Comrades and Strangers: Behind the Closed Doors of North Korea

Michael Harrold worked in Pyongyang, North Korea for seven years from 1987-1994 revising the English translations of various works by the Great Leader Kim Il Sung. During this time he lived in a guest house and was accompanied everywhere by a guide and often a driver as well. Comrades and Strangers: Behind the Closed Doors of North Korea has the promise of being an insider’s tell-all, full of revelations about North Korea that no westerner would ever know, yet the book was a boring read which was bogged down by sentences that ran on far too long.

When I encounter such long sentences, interspersed with dashes and commas and clause after clause within, I always reread the passage in order to grasp what the author intended to convey. Thus I feel as though I read the whole book twice. An example of a typical sentence on any page: 

“As for the claim that the purity of the ideology needed protection from pernicious outside influences, which had once made sense even though, as a pernicious outside influence myself, I, and hence my acquaintances, had been subjected to restrictions that in other societies would have been condemned as violations of our fundamental rights, it now looked like a desperate argument designed to delude an entire population into seeing the rest of the world as a sinister place best kept at arm’s length, and to hide the unacceptable excesses of a regime from scrutiny by a world in which it had no place.” 

A book review might not usually focus on such features as typeface and font, however the commas in this case were so close in appearance to periods, it did not make for an easy read. I stopped all too often mid-sentence, thinking that Harrold’s clauses had suddenly and thankfully come to an end. When I saw that the following words started with lowercase letters, I realized that the punctuation mark was not a period and that the sentence continued.  

It took me three days to get through the first eighty pages of Comrades and Strangers, and I bemoaned that I had another 320 to get through. Although there might not be much to do in Pyongyang, one’s description of such a state of inactivity does not itself have to be boring. Harrold does pick up the pace and although the sentences were still tedious affairs I eventually took an interest in his life in Pyongyang at around the same time he himself became comfortable living in the city. 

Comrades and Strangers also suffers from an abundance of footnotes, which, in all cases, seem entirely unnecessary. Harrold could have forgone superfluous footnoting and explained his points in a short sentence incorporated into the main text. For example, on one page, he mentions the “demilitarised zone” that separates North and South Korea. Five lines later he mentions the “DMZ”–and assigns it a footnote, defining the abbreviation as “Demilitarised Zone” (note the mysterious lowercase used for this term in the main text and the capitalization in the footnote). Why is there a need to footnote the abbreviation? 

Life in North Korea meant that for his own survival Harrold had to be in a state of constant vigilance. He had to be careful what he said and to whom he said it. He also had to sift through everything that he heard from others, piecing together truths from the granules that remained in the bottom of his gold pan: 

“I’d quickly learned, we had to be guarded about everything we said and who we said it to. Philippe told me to watch what I said to Mr. Choe and Madame Beatrice; Madame Beatrice warned me to be careful about what I said to Mr. Choe; Mr. Choe claimed Philippe and Madame Beatrice repeated to him everything I told them. Philippe told me not to believe Mr. Choe if he claimed that he, Philippe, had told him something because he, Mr. Choe, was probably lying. Mr. Choe told me Philippe was a liar.” 


“Surrounded as I was by minders, I was struggling to keep a grasp on reality; in a situation where everyone around me seemed to be lying, it was a challenge even to know what that reality was.” 


“Naturally visitors were keen to find out what Pyongyang’s long-term foreign residents knew and there was always the danger of letting your tongue run away with you. The trick, I’d worked out, was to nod a bit or shake my head during conversations with inquisitive outsiders. ‘Yes, but from the work I do I can tell you the official line is…’ was always a handy phrase that, while appearing to show a willingness to talk, led merely into a harmless repetition of the propaganda, while ‘A lot of Western media reports aren’t as accurate as they should be’ allowed me to refer to critical comments made by someone else. The point was to appear open to debate, but without compromising myself in the event that someone was eavesdropping.” 

I was pleased that Harrold was objective about the North and that he often refuted rumours and long-standing propaganda from western sources. There is a theme throughout the book, told in personal diary entries, of a verboten romance he had with a North Korean woman. He even gave serious thought to marrying her and leaving his life in England behind. Harrold stays calm and focussed about his appreciation for the North Korean regime and its people even after he gets kicked out of the country. While I wouldn’t say that Harrold was a North Korean sympathizer, I do see how his views about the regime could be softened after living so long among the people that the regime is alleged to repress. 

Frustrating as it was for Harrold and his colleagues to deal with North Korean bureaucracy, it was funny for the reader, and I was treated to sitcom moments throughout the book such as this:  

“Carol, when she left after a largely unhappy year spent revising propaganda condemning her own country, discovered that she hadn’t been American at all, but Irish. She had an Irish passport as well as an American one and when she left she was told she would be put on a plane to Dublin. She argued that she lived in New York, had never been to Ireland and wanted to be flown home, but this carried no weight with the vast bureaucracy that had determined that she couldn’t possibly be American. So she had to pay the rest of her way home, from Dublin to New York.” 

Harrold’s colleague Carol obviously had chosen to use her Irish passport instead of her American one when travelling to North Korea. It didn’t work out well for her in the end, however another American colleague, Miles, learned how to disguise his citizenship in a way that I understand is used by many of my southern neighbours when they travel abroad: 

“Miles didn’t tell people he was American. Whenever he was asked he said he was Canadian.” 

Comrades and Strangers wasn’t as engaging as I had hoped it would be, and all too often a slog to get through, but it was a rare first-hand account of a westerner’s experiences living and working among the North Korean people.

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