Pyongyang Blues


But tonight I can’t see anything, it’s dark. Tonight I walk in the emptiness of the city by night together with the few passers-by who have permission to be out at this hour.
After mentally bidding farewell to my latecomer friend and his torch, I start walking again and go past the little shop where once I managed to get them to sell me a bottle of water. Behind me I hear a bicycle rattling along over the loose paving stones. I sense it gradually getting closer, now it’s right behind me, as if the rider was watching me. I get ready for one of the many possible reprimands. It wouldn’t be the first time a policeman in civvies stopped me and told me off about what I was doing and where I was walking. The bicycle remains behind even though I have moved closer to the wall, leaving plenty of room on the pavement. Finally he’s alongside me. As he approached the rider said in Korean: “Comrade, get on behind, I’ll give you a lift to the corner, it’s late.”
But just as he finishes speaking, my pedalling comrade is beside me and sees me. He sees my face, and realises I’m not Korean. More surprised than frightened, I haven’t time to react, I just keep on walking as I try to register what is happening, while the man’s face becomes a mask of terror as he suddenly realises that, unintentionally, he has crossed the line between what is allowed and what is not. There is no going back. He has spoken to a woegugin. Not only that, he has offered her a lift on his byke. After mumbling a hurried mian-hamnida (a respectful ‘sorry’), he hastens away into the darkness in front of me. Without stopping, or even slowing down, I continue walking towards the compound on the slightly bumpy pavement. I’m behind the bicycle now, I can see the faint red tail light as it bounces rhythmically in tune with the pedals. I prepare to go back into my world of nocturnal reflections after this unexpected encounter. But before I can do so, the bicycle stops and the man waits, looking back at me. When I’m close, he smiles timidly and says: “Foreign comrade, it’s dark and it’s late, get on behind, I’ll give you a lift to the corner.”
Already I can see the black shadow of the twenty-seven-story skyscraper before which I have to turn right on to the dirt track that goes round to the back, where the guardhouse is. There a guard will let me in after checking that I am a woegugin and entitled to enter the diplomatic village. He’ll let me in even though the guards don’t like us using this entrance, a kind of service entrance. But they know me now and let me through.
I also recognise the building at night because there’s a very high water tank beside it. In the darkness they look like the remnants of a nuclear war. A little further on, a school playground, with a few swings and see-saws. The swings go slowly back and forth. Do they make a noise? I don’t know. The man went away, heading straight home, to a wife, children, maybe even a decent night’s sleep. He pushed down hard and resolutely on the pedals, as he tried to avoid the potholes, like every night. He had a cap on his head and was thin, I think. I’ll never see him again.



Summary of the book:
The beginning of the book gives the information needed to understand my arrival in DPRK: when I was 30 years old, I quit my life as an activist and a civil actress, took a M.A. in diplomacy and international relations, and started a career as a development worker. The initial chapters stress some of the social and generational issues I was experiencing and I was trying to escape from, and bring to the reality of financial, social and emotional precariousness that people of my generation and younger ones are living in the Global North. They also allow me to describe the main stereotypes on DPRK that, during the development of the story, I will break through my experience.
The book then describes the departure and arrival, in the summer of 2012, with a contract as “antenna” for the Italian Development Cooperation office, which included teaching Italian at Pyongyang University of Foreign Studies. It then explains how I was assigned to my minder, who was also my colleague professor at university, and I met my Korean colleagues. This section gives details on practical life in Pyongyang: I immediately discovered that I couldn’t keep my telephone and that my communications would be restricted. I managed to find a flat in the diplomatic compound, where I immediately moved. I quickly got to know the very special expatriate community living in DPRK, and all survival mechanisms including the several prohibitions, the apartheid to which expatriates are obliged, and legal and semi-legal supplying mechanisms.
The following chapters tell how I started teaching at university and I met my students, young Koreans with whom I established a strong relation, and that became my unique point of view on ordinary life in the DPRK. They include my discoveries on DPRK education system, including doctrine, censorship, (re)educational programs. My minder kept a strong grip on me and obliged me to special sessions of Juche doctrine (Juche is the DPRK ideology), therefore showing me some of the pressure mechanisms that the system applies to its own citizens. While time passed and my duties at the Italian office increased, I started meeting Party officials, diplomats, the same Kim Jong Un, and participating into ceremonies that opened for me the world of the creation of the national epic for North Koreans: the Arirang.
This chapter of the book explains how, witnessing the Arirang, I came to understand one of the pillars of the strong identity that North Koreans show: the capacity of the system to create, and promptly update, their national epic, and to give to each citizen their own role and position in the society.
The following chapters analyse the development of the “2013 nuclear crisis”: In winter 2012, the country launched its first successful satellite. This brought enthusiasm within my students and acquaintances, while the international community prepared sanctions. The tension escalated when, in February 2013, North Korea performed a nuclear test. I lived from the inside the crisis, managing to keep somehow a bit of sense of humor, but definitely feeling the incredible pressure and fear of war, and understanding the abyss between internal and external narrative.
Then, the book describes how, at the end of 2013, I decided to quit with my job and to accept a position for an International NGO. The change allowed me to have access to 6, out of 8, provinces, where my NGO worked. I met new colleagues, including for the first time a woman, who introduced me to many of the rituals and duties related to femininity in North Korea. I went up to the extreme North where the country borders the hyper developed city of Dandong (China); I visited and worked in the city of Hamhung, built by East Germany after the world, second industrial pole of the country and completely isolated due to its proximity to military facilities; I engaged in several special schools, where children with disabilities live. Meanwhile I witnessed the seasonal changes of the country, and some undeniable development especially in the urban areas (use of solar energy, more visibility for some groups of people once marginalized, new Chinese and Russian influence).
The following section describes the “Ebola crisis”: at the end of 2014, the Ebola outbreaks started to worry the international community. The DPRK government proclaimed a complete closure of the country with a very strict isolation for everyone entering. It is still not clear if the Ebola was used to increase pressure on the international community, or if concerns (due to the financial triangle DPRK-China-Africa) were real, but a new diplomatic crisis was ignited. At the beginning of 2015, I was completely isolated for 42 days, during a very harsh winter where the temperature inside my house was not above 12 degrees Celsius. In this atmosphere of terror several aid workers were put under pressure for their supposed unfriendly behavior, some expelled from the country. The government received a “leak” on a supposed misbehavior from my part, and I was “processed”. In this dramatic situation, I sent a panicked (and panicking) email to my close friends, declaring that “sandwiches are good”. Clearly, this had no concrete output if not letting us understand that for the next time we have to find a better code. Luckily I was released and, after having publicly apologized in the classical DPRK way, I could start working again. Meanwhile, the Ebola measures were withdrawn. But this experience was for me the strongest direct proof of the pressure that such a system can apply on individuals.
The next section gives an insight of some of the huge marketing operations performed by the DPRK government: the concert of the Laibach, and the Party Congress. It then describes how the meeting of a North Korean doctor and conversations with colleagues allowed me to understand more clearly the mechanisms of “re-education”, and to develop an idea of some of the lighter forms of labor camps.
The final part of the book explains how I started to prepare my departure for my new duty station, and describes and summarizes my experience. The decline of the era of international aid in North Korea, the improvement of living conditions for part of the Korean people, and above all the resistance of the “single hearted mind” system, which is for me the heart of the capacity of DPRK to survive.
In the final chapter, I describe my departure. The plane I was boarded on caught fire. An emergency landing in Chinese territory, and the prompt disappearance of this information from any media, are the final details of my life in the DPRK.

