When walking around Kim Il Sung’s mausoleum at the Kumsusan Memorial Palace, visitors are given special headsets to listen to a recorded guide of the facility. In a sometimes emotionally charged recording, the narrator talks the visitor through the multi-room Palace and describes what the visitors are seeing as they walk. But, to the surprise of many, the voice featured on the English language version of the recording is British.
With the DPRK usually employing local English speaking Koreans for its TV and film productions, it is somewhat interesting that a native English speaker was chosen for the Kumsusan Memorial Palace recording – Paul White. We caught up with Paul to find out more about how he got involved in the project…
1. How did you first become interested in North Korea?
I did what you guys call a “minor” in the Korean language when I was studying Chinese at London University in the 1960s. But I didn’t get to the Far East until 1973, when I worked for five years on the Korea Herald in Seoul. In those days the ROK was a tear-gas-filled jackbooted dictatorship of shivering beggars, described in the Western press as an “economic miracle” and “fledgling democracy.” North Korea was supposed to be worse, but nobody knew because nobody ever went there (There was no official tourism in the DPRK until the late 1980s). Knowing that the Koreans prided themselves on their homogeneity and shared language and culture, I was curious to see for myself.
2. When did you first travel there, and for what reason?
I applied for a visit at the DPRK embassy in Beijing in 1982 (I was working as a journalist in Hong Kong at that time). Two years later I got a midnight phone call in Hong Kong telling me to come to Guangzhou immediately. From there I was escorted to Beijing, got a visa stamped on paper and put on a train to Pyongyang — alone to enjoy the 24-hour trip, no minders — by the way, why do NK bashers always use this cockney slang word meaning a criminal’s bodyguard? Anyway, I had an 11-day propaganda-filled stay for free in NK
3. How many times have you been there?
Eight times. The last time was on a Koryo Tours-organized bicycling trip in September 2011.
4. How and why did you get involved with DPRK authorities through your visits? Was this how you started work with them?
I’ve never been involved with the DPRK authorities. On my first trip I suspect my guide was a middle-aged spook (There was no tourism at that time), but on subsequent trips I’ve found that the guides are all young and professionally trained. There’s no contact with the authorities at all. In 1995 The Foreign Languages Publishing House in Pyongyang came to Beijing looking for foreigners to polish their publications in different languages. Apparently there were no foreign polishers left in Pyongyang at that time. They paid in RMB, and I did, and still do from time to time, some of their English stuff.
5. How were you approached to record the voice-over for the KIS English language memorial program?
The Publishing House people came to Beijing to get foreigners to record the voice-over in different languages. They asked me to do the English one.
6. Where and when was it recorded?
It was recorded in the Korean studio at China Radio International. I had to re-translate the rubbish they gave me, and they seemed happy with that. They then said “Adopt a mournful tone. Make people feel sad!” When I finished, they said, “That was excellent.” I said I didn’t know that I had a talent for making people feel sad. They said, “Oh, yes, you do!”
7. How was it done? Did you go on the tour of the mausoleum first before making the recording?
I didn’t get to tour the mausoleum until last year. All my previous requests were turned down. In fact, one guide even told me that all the foreign-language lamentations had been translated and recorded by Koreans!
8. Did you ever meet Kim Il Sung?
No, never, or any other big shot for that matter.
9. Have you done any work/ cooperation with North Korea as a result of this audio work?
No. I do polishing for the Publishing House people occasionally, but they don’t seem to be aware of the recording, so I’ve stopped mentioning it.
10. What type of work do you still do for the Foreign Languages publishing house?
They come to Beijing normally once a year with translations of publications to be polished. The grammar, spelling and punctuation are normally very good, almost perfect, in English at any rate. But they have a big problem with idiom, which, if you don’t know Korean, can be baffling. They take much more care over the work than the Chinese, Japanese or South Koreans do. Incidentally, there’s a humorous anecdote connected with this. One year, they gave all their English stuff to an American woman called Marsha Marks. She had retired after many years working at the Foreign Languages Press here in Beijing. The following year I received a phone call: “Hallo Paul, this is Kim speaking. How can I contact Marsha Marks?” “Well, Kim,” I said, “I hope you won’t be meeting Marsha Marks anytime soon.” “Hooo! What do you mean?” “She died six months ago.” “Hooooo! She never told us!”
