About the Author
View more articles by Camila Stub
Camila Stub, a pseudonym, worked in North Korea as a development worker for four years.
The Bulgarian compound, where I live, was completed in 1988. Apparently, until the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Bulgarian diplomatic mission was huge. The embassy alone is a building of several stories, then there is the former residence of the ambassador, and finally the houses for the diplomatic corps. 16 flats – a lot of people.
Now the Bulgarian mission in Pyongyang is basically a one-man-show, the buildings are rented to the World Food Programme and to humanitarian workers. From my window, I can see all that remains of a swimming pool, probably never filled after 1989. I can then admire the elevator, elegantly shut with a cross made from sellotape.
Once upon a time this compound might have been really fashionable: a centralized heater, A/C, and a parquet. Now, its only advantage is the fact that it belongs to the Bulgarian government, and not the North Korean one. This means, as somebody kindly explained to me, that one “doesn’t run the risk to find on the stairs strange people coming from God knows where, and looking for God knows what.” Point taken.
I look once more out of my window. The flame of the Juche tower is on, as usual. I can barely see it through the rain. It rains every day this time of year. They say the rainy season lasts two months, and it has only just begun. Things would be perfectly fine if I could understand how they administer the water. It is becoming an issue for me. I don’t understand when it comes and when it goes and I always find myself with dirty hands at the most unlucky moments.
Today I understood that the big bucket in the bathroom is meant to collect water for an emergency, I filled it up, and things started to go much better. I am sure in a couple of weeks I will be totally used to the shortages.
I have never seen such costly plastic in my life
Many of my days end up being sucked into a black hole of nothingness. Every task requires an incredible amount of time, permission, phone calls from my “personal Korean,” silences, questions, and indecision.
A few days before I literally obliged my guide and the driver to take me around the city looking for a bicycle and for a mop (the role of the driver is still not very clear to me, but it looks like drivers are extremely important people and they know the rules much better than any other). I found a bike in a sort of local luxury mall called Buksae.
The shop was full of expensive plastic from Japan. I have never seen such costly plastic in my life. There were also German beauty products that looked like the final stock of some European warehouse, things I vaguely remember in the bathroom of my grandmother when I was a child. Biscuits from Malaysia were stuffing the shelves and, on the second floor, furniture and Korean-made bikes. But no mop.
I tried to explain to my guide what a mop was, but he had no idea. My neighbor finally lent me his, apparently imported semi-illegally from Italy. He told me there are none in North Korea, but he can lend me his one anytime I want to clean my flat.
Many of my days end up being sucked into a black hole of nothingness. Every task requires an incredible amount of time
One day, taking advantage of a temporary break from the incessant rain, I cycled to the Taedong river. It was full of young ladies training on their bicycles. I enquired with my “personal Korean” and he explained to me that, until the 2nd of July of this year, cycling in Pyongyang had been forbidden for all women.
There are at least two stories related to this rule (of course this wasn’t explained to me by my friend, but I did some research). The economic theory says that women were forbidden to use bicycles when the government noticed that illegal black market was mainly operated by women and wanted to restrict their movement to augment control on their activities.
The romantic theory says that women were recommended not to ride their bikes anymore after a famous movie star, beloved by all the Korean people, lost her life in a terrible accident while riding one. Each of these theories seems mysterious and vaguely surreal to me. Therefore I decided not to enquire and to embrace the change without further inquiry. I sat under the huge shadow of the Juche tower and enjoyed the sight of the elegant ladies trying to ride their bikes along the concrete path of the embankment.
Meanwhile, people were fishing, having an improvised picnic, and somebody was even swimming. Obviously only men. While athletic North Koreans swam in the river, the girls protected themselves from the sun with cute little umbrellas.
It wasn’t too cold yet, and I had been told at the last minute that that day I would not work. Apparently, my colleagues were all busy with some exercise and they don’t need to have me around. Fine. I decided to feel the thrill of a shopping session in Pyongyang. I drove to the city center.
That was the day I discovered that the Diet Coke was officially out of stock. When I arrived in Pyongyang there was no Diet Coke in the country. The fake pizzeria on the river sold Coca-Cola made in Italy, while in the Pyongyang shop they had some made in China. But no sign of Diet Coke.
Until the day somebody opened Haemaji (Sunrise). Haemaji is an incredibly expensive, luxurious and well-equipped supermarket opened in a new district a few months ago: the one built to celebrate 100 years of Juche, it’s nicknamed Dubai, or Manhattan, depending on one’s geopolitical perspective.
Haemaji is full of things that I’d never seen in North Korea: smoked salmon, couscous, and Diet Coke: produced in Malaysia and expired 9 months before, but with all the chemical stuff sitting in a can of coke nobody paid too much attention to the expiring date. The price was honest, less than 2 dollars for a can. Avalanches of silver cans invaded the shelves of Haemaji.
When I arrived in Pyongyang there was no Diet Coke in the country
The expatriate community was affected as usual by what I call nuclear war syndrome and would go there and buy industrial quantities of the cans every day. But then, we slowly realized that the stocks were bigger than imagined. We started to relax. We decreased our purchasing rhythm. Our domestic stocks began to be depleted. That day I went to Haemaji and discovered that the Diet Coke was all gone.
When I asked the sales assistant, she looked at me with a very serious and concerned face, she said she did not know what I was talking about, that she had never seen such thing, that they don’t have “those things” in Haemaji. I have heard this sentence so many times that I gave up. I say yes, and I do not ask why.
In order to get some comfort after this terrible news, I decided to go to the market. There are several markets in Pyongyang. They are pleasant, if slightly infernal places, opening at 2 pm in winter, while in summer they postpone opening until 5 pm, as before it is too hot. They are terribly crowded and nobody can understand if there are more sellers or clients.
The sellers dress in their uniform, a different color for each sector of goods. The customers, embittered by the crowd, the cold, and the wax of the candles, which falls on everything as candles are the only source of light after sunset. Everything can be found at the market, from plastic to fresh meat, to fabrics, carpets and spare parts of cars and engines.
Going to the market is a demanding experience: I never know if I will get out alive or with the things I wanted to buy. Foreigners can officially go to one market only, located at the very edge of the city. But as in many cases, random rules apply and discretion is highly appreciated. A small lady in a dark coat could easily sneak into almost whatever market in town, as long as she does not show a camera, a telephone, or an inquisitive attitude. Of course, a couple of times I was gently but firmly kicked out. I have apologized with one of my best smiles and never faced more serious consequences.
Today I am too tired to risk it, and I drive to the official market, on Tongil (reunification) street. Only when I park in the deserted area I realize that it is Thursday. And Tongil market is closed on Thursday. Of course – the golden rule of Tongil market.
Edited by Oliver Hotham