The secret lives of North Korea

What is life like for the non-elite in this closed land? Do citizens really believe that mountains dance when a leader is born? Britain's former ambassador describes the people he knew there

I had the rare privilege of serving as the UK's ambassador to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (usually referred to simply as North Korea) from February 2006 to July 2008, a tumultuous period that included missile launches and the country's first nuclear test.

In between wrestling with these issues, and despite the efforts of the North Korean regime to block contacts between its citizens and foreigners, I managed to get to know some North Koreans reasonably well – at least to the extent that they were prepared to discuss with me their lives and how they saw the world. In particular, I realised that while many, even some experts, viewed North Koreans as identical automatons who obeyed unquestioningly every order of their leaders, this was simply wrong.

North Korea is not like that at all. It is a real country with real people, whose everyday concerns are often not so very different from our own: their friends, how their children are doing at school, their jobs, and making enough money to get by. Above all, North Koreans are sharply differentiated human beings, with a good sense of humour and are often fun to be with.

The North Koreans whom I got to know were from the outer elite of Pyongyang. These were not the inner elite of the regime, who live in some luxury and rarely if ever interact with foreigners. But neither were they from the impoverished countryside. None of my social contacts was a key decision maker, but many were involved in implementing decisions by the senior leadership. They were executives rather than leaders.

By and large, these people did not eat well, but at least they ate regularly. Their clothing was not smart, but adequate (although all of them had one special outfit for obligatory appearances at parades and other official events). And they lived not in the villas of the elite nor the hovels of the poor, but in cramped flats in respectable, if unprestigious, parts of Pyongyang. Above all, they talked among themselves – North Koreans always seem to have time to chatter, and to share the fragments of information they can gather about their country and the outside world.

Their lives would seem very dull to most Westerners. They revolved around daily rituals of carefully phased breakfasts in overcrowded flats, tedious journeys to work (often prolonged because Pyongyang's rickety public transport so often broke down), and generally tedious work days. I had the impression that they worked at a relaxed pace. They all seemed to have a great deal of time to sit around talking with their colleagues – it was important to them to keep good relations with their workmates, both to create a pleasant working environment but also to make sure they had as many friends as possible if they got into trouble.

After work, they might have to attend a political meeting. When I asked my contacts what these meetings were about they told me that they did not remember. At first, I thought they were politely saying that they were not going to tell me, but I once came across an open-air political meeting at which the audience all appeared to have glazed eyes, despite the best efforts of the speaker. Perhaps my contacts were telling the truth – that they effectively entered a kind of catatonic state in these meetings, simply switching off, and genuinely could not remember what they were about.

Then they would face the commute home. Some told me that whenever possible they would walk – a longer journey but much less frustrating. Some of my contacts refused to use the Pyongyang metro because of the risk of a power cut while they were in a tunnel.

Evening life at home revolved around chatting with family members and watching TV. Sometimes there would be a film on. Even though North Korea had hardly produced any new films for some years before my time there, so that my contacts had seen almost all the national repertoire several times, they would still sometimes watch repeats. But the best time was the half-hour of (heavily edited and slanted) international news on Sunday evenings. Everyone watched that, and questioned me about what they had seen.

Although they did not go hungry, their diet was certainly monotonous. They ate more rice than most North Koreans, but meat was a rarity. Many meals seemed to consist of rice and boiled vegetables, with the inevitable bowl of kimchi, the spiced cabbage without which no Korean, North or South, can exist. Dinner at a diplomatic mission, with interesting new food and even exotic drinks like wine on the menu, was a real treat.

Family relationships were very traditional – they seemed much closer to those I had read about in 19th-century Korea than to those of modern South Korea. My contacts spoke of their parents with respect rather than affection, and chafed at the Confucian authority that they exercised. Visits to their homes seemed to be a duty rather than a pleasure, particularly when they involved dressing children up in their best and crossing Pyongyang (especially in autumn, when the city gets muddy – a difficult time to deliver clean children to grandparents). My contacts doted on their children and some lavished money on private lessons for them, especially English tuition. To get ahead in today's North Korea, their children would need more than they learned in official state schools.

The economic problems of North Korea affected my contacts profoundly. Although they all had access to showers, none could remember when they had last had one with hot water. Taking a cold shower in the Pyongyang winter, when temperatures can fall to -20C, is not fun. Obtaining medicines – always in short supply – was a particular concern. In North Korea, the extended family is important, and when (as often happens) there are family members in the provinces, the Pyongyang branch of the family is expected to look out for their country cousins. This meant on occasion trying to get medicine for far-flung elderly relations. It also meant frequent requests for money or other help from relatives outside the capital. These requests were difficult to turn down and my contacts used to dread them.

I was often asked for medicines, but not as often as I was asked for DVDs of television soap operas, usually but not always from South Korea. These portrayed a world of which North Koreans can only dream – of people who eat well in smart restaurants, have their own cars and live in flats where the heating always works – and my contacts devoured them ravenously. I once lent one a set of DVDs of Desperate Housewives and met the same person the next day with big rings under their eyes. They had sat up all night and watched the entire series in one sitting.

Their reaction to the propaganda that was incessantly blared at them varied. Some of it they just ignored. Some of it they accepted – they had no trouble, for example, in believing that North Korea was a heroic country battling a United States-led conspiracy to overthrow it. To some of it they reacted rather as pious but informed believers might do in a religious community.

They did not necessarily believe that mountains actually danced for joy when Kim Il-sung was born, but regarded it as rather bad taste when I asked about such matters – I was spoiling a good story. They had been taught to hate Americans, but most of them did not. One of them told me that they had worked with Americans during one of the thaws in relations with that country, had liked them and hoped that they would return.

Perhaps because North Korea is so strange and different, life there occasionally offers magical moments. When I once chided a contact gently for coming late to our meeting – I had been afraid that something unpleasant had happened – they told me that they had been at a meeting singing songs about Kim Il-sung. I teased them, saying, having kept me waiting, that I thought they should at least sing me one of the songs. Without hesitation they stood, bowed, adopted the half-smile deemed appropriate for such occasions, and sang for me a lilting song of praise to their god-king, then gave a little bow and sat down as if nothing had happened. It was a moment I still cherish.

John Everard's book Only Beautiful, Please, describing the North Korea that he lived in, is published this week by the Walter Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center of Stanford University, £12.99

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