A look back at The World Festival of Youth and Students in Pyongyang, 1989.
This July marks the 30th anniversary of Pyongyang’s World Festival of Youth and Students. Michael Harrold, who was working as a resident translation editor and polisher in Pyongyang at the time, looks back at Pyongyang in 1989.
I have a theory, although it’s admittedly rather vague and probably of very little interest to anyone now. It’s this: That in 1989, North Korea was preparing to “open up”.
I have no real idea what this opening up might have entailed. As for evidence, well, I’ve got precious little to offer. It amounts to scarcely more than the opening, early in the year, of an international communications centre, which hinted at a more positive attitude on the part of the authorities to contact with the outside world; and the ongoing construction of the world’s tallest hotel, which suggested that more visitors might be welcome. And then there was the decision to allow 20,000 foreigners into the country in the first week of July, for the 13th World Festival of Youth and Students.
To understand what a remarkable event this was, a little historical background is required. The DPRK – to give the country its official title – was, in 1989, led by its first president and founding father, the “great leader” Kim Il Sung, although it was generally believed that the day-to-day running of the place was by this time in the hands of his son and anointed heir, the “dear leader” Kim Jong Il (who was also widely thought to be the main sponsor and organizer of the World Festival of Youth and Students). Internationally, socialism was alive but, as it turned out, not very well.
It was a time when the world’s interest in Korea, which had been virtually non-existent since the War in the early 1950s, had recently been revived ahead of Seoul hosting the Olympics the year before. Still, very little was known about North Korea – a state of affairs that was apparently encouraged by a government that demonstrated extreme reluctance in granting visas to journalists. The country’s isolation was reflected in the tiny size of Pyongyang’s foreign community, consisting of embassy staff from friendly socialist and non-aligned countries, several dozen mainly Chinese students, three elusive US Army deserters, a university lecturer or two, and a handful of language specialists employed by the Foreign Languages Publishing House, of whom I was one.
I’d been living in Pyongyang for two years by the time of the World Festival of Youth and Students, and had been planning to leave. But suddenly it seemed that a stiflingly mundane existence that consisted, by day, of sitting alone in an office, pencil in hand, correcting English renditions of local propaganda and, by night, of wandering from one largely uninhabited hotel bar to the next, was about to be dramatically transformed – if only for a week or two.
For months in advance, everyone was talking about the “sibsam-cha”, as the 13th Festival was referred to. The preparations featured prominently in the news, and people I knew, from work colleagues to my class of students, from taxi drivers to casual acquaintances, wanted to know what I would be doing, what I was looking forward to most, and if there would be a delegation from such an unapologetically capitalist country as mine – the UK. Younger translators at the publishing house told me cheerfully and proudly about their contribution; during their “Friday labour” (it was the practice for office workers to be “mobilized” every Friday to do some form of physical work) they were helping to build a block of flats on Kwangbok Street, the brand new urban development where the bulk of the foreign guests would be housed.
In fact, the whole of Pyongyang was getting a makeover. Streets and houses were being spruced up, and the new construction projects included a sports village and several hotels. Everything was being done on a grand scale, with expense apparently no object – nowhere more evident than on a small island in the Taedong River, where the biggest stadium in the world would officially be opened on May 1st.
It’s said that 150,000 spectators filled the May Day Stadium for the Festival’s opening ceremony, a colourful and noisy celebration of Korean culture featuring 70,000 singers and musicians, acrobats and mass dancers. There was also an Olympic-style parade of participants and torch-lighting. Far away to my right, I could see the main podium and, presiding over proceedings, the genial figure of Kim Il Sung, sitting between two African leaders who were at the time leading lights in the non-aligned movement – Robert Mugabe and Julius Nyerere.
