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The Koreas

I made pizza for Kim Jong-il
Part 1: Welcome to megalopolis

By Ermanno Furlanis

One evening in July we were working late at the Pizza Institute in northern Italy where we carry out research on new ingredients for our courses. As usual, we had shown little restraint in tasting new toppings, our excuse being that it would not be ethical to propose innovative combinations without first trying them out on ourselves, and therefore it was all in the line of duty to volunteer as guinea pigs.

One of the last pizzas we tested was an "Oriental" style pizza topped with a filet of smoked goose, shrimp, bamboo shoots and bean sprouts. Needless to say, all of this was copiously washed down with choice libations.

That night in bed I had the distinct sensation the bean sprouts had begun growing in my intestinal tract, the effects of which were periodically interrupting my attempts to fall asleep, when suddenly, and rather rudely at that, my mobile phone rang. The voice on the other end dispensed with the usual preliminaries, and immediately inquired whether I would be available to do a training course in a "distant land". I attempted to stall for time in order to figure out what this was all about, or at least obtain a few more details, but the best I could do was to agree on an appointment for the following day.

It turned out that my caller was a high-ranking cook in one of Northern Italy's swankiest hotels - a Chef with a capital C. He informed me that he had been approached by a group of foreign diplomats who were interested in organizing culinary demonstrations of Italian regional cooking - they were particularly interested in pizza. At first he refused to reveal just where this country was, but he did let on that we would be hired to demonstrate Italian cooking, which is famous for being cheap, nutritious and easy to prepare, in a land which was currently in deep trouble.

This news set my fantasy roaming. In that country, I thought, people would have to learn to cook Italian style because they were in the grip of famine or because they were opening up their economy to the free market. I had no idea where such a place could be and my interlocutor laughed to see my confusion. Finally he provided a hint: "It's a communist country in the Far East".

"Vietnam?" I asked. "North Korea," he shot back. He explained what preparations I would be expected to make for a meeting with the North Korean delegation which was take place in a few days time. He warned me to be ready for a real grilling in the third degree, "They can't afford to make another mistake."

I showed up for the interview in a state of some agitation, but also more than a little amused. After all, I really had nothing to lose, at the very worst I would be out on a trip. I entered the reception room on the fourth floor of an old shipping house in the historical center of town. There was something surreal about all this. First the Chef introduced me to a personage I will refer to as the Young Man, a Korean who spoke Italian reasonably well and made strenuous efforts to smile the whole time in order to put me at ease. In typical Oriental fashion, his manner revealed measured doses of trepidation or worry, as the need arose. We were waiting in this austere old reception hall for the Old Man to arrive, and when a figure made an appearance the already strained atmosphere became even more somber. Even the Young Man's smile seemed to fade.

The Old Man did not speak our superfluous language nor did he bother with pointless smiling, but he did scrutinize me up and down with the razor slits he had in the place of eyes and then ensconced himself at one end of the regulation conference table. On his right was the Young Man whose job it was to interpret, on his left the Chef and myself. I felt my amusement rapidly ebbing and my agitation rising.

The interrogation was probing and systematic: Why had I chosen this line of work, for how long had I been doing this job, in what capacity, where had I worked, did I have any references, where could they test my products.

No matter how many honors I pulled out of my hat, diplomats, activities in Spain, Portugal, courses in Switzerland and Slovakia, regional courses, the Old Man's stony visage failed to betray the least sign of interest. He and the Young Man twittered to each other in their language through which I could detect a good deal of nervousness intermingled with unrelenting skepticism of me.

I decided to take the bull by the horns, and after a particularly heated exchange in which the Chef took my part and attempted to win over the Old Man via the rather more malleable Young Man, I exclaimed. "If it's any help, I can speak Russian." A sudden hush fell over the room. The Old Man lost in thought stared at the Young Man, who in turn looked searchingly at the Chef. Then a faint crack appeared in the plaster cast of the Old Man's features: a kind of grimace which one might have taken for a smile. His voice seemed calmer now. He said something to the Young Man who translated in a manner that finally seemed at last friendly, confidential and, surprisingly, almost intimate, "I think we might be able to reach an agreement."

