Tell-all about the North has almost nothing to tellWhy would a single Englishman in his 20s choose to spend seven years in North Korea, with sporadic power at his apartment, frequent cockroaches and never-ending state control of everything he does?
Michael Harrold never really tells us.
As a tell-all book, “Comrades and Strangers” doesn’t tell much, and as an insiders’ view of the isolated state, there is little new information or insight, other than some interesting anecdotes.
The author admits as much himself, on page 390, in the last chapter of this plodding and dull memoir.
“For seven years I was shielded from the North Korean reality,” he writes. “I learnt the language up to a point and I had friends, but still barely scratched the surface of what North Korea was all about, what the people there really thought.”
Harrold writes that he went to North Korea in 1986, almost on a whim, when he spotted a notice for someone to polish the English translations of the Great Leader, Kim Il Sung. He left for Pyongyang knowing next-to-nothing about the country, expressing surprise when there was not a taxi to pick him up at the airport. Harrold says he was the first Briton to live and work in North Korea.
The Ansan Guest House became his home, along with a handful of other foreign translators who spoke French and Spanish.
The first thing that happens is his pay is cut to half the advertised amount. He doesn’t like it, but does nothing about it.
Later, when that happens to another newly arrived translator, he asks for an immediate return ticket home. The authorities decide not to cut the new hire’s pay after all and soon after the author gets his promised amount, too.
Again, Harrold doesn’t say how much that is. He complains that the natives are always asking him for freebies such as beer or cigarettes because of how much he earns, but also notes he is getting paid 10 times or more the typical North Korean’s salary.
Much of the memoir deals with him sneaking past his minders to go out to one of few local bars. He also picks up some Korean and ― to his anger ― has his room searched. The North Koreans get suspicious when they find a raincoat that carries the tag, “Made in South Korea.”
The strangest part of the book has to do with a girl.
The back cover of the book says “He loved, and lost, a young local girl.” Oh, really?
Because the book never says he loved her. In fact, I still can’t figure out what happened. Every time there is a mention of her, the text ― without any warning ― shifts to italics. It also becomes incomprehensible. I found myself re-reading passages several times to try to understand what happened. In his last passage about her, he says the girl mentioned something to him about a meeting, so he would alternate between two different hotels trying to meet her.
“Eventually, I’d asked one of the girls in the Koryo [Hotel in Pyongyang] what happened to her,” he wrote. “At first, the response had been knowing smiles; she hadn’t married, they’d said; she just wasn’t working there any more. But as time passed, they had started shaking their heads, sadly, but not disapproving of me. They had still called me a ‘good person.’” So, what does that mean? He apparently never meets her again.
The strange thing is, despite all the restrictions, Harrold dreams of marrying a Korean girl and joining the Workers’ Party in North Korea. If that happened, he would ask others, would he be allowed to take his wife out of the country?
Naively, he apparently has no idea that North Korea frowns on inter-racial marriage and that his chances of getting such a union approved were about as good as Kim Jong-il stepping down for early retirement.
Through it all, the author has lots of positive words about North Korea, its free health care for all and even the “unifying” factor that a dictator such as Kim Jong-il creates. He says he doesn’t fully support communism, but admires the “commitment to providing for all the people.”
He also seems unaware that North Koreans face jail, or worse, for speaking against the regime. “I’d never really understood the philosophy the people were supposed to believe in,” writes the man who spent seven years polishing Kim Jong-il’s speeches, “but I’d respected them for their belief.”
A little more understanding might have been a big help to this book.
by Brian Breuhaus