As for the week that followed, I’m afraid that I had very little involvement in the mixture of political and cultural activities that were the main organized agenda items. The various national delegations hosted “clubs” – temporary premises scattered across Pyongyang, where young people put on regular concerts and talks, exhibitions and other events showcasing their country’s achievements in the arts and sciences, politics and the economy. I did make the effort to go to the tiny British club where – if memory serves – the dominant theme was “Troops Out of Ireland”, a fixation which seemed rather to ignore the more sociable side of things.
Then again, at an event for socialist and progressive young people and held under the slogan “For Anti-Imperialist Solidarity, Peace and Friendship”, there was, inevitably, a powerful political element. Forums, rallies and other meetings were held, on subjects ranging from the national liberation struggle and socio-economic development, to disarmament and a new international order – themes that very much reflected North Korea’s global preoccupations. Ironic though it may seem now, a “tribunal” was held at which – so I read in a report – “the delegates called for the elimination of the clouds of a new world war, a thermonuclear war, brought over mankind by the reactionary imperialist forces and for the abolition of nuclear weapons and other arms of mass destruction.”
My non-Korean colleagues at the publishing house, from “friendly” Cuba, East Germany and China, were invited to such events; but not me, presumably because of suspicions over my capitalist-imperialist background. I did, however, warrant an invitation to one memorable cultural event, an afternoon spent at the unlikely venue of the Tomb of King Tongmyong in the Pyongyang suburbs. There, on the lawns adjoining the burial site, crowds of young people from all over the world witnessed a traditional Korean wedding in which, we were assured, the brightly-clothed happy couple did indeed tie the knot, while elsewhere we could watch, and even participate in, Korean folk games including wrestling and seesawing.
Above all, the World Festival of Youth and Students was, for me – and I suspect many of the participants – a social event. The hotel bars where I’d been used, more often than not, to sipping a beer or two in my own company, became venues for impromptu parties, where young musicians brought their instruments and kept the assembled crowd singing and dancing until the early hours of the morning.
Even more exciting, as far as I was concerned, was the “night market” held every evening in Kwangbok Street, where the road was lined with stalls selling food and drink. Here, I encountered young people from Africa and South America, Eastern Europe and Asia. More memorably, I met Koreans I knew – drivers and interpreters, businesspeople and tour guides – who not only seemed delighted to run into me, but even invited me to sit with them and join them for some food and a drink. In a country where unsupervised interaction with foreigners was frowned upon, they would normally have been too fearful even to acknowledge me if they saw me in the street. But now it appeared that, however briefly, the population were being allowed to show their natural warmth and hospitality.
Spectacular and historic though the show undoubtedly was, it was ultimately stolen by a young woman from South Korea, Rim Su Gyong, dubbed by the North’s media, the “Flower of Reunification”. A representative of a radical student organisation called Chondaehyop, by attending the World Festival of Youth and Students she was running foul of the South’s National Security Law and faced certain arrest when she returned there. From the point of view of people in the North, her attendance at the Festival was a self-sacrificing gesture that made her a romantic champion of Korean unity and an object of adoration. From the moment she turned up on a flight into Pyongyang, she attracted cheering crowds wherever she went. She was headline news not only during the Festival, but also afterwards, when she went on hunger strike in Panmunjom, eventually got permission from the South Korean authorities to cross the 38th Parallel, was arrested, and ended up in a Seoul prison.
For months after the Festival, Rim Su Gyong would continue to appear in the North Korean media, but now the images of the cheerful, traditionally-attired girl whom everyone in Pyongyang had fallen in love with, were juxtaposed with those of a woebegone, handcuffed figure dressed in an orange prison uniform.
This was a propaganda bonus for North Korea at the end of an event the main – if not sole – purpose of which had been to demonstrate the superiority of its socialist system. The 13th World Festival of Youth and Students revealed the lengths and the expense Pyongyang was prepared to go to, to show the world, and especially people in South Korea, that North Korea truly was a Workers’ Paradise.
Or maybe there was more to it. Perhaps North Korea really was thinking of “opening up”. But any such plans were to be dashed by events in Eastern Europe later in 1989.