And so I found myself "drafted". I suppose I should have been happy about this prospect, but I was even more worried than before.

A few days later I was called in for my confirmation. This second meeting was over quickly. We were told that we would be leaving in 15 days. We asked what we were supposed to do for the ingredients and utensils which we would need to prepare our dishes and which we could not substitute with ingredients in Korea. They just told us to write out an order for a wholesaler and to have the merchandise together with the bill sent to them.

They especially stressed that we should spare no expense. At the end of this we were handed envelopes with our compensation - all cash and in advance. This led me to believe that we were dealing with a government, even though they were at pains to refer to a hypothetical "company". In all of my previous experience in any part of the world, payment was always the last business to be taken care of, and then never without either greater or lesser degrees of tension: it just happens to be one of the thorns in the rose of capitalism, known as "negotiation". Fifteen days later, the Chef and I and our wives were waiting to change planes in Berlin en route from Malpensa to Pyongyang.

Arrival and sequester
The fact that I had read George Orwell's book 1984, with its descriptions of Big Brother's enormous face posted everywhere was certainly not a fortunate coincidence. Already upon landing we could see huge pictures of North Korea's ex-president-cum-sovereign welcoming us from the inside of the airport. Check-in was a laborious affair presided over by a little man in an impeccable white uniform wearing a police cap which seemed many sizes too big for him. He scrutinized our visas with great care, turning them over and over again in his hands.

One of our suitcases was missing, our weariness and confusion indescribable, when the tension suddenly lifted with the appearance our "savior", our guardian angel and protector, a man who would never let us out of his sight for the entire duration of our stay - our joy and our despair: the imperturbable Mr Om. He was a typical Oriental, of slight but sturdy build and around 40 years old, seemingly defenseless but armed with the same well-trained smile I had seen before on the Young Man.

He greeted us cordially and immediately made us feel comfortable. But while he was busy doing this he also deftly appropriated our passports and visas which somehow disappeared and which we would not see again until we were ready to leave. It was clear that Mr Om was a man of considerable experience and culture. He was thoroughly familiar with the Western ways and his English was flawless: He used a variety of refined expressions I had trouble understanding. Actually, we had been told we would be meeting a certain Mr Pak, who was evidently someone much higher up.

We were very much impressed by Mr Om's attractive grey-blue linen suit which reminded us of the get-up Mao Zedong used to wear on official occasions. Given how hot it was we asked whether he could procure one for us since we were literally bathed in perspiration. Then a black Mercedes arrived, with darkened windows and the standard six doors. Once inside, our baggage stowed away and under the cool flow of the air conditioning, we were finally able to relax.

I took an instant liking to Mr Om and had the feeling I had known him for a long time. We started to pester him with questions. We especially wanted a Korean-English dictionary. It was no doubt this request which must have led him to classify me as a troublemaker because he replied with an embarrassed grin and shortly thereafter bestowed on me the epithet "Ermanno, eh,eh, my best friend." On the highway leading to Pyongyang I was engaged in taking in the view, and this didn't seem to be very interesting at all. A more or less desolate countryside with vegetation resembling our own, acacias and broad leafed deciduous trees - irritatingly familiar after all the distance we had come.

But there were also the crowds of people walking along the sides of the street or just waiting around whose faces and complexions were so different, the cyclists in their cone-shaped hats, all of which made me feel I was staring at a page out of my old geography book. The city itself emerged abruptly after about half an hour, enormous and monumental. I was looking forward to getting to the hotel and having a nice shower, making a phone call home and then slipping out and exploring this grey cement jungle covered with huge signs in red letters which I would be able to decipher thanks to the dictionary Mr Om had promised me.

But such was not to be. We were not heading for the Hotel Koryo - and this was the first of a long series of surprises. As we drove along a tree-lined avenue we began to notice some rather peculiar sights. At first we didn't think anything of them, but as the days passed these sights became increasingly frequent and increasingly odd: groups of scantily clad people standing around the ditches lining the river apparently engaged in washing their clothes. It must be the heat, I thought.

