José Luís Peixoto
In April of 2012 the Portuguese writer José Luís Peixoto traveled to North Korea, as part of a fifteen-day “Kim Il-Sung’s 100th Birthday Ultimate Mega Tour.” The result of this trip was his travel memoir, Dentro do Segredo (Inside the Secret), in which he recounts the stark contradictions of a highly militarized and extremely poor country, a country where carefully regulated speech imposes the regime’s reality through fear and conformity, and yet also provides a mask behind which, perhaps, individuals can hide. This is travel writing of a high order that offers a window into one of the most isolated countries in the world and our stereotypes about it.
Ninth Letter will be serializing excerpts from Inside the Secret (translated by Robin Paterson) over the next five weeks on our website. Each excerpt is accompanied by photos that Peixoto took during his travels in North Korea, and they appear here for the first time anywhere.
Inside the Secret
How is it possible that, in all the time you’ve been traveling with me, you have not yet noticed that everything to do with wandering knights seems like a chimera, a nonsense, a folly, all turned inside out? Not because it really is, but because a throng of enchanters follows our every step, twisting and altering the things around us however they please, depending on whether they wish to help or destroy us.
–Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote
My whole body tensed under that gaze. I could feel the tension, I understood what it meant. Here, it meant order. It was order, too, that lay behind the apparent hatred, or contempt, in his eyes. No, not hatred; it was discipline.
I could feel the border guard’s discipline from the way he looked at me.
It lasted only a moment, and then it was over. He looked down at the passport. I knew that my photo was smiling up at him, but I couldn’t detect any reaction in his face. In this part of Asia, a smile can mean something very different from what I was smiling about when I applied for my passport. Often, a smile comes from discomfort, embarrassment or even suffering. The guard wasn’t even close to smiling.
Suddenly another guard came in behind me. He said something serious. He was shorter, wearing an identical uniform, clearly also an officer, but, from the way he spoke and listened, of a lower rank. With all three of us standing up, the compartment felt very small. They talked through me. By that time I was already familiar with the sound of Korean, had got used to its cadences, but even so their sharp-edged, chiseled words caused an unpleasant sensation as they passed through me. Harsh, barbed even, like perimeter wire.
I needed to look out the window. Pretending to duck my head beneath the guards’ conversation, I glanced out at the deserted station, Sinuiju, where we’d been stopped for over an hour. It was almost half past four on a dull afternoon, the sky covered by an opaque grayness. It had stopped raining.
The train had left Pyongyang at exactly ten past ten. Right up until its departure, the loudspeakers high up above us had been spewing a stream of military marches out over the crowd. The marches were like a gas that seeped out, spread through the air and intermingled with each of the disparate voices that filled the station. The waiting train gleamed in ceremonial splendor, freshly painted, some carriages green, others blue and white. The North Korean emblem was emblazoned on every carriage in bright, shiny colors: Mount Paektu rising on the horizon above a hydroelectric power station with a dam and an electricity pylon, an enormous red star in the sky, ears of rice on either side and, right at the bottom, a red ribbon with characters from the hangul alphabet that read “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.” Standing out from the sides of the carriages, the emblem looked like it was made of thick metal, maybe lead. The train tooted from time to time, as if it were trying out its whistle.
Along the platform people kept their eyes fixed on their immediate surroundings. They wore their best clothes, immaculately washed and ironed. They talked in small groups. These weren’t ordinary people, who would be walking or cycling the streets of Pyongyang at this time of day. These people were travelling to China, or had come to say goodbye to someone who was going to China. They were among the chosen few; they had either themselves been authorized to leave the country or were with someone who had. If you weren’t in either of those categories, you would have been turned away at the very first checkpoint, not even allowed inside the station.
Once I was on the train and had worked out which was my compartment, I sat down by the window and pulled back the curtain. There was a small table covered with a piece of cloth, just the thing for resting your elbows. So that’s what I did. I spotted an eleven- or twelve-year-old boy among the people outside, crying. White shirt with a red scarf tucked around the collar, trousers that came up above the waist, big ears, crying. The adults standing around him were consoling him. One man in particular, perhaps his father, gently grasped the boy’s shoulders, tousled his hair, wiped away his tears with a handkerchief. Watching the train, the boy continued to cry. Seeing him, I felt a pang of sadness. It had been far too long since I’d spoken to my sons. I found it very hard thinking that they, too, might be crying like this.
That was one of my reasons for wanting the train to leave. My mobile phone would be returned to me as soon as I crossed the border. I had by then almost forgotten the feeling a mobile phone gives you of always being in touch, the security of an invisible thread between you and the people you need most. You can’t bring mobile phones into North Korea. All foreigners, without exception, have to hand over their mobile phones to the authorities and only get them back when they leave. Even if, as I did, you enter at one border and leave at the other, hundreds of miles away. Everything is pre-arranged and your phone will be there waiting for you; there’s no room for impromptu changes of plan. For the first few days I kept feeling a sharp, sudden panic that I’d lost my phone. Then, as if waking from a bad dream, I remembered putting my phone in a small plastic bag and writing my name on it. Other times I thought I felt my phone vibrate and thrust my hands in my pockets, searching for it in vain, until I remembered the little plastic bag. For a couple of days the phantom phone itched like an amputated leg.
