About the Author
View more articles by Camila Stub
Camila Stub, a pseudonym, worked in North Korea as a development worker for four years.
This is the second part of a weekly series written by a former development worker in North Korea. Read part one here.
The extreme silence of this city wakes me up in a jump. Or perhaps it’s the fear that I have of this apartment: so big, so odd, so empty. The moon is setting behind the Juche tower. I try to gather my thoughts and remember what I’ve done so far.
The day before that I was so confused I couldn’t retrieve any Korean words from my memory. I went to the shop located in the middle of the diplomatic village and found some Nutella with writing in German, for an incredibly high price. I am still asking myself if I want to spend that much money on a jar of chocolate.
The city must be somehow polluted because all the windows are covered in a layer of thick, black dust. It must be the massive use of coal and the chimney located just in front of my flat.
Nevertheless, Pyongyang smells like flowers and trees. It seems huge and I am afraid I’ll never be able to get oriented. But the few expatriates I have met told me to relax: it is impossible to get lost in Pyongyang. I don’t quite understand what they mean, but I believe them.
Around, there a lot of military people with whom I do not know how to behave. I’d like to ask advice to my professor, but for the time being, I have no internet at home, and no telephone. On the contrary, I have been brought by “my personal Korean”, my minder, to the communication building, to buy a mobile phone.
Oh, let’s not exaggerate. It is more like a walkie-talkie, that can be used exclusively to call landline and mobile numbers belonging to expatriates. There is no way to call any Korean, nor to be called. The numbers start all in 1912. It does not take me long to understand that it is not a coincidence: it is the year zero of the Juche era.
Pyongyang smells like flowers and trees
The mobile company is a sort of joint venture between some governmental entity and Egypt’s Orascom. There is only one model of mobile and it is outrageously expensive. But I have not hesitated a single second. Something tells me that, at least until I’ll get an access to the internet, it will be essential to my survival.
Looking at the tower out of my small terrace, I also remember that I have no passport, as I had to hand it into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for all the bureaucracy related to my arrival.
Although all the expats I have met so far told me that it is normal, and that it is normal for the Ministry to keep it for something like two weeks, and that it is normal for the foreigners not to complain, and that all this living without passport for weeks every time one enters the country is also normal, I have the feeling that I will have to revise my idea of normality and that somehow all the people living here have done so already.
The city and the house look like they never left the seventies. Once more, the first impression is of surreality. I have seen many people in the street, kids squatting in the grass and men on bicycles.
It is clear to me that most of those people are, for me at least, off-limits, and I don’t even think about approaching any of them. But I have pushed to immediately get an appointment with my counterpart, to see when I can start working. So far, no answer.
But overall, the city is beautiful, in a way that reminds me of Havana. Perhaps for its diffused decadence, perhaps because everything is so stuck in the 70s, perhaps for the people cooking on their small coal stoves outside their building at sunset.
I have the feeling that I will have to revise my idea of normality
Or maybe for the rest of the massive Bulgarian compound, where I live, which makes me think about the past feasts and luxury that must have taken place when at least one hundred Bulgarian citizens lived here back in the old days.
I have bought two different kinds of rice but I do not know how to cook them. The old gas barrel looks all but safe. But I am excited about this adventure.
I might well be the only person not asleep in Pyongyang at this time of the night. The city sleeps, with no derogation and no exception. I feel lucky.
Edited by Oliver Hotham