Whenever North Korea and the U.S. need to engage diplomatically, or when Scandinavian tourists are experiencing mishaps, the Swedish embassy in North Korea plays a critical role.
The embassy is, however, staffed by just two diplomats and, as a recent interview one of them conducted with Swedish national radio reveals, their interactions with locals are limited and daily lives are ridden with inconveniences, frustrations and loneliness.
And even if a diplomat is passionate about helping North Koreans, and about bridging his culture and theirs, bureaucratic obstacles and mistrust consistently stand in the way.
KEPT IN THE DARK
“It’s dark. It’s pitch black.”
The only light that can be seen from August Borg’s office comes from dim lamps on the wires of Pyongyang’s trolleybuses. Throughout the evening and late into the night Borg, 30, often notices “scores of youngsters hanging around” under those lights, reading homework, books or other texts.
He doesn’t even have running water in his residential compound and must shower at his office
Borg, who serves as second secretary under ambassador Torkel Stiernlöf, is also accustomed to carrying a flashlight wherever he goes – especially as he frequently experiences power blackouts in his own home. And when there is electricity it is of “very bad quality,” about “130-watt,” which makes it “impossible to use a computer, a TV or even a couple of loudspeakers.” The light bulbs are dim, and “it takes about two hours to get the oven going on 200 degrees, and about one hour to boil a kettle of hot water.”
For the moment, though, Borg needn’t worry about the kettle: He doesn’t even have running water in his residential compound and must shower at his office.
Another drawback of the housing is that it keeps the residents living in a bubble, and the only Koreans Borg is meeting on regular basis are his colleagues at work.
Even those relations tend to be rather stiff: “It’s not like we go for an after work to have a couple of beers, which is a pity, as I would very much love to do so.”
Indeed, Borg told the radio station that he hasn’t made a single Korean friend during his stay in Pyongyang. It doesn’t help that the average Kim is not allowed to enter his district.
“If I were to invite a Korean for dinner, he would need a special permission from the Foreign Ministry even to set foot in my living quarters,” Borg said.
There is, however, no shortage of company being forced upon Borg.
“I have armed soldiers outside my gate,” he said. “They register us when we arrive or leave home, and who might be accompanying us. The soldiers are taking notes and occasionally make phone calls.”
If Borg or the ambassador want to get out of Pyongyang to visit another city during the weekend, interpreters and drivers will follow them to ensure that they are not “getting lost” on the road.
Borg often feels alone. Every now and then the ambassador – or Borg – will leave Pyongyang for vacation or tasks in need of performing elsewhere. Then there is only one person left to staff the embassy. One such occasion was during Christmas, which Borg found himself spending alone in his dark apartment.
“I was the only Scandinavian in Pyongyang during Christmas evening,” he said. “I was hoping for my parents to come and visit me, but due to the quarantine rules they were not allowed into the country.”
During the quarantine Borg was also not allowed to go shopping in the convenience store that serves the diplomats by selling, among other goods, canned food from Germany and frozen meats. Borg, however, feels he can do without: “The meats are marked so that you know which animal they come from; but there is no marking concerning which part of the animal it is.”
Instead of the meat – which Borg also suspects is being thawed and frozen repeatedly due to recurring blackouts – he eats “an enormous amount of eggs,” as an aid worker once told him eggs are the safest source of protein in places where one has to worry about hygiene. As for lunch, Borg often eats at one of the 10-odd restaurants nearby that accepts the euro.
“We rarely even see, let alone use, the local currency,” he said. And yet, for all the inconveniences, Borg said it is a privilege to spend so much time in a place like Pyongyang, where some people are not even allowed to visit.
“It’s fascinating to go by car and see the traffic police direct the sparse number of cars, and to see residential houses lined with slogans about the leaders or the importance of making fish plantations more productive,” Borg said.
He also had a chance to see Kim Jong Un, standing just 30 meters away from him during last year’s memorial service for the death of Kim Jong Il. Borg estimated about 30,000 soldiers assembled in front of Kim’s mausoleum, which features a podium where the highest leadership was lined up. Borg was just in front of that podium.
“Kim Jong Un was corresponding well to the picture portrayed of him by the media: towering, all dressed in black, with a distinct hairdo and a hint of pathos,” he said.
He also remembers that day, December 17, as exceptionally cold, with fierce winds and a temperature of -14 degrees Celsius: “A large share of the audience was suffering visibly in the blistering cold. That especially goes for the political elite, since they tend to be rather advanced in years.”
Borg also enjoys riding his bike and describes the fantastic feeling of “being all alone, without any cars, on highways wider than Swedish ones.”
He is, of course, aware that the authorities’ primary interest is in showing foreign diplomats the extraordinary parts of the capital.
“There is a new urban district for eminent scientists, where everything is in pastel colors and the playgrounds are filled with Chinese toys,” he said. “But the gray everyday life in Pyongyang, which probably is characterized by a shortage of many simple necessities, I am not really allowed to see.”
The state of things gets even more striking when leaving the capital.
“There are obvious gaps between the small and growing elite in Pyongyang, and the majority of people in the countryside, living in extremely poor villages,” he said. “At any given time of the day there are scores of people walking from point A to point B, whereas in other countries they would might have taken the train, car or a bus.”
‘New initiatives and ideas are always met with deep suspicion’
Borg and the ambassador also want to increase mutual understanding between North Koreans and Swedes, but Borg has the feeling that the authorities neither understand nor appreciate the good intentions.
“New initiatives and ideas are always met with deep suspicion,” he said. “Even if we just want to visit a project that Sweden is financing, preparations need to be made a long time ahead.”
Borg’s working tasks are very “diverse”; apart from visa issues and political working reports for the Swedish Foreign Ministry, the embassy also tries to promote Swedish culture and values. At the moment, Borg is trying to get a Swedish children’s book author to visit North Korea, and just before the interview he had a meeting with the official tourism agency to discuss actions that would get a Scandinavian tourist into trouble.
With the end of the Ebola quarantine, Borg hopes he can travel around the country himself for a bit. On his list is a visit a Swedish-funded project that will supply three health centers with running water. Though Borg is soon to leave his post in North Korea, he “feels strongly” for its people, who he thinks “deserve a life in less destitution and more decency.” He thinks it “unreasonable” that, for example, every bicycle has a registration plate and must be registered upon purchase, just like a car.
As for what he hopes happens as a result of his stay, he said he hopes the Swedish embassy can maintain a dialogue between North Korea and the rest of the world, even though “the dialogue is often being drowned by the harsh rhetoric.”
Main picture: August Borg