The train left exactly on time. Even after it set off, it went so slowly that it often seemed about to stop. It passed scenes not very different from those I’d seen in the previous weeks. People digging in the fields straightened up and stood watching the big train, as if contemplating its meaning, its importance. Children ran alongside, trying to keep up with the train and whooping with excitement. The train whistled almost incessantly, as if it were trying to say something important but could manage only this husky wail.
The Americans in our group weren’t allowed to go by train. I couldn’t figure out why. We passed nothing we didn’t know about already, nothing that needed to be hidden from the Americans. Or if there was something, I didn’t see it. Still, the three Americans in our group had to take the plane straight to Beijing.
We already knew that we couldn’t take photographs during the journey. There was no need to ask, that’s how it had been from the beginning. We were never allowed to take photographs when we moved from place to place. Repeated dozens of times a day in a heavy Korean accent, the voice of our tour guide was by now embedded in our minds:
No pictures, please.
However the train slipped along so slowly that it made for a long and leisurely farewell. I was sitting on my bunk facing backwards so, whenever anything appeared in the window, all I could do was watch it disappear, irretrievably and irreversibly, into the distance. Only someone with absolutely no sense of nostalgia could resist the temptation. I took some photos.
Why were two Chinese men beating a dried fish with an empty beer bottle? As I went down the corridor through several carriages, I came across people picking their teeth, clipping their nails, playing cards or sleeping. In most of the compartments there were plastic containers open with all sorts of food. Many people were barefoot, the skin peeling on the soles of their feet.
On my way to the dining car, I saw only foreigners: a handful of westerners I’d met doing the same journey as me, and a lot of Chinese traveling on business, well used to the journey. To find a carriage with Koreans in it, I had to go through the dining car and, right at the end, peer dimly through a small window. There, poorly lit, on rows of long benches slung between brownish walls, were dozens of people with their baggage piled around them. High up on the end wall, side by side, hung photographs of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. Both of them looked very stern.
Back in the dining car, garlands of gaudy plastic flowers with their plastic leaves hung along one wall. Either because they were too warm, or to avoid spills, or simply because it made them feel more relaxed, the soldiers had undone the buttons of their uniforms and ate with their chests covered only by their white vests. After eating, they fell asleep where they sat. One of them, very drunk and smelling of drink, slept with his head and arms slumped on a table, his elbow stuck in a plate of sliced cucumber. From time to time he mumbled something to himself and carried on sleeping. The men at the other tables looked at him and laughed. Whenever they tried to wake him, he would slur a few words and they’d laugh again, leaving him alone. They only insisted on actually waking him when three foreigners traveling with my group came along and couldn’t find anywhere to sit. He started to grumble but the other men whispered some sort of explanation in his ear, he immediately got up and, without a word, staggered off. For five euros, foreigners could eat a lukewarm meal served in a series of small dishes: first a little plate of shredded chicken, then a little plate of kimchi, another of boiled vegetables, a bowl of white rice, and so on. Drinks were paid for separately and there was never any change; instead, they would give you bottles of water or pieces of chewing gum cut from strips with scissors. The chewing gum was old and soft, and it disintegrated immediately.
The dining-car had large windows with rather ugly curtains, neatly mended. I would find myself sitting with my mouth full of rice as a level crossing passed slowly by the window. Invariably, the guard was standing to attention, impassively indifferent to the commotion of the train, his gaze fixed straight ahead, holding out a little rolled-up, yellow flag in front of him. Gazing down over every station was an enormous photograph of Kim Il-sung. The photographs were, it seemed to me, exactly where the station clock ought to be. It was as if Kim Il-sung himself was measuring time. Here at Sinuiju station, time seemed to have ground to a halt. It began to move again when the second guard stepped out of the compartment into the corridor. I turned round from the window. Back came the silence, still infused with the memory of the rhythm, the repetitive rumble, of the train passing over the rails. The guard continued studying my passport and, with an accent that obscured all but a few essential traces of the word, said: Portugal.
I couldn’t quite grasp the significance of his tone of voice. Maybe he was trying to say that I was very far from home, maybe he was saying that it was a country he had heard of, maybe he just wanted to say the word.
Early that morning as I packed my bag in Pyongyang, I’d been certain that it would be searched. I’d heard lots of scare stories about how rigorously bags were checked when leaving the country. Quite apart from that, I thought, no matter where you are in the world, when an inspector wants to find something incriminating, he doesn’t need to look far. Whoever is doing the inspecting has the last word. Whatever he says he saw, no one can contradict him.
Here, that fear was multiplied by an unknown factor. I was in North Korea.
Then the guard looked at me and said, in English:
A shiver of electricity ran over my skin during the time it took me to put my hand in my jacket pocket and hand over the camera.
I’d always known they might want to see my camera. I had been warned many times but, as time went by, I’d ended up photographing much more than was permitted. With a small, silent camera, it was tempting and easy.
At least I’d been careful to set the camera so that it would start with a series of photos that had been allowed, even encouraged, by the tour guides during our visit to a monument in Pyongyang the previous day. But I knew that if he kept looking, the guard would find many that had been taken surreptitiously at the very moment the guide was saying:
No pictures, please.