Presently we came to an enormous gate at the end of an avenue with a guard inside a building. A green light flashed on the hood of the car and the gate rose. The guard made a kind of queer waving gesture at us as we passed and suddenly we found ourselves inside a magnificent park with trees and flowerbeds and fountains and manicured lawns surrounding a strange building made up of two square shaped wings each about 150 meters long, one of the wings was four floors high, the other was lower and had no windows at all; the two wings were connected by narrow lower structure. There were no signs in this hotel, no reception counter, no room keys. A boy in white appeared to take our bags. By now it had dawned on us that we were not in fact at the Hotel Koryo. I demanded an explanation and Mr Om replied in his affable way with a smile, "Ermanno, don't worry, we have time."

Well, I was too tired to pursue my questions so I decided to take events as they came. The building which we entered was positively splendid, inlaid with white marble and lined with a few very beautiful plants. No pictures here, no furnishings anywhere and most of all a total, spectral silence. There was not a soul to be seen. Even without the air conditioning there was something vaguely cold and inscrutable about the place. To our right, a big salon stretched before us with armchairs and tables and false ceilings and wood paneling. Mr Om deposited us here and then vanished.

A short while later an elderly lady materialized, scrupulously silent, with drinks. She kept smiling all the time and backed away to the door bowing. After a few minutes we were shown to our rooms by yet another young man in white as silent as a mouse. Finally we would be able to make ourselves at home and relax. The rooms were magnificent. Real suites each with a big sitting room, an immense bedroom, bath and various halls. The sitting room came with a desk and a well-stocked library.

The phone rang. It was the Chef from his apartment and telling me to turn on the television. I did this while pouring myself a drink from the beverages I found in the refrigerator. Incredible: it was like going back in time. They were showing war scenes with epic hymns playing in the background and subtitles. It was somehow reminiscent of karaoke. Military parades accompanied by threats. I clicked to the other channel: This was intended to be some kind of comedy with all the actors wearing uniforms. For the whole time we stayed in the capital this was the only fare they offered - apart from very brief news bulletins which dealt exclusively with domestic events.

The phone rang again. It was Mr Om and he was expecting us for lunch. I told him not to bother because we had all eaten more than enough in the plane, but this did not phase him. He explained graciously but firmly that the "program" was something sacred and that it could not be altered in any way. Later we figured out that it was other people who decided on the program and Mr Om had no choice but to give heed.

As an ex-army officer myself I deduced that it was a form of military behavior, and then in a flash everything became clear: that was why he had laughed when we asked for the linen suit - because it was a uniform, and the funny wave by the guard at the gate was really a salute. I looked out of the window: the North Korean flag was fluttering from a pole in the middle of the lawn just in front of a little rise leading to a driveway, a driveway which Mr Om had especially warned us not to take.

It all had the look of a military base. But where did the driveway lead? I remembered that when we were on the road just before turning off I had seen a gate with soldiers. So this was apparently the main entrance to the barracks. I stared at a gorgeous fountain in the beautiful setting of the park, then turned back inside the room. Here we had every modern convenience at our disposal and yet I had a sudden sense that we were trapped. None of the telephone lines led to the outside world and we were surrounded by a staff of utterly speechless servants. I remembered how our passports had been confiscated: so this was a cage we were in, a gilded cage to be sure, but nonetheless a prison. For the first time I savored the idea of what it meant to be free.

The solemn moment had arrived for "the program" to be announced. According to the plan, our wives were supposed to spend the afternoon in the rooms while we were to go somewhere with Mr Om. The destination was yet another a surprise. They drove us to the other side of town to a big medical clinic. Apart from the staff the place looked to be totally deserted. It was equipped with every type of the most modern looking apparatus. Mr Om explained that we would have to undergo a series of tests, the ostensible purpose of which was to make sure "there wouldn't be any problems". We felt that there was really another reason. They gave us a complete check-up: X-rays, electrocardiogram, brain scan, magnetic resonance imaging, urine samples, and after a good deal of beating around the bush they also managed, tactfully but insistently, to extract a sizeable blood sample from us. I was by now worried out of my mind. Here was proof that we were completely in their power, and they could do with us as they pleased.