11. Did you ever know any of the other foreign language revisers, like Michael Harrold (author of this must-read book)?
I saw him yesterday, as a matter of fact. He now works for China Central Television. I’ve also known several others who have gone to work there for a year or so. They normally work in Beijing first, and then are contacted by the Publishing House.
12. You mentioned your first trip was in 1984 – what were tours to DPRK like in 1982 compared with today? Hotels, places, guides etc?
I was put up in a hotel, the name of which escapes me for the moment and which was empty apart from a Pakistani businessman and a Cuban ping-pong team. I was taken to the usual places — the Pyongyang metro, the Tower of the Juche Idea, museums, Arch of Triumph, etc. Also to Mount Myohyang. Not to the Pueblo, which was not touted as a propaganda triumph at that time. One thing that did surprise me was that when I asked my guide if I could walk around the city on my own, he shrugged and said, “Why not? You know enough Korean to ask your way if you get lost.” So I did walk around “without a minder.” So much for all that nonsense about them being afraid of foreigners “bringing news of freedom from the outside world”! What they are worried about nowadays is foreigners fuelling the currency black market, chasing local girls and getting attacked by “patriotic” drunks. Children would stop in the street, salute and bow when they saw me. I didn’t actually talk to anybody, but why would you buttonhole a stranger in the street and suddenly realize that you had nothing to say — unless you were lost, that is?
As I said last time, the guide, I suspect, was probably an intelligence officer. He opened a lot of doors. Which is why, incidentally, you need a guide/interpreter there. Nobody can just walk into a museum or similar place without an invitation or someone in authority to say, “Let this foreign friend in.” He told me nothing about himself, but often asked me to estimate things, like a person’s age, the height of a bridge, the number of people in a square, etc. The sort of things military intelligence is interested in. I suppose I was a bit paranoid at the time, so I started to make wildly inaccurate guesses, hoping to convince him that I wasn’t a spy; but perhaps he just couldn’t think of anything else to talk about.
13. Why was your first tour free?
There was no tourism in the DPRK at that time. The only people they let in were Soviet-bloc diplomats and leftist fellow-travelers. But they were also trying to reach out to Western journalists to try to rectify the appalling image that was presented of the DPRK in the Western press. So it was a propaganda tour, basically.
14. Aside from your work with North Korea’s Foreign Languages Publishing House, you also edit and compile “DPRK Monthly”. What motivated you to set up “DPRK Monthly”, and how long has it been running?
I started it in February 2010. I noticed that after decades of being simply ignored, the DPRK is very much in the media spotlight nowadays. And I think that this is because they’re getting their message out — potentially to a worldwide audience in the privacy of their own homes — via the Internet, Twitter, Facebook, U-Tube, etc. This is alarming someone, and a counter propaganda blitz has been organized. We now have NK Economy Watch, Leadership Watch, Tech Watch, and what have you, The Daily NK, One Free Korea, Radio Free Asia, “undercover citizen journalists” (That’s got to be the Orwellian sick joke of the year). I can’t keep up with them, and I’m sure you can’t. Ninety percent of this stuff is misleading nonsense — I know this for a fact. Basically it’s a propaganda Cold War. I felt that some sane and balanced reporting of the DPRK needs to be done, and that business and investment is the key to a soft landing for a united Korea. The North can supply the South with minerals, and the South can supply the north with rice, etc., as well as capital and technology. The sunshine years proved that they can solve their problems peacefully.
Find out more about DPRK Business Monthly here. Back issues can be found at this link.