I had no idea what the consequences would be if the guard found those photos. Not knowing only set my imagination racing, and that was much worse. I was in North Korea.
Squeezed together in the silent, intimate space of that tiny compartment, I was afraid he would hear my heart beating. Inside me, it was the only sound I could hear.
The guard held the camera with both hands and pressed the button with the tip of his finger. He was clearly used to handling this type of equipment. Unhurriedly, he started to look through the photos, one by one.
The brightly lit colors from the screen glowed across his face.
So what was it they were doing?
People of all ages bent over in the fields, picking up tiny objects or breaking stones with some kind of small implement. Women carrying bundles of firewood on their backs, strapped to their shoulders like a rucksack. A teenager lying on the ground, keeping watch over half a dozen sheep. Six small boys playing on a boat in the middle of a lake. Three soldiers strolling by with their hands in their pockets and looking around in amazement. A man pedaling hard, a dead pig tied down on the back of his bicycle. A boy herding goats with a very thin stick. Another boy herding goats with stones, throwing stones first to one side, then to the other.
Every inch of earth ploughed, lines stretching as far as the mountains in the distance. A harsh landscape, no green, just different shades of brown. Outlines of men and women on the horizon, mere shadows bent over their hoes. A man plowing, turning a long, slow furrow in the soil, his wooden plough pulled by a cow.
That’s what there was to see along the deserted highway between Kaesong and Pyongyang.
Miss Kim never tired of telling us that taking photographs was forbidden. Mr Kim got up from his seat and looked all around him. Perhaps it was the impoverished, antiquated farming techniques, decades behind the times, that they didn’t want to be shown. Or maybe it was something else. Not all their prohibitions made sense.
Two women pushing rocks with a stick. Long fields slanted with shadows cast by the late afternoon sun. Lines of workers, each of them tilling the earth with a hoe. A woman tending sheep. Another woman tending goats. Another woman tending chickens.
A lone cow wandering along a path. The gentle melancholy of a woman minding a gaggle of white geese, as if time had suddenly stopped. The gleaming white of the geese’s feathers, the mystic wisdom of the woman.
People spread out across the fields. Single men, single women and couples walking over the furrowed earth, their destination invisible in the barren landscape. Children on their own, no one else within hundreds of yards of many of them. Sometimes a child, all alone in the vastness of the landscape, curiously investigating some small object in the ground.
Night falling slowly, softly.
At the top of a small hill, for no apparent reason, a line of flames advancing across dry grass. Trees burning too; the tops of the trees in flames.
The fields were enormous.
We stopped in the same place we had stopped the previous day, on our way to Kaesong. There were biscuits, apples and drinks. One apple cost the same as four large bottles of beer.
No cars passed us during the ten minutes we were parked there. Many in our group took photographs of each other standing in the middle of the highway.
As the light finally faded, we passed under the Monument to the Three Charters for National Reunification.
Once again the citizens of Pyongyang, urban, so different to the scattering of people we had seen in the countryside.
The elevators in the Yanggakdo Hotel still made me nervous. I suppose it just was my own preconceptions, but I kept thinking they would come crashing down.
Same floor, different room. Small changes: a different color bedspread and curtains, a different shape of lamp. I was tired. Two and a half hours to cover ninety-seven miles had addled my brain. I lay down on the bed with the television switched on; this time there was no remote control, and anyway there were no other channels to switch to.
The news began, as always, with the presenter bowing very solemnly to the camera, in complete silence. In my somewhat disheveled state, I found it rather unnerving. That evening, the news was presented by a man with an impeccable hairstyle which looked as if it had been drawn on his head, like a cartoon. Behind him was a gigantic picture-postcard view of Pyongyang. Dressed in a suit and tie and wearing lapel-pins of the two leaders, he looked up and down between the papers on the desk in front of him and the camera. He spoke in a put-on, theatrical tone, epic and dramatic, punctuated with hamnida. Talking, more talking, then a long bit of talking, maybe you’d make out the leaders’ names somewhere in the middle of it, maybe you wouldn’t understand a word, then hamnida. Then something else, blah, blah, blah, hamnida.
If you listen to a Korean talking about something for any length of time, you soon get used to this music, hamnida. There’s no equivalent in European languages for hamnida. It’s an interjection, used at the end of a sentence and which shows respect towards whoever you’re speaking to, hamnida. The result gives their speech a very distinct rhythm, hamnida. In some ways, it’s a bit like what I’ve tried to do in this paragraph, hamnida.
This went on for a long time. A very long time. Then pictures of a stadium full of people. The spectators were all young men and women in their early twenties, university students perhaps. All wearing the same uniform of a dark blue suit, white shirt and red tie. All of them standing to attention in serried ranks of precise, geometric dots, their heads exactly the same distance apart.
On the stage were a group of around twenty older men wearing gray or blue suits. In front of them was a table covered with brown fabric. There were no chairs; they were all standing. On one side was a podium where some of the men took turns to speak. If, as I suspected, the audience were university students, then these must be their lecturers. Even though they had a microphone in front of them, they still shouted their speeches. Their screaming and shouting was so angry, so exaggerated and so intense that they all seemed about to have a heart attack.
