NEW YORK CITY – Mirroring the experience of other expats that have lived in North Korea, Erich Weingartner says that when he arrived in Pyongyang in 1997 to head the Food Liaison Unit, a division of the UN World Food Programme, “there was literally nothing for foreigners to do” outside the Munsudong compound within which virtually all of them reside while in-country.
“In those days, they had a bowling alley, which still exists, and we used — we had our daughter’s birthday party there,” Weingartner tells me. “They had a couple of amusement parks in the city; there were some classical concerts you could go to; they had a zoo. I never went, it was apparently pretty sad to see the animals there, but it was available. Other than that, we mostly played volleyball and soccer and so on in the diplomatic compound.”
“The Russians had more access, for example, to a golf course, occasionally some hunting,” he remembers. “They’ve been there so long and have such a huge embassy, they have extra privileges in certain areas.”
But even though Weingartner, now Editor-in-Chief of CanKor, an Ontario-based initiative “seeking rational North Korea policy,” managed to obtain a North Korean driver’s licence (the saga involved an interpreter who “sweetened” Weingartner’s incorrect answers to ensure he passed the oral portion of the exam and a road test that tested his ability to drive up a winding hill and halfway into a circular driveway, then back down to the bottom of the hill in reverse), his movements were still restricted.
“My license didn’t let me drive outside the city,” he says. “There are roadblocks where they check your papers, so I couldn’t just jump in a car and drive somewhere.”
As time went on, continues Weingartner, the first-ever NGO worker (and first Canadian) to be granted resident status in North Korea, “All these UN agencies got bigger and bigger, and all these NGOs from Europe were getting permission to set up, there was nowhere for foreigners to go to, nowhere to let down your hair and not have to watch over your shoulder.”
So, Weingartner and a group of other expats from the tiny international community set up a hangout in the World Food Programme’s building called the RAC, or the Random Access Club. And for the first time, one of the world’s toughest postings became a little bit easier to handle.
“We held a contest as to what to name it,” says Weingartner, “and the ‘Random Access Club’ won because we all wanted random access in the country, but obviously didn’t get it.”
The first step in setting up a bar, was procuring…a bar.
“At the time, there were containers of food that came in via Beijing, through the WFP, and the fellow who was responsible for logistics managed to sneak in a bunch of furniture — including a huge bar,” Weingartner recalls.
The RAC was further outfitted with stools Weingartner brought in from China and assorted cast-offs from the Bulgarian embassy.
“There were a lot of furnishings that the Bulgarians were selling,” he says. “They had a video projector we got for dirt cheap and a big screen, so we started showing movies. Later on, we got a satellite to pull in CNN and the BBC, so we could also project sporting events. It became a real draw for all the NGOs, all the UN agencies, Red Cross people, even people from the various embassies would come to relax.”
The RAC was staffed by members from the different agencies that used the club, explains Weingartner. And, though most published accounts contend the RAC only opened its doors on Friday nights, Weingartner says that “seems to be a later arrangement.”
“Back when we started the club, we had activities most days of the week, for example movie night on Wednesdays,” he tells me. “Every weekend, a different NGO would take over manning the bar, handling sales, et cetera,” he says. “It was really a group effort by the expat community, and we all became very close…it was almost like a little subculture.”
Some time later, Weingartner says “the authorities began wondering” about this “Random Access Club” they were hearing about.
“About a year after its founding, David Morton — at the time WFP Country Director and Resident Humanitarian Coordinator for the UN system — was asked by [North Korean] officials about the RAC,” Weingartner says. “He quickly explained that RAC was really the acronym for ‘Relief Agencies Club,’ and that ‘Random Access Club’ was just a humorous nickname given it by relief workers.
“To their credit, the officials ‘got’ the joke and didn’t make too much fuss about it.”
Weingartner says he was “a bit surprised at how the RAC grew and what importance it took on.”
“All of a sudden visitors wanted to come there, if someone was in town, they would come to the RAC on Friday or Saturday nights,” Weingartner tells me. “In those days, the place was literally crowded with people. In fact, our reputation spread throughout the UN system; there were requests in other countries, Afghanistan, et cetera, to start places like the RAC.”
By the time Weingartner left Pyongyang at the end of 1999, the role the RAC played in people’s lives was already beginning to fade. Over time, there were more options for entertainment in Pyongyang, with fun fairs, skating rinks, and restaurants available. Plus, the advance of technology made DIY amusement less of a necessity. “Eventually, the foreign community could get Internet, email; satellite television is now easy to get, so that meant there were more opportunities for the Internationals in their spare time,” Weingartner says.
Then, as foreign aid organizations were instructed to leave North Korea in 2005 by a regime increasingly hostile to outside aid, the RAC was on its last legs.
Alas, the legendary RAC closed this past fall. According to Weingartner, it was shut down by authorities after a fracas involving a group of French NGO workers.
Felix Abt, a Swiss businessman who lived in Pyongyang for seven years, fills in the blanks. From his Facebook page, which also includes stories collected in his fascinating memoir, “A Capitalist in North Korea”:
In 2012, some French aid workers and a young Belgian employee of a foreign-invested business had the glorious idea of staging a ‘Workers’ Party’ at the RAC. Those participating at this party were asked to dress as workers. Making fun of workers and the ruling Workers’ Party was not amusing the latter. The Party decided to teach the misguided youth a lesson: Visas were not extended for the French aid workers and the young Belgian who has a residence in Beijing got a stern warning. More annoying for other expats was the shutdown of the popular RAC.
His memories of the RAC are fond, but Erich Weingartner has made his peace with the end of the RAC.
“Whoever was involved with this French party, they weren’t very diplomatic, to say the least,” Weingartner says. “And that was the end of that.”