Speaking on Kim Il Sung’s 100th birthday, the youngest Kim’s speech was a major event for North Koreans – Kim Jong Il’s voice was famously only broadcast once. It is an unusual honour, therefore, that the young leader gave the task of bringing his first words to the world to British national Michael Harrold.
Harrold is no stranger to airbrushing the words of North Korea’s leaders. In 1987, he left Leeds University in the UK after responding to a newspaper advertisment to work as an English editor in Pyongyang. For seven years, Harrold corrected the English translations of Kim Il Sung’s and Kim Jong Il’s books and speeches for North Korea’s Foreign Publishing House, while exploring Pyongyang under the cover of darkness.
Today based in Beijing, he continues to work as the political elite’s point man for the most important translation work in North Korea – revising speeches, books and other DPRK propaganda into English.
Harrold’s unique experiences inside North Korea’s political elite formed the basis of his memoirs, Comrades and Strangers. NK NEWS spoke to Harrold for a deeper insight into copywriting for the Kims.
What is it like to be a translator for North Korea?
While Harrold left Pyongyang for good in 1994, he has since rejoined the Foreign Language Publishing House on a remote, freelance basis. Many of the regular monthly publications, the Pyongyang Times newspaper and organizations such as the KCNA now do their translations in-house, mainly due to a lack of email used for communications with outside translators like Harrold.
But Harrold has a certain pedigree among the Kims. Since being based in Beijing, Harrold explains that North Korea regularly sends delegations to meet him in China when speeches and other important texts need translating. Harrold partners with Paul White, a man whose voice visitors hear when touring Kim Il Sung’s mausoleum in Pyongyang:
“He and I basically take care of the English stuff that they have copy-edited, which tends to be books, the published speeches, the biographies,” Harrold says. “Sometimes [a North Korean delegation] turns up with great piles of manuscripts – several volumes of a biography of Kim Jong Il, for example. In that case they’ll stay in Beijing for weeks or months, while we do the work. Normally they come once or twice a year.
“Sometimes, if a speech is deemed particularly important, they’ll make a special trip just for that.”
What was it like being a foreigner in North Korea in the 80s?
Harrold says he became disillusioned by the lack of freedom in Pyongyang and began finding ways to keep amused, exploring Pyongyang after dark. He recalls sneaking out for ice cream and drinking at the Koryo hotel with visiting foreigners. He even fell in love with a local girl. But he says that he, along with the few other foreigners living in Pyongyang, came to accept “we were never going to be integrated”:
“For seven years I was shielded from the North Korean reality. I learnt the language up to a point and I had friends, but still I barely scratched the surface of what North Korea was all about.”
As the famine worsened, so did the expatriates’ access to real life in the DPRK. Around the foreigners’ guest house, a large wall was constructed to prevent them from seeing the local people starving. “There were signs that something was going badly wrong,” Harrold remembers.
“I remember there was a speech that maybe even Kim Jong Il himself made, about people tightening their belts, having two meals a day instead of three. But then again, you have to bear in mind that all the time I was there, the food situation was never great. At certain times of the year you’d get in a taxi or you’d get in the car with your driver or you’d be in a bar and the Koreans would be very conscious of whether it was raining or sunny at the right time of the year, because they knew that depending on the weather, that would affect the harvest, and that would mean they had enough or not enough to eat.”
What’s the truth behind the propaganda?
While North Korean speeches are famously belligerent and hyperbolic, Harrold believes the propaganda masks another, more open, side of North Korea. For example, he notes that as a North Korean copywriter, the rule is never to use a capital ‘S’ for South Korea. But this is not to denigrate the North’s neighbour, as one might expect:
“The official line was that Korea is one country, so you weren’t supposed to put the capital ‘N’ and the capital ‘S’, as this would suggest they are separate countries,” Harrold tells NK NEWS.
In fact, Harrold believes North Korea is more willing to open up to its neighbour and the world than is typically believed.
“I personally think North Korea would very much like to open up, would very much like trade and exchange, cultural exchange, with the rest of the world,” he says. “But I’m not sure the rest of the world is really cooperating very much. I think the implicit or explicit demands – of scrapping nuclear weapons, and therefore their ability to defend themselves, probably changing the political system, and opening up prison camps that they deny even exist – are too great for them to accept.”
What do you miss most about life in North Korea?
Decades after leaving North Korea, Harrold says he misses the country, and remembers it as “fascinating” and “unforgettable”. He misses its mountains, and the peace and cleanliness. And he says that despite living in a world many of us cannot imagine, the North Korean people still know how to have a laugh:
“For the most part, North Koreans are very kind people, friendly as far as they’re allowed to be, and they have a wonderful sense of humour. They can be self-deprecating in what I think of as a quite British way,” Harrold says.
“My impression, after all these years, is quite positive. I have some very fond memories of the Korean friends I made there.”
Illustration from 南都周刊