During the pauses, the audience chanted a couple of short, rhythmic phrases in unison and then, with a single shout, thrust their clenched fists out in front of them. The podium would then be taken by another speaker, whose anger might display some minor stylistic differences compared to the previous speaker’s. A touch more scorn, for example. Whatever the particular variant, the anger always involved a lot of facial contortions, pulsating veins in the neck, and hamnidas barked with deep conviction from the back of the throat.
Next news item. Pictures of soldiers at a training camp, running and jumping, interspersed with pictures of other soldiers taking turns to brandish their weapons and bellow at the camera. Angrily. Cut to close-ups of the machine guns and pistols in their hands, fingers on the trigger. After that, rows of soldiers performing martial arts, stripped to the waist, furiously striking the air in perfect synchronization. Then, with the others in the background, a soldier in a helmet apparently threatening someone, waving a pistol in front of him as if he was going to shoot at any moment.
Following that, rows of soldiers lying on the ground with machine guns. A dummy whose face was drawn with a caricature of the president of South Korea. One of the soldiers fires a bazooka and the dummy explodes. Dust, smoke and little pieces of wooden president everywhere. Then back to the soldiers on the ground with machine guns. The dummy once again. They open fire. Bullets pepper his face. Then the bazooka again. More, dust, more smoke. And so on.
Back to the motionless backdrop of Pyongyang, the touched-up colours, the presenter. Benevolent, sincere, he said a few soothing words and bowed silently. That was the end of the news.
The weather forecast was read by a female voice. The temperature charts, with little suns and umbrellas on a map, looked like they’d been programmed on a computer from the 1980s.
I fell asleep during a music video featuring a group of older people dressed in suits, covered in medals, gazing at the horizon with their hair blowing in the wind. I remember it clearly; it wasn’t a dream.
As the sun came up the next morning, I spoke to my younger son on the phone for four minutes.
In North Korea, it is the very grandiosity of the vast public ceremonies that obscures their purpose, to such an extent that the West seems to lose interest in even trying to work out what those intentions are. This was the thought that went through my mind as I walked across Kim Il-sung Square, the place we see most often on our television screens when North Korea is in the news.
The ground was covered with white markings, numbers, lines and Korean characters, invisible to the television cameras filming the massed ranks of soldiers or civilians moving faultlessly in time. Such collective perfection comes from rigorous training, and also, of course, those little marks.
Kim Il-sung Square is designed to impress. As much to impress the North Koreans themselves as the rest of the world, perhaps even more so. At ninety thousand square yards, it can hold one hundred thousand people for one of their special big events. These also happen to be the occasions when a handful of foreign journalists get authorization to enter the country and film.
It must be an impressive sight, watching one hundred thousand people, perfectly coordinated, worshipping with mechanical devotion one leader, one single man. It must make an even deeper impression to be there in the middle of it, to be part of that huge mass of humanity which, by sheer weight of numbers, seems itself to justify everything.
More than an exhibition of anonymity, an exercise in impersonality, the breaking down of the individual, as so often described in the West, these collective manifestations are an expression of belonging. North Koreans, already endowed with a strong collective sentiment rooted in their traditional culture, find further proof of it in these vast maneuvers, feel themselves even more to be part of a whole, part of a single, tangible entity.
Today, 2012, North Korea is the only country in the world where mass, synchronized gymnastics are practiced regularly. This extravagant form of exercise originated in China, where for centuries it was performed as a ritual.
The sheer spectacle of the Arirang Mass Games surpasses all of these. Once a year, on the hallowed turf of the May Day Stadium, around a hundred thousand participants put on synchronized, geometric displays of acrobatics, dance and gymnastics, forming brightly colored patterns with their clothing and props. The stands, which seat one hundred and fifty thousand spectators, also play an active role. Holding up cards of various colors, thousands of people form the individual pixels of huge, incredibly detailed mosaics. As well as political symbols and slogans, they can also depict landscapes which in themselves carry their own political iconography: The sun is Kim Il-sung and Mount Paektu represents Kim Jong-il. Some of these images even move.
The effect of synchronizing is overwhelming, but B.R. Myers, in his book The Cleanest Race, draws attention a less obvious aspect. The Mass Games also provide a platform for the North Koreans to observe their own remarkable physical homogeneity. Every time any kind of group or mass display is put on in North Korea, everything is carefully arranged so that every individual in the group appears identical, down to the smallest detail.
Anyone who says that North Korea is the harshest communist dictatorship in the world is wrong. Whoever says that it’s the last bastion of Stalinism is wrong. North Korea is a harsh dictatorship, probably the harshest in the world, but it isn’t communist. North Korea is the last bastion of something, in all likelihood it’s also the first and only bastion of whatever it is, but that thing isn’t Stalinism.
In Kim Il-sung Square, there were a couple of boys on rollerblades. They weren’t world-class, synchronized rollerbladers. They were five or six lads rollerblading clumsily, trying not to fall over.
Pyongyang’s Foreign Language Bookshop was a short distance away. It was a good opportunity to walk around the streets. At Sungri Street, which passes in front of the podium where the leader and dignitaries watch the official ceremonies, there was hardly any traffic.
On our way to the bookshop, we passed one of the few shops in the city.
Miss Kim was worried:
No pictures, please.