At dinner that evening, with my usual bluntness I asked Mr Om what kind of game they were up to, naively adding that I wanted to get in touch with our ambassador. He smiled good humoredly and invited me to "be quiet and enjoy myself". There was no point in my telling him that I wasn't here for a vacation and, anyway, I could see that he probably had a point. So I decided to take his advice. During the next three days they treated us, to all intents and purposes, like real tourists bending over backward to make our stay in this gilded cage a pleasant one, preparing a packed sightseeing schedule for us to visit the immense city.

That night I wasn't able to get to sleep and I ransacked the tomes on the bookshelves. The many books I found there were in various languages, English, Spanish, French, Japanese. Most were horridly boring tracts written by the President-God Kim Il-sung or his son Kim Jong-il. They went to great lengths to expound the not very controversial idea of the self-determination of people, which is after all a pretty simple concept to grasp, and which has become increasing popular around the world - though these two authors can hardly take credit for having invented it.

Their guiding principle or philosophy is known as juche which is more like a kind of secular religion than an ideology and whose main tenets are the unqualified adoration of the Founder and his Successor. Apart from other texts in this vein, I also found a book in English which provided a good explanation of customs, food and other characteristics of the country. I was particularly struck by the fact that the book kept referring to Korea as a single nation and that the current division was only a temporary state of affairs. This impression was later confirmed whenever I was able to broach the topic with the few Koreans I met when I was out of sight of Mr Om.

A village in the shape of a megalopolis
The next day we began an enthralling albeit officially supervised tour of the city. My first impressions were confirmed: this was an absolutely immense megalopolis adorned with gigantic buildings and monuments of unimaginable proportions in perfect Oriental opulence. Mr Om explained that the entire city had been razed to the ground during the Korean War and only a few dozen structures date before that time, a couple of beautiful old gates with the characteristic pagoda-style roof, a building here and there with a patio along the riverside: Mr Om said that seven bombs per square meter had fallen on Pyongyang, which is some kind of world record.

After the war, an immense effort of reconstruction was undertaken, it seems, mostly for the purposes of show. One must try and picture wide, endless avenues which had been planned for a future city traffic which never materialized, flanked by futuristic skyscrapers reminiscent of San Paolo in Brazil, all of which are regularly interspersed with monuments three, four or even 10 times the size of our Victor Emmanuel monument in Rome, and just about as tasteless. From behind every corner murals leap out at you depicting legendary scenes from the life of the Leader-Hero and his family.

The captions everywhere, written in huge red letters, provide an element of unity in what would be otherwise a hodge-podge of imperial and capitalist styles. By now I was able to decipher a few of them myself: the one which recurred most frequently was: "Kim Il-sung Tongji Manse" which translated means "Long live [or long life and glory to] comrade Kim Il-sung". We were able to get an idea of just how grandiose this city was when we went to the top of the Tower of the Idea of juche: a swift elevator ferried us up 80 meters of reinforced concrete which overlooked a complex of gardens and fountains along the river and an enormous glittering bronze monument bearing the symbol of Korean communism: a sickle, a hammer and a brush (the implement traditionally used for writing) and which represents the intellectual class. The place was astounding. Rarely have I ever seen monuments of such dubious taste displayed so harmoniously and to such theatrical effect.

The heat and humidity were unbearable and a heavy grey pall hung over this imposing exhibit of power. There was also a kind of bleakness in the air which you could see in the faces and gestures of the inhabitants. The only note of color was in the children perfectly arrayed in their uniforms of white shirts, blue skirts or trousers and red handkerchief. There were entire squadrons of them parading the streets by the hundreds. They were especially noticeable whenever you came to a bridge where they formed up in a long line. Particularly charming were the fleets of little boats bearing young couples or groups of friends along the canals and water courses and the men playing the game "go" in the parks.

We also saw a number of painters at work; art is held in very high esteem and practiced as much as possible. But as soon as you looked behind the facades what you saw was a ubiquitous, unremitting grey. At the foot of these space-age buildings, tied to a tree you sometimes could catch sight of a goat waiting to be milked or chicken and a great many ducks for eggs. In denial of appearances the city was eking out a bare subsistence.

