Seven Years in North Korea

Michael Harrold spent his formative years unlike any fellow Englishman, polishing up the lies and deceit of the Hermit Kingdom. A decade later, his memoir, "Comrades and Strangers" offers a rare peak inside the People's Paradise.

By Ron Gluckman /Beijing, China

"NORTH KOREA IS ABOUT A LOT MORE THAN NUCLEAR WEAPONS" and propaganda," insists Michael Harrold. And who would know better. The Englishman spent an astonishing seven years in North Korea polishing propaganda for the Leaders, Dear and Great.

  Mr. Harrold's new book, "Comrades and Strangers" (Wiley, $19.95, 415 pages), is unsurprisingly a less than critical look at the Hermit Kingdom, and will hardly provide the answers to the burning questions that the outside world is asking about the mysterious nation.

  The author makes no special claim to inside information that could confirm persistent accounts of mass starvation or a sprawling system of labor camps for political prisoners. Nor does he offer any insight into North Korea's nuclear intentions.

   "My experiences were personal, and that's what this book is about," Mr. Harrold confided in an interview in Beijing, where he has recently moved. "In North Korea, you only see what they want you to see. I never saw these dark, horrible things."

  What the book does offer, however, is the most revealing glimpse yet of what passes for normal life in North Korea.

   Mr. Harrold, now 42, arrived in Pyongyang in 1987, a 25-year-old graduate of Leeds University who answered an unusual advertisement for an English editor. His job was to translate North Korean speeches, books and news in a way that the leaders found acceptable for world consumption.

  He was drawn to North Korea for the same reason many onlookers are fascinated by the country: its inaccessibility. "North Korea was totally unknown, off the map," he explains. "Being the first and only Brit allowed to live in North Korea was a big deal."

  Mr. Harrold left the country in 1994, but claims that this doesn't make his account out-of-date. "I think if someone went to North Korea now, it would probably seem just as bizarre to them as it was to me."

  The author's unique position as mouthpiece to the outside world occasionally allowed him to make some creative - and critical - decisions. In 1993, as the U.S.-South Korea military exercises sent temperatures soaring, Pyongyang wanted to declare that the country was "on war footing."

  Only, as Mr. Harrold succinctly pointed out, North Korea had already been on war footing. As there was a need for a new term to show that the level had been raised, one was quickly produced. Mr. Harrold found is silly, but North Korea had entered a "state of semi-war."

  Although the book shows a mounting disillusionment with life behind the Kimchi Curtain, Mr. Harrold cannot conceal a genuine fondness for North Korea, particularly its people. He admits being impressionable at the outset. "Don't forget, too, I was in my 20s, and I had cars waiting for me at the airport, chauffeurs to drive me and waitresses serving all my meals."

  The author's seven years in North Korea provide some humorous up-close accounts that are a refreshing contrast to the usual speculative reporting about the sealed-off state.

  One such account describes preparations in 1992 for the annual April Art Festival. Participation in the past had included the odd Mongolian warbler, Chinese circus troupe, Peruvian juggler and Thai dancer, along with stray French magicians and British pianists. That year, it coincided with the Great Leader's 80th birthday, so organizers went all out, and asked Mr. Harrold if his nation of Great Britain had produced any noteworthy musicians. "The Beatles sprang to mind," Mr. Harrold writes.

  "Would any of the other foreign artistes have heard of them?" the North Korean organizer wondered. "In that case, would I mind contacting the. . . what were they called? Yes, The Beatles, and ask them to come. He wondered if it was a problem if one of them was dead. How many were left? Three? Surely that would be enough."

  These amusing descriptions aside, however, readers will leave Mr. Harrold's book hungry for more detail. In one frustrating example, the book makes repeated mention of a group of four American servicemen who defected to the Hermit Kingdom in the 1960s; two more crossed the Demilitarized Zone into North Korea much later on.

  Despite meeting them a few times, and acting in films (where they played villainous western Imperialists), Mr. Harrold provides scant information about this small group of confederates, left to themselves for 40 years, without even the hope of ever leaving.

  "We chatted, had some meals and drank beers," Mr. Harrold tells me when I press him for more details about the mystery men. "But you have to understand, people become very guarded in North Korea. It's natural."

  Despite being better poised for the task than any other Westerner, Mr. Harrold also steadfastly resists the urge to perform the role of myth-buster. Instead, his is a personal account about one man's journey in the strangest of lands.

  His unassuming accounts of personal misadventures not only illuminate the paranoia that pervades everyday North Korean life, but often border of the absurd.

  In one particularly humorous episode soon after arrival, Mr. Harrold is confronted with irrefutable evidence of being a spy. Searching his room, sleuths found a tag on the raincoat he brought from London: Made in South Korea.

  "In my defense, I said there was a perfectly innocent explanation," he writes. "My country and South Korea were trading partners, and considerable quantities of South Korean goods, clothes included, were exported to the U.K." He cements his argument by noting that such income is essential for South Korean workers who, as everyone in the North knows, are impoverished and exploited.

  But this is a rare turn of rising to occasion and responding to the absurdity in form. Elsewhere, though, Mr. Harrold goes overboard in attempting a dispassionate balance, which, however well-meaning, is frustrating for readers desperate for inside information on the most closed country on Earth.

  "I don't pretend to be pro or anti-North Korea," he says. "I didn't set out to agree or disagree with anything. I didn't set out to answer the critics or the reporters. My book is just about the seven years I spent in North Korea."

  As to whether he feels he squandered the best years of his life in this peculiar paradise, he insists: "Nobody has ever asked me that before!"

  Then he adds: "I do sometimes wonder, what can my son ever say to me to compare with the horror my parents felt when I told them I was off for North Korea?

  "All I can think, is, 'Well, I'm off to join the al-Qaeda!"

Ron Gluckman is an American reporter based in Hong Kong, who roams around the nether reaches of Asia for a variety of publications, including Time, Newsweek and the Asian Wall Street Journal, which ran this piece in its weekend edition in September 2004.

To return to the opening page and index

home.jpg (5606 bytes)

push here