I peeked through the shop window and, when no one else was looking, I went in.
The shop was spacious enough, but had almost nothing to sell. Apart from some plastic bags filled with flowers standing in the corner and three shelves with a few jars, all the merchandise was on the counter. Boxes of onions, carrots and other root vegetables, soil still clinging to them. They also had garlic, courgettes, spring onion, bags of kimchi, tomatoes and a bunch of bananas. That was everything they had in the shop. Clearly, no one was going to fill up their larder there. You could tell from the expression on the shop assistant’s face, hands behind her back, that customers were few and far between.
There was an old set of scales, meticulously painted in red. All the boxes were marked with prices, but I couldn’t buy anything.
No one knows for certain what the exchange rate of the North Korean won is. There’s an official rate, but it bears no relation to the rates on the black market. Foreigners are not permitted to hold or use won. Visitors to the country can only use euros or Chinese yuan. It quickly dawns on you that an entire sham economy exists only for visiting foreigners.
You also quickly realize that the North Koreans could never buy anything at the prices charged to foreigners. However the issue never arises because most of the products bought by foreigners are inaccessible to North Koreans. The places where foreigners are taken to buy things, whatever it might be, aren’t used by locals. This even applies to the very small number of foreigners resident in the country, all of whom are either diplomats or employees of non-governmental organizations.
In some of these shops, the prices were marked to a precise number of cents. When paying, if I tried to waive the three or four cents and save them the bother of giving me change, the shop assistants were taken aback and didn’t know what to do.
The state makes the most of every opportunity to earn foreign currency from the presence of foreigners. There isn’t much to buy, but whatever there is, is expensive. At times, ridiculously expensive.
During all the time I was in North Korea, I didn’t see anyone paying for anything in cash. After a while, it began to fixate me. I kept looking hard for a North Korean actually using money, but I never saw one.
In the Foreign Language Bookshop, most of the books for sale were the complete works of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il translated into various languages, or books about them. The literary fiction section wasn’t very extensive. I bought a copy of everything they had: an anthology of folk tales called The Legends of Pyongyang translated into French; a long epic poem in English called Mount Paektu; a novel entitled Sea of Blood, adapted from the famous revolutionary opera; a novella set in wartime called The People of the Fighting Village, written by the director of the prose sub-committee of the Central Committee of the Korean Writers’ Union; and A Usual Morning, a collection of short stories by various authors, the first of which (the title piece of the collection) narrates how the Great Leader, personally, resolves the problems of an agricultural cooperative and rewards the efforts of a young comrade.
I also bought a book which, despite not being in the literary fiction section, seemed to me could be read in the same light. It was called The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea: an Earthly Paradise for the People.
I’d already heard a lot about the place we were going to for lunch. Whenever Miss Kim talked about it, she always did so with a knowing smile, almost like a naughty schoolgirl, as if this was to be our special treat. Each time, her little charade produced the same, equally forced, performance from us, that yes, we would like nothing better.
It was the first hamburger restaurant in Pyongyang. Before it opened, hamburgers were probably a forbidden topic. After it opened, with the government’s seal of approval, they were hailed as yet one more example of North Korea’s progress and modernity.
At lunchtime, the restaurant was completely empty of customers. As if to make up for the lack of customers, there was a surfeit of staff behind the counter, girls in uniform corralled into the small, cramped space. Caught unawares by our arrival, they all lifted their heads at once, like startled deer. There were around a dozen of us and I was near the back of the line. I got my food an hour later.
There was everything you usually find in that type of restaurant, but all rather basic and with that antiquated feeling I’d encountered all over North Korea. There was an illuminated sign with photos of the food, a menu above the counter where you pointed to what you wanted, the French fries came in a little paper bag, the soft drink came with a straw. But the photographs were faded and amateurish, the paper bag was coarse, the straw made of thick, rigid plastic. Each order had to be written down on a pad by hand, in meticulous calligraphy, the individual prices itemized and added up. Then suddenly all the staff would start to work as fast as they could, but you could tell it wasn’t a familiar routine.
They didn’t have any Coca-Cola. They did have artificial fruit drinks.
Still digesting our meal, we arrived at one of the two department stores in the city. There’s a Department Store No. 1 and a Department Store No. 2. I’m not sure which one it was, but I imagine there isn’t much difference. On the ground floor was a supermarket selling groceries, cleaning products, cigarettes and the like. On the first floor, clothing and bed linen, stationery, toys, electrical appliances, etc. All made in China.
I found this shopping expedition somehow disconcerting and didn’t know what to do with myself. The guides had taken us there to deceive us, drawing us into their little game of make-believe. Contrary to what Miss Kim told us, it was very obvious that these department stores weren’t being used by ordinary North Koreans.
The only people we saw on the ground and first floors were the employees. Some of them appeared to wake up as we walked past.
Mr. Kim and Miss Kim patrolled nervously, ensuring that no one took photographs and instilling a plastic joviality, which seemed to coagulate with the intense, sickly-sweet smell that filled the air.
Nothing in that shiny, glaringly lit store interested me. Anywhere else in the world it would have just been any old department store full of cheap, shoddy goods. Here, it garishly encapsulated everything that most North Koreans didn’t even know existed. On its shelves were displayed the tacky privileges of the few. And their lies.
