In this series of posts, I document my travels to North Korea (formally, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or DPRK) as a tourist in August 2015.
A few years ago, at a party hosted by abigailb, her then-girlfriend Angelina brought along a curious Russian–English phrasebook. It was issued by a Soviet state-run publisher for patrons of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, and contained such hilariously unhip "conversation starters" as "I say, comrade, how is the wheat harvest in the Kazakh SSR this year?" I'm sure the compilers selected the phrases in all earnesty, but the book must have been received by foreigners at the time, as it was at Abi's party, as a colossal joke.
One of my small regrets in life is not trying to buy that book off Angelina, or at least not writing down its title and publication details. That book was comedy gold, but when I tell people about it, they are convinced I'm making it all up. I've never been able to locate another copy, and Angelina has lost hers. Little did I know that, within five years, I'd hit the motherlode of unintentionally risible phrasebooks in Pyongyang.
The Foreign Language Bookshop occupies the ground floor of an unimposing building on Sungri Street, just a few steps from Kim Il Sung Square. Compared to Western bookstores, it's downright tiny, with just one narrow aisle stretching the length of the building. There's only one bookshelf, lining the wall opposite the storefront windows, but packed into its meagre niches is a veritable treasure trove of literary kitsch.
The first book I picked up was a language guide for foreigners, Let Us Learn Korean. This book wastes no time in getting into the truly essential points of the Korean language, teaching readers such phrases as:
|The United States must get out of south Korea. It has no grounds for remaining in south Korea.||Migugun namjosoneso nagaya hamnida. Namjosone nama-isul kun-goga opsumnida.|
|The Korean people long for national reunification||Joson saramdurun jogukthong-irul iril chonchuro kodaehago-isumnida.|
|Such a miracle is possible only in Korea led by the great leader Comrade Kim Jong Il.||Iron kijogun ojik widaehan ryongdoja Kim Jong Il tongji-ui ryongdorul patnun josonesoman isulsu itnun irimnida.|
|I practically felt that the Korean people are singleheartedly united behind Comrade Kim Jong Il.||Uridurun joson inminduri Kim Jong Il tongji-ui turi-e ilsim-dan-gyol toe-yo-ittanun gosul siljiro nukkyot-sumnida.|
|Korea is the people's paradise where there are no beggars and all people study.||Josonun kojido opgo moduga kongbuhanun inminui ragwon-imnida.|
|Pyongyang is clean and beautiful and seems to have the best housing conditions in the world.||Pyongyang-un kkaekkut-hago arumdaulppun anira inmin-durui juthaek jogoneso sesang-eso jeil ingot gatsumnida.|
|All the Korean people are good-mannered, diligent and modest.||Joson saramdurun hanagachi ryejori palgo kunmyon-hamyo sothal-han gosi thukjing-imnida.|
|With the death of Comrade Kim Il Sung mankind lost the legendary hero, great leader.||Kim Il Sung tongji-ui sogoro illyunun jonsoljok yong-ung, widaehan suryong-ul irot-sumnida.|
|Comrade Kim Il Sung was the most distinguished leader of our times.||Kim Il Sung tongjinun uri sidae-ui kajang kolchulhan suryong-isi-yot-sumnida.|
|I want to visit the bronze statue of Comrade Kim Il Sung first to express my condolence.||Uson Kim Il Sung tongji-ui tongsang-ul chaja aedorul phyosi-hayosumyon-hamnida.|
|Here is really people's paradise.||Yoginun jongmal inmin-ui ragwon-imnida.|
Should you suddenly find yourself at a political meeting, the book provides a wide selection of phrases expressing support, solidarity, and unconditional agreement:
|I support you.||Tangsindurul jijihamnida.|
|I support your struggle.||Tangsindurui thujaeng-ul jijihamnida.|
|I support your standpoint.||Tangsindurui ripjang-ul jijihamnida.|
|I support your draft resolution.||Tangsindurui kyorui-anul jijihamnida.|
|I support your independent reunification policy.||Tangsindurui jajujok thongil pangchimul jijihamnida.|
|You are right.||Tangsinui malssumi olsumnida.|
|I give unreserved support to you.||Jon-jjoguro jijihamnida.|
|Your speech encourages us.||Komujogin yonsorul hasyotsumnida.|
|Korea belongs to the Korean people.||Josonun joson saramui kosimnida.|
|We insist on one Korea.||Urinun hana-ui josonul jujanghamnida.|
|We are opposed to two Koreas.||Urinun tugae josonul pandaehamnida.|
|We will always stand by the Korean people.||Urinun onjena joson inminui phyone so-isul-gosimnida.|
Conspicuously absent from this part of the book are any phrases for expressing disagreement, dissent, or even apprehension or uncertainty.
A similar book, Welcome: Speak in Korean contains long vocabulary lists which are less political but just as useless for day-to-day communication. One page, for example, is dedicated to fruits, the vast majority of which are completely unavailable in the country, even for "rich" foreign tourists such as our group. The German edition of the same book, Wir heißen Sie willkommen! Wir sprechen Koreanisch, was first published in 1989 for the World Festival of Youth and Students and doesn't seem to have been updated since. The only option it offers for introducing oneself is, "Ich bin DDR-Bürger" ("I am a citizen of East Germany").
For those who prefer their indoctrination to be more overt, the bookstore also offers a wealth of clearly marked political treatises. In addition to thin paperbacks with such titles as Socialism is a Science and Abuses of Socialism are Intolerable can be found hardcover, multi-volume editions of the complete works of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. For lighter fare, there are Little Red Book-style collections of quotations from the three Kims, as well as illustrated volumes of short biographical (read: hagiographical) anecdotes. There are also plenty of books on Korean history, nearly all of which are concerned with the role of Kim Il Sung in the anti-Japanese uprising and in the Korean War.
I was hard pressed to locate any book not directly related in some way to the Kim dynasty. Even the books on nature and horticulture seemed to have political overtones. For example, the only books on Korean gardening were dedicated entirely to the cultivation of Kimilsungia and Kimjongilia. Possibly the only books I saw without a political slant were those I later encountered in the Grand People's Study House, the showcase library of Pyongyang, but our visit there will be the subject of a separate entry.