Foreigners in Pyongyang

Korea Times
Andrei Lankov

The Pyongyang of the 1970s and 1980s had a very small number of expatriates. Outside the capital, foreigners were unheard of _ unless they were Soviet or East European engineers who were contributing to some construction project. Nevertheless, a modest ex-pat community existed, and had its own traditions and folklore.

Since there were so few foreigners in Pyongyang, they attracted everyone’s attention _ especially on the city’s outskirts, where few foreigners ever ventured. Adults would stare at them, while kids would run behind the strange-looking visitor, shouting: “A foreigner, a foreigner!” Older children never forgot to take their hats off and greet foreigners with a respectful bow.

The children’s surprise was understandable. Most of them had seen foreigners only in the movies, if ever. The vast majority of the small foreign colony were diplomats who seldom ventured out of their respective embassies or, at least, out of their cars. Tourists also never left the city centre. Hence, a foreigner walking a Pyongyang street was a very unusual sight indeed.

A Soviet diplomat once went to a small currency shop located in our foreign students’ dormitory. This shop had only one sales assistant, a woman in her mid-30s. At the time she had her five-year old daughter with her. The girl was obviously seeing a foreigner for the first time in her life. However, it turned out that she had seen foreigners before in movies. Now, most Westerners depicted in North Korean cinema were perfidious and corrupt “American imperialists.” Thus, the polite girl greeted the stranger in the way foreigners were usually referred to in the movies. She said: “Hello, uncle American imperialist scoundrel!” (Anny?ng hasipnikka, mijenom aj?ssi!)

It’s difficult to say how many foreigners were in Pyongyang in the mid-80s. Most probably, in the whole country with its population of 20 million there would have been scarcely 1,000 permanent foreign residents (this figure excludes tourists and other short-time visitors). At the time, there were about 20 embassies in North Korea, mostly with a small staff. There were also about a hundred foreign specialists with their families, and a couple hundred students.

More “permanent” foreigners in the city were embassy staff. The majority of the smaller countries that had diplomatic relations with the DPRK appointed their Ambassador to China to represent their interests in North Korea as well, so permanent missions were few in number. Around 1980, the North Koreans built a special `embassy quarter’ in Eastern Pyongyang. Only a few embassies remained in Western Pyongyang _ including those of China and the then USSR.

In the center of the `embassy quarter’ there was a Pyongyang supermarket where foreigners bought some products, otherwise unavailable in the city. The shop accepted the `green’ currency certificates which could be exchanged for `soft’ currency of the Communist countries (in the late 80s they were more properly renamed `red’). Hard currency could be used in special hard-currency shops, first and foremost – in the central hard-currency supermarket which was aptly named Rakwon (`Heaven’). It was located in the centre of the city, and a majority of the shoppers were Koreans who had access to the hard currency.

In a small extension to the Pyongyang supermarket there was a remarkable institution known among ex-pats as the “kimch’i-bar.” I do not know why this rather cosy cafe was named a `bar’, nor what relation it bore to the famous Korean pickles. This small cafe was a usual meeting place for foreigners. In this cafe in 1984-85 one often would come across, say, the entire staff of the Maltese Embassy. For some incomprehensible reason, a leftist government of this Mediterranean island not only established diplomatic relations with North Korea, but actually dispatched an ambassador there. The poor gentleman had nothing to do, and he spent all his working days sipping beer in the `kimch’i-bar’…

However, the main meeting place was the Diplomatic Club, which was located near the old iron bridge over the Taedonggang River. It boasted a good restaurant, a cinema, and even a disco (social dancing was banned in North Korea from 1957 to 1985). Every evening the cinema showed foreign movies – of course, not from the decadent West, but from the brotherly Communist countries.

However, the major centres of Pyongyang ex-pats’ lives were hotels. Many interesting things happened in their lobbies and rooms.


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