Perhaps that was what saddened me most. With the same innocent air she used for her most whimsical, light-hearted banter, Miss Kim lied remorselessly.
A five euro ticket and a very crowded, slow-moving elevator brought me to the top of Junche tower. Four hundred and ninety feet is very high.
Officially, it was Kim Jong-il himself who designed the Juche Tower. This version of events, however, quite apart from being highly improbable, has been contradicted even by some North Korean army officers. The tower, which represents a burning torch, is five hundred and sixty feet tall, four hundred and ninety if you don’t count the flame. It’s the tallest granite structure in the world, built using 25,550 blocks, one for every day the Great Leader had been alive on the day the tower was inaugurated: his seventieth birthday. With a very uncharacteristic lapse of North Korean rigor, they neglected to take into account the leap years: 70 x 365.
The long horizon of Pyongyang might have had a certain solemn grandeur from up there, if it hadn’t been for the gale that was blowing. The wind roared in my ears, made even walking difficult and capriciously sent me crashing into the walls.
The photographs didn’t show these little tribulations, just block after identical block of apartments, stretching far into the distance.
Back at ground level there was just a gentle breeze. I walked over to the banks of the Taedong, which flowed right past the tower. It was the end of a long day. People were strolling peacefully by the river, children holding their grandparents’ hands. The river, too, was smooth, calm.
On the riverbank at the foot of the tower rose three imposing statues of a peasant woman, a worker and an intellectual. In heroic pose, arms raised and holding a small scythe, a hammer and a writing brush. Together, these three tools are the symbol of the Korean Workers’ Party.
The three tools are also the main components of the Monument to the Founding of the Korean Workers’ Party. Over one hundred and fifty feet high, it too is built in granite. Miss Kim had a lot to say about a monument that, at first glance, seemed fairly self-evident.
She began by making her saddest, doe-eyed face, as she recounted how the Great Leader had planned the monument but hadn’t lived to see it finished. According to her, the workers carried this sorrow deep in their hearts as they finished the work. It was inaugurated in 1995, celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Party.
Around the inside of the monument were depictions of the three fundamental features of the Party and its history: the guerrilla war against the Japanese, the unity between students and the army, and the people’s unconditional support for the Party.
The monument was aligned with the statues of the leaders, smiling genially in the distance. Like a bad joke, behind the leaders’ backs and also perfectly aligned, loomed the Ryugyong Hotel, the towering fiasco, the great white elephant that couldn’t be concealed.
After days like that, when I reached the sanctuary of my hotel room and closed the door, I couldn’t bear to hear any more about ___ __-____ or his son, ___ ____-__. I’d spent the whole day listening to completely incredible feats that ___ __-____ had performed across the most diverse range of activities. On one such day, Miss Kim had said that a man as extraordinary as ___ __-____ was only born once in many, many centuries. His son ___ ____-__ also had his fair share of unbelievable achievements. His grandson ___ ____-__, too, has already begun to develop a certain curriculum vitae in this respect. However, and although it could never be said in so many words, no-one, not even ___ ____-__ or ___ ____-__ could match ___ __-____. It wasn’t by chance that even after death he had carried on as president. Eternal President. As for me, my nerves couldn’t even bear hearing his name any more. Neither his, nor his progeny’s. By this point, even the word “leader” made me a little queasy.
I lay down on the bed, closed my eyes, and the shrill reverberations of Miss Kim’s voice washed over me like the tangled threads of a gigantic Portuguese man o’war.
Some mornings, I would wake up with a dull headache and throbbing temples, and had to fill my hands with water under the tap and splash it over my face. These were the moments when I wondered what I was doing here, the times when the reasons I’d given myself were no longer enough.
I had cold noodles for dinner that evening. The metal bowl was chilled. A mound of noodles formed a sort of island in a sea of clear soup, with some decoration and a splash of color on top and crowned with a hard-boiled egg, cut in half. Mr. Kim showed me how to eat. You had to take a chopstick in each hand and jab them into the noodles. Then you teased the noodles apart, pushing and pulling them in either direction. The noodles were very fine and a raw, brown color, made with some kind of sweet potato. Mustard and vinegar could be added according to taste.
The chilled soup was very spicy; it made my face sweat and my eyes water. The coldness combined with the vinegary taste gave it a very different feel to what I was used to. The flavor became less and less strange with every mouthful of noodles I chewed.
A television was showing a DVD of karaoke songs, one after another. Nobody was singing, but the lyrics appeared on screen with a wave running through them, changing their color. The music held certain notes, vibrato; you could feel the space left for the missing voice. In the background appeared images of mountains, rushing streams, flowers, untouched nature.
One wall, lit by a couple of blue lamps, was entirely papered with a blown-up image of a country road with trees on either side, their branches meeting in the middle. The branches were flecked with bright green leaves and pierced with shafts of light. A couple of inches up from the floor, the earth road beneath the canopy of trees was pierced by two sockets. From one of them stretched the extension cable for the television and the DVD player.
The other walls all had a kind of knee-high skirting board covered with imitation stone wallpaper, columns of flowery paper in the corners and a pattern of bright golden, plastic fish scales covering the rest of the wall.
