Diplomatic Ease

Korea Times
Andrei Lankov

It’s tough to serve in a foreign mission in Pyongyang. One has to survive difficult conditions, the boredom of long official gatherings, the near absence of a social life. And police surveillance, of course!

The major assumptions on which the North Korean authorities act in their dealings with diplomats and foreign officials is simple: all diplomats are spies, sent to Pyongyang to inflict harm (to a slightly lesser extent, this is applicable to all foreigners). Thus, they should be isolated from any interaction with locals, constantly monitored and fed only with the (dis)information their hosts find suitable.

Such an approach began to develop a long time ago: as early as the mid-1950s the embassies of the supposedly friendly Communist countries complained about restrictions and harassment. Initially, the victims were the likes of Hungarians and Poles, but from the late 1950s, even the Chinese and Soviet Embassies, representatives of Pyongyang’s powerful sponsors, found themselves under constant surveillance.

Every veteran of diplomatic Pyongyang is able to produce his share of anecdotes and stories _ and I think about collecting them one day. For example, Erik Cornel, a Swedish ambassador to the North, related how some diplomats discovered that the newly built embassy buildings were equipped with a network of underground tunnels which would allow the North Korean operatives to get into any compound unnoticed and unopposed. A wife of the Indonesian ambassador noted how she discovered a face staring at her from a hatch in their residence. Obviously, somebody on a covert patrol in the tunnel network lost his way…

This is a rather typical North Korean approach: to compensate for the shortage of expensive high technology with some low-tech ingenuity and resourcefulness!

Indeed, technology is often in short supply. Another story by Erik Cornel is probably worth quoting in full: “The cleaner [of the Swedish embassy] was a youngish, reserved but agreeable lady, who was treated with great respect by others. The gardener once came with a dirty lamp globe which needed cleaning. When he realized that it was she _ and not one of the foreign women _ that he had to ask for help, he crouched down and respectfully lifted up the globe towards her. She also served tables when we gave formal dinner parties and wore the traditional, wide Korean dress of beautiful silk cloth. On one of the first occasions, as ill-luck would have it, a sudden cracking noise emanated from under her skirts as she served dinner _ it sounded like someone was trying to tune into a station on an old-fashioned radio. She abruptly stopped serving and rushed back into the kitchen _ evidently, the tape recorder was malfunctioning.’’

The diplomats had to hire all their own maids, drivers, secretaries, and other local personnel via a special government agency whose main task was to plant as many police agents as possible in these not-so-numerous nests of foreign subversion. Major embassies, like those of Russia and China, avoided the problems by avoiding the local personnel altogether: every single person in the embassy, from the gardener or janitor up, was an ex-pat. This makes sense, especially because the major embassies are probably the only ones that really have secrets to keep (it’s hard to imagine what sort of apocryphal secrets might be kept in the missions of, say, Romania or Austria).

All telephone conversations are intercepted. Pyongyang does not try to deny this _ officials sometimes cite records of intercepted phone talks while dealing with foreigners. Recently, most foreign missions have come with a separate network, which allows their staff to talk to other missions, but restricts their ability to make calls to the North Korean institutions, let alone to private citizens.

On their rare outings, diplomats are frequently followed by plain-clothes police. These guys’ job is not too difficult, since foreigners are highly visible in the Pyongyang crowd.

No diplomat has ever been allowed to meet North Koreans in private. All interactions take place at official receptions, where only a handful of trusted and screened Northerners are allowed to attend.

The attempts to get any meaningful statistics or other data are frustrated by the government, which has not published any hard statistics for four decades. One of my favourite responses explaining this phenomenon is the answer given to the wife of a Cuban ambassador. When she tried to inquire about North Korean burial customs, her counterpart answered: “You know, here, in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, people do not die that much!’’ In the late 1980s North Korean diplomats briefly acquired the habit of answering potentially troublesome questions by reading in full the relevant clippings from Nodong Sinmun. If one was unreasonable enough to ask about the expected harvest, he had to spend a long time listening to a reading of a Nodong Sinmun editorial on the flourishing of Korean agriculture under the wise leadership of the “Great Leader.’’

However, some old Pyongyang hands developed techniques which helped them make sense of very subtle hints to be found in the changes of their hosts’ behaviour, or in between the lines of the seemingly meaningless grumbling of the official press.


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