The Swedish embassy in North Korea is staffed by just two diplomats: ambassador Torkel Stiernlöf and the second secretary Martina Åberg Somogyi.
NK News got a chance to talk with Åberg Somogyi, who has been in Pyongyang since August this year, about daily work at the embassy as well as her personal experiences from living in the country.
Q: What are your tasks working as second secretary at the embassy? Describe a “normal working day,” if there is such a thing.
Given that we are an embassy with just two diplomats, both of us have to engage in most of the matters necessary to run the place.
This obviously includes reporting on political and economic affairs, as well as following up on Swedish humanitarian assistance to the DPRK, engaging with Korean and international counterparts, and issuing visas to DPRK residents traveling to parts of the Schengen area.
You will be at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs discussing recent developments one day, or just making an inventory of office equipment or cursing the visa printer the next day. However, I believe the understanding of all the nitty gritty details behind running an embassy will be of much use in my future career – it’s definitely harder to gain this experience at a bigger embassy.
Q: What about your personal restrictions of movement in Pyongyang and North Korea respectively? To what degree are you allowed to communicate with your North Korean colleagues or other citizens?
I can move around Pyongyang by foot, bike or car fairly freely. So far, traffic guards have only whistled or started waving at me when I have been – unintentionally, of course – about to break the traffic rules.
I have tried to get a hold of the traffic regulations, but it seems like they are not available for us. On a few occasions I have entered a local shop or restaurant, only to be politely informed that these are not open to foreigners. But I am welcome to eat or shop at most places in the capital.
When we wish to travel outside of Pyongyang, privately or for work, we have to submit our plans in advance and sometimes wait for permission. Most often I have to bring a Korean colleague, typically the driver or the interpreter, even if it is a private trip. So far all my requests have been met, but I am also aware that there are places where foreigners are not allowed.
I can move around Pyongyang by foot, bike or car fairly freely
Outside of work, there are few occasions when I can meet or interact properly with any Koreans, so making local friends is difficult to say the least. But I do treasure the daily interactions with the local embassy staff, as well as the staff of the restaurants that my friends and I visit on a regular basis.
Scratching the surface of daily life is extremely interesting and rewarding. I am overwhelmed by the interest and curiosity that many Koreans show regarding recent developments in the U.S. and South Korea, which is also a great opportunity to discuss various aspects of democracy.
Of course, I am fully aware that the interactions with these people, even when they extend to something that resembles friendship, take place within a very strict framework that must not be breached, but this is still one of the most rewarding things about living here.
Scratching the surface of daily life is extremely interesting and rewarding
Q: Two years ago, the second secretary at the time, August Borg, said in an interview that he hardly ate any meat due to frequent power blackouts in the supermarkets. He would have lunch in one of about ten restaurants that accepted euros, and said he rarely saw or used the local currency.
How is the situation with restaurants and supermarkets now, and what currencies are you using?
Pyongyang offers quite a few shops, restaurants and a few markets that are also available to foreigners. The selection in the convenience stores and supermarkets – if one could call them that – is quite limited. You might see an entire aisle full of shiny things, but at a closer look it turns out that it is just an endless amount of canned carrots or whatever happens to be in stock on that day.
But getting hold of decent, simple ingredients is possible, if you visit a few different stores and don’t have too high expectations. Meat, however, is mostly found in frozen and unspecified blocks that fall apart once defrosted.
In shops or restaurants, I would normally use euros, [American] dollars or [Chinese] yuan. Most major places will accept these currencies or a combination, and you should also be prepared to get your change in different currencies.
Most places are very low on change, so it is not uncommon to get the last cents back in chewing gum or candy. Once I even got some carrots back.
Some of the markets or department stores where we are allowed only accept local currency. In these places there is usually an exchange office to get won. I have noticed lately that now and then I will be given won as change when paying in foreign currency.
I always carry a flashlight to get out safely from the pockets of darkness that you will find here and there
Q: How frequent are the power outages and is Pyongyang still “pitch black” in the evenings, as August Borg described it two years ago?
I can’t compare this winter’s power or water supply with last year. But many people tell me that, at least in the diplomatic compound, it’s better than last year. In my apartment, I still notice many glitches in the power supply, but mostly very short, and I can run kitchenware as well as other electronic equipment in an almost normal manner.
Lately there have been power cuts in several of the restaurants. Water supply is usually sufficient during the day, but turned off at night. Since my arrival there have been five to ten days when water was also cut off in daytime.
To my surprise, the city center is still quite bright even in the evenings. There are many streetlights, and most of the neighboring apartment blocks seem to have their lights on. But once you leave the city center it is very dark. We avoid moving around after nightfall and I always carry a flashlight to get out safely from the pockets of darkness that you will find here and there, even in the city.
I live in a fairly big two bedroom apartment in a five-story building in what is simply referred to as the “main compound,” within the Munsu-dong diplomatic compound.
The Swedish embassy has been the tenant of this apartment for quite a few years, and it has accumulated a rather cozy mix of furniture and things from my predecessors. I do have an old TV which has one Korean channel – I don’t use it much except for watching the news occasionally.
Since my arrival there have been five to ten days when water was also cut off in daytime
Q: How, if at all, is the recently reported “building boom” of shops and entertainment facilities visible in Pyongyang?
I am not the first one to notice all the new entertainment complexes and other rather modern, almost futuristic buildings that have sprung up around the city in the past couple of years.
It’s no Shanghai or New York, but for sure much more impressive than I imagined, and I think many people would be surprised if they saw the skyline of Pyongyang.
Q: During the summer, North Korea launched the so-called “200-day campaign” to kick-start its economy and production. What results can be seen from this campaign?
I wasn’t here when the 200-day campaign started, but when I arrived there was a high level of activity on several large construction sites in Pyongyang. But when severe floods hit the north-eastern parts of the DPRK in early September, much of these efforts were redirected to the reconstruction of those areas. The campaign is coming to an end just as we speak, so I have yet to learn about how the leadership will portray the final outcome.
When driving through the countryside, you see that almost every aspect of life is depending on manual labor
Q: What surprised you most during your time in Pyongyang?
I hear a lot of laughter, particularly at the embassy, but also anywhere I go, really. I would love to know what people are laughing about! There is also a very warm and welcoming international community here in Pyongyang. Moreover, I am stunned by the beauty of this country. I have seen scenery outside of Pyongyang that ranges from mountains and lakes to white sandy beaches.
The constant bureaucratic struggle is one of the negative surprises. There is no way to just pick up the phone and ask a Korean counterpart a simple question. You have to write a diplomatic note and wait for an equally bureaucratic response, if any response at all. The tough life outside of Pyongyang is also worth noting. When driving through the countryside, you see that almost every aspect of life is depending on manual labor.
Also, the many prejudices about ”how things are in the DPRK” are quickly proven wrong if you stay here for a couple of months.
Having said that, I am aware of that we live in an international bubble, and even the Koreans we meet inside this bubble live a completely different life outside of it, and even more so outside of Pyongyang.
Featured image: “Main compound” in the Munsu-dong Diplomatic Compound, Pyongyang. Photo: Martina Åberg Somogyi