In one of the walls were two doors. Both stayed closed, except, very briefly, when one of the waitresses took in large trays of food, or brought them out empty. As a door opened and closed, I caught a glimpse, through a thick fug of cigarette smoke, of a round table in a small room full of North Koreans. All men, all dressed in suits and ties.
They were enclosed in a room inside a closed country.
Thinking it over back in my room, I realized that I was just like them, shut in twice over. Enclosed within this country which didn’t allow me to have a mobile phone or receive emails, and enclosed within my own secret.
Whenever I wrote things down in my notebook, the people around me asked me why I was taking notes; asked repeatedly, as if I needed constant reminding: you do know that you can’t write about this journey?
Then there were those other people, far away, thousands of miles away, driving their cars along the roads where I usually drove, with my mobile phone number in their phones, with my email address, who perhaps thought about me from time to time. Some of them would be calling me and not getting through, writing me emails and getting no reply.
I’d turned off my mobile phone for varying lengths of time in the past, usually when I needed to write, or simply to live. Even so, at those times I always knew which drawer it was in and, in the middle of the night, whenever I felt the need, I could turn the phone on and hear the despairing messages left by voices living through their little dramas of insistent demands and deadlines. It was exactly the same with email. Demands and yet more demands, most of them containing thinly veiled attempts at emotional blackmail.
The experience had given me some idea of what it would be like to die.
In North Korea, I was experiencing a different type of death. Here, it was I who was turned off and kept in a drawer. It was a death where I didn’t get to hear the consequences of what I’d left behind.
I had no idea who was trying to call me, nor what messages they were leaving. I had no idea what emails there were to reply to. Here there was only blackout, only darkness.
The phone calls I made to my sons were far too brief. Their voices were too far away, too distorted by static. The time we spent talking passed so quickly that, afterwards, it seemed almost as if it hadn’t happened.
Calls to my sister and mother confirmed the same feeling.
Is everything all right over there?
That’s far too complex a question to answer as the minutes tick by on a long-distance call.
I’m in Pyongyang, in North Korea, and my mother is asking me:
Is everything all right over there?
I consider myself a practical, pragmatic person. So each time I gave the common sense reply. For me to say everything’s all right was just a way of saying that I wasn’t ill, that I wasn’t in prison and that I’d be coming home when I’d said I would. Clearly, however, it wasn’t a complete answer to such a vast question.
Not only that, the answers the two of them gave me weren’t very satisfactory either. Not just because it was tricky to find the right words to conjure up in two or three sentences the images I needed to see, but for a much more straightforward reason: I knew that if something bad had happened, neither my mother nor my sister would tell me. In North Korea, too far away to do anything about it, they’d want to spare me any unnecessary distress.
Knowing this, I tried to judge their mood, their tone of voice. Trying to read between the lines like this was, of course, entirely subjective and not always reassuring. They, like me, were also keeping secrets.
While my sister was in the hallway talking to me on the phone, she had to hide her concern because her daughters were within earshot. The same happened with my mother, who went to the supermarket and the post office, who greeted people in the streets of our home village, knowing that I was in North Korea.
I was in the great unknown.
We keep our secrets together with all the other things we don’t say. Up in that great big, shadowy attic there are things we don’t say because we’re afraid, because we’re ashamed, because we simply can’t; there are things we don’t say because we don’t know about them, really don’t know, even though they’re right there inside us. Secrets aren’t like that. They are there, we can visit them, observe them, know exactly the words to express them and, often, we want so much to tell them. But we choose not to.
Our secrets are within us. Along with everything else that we know, we are made of our secrets. When we hold them in, when we are strong enough to contain them, they spread inside us. From within, they seep up through our skin. They keep on going until sometimes we catch sight of them when we turn around, or hear them in the silence. Then, at that moment, it’s not just our secrets that are inside us, it’s also we who are inside our secrets.
“I HEAR AND I FORGET. I SEE AND I REMEMBER. I DO AND I UNDERSTAND.” I kept reminding myself of the words of Confucius throughout my time in North Korea. They seemed loaded with a mysterious meaning that gained new profundity with every passing day. After a certain point, it almost seemed to me that these words explained everything.
It was my last morning and I was packing my bags at the Yanggakdo Hotel, tucking Don Quixote in between some dirty T-shirts, hoping to spare him any indignities when we crossed the border. I had the television on. They were showing a repeat of Kim Jong-un’s speech. It had already been shown many times.
Seven microphones ranged in front of him, the Respected Leader read out a text in a monotonous tone, defeating even the musicality of the Korean language. Nothing he said was new. By that time I already knew that he’d simply repeated what the regime had been saying since his grandfather’s time. However the mere fact of him speaking at all was itself remarkable. He had a voice. His father, Kim Jong-il, hadn’t once spoken in public during his seventeen years of absolute power. The North Korean people had heard his voice only once. On 25th April 1992, before coming to power, he’d said:
Glory to the heroic soldiers of the Korean People’s Army!
On the bus, making our way through the streets of Pyongyang to the train station, I felt a sense both of nostalgia and of wanting to move on.
