young woman of clearly middle-class origin, who wore only black shapeless clothes and had owlish round spectacles, was shocked how people who called themselves caring could eat meat.

She was

a person of very definite opinions, including a rather poor one of the male sex in general: when she signed her name, she appended a cross to the ‘o’ it contained, to turn it into the biological symbol for female.

Dalrymple describes a couple of male delegates:

They were hard-faced communists, who dressed tough and cut their hair short so that their heads should appear as bony as possible. I overheard one of them describing a demonstration he had attended in England, in which there had also been a member of Amnesty International with a placard. ‘I went up to him and said, “I don’t believe in that bourgeois shit,” and he said, “Do you think political prisoners should be tortured and killed, then?” “Too fucking right, I do,” I said.’ The person to whom he related this charming little exchange laughed.

Dalrymple’s disgust cannot be disguised even in this propaganda film

What Dalrymple found frightening about the pair

was that their faces were contorted with hatred even as they laughed, and when they talked of killing political prisoners they meant it. They were members of a little communist groupuscule for whom Stalin was a god, not in spite of his crimes but because of them.

Dalrymple reports that the Scandinavian guests,

to my great admiration, unfurled two banners, one asking why Amnesty International was not permitted to investigate conditions in North Korea, and another expressing solidarity with the Chinese pro­-democracy students who had been massacred in Tiananmen Square. Later, when the Scandinavian marchers returned to the body of the stadium, scuffles broke out as security men tried to wrest the banners away. A few of the Scandinavians were punched and kicked.

When these scuffles broke out,

I overheard some of my fellow delegates, the hard-faced communists, express a willingness, indeed an anxiety, to join in – on the side of the North Koreans, ‘to beat the shit out of them.’

Discussing among themselves the Peking scene when the single student (since executed) stood in front of the column of tanks and held them up by moral force alone,

one of them remarked that if he had been the tank driver he would have driven ‘straight over the bastard and squashed him’. And his face showed that he meant what he said.

Dalrymple refuses to stand for the entry of the Eternal President and mouths a version of Luther’s Hier stehe ich und kann nicht anders! Gott helfe mir, Amen!

The foreigners, caught up in the atmosphere of hysterical self-abasement, stood up and applauded as if to save their lives. I am not by nature brave, or even unconventional, yet in the moment of Kim Il-sung’s entry I decided that I would not stand, not if everyone in the stadium should hurl abuse at me. I was so appalled by the sight and sound of 200,000 men and women worshipping a fellow mortal, abdicating their humanity, that I should rather have died than assent to this monstrous evil by standing (my mother was a refugee from Nazi Germany). There I sat; I could do no other. The terrible obedience of the crowd, uncoerced at least in the immediate sense, indicated the power of the régime, a power that seemed absolute and limitless, that had entered the very recesses of minds, that had eradicated any countervailing force.
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was brittle. It would only have taken 10,000 people not to have stood up for Kim Il-sung when he entered the stadium – the omission of one small act of obedience – and his power and mystique would have snapped like a twig, to remain broken and irrecoverable. My refusal to stand was a feeble, isolated gesture; but a tiny crystal thrown into a sea of saturated solution can cause an immense precipitate, and one day such a thing will happen in North Korea and everyone, wise after the event, will marvel that it didn’t happen sooner.

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Jean Améry

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For anti-imperialist solidarity, peace and friendship

Dalrymple is in Pyongyang to attend the World Festival of Youth and Students

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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People ground to dust

Screen Shot 2016-01-09 at 15.59.25Dalrymple writes that in the broad, almost deserted boulevards of today’s Pyongyang as much as in the St Petersburg of 1839, a crowd, in the words of Astolphe de Custine,

would be a revolution.

Tyrannies

Screen Shot 2016-01-09 at 15.53.44demand immense efforts to bring forth trifles, one of the differences between the tsarist autocracy and the totalitarian dictatorship being the absence of aesthetic judgment and taste of the latter.

Dalrymple points out that the purpose of North Korean ceremonies

is to humiliate, to force people to acknowledge their enslavement with simulated joy. Spontaneity is not the only thing abolished; sincerity follows into the dustbin of history.

Screen Shot 2016-01-09 at 15.52.21There was a time when Dalrymple regarded North Korea as

the ne plus ultra of contemporary political deformity. In those days, Islamism was hardly a speck on the horizon.

He should have known better, for as he says,

when it comes to the forms of self-evident stupidity and self-destruction, man’s inventiveness is infinite.

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