Structure of the book:
In my studies on North Korea and during my life there, I came to understand that DPRK is a country where very little is unpredictable (despite what international media tell us). On the contrary, the country follows annual cycles, which I describe ironically in the book as a monopoly (DPRKopoly), whose map is located at the beginning of the book, as a support for the reader.
The monopoly helps me in the narration of my 4 years, and in unraveling my point of view of human being, activist and political scientist, on this country: each chapter corresponds to a launch of dices, which brings me to one of the many annual landmarks. In this way, I alternate the discovery of the country and its rules (in a time span corresponding to the first 4 years of the new leadership), of the change and development of international aid, and of the personal development of myself as a humanitarian.
The book is purposefully written at the first person, and built around the main character, who discovers, explores, asks, fears, providing the reader with subtle keys on one of the most unknown countries of the world. However, it is never falling into a “memoir”, as I always use personal events to describe wider dynamics and processes. Moreover, it is worth noting that irony, the strongest weapon of every aid worker in DPRK, is also permeating all chapters of Pyongyang blues.


: How I managed to arrive to North Korea, safety mechanisms, general prejudices and common knowledge about the DPRK

Chapter 1
: Arrival, meeting with my “minder” and other officials. 
Communication restrictions (internet, mobile phones). 
Rules and difficulty of general supplying in Pyongyang. 
The diplomatic compound.

Chapter 2
: The national Epic: how the Arirang show is the representation of North Korea to its own people.
 The double currency.
 More on supplying.

Chapter 3:
 Pyongyang University of Foreign Studies: my students, my minder and colleague, rules.
 The beginning of the crisis (3rd satellite launch).
 Meetings with Party Officials.

Chapter 4
: Control mechanisms (personal spies).
 Development of the crisis and international sanctions.
 Winter conditions and hardship for the local people.

Chapter 5
: The climax of the 2013 Crisis. 
Meeting with North Korean Defense officials.
 Fear, restrictions, state of pre-war and final solution.

Chapter 6
: Preparation for the military parade.
 The army enters Pyongyang.
 Experience in the province of North Pyonghan.

Chapter 7
: Meeting Kim Jong Un. 
Survival mechanisms for the international community.

Chapter 8
: University students and their education.
Entering an international NGO.

Chapter 9
: Hospitals.
Leisure for Koreans and foreigners.
improvement of living conditions for locals.

Chapter 10: 
Rieducation programs for Koreans (camps)

Chapter 11
: Beginning of the Ebola crisis and North Korean measures. Chapter 11/a

Chapter 12
: WHO and the development of the diplomatic crisis 2015 “Ebola”

Chapter 13
: Mechanisms of international aid. 
Traditional and non-traditional venues in Pyongyang
The “invisible people” (non registered citizens, clochards)

Chapter 13: 
Relations with Beijing

Chapter 14: 
How North Koreans worship the leaders. 
Visit to the Palace of the Sun. 
End of the year rituals.

Chapter 15
: Hardship on aid workers and burn out related issues.

Chapter 16
: The 7th Session of the Korean Workers’ Party congress.
Signs of change towards market economy in North Korea.
 Information management.

Chapter 17
: Hamhung, history and current life in North Hamgyong.

Air Koryo plane accident with myself onboard.