Nostalgia because I knew it was very unlikely I would ever return. This realization confronted me with the limits of my own existence, with all the things that I wouldn’t be able to do, or do again, during the rest of my lifetime. Also, at the same time, here were all these people living their enclosed lives, completely unaware of so much around them, trying to convince themselves that they lived in the most advanced country in the world. These people were still right here in front of me. Soon they wouldn’t be, but I knew I’d remember their faces even when I was far away. Even as I write this I can still see them.
Wanting to move on because I’d had enough of control freakery, of the warped logic which that particular cult used as its lodestar, because I’d had enough of fear. My palms itched as I remembered that in a few hours they would give me back my mobile phone and I’d be able to phone my sons, send messages to my friends, whenever I felt like it. I missed the internet, advertising, traffic.
At that moment, China was the symbol of freedom, liberty. Arriving in China meant arriving in the free world.
Time passed, until the moment when I found myself standing alone with a border guard in a railway carriage, stopped at Sinuiju station.
The guard was looking at the photos on my camera. Most of my records of the journey were held in those photos. The expression on the guard’s face was stern. Then, for no apparent reason, he stopped. Slowly, he raised his head and fixed me with a clear-eyed gaze.
The moment must have lasted for something like five seconds, but it seemed much longer. Enough for me to imagine why he was staring at me like that, to feel the temptation to look away. But I resisted, leaving him wondering the same thing.
Then he smiled and handed me back the camera. That was that.
We crossed over to Dandong on the Bridge of Sino-Korean Friendship. Before 1990, it had gone by the more practical name of the Yalu River Bridge.
Beside this bridge was another one. It stopped in the middle of the river, the rest destroyed by American bombing raids in 1950. I went there the following day, walking to where it came to an abrupt end: steel twisted and torn by the force of the explosions.
However that was the next day. Just after I crossed the border, I looked up at the big illuminated signs in Chinese. I had just been given back my mobile phone and was waiting for it to pick up a signal. I wanted to send text messages to my sisters. I wanted to tell them that I had left North Korea. I wanted to set my mother’s mind at ease.
My travel companions were carrying straight on to Beijing. I said goodbye to them and hurried out of the station.
The immense pleasure of simply crossing a street: nobody behind me, no surveillance. You can’t underestimate the value of breathing deeply.
In Dandong, I took full advantage of being able to choose once again what to eat. That night I went to a bar where a band, with electric guitar and bass, played Chinese pop music. Then I went to a nightclub where the walls and ceiling were completely covered in lights that randomly changed color, where the DJ was always interrupting the Chinese techno music with enthusiastic exhortations, and where I and everyone else swayed about on a dance floor built on a bed of springs. Just trying to keep your balance was in itself a form of dancing.
Next morning I went running. I ran past a pickup truck selling slabs of tofu, past a group of women performing exercises with swords, past infernal, chaotic traffic. I needed these stimulants. Still sweating before my shower, a proper shower with decent water pressure, I privately, silently closed my eyes and gave thanks for them.
Later that morning, I took a boat trip along the Yalu River. Everyone was peering through binoculars at the North Korean side. Having just come from there the day before, I was looking at the people who were looking. A woman with a head-piece microphone, equally uninterested in the view, was selling out-of-circulation North Korean banknotes and tourist souvenirs on a tray: nail clippers, pencils, wallets, key-rings and the like. A guide was explaining in Chinese details about North Korea that I couldn’t understand. While they listened to him, everyone looked over towards that side of the river.
The Great Wall of China came right down to the border near Dandong. There was a particular point along the wall where the two countries came closest together and where a lot of tourists had come to stare over at the other side. Only a narrow stream about ten yards wide separated the two countries. A wire fence surrounded North Korea and you could clearly see people working in the fields on the other side. They had a tractor but even so, even from this distance, there was no hiding the poverty. Maybe that’s what was going through the minds of all the Chinese tourists taking photos.
There were little stalls selling hard-boiled eggs and cheap imitation badges of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il.
I climbed the wall. At the point closest to North Korea, for five yuan you could hire some binoculars. There was a queue.
I didn’t bother. Apart from the wall itself, what I found much more startling was the way everyone walked freely, carrying bottles of soft drinks, taking photos with their mobile phones. Children playing with plastic toys. The ease with which people talked to each other.
I’d decided to go to North Korea, and I’d been.
In the words of Lao Tse, writing in the sixth century BC, “a good traveller has no fixed plan, and is not intent on arriving.”
It’s so easy to compare life to a journey. It makes so much sense.
Journey or life, this is where we always end up. As if standing on top of a mountain, we can see all around us. This is the place where everything happens, and there is serenity in knowing that. It’s your job, joyfully, freely, to make the most of it.
If you are reading these words, it’s because you’re alive.
–translated by Robin Paterson
© José Luís Peixoto
translation © Robin Paterson
José Luís Peixoto is one of the most important and critically acclaimed contemporary Portuguese writers. He has won the Jose Saramago Literary Award, the Calamo Award, the Salerno Libro d’ Europa Award, and he has been shortlisted for many international literary awards, including the Impac Dublin Literary Award, and Prix Femina. His novels have been translated in twenty languages, and three novels, The Implacable Order of Things, The Piano Cemetery, and Antidote, have been published in English translation. His novel The Antidote, published in 2003, is a collaboration with the Portuguese goth metal band Moonspell, and is based on their album of the same name.