A closer examination of the walls and door frames of public buildings (but not the monuments which were always perfectly maintained) revealed that they were more or less falling apart. Often the windows were without panes, and indoors at twilight the lighting was so poor it reminded me of candle racks for the dead in an Italian church. If you added to this the rarefied traffic - the odd Trabant or high-powered luxury cars with darkened windows - the overall effect was distinctly lugubrious, especially in the evening.

A visit to the underground only confirmed these feelings. The tunnels looped down almost a hundred meters beneath the surface and riding the escalator felt like a descent into Hades. Strange shrieks like laments emanated from the loudspeakers on the wall singing the glory and magnificence of Him. At the bottom you could see thick anti-radiation shutters fixed into the side walls which, if ever the need arose, could turn these tunnels into nuclear shelters. This explained their great depth: their primary purpose was to serve in case of a war. The North Koreans, as Mr Om explained, are a people living in a state of siege, constantly expecting an attack. When a train finally pulled in we were swept off our feet by a human tide: the crowd one invariably encounters in the Orient where the individual counts for little and only the Leader is important.

It was at this point that I became aware of an unusual detail which had been straining for some time to surface to my consciousness: everybody here, without exception, male and female, young and old alike, ugly or beautiful, those toiling or resting, absolutely EVERYONE in North Korea was wearing a little pin on the left side of their chest above the heart with a portrait of the Leader, what they called "the Badge". The coming days only served to confirm this observation. Only a very few individuals didn't wear the badge and this was a highly significant fact. We were propelled along by the crowd up and out of the catacombs.

I still had a lot of unanswered questions about the inhabitants. In the downtown area near the big hotels and well-stocked department stores the people you saw were elegantly dressed, probably soldiers or diplomats and their families or foreigners, a great many Chinese, dwindling numbers of Russians. But as soon as you got out of the center of town whichever way you turned you caught sight of people squatting on their heels, their legs folded under them as if doing knee bends. They appeared to be waiting around for something - though it was impossible to tell what this might be, or how long they had been waiting for it, or how long they intended to go on waiting. Some gave the impression they were hanging around waiting for their clothes to dry, others were grouped around old lorries without wheels raised up on cinder blocks. Maybe they were waiting for their friends to come back who had gone off hours ago to repair the wheels, others I found out later were engaged in the business of cutting grass.

Outside our enchanted garden where the grass was impeccably mown I noticed that most of the lawns had a scruffy look and I could find no explanation for this. Well, the explanation was that the job of cutting grass was assigned to work details of hundreds of laborers scattered all over the lawns. These people were armed with tiny scissors and they cut the grass leaf by leaf stuffing the proceeds into special bags. What an imaginative way to achieve "full employment" I thought. I made several attempts to photograph these scenes from the middle ages, but every time I lifted my camera lens the grass-cutters would all stampede away in panic.

Once I did manage to get a shot of their backs as they fled, and it was only Mr Om's generous intervention which prevented an irate foreman from seizing my camera. As for all those others I saw out in the country, people asleep at night in the middle of the roads, forcing our car to weave around them in dangerous evasive manoeuvres, people standing immobile in thick woods, or inside a cold tunnels, old men embracing their grandchildren, stock still out in the middle of deserted fields, far away from anything or anyone, for all those other unforgettable images of people indelibly stamped on my memory, I have no idea what they were doing, nor did Mr Om or any of his colleagues, no matter how much we prodded them, ever provide us with a plausible explanation. But the facts would emerge only after some time. For these first few days the bluff held. Our hosts still had a good many tricks up their sleeve.

NEXT WEEK: We finally see action

Previous articles in this Heartland series on the issues relating to the Korean peninsula include:
* Fig leaf Jun 15

  • A Chinese viewpoint Jun 15

  • The price of uncertainty: What Koreans want Jun 20

  • Why China needs one Korea Jul 5

  • The peninsula's imperfect past Jul 21

  • A handbook for good Koreans Jul 27

    ((c) Heartland. This version has been edited by Asia Times Online.)
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