All I could see was my Bangladeshi colleague’s smiling face peeking at an angle through the door. I was seated on a kitchen chair, the only piece of furniture in the bedroom that was to serve as my office. I was glad for the interruption, because I had difficulty making sense of the file of “monitoring reports” balanced precariously on my knees.
“I was going to ask you where you go for lunch around here,” I responded. The diplomatic compound where the UN offices were located seemed devoid of commercial establishments.
“Normally I eat at home or at the diplomatic club,” said Mahbub,[i] “but today I am going to Nampo port. Do you have your passport with you?”
“The blue one?”
“My Canadian passport.”
“Mmm, that might be a problem. I will check with FDRC.”
The FDRC[ii] was the unit in the Foreign Affairs Ministry that served as official DPRK counterpart to all humanitarian agencies following the 1995 floods. This was in the early days of the relationship, a time when the FDRC was still learning by trial and error how to navigate the precarious fissure between the requirements of foreign agencies and the constraints of domestic regimen.
“The FDRC has forwarded your name to the Port Authority,” Mr. Lim,[iii] our interpreter-guide assured me, as Mahbub and I strapped ourselves into the back seat of a factory-fresh Toyota Land Cruiser. “But we cannot guarantee that they will let you in.”
“A blue passport would have helped,” added Mahbub. He was referring to the baby-blue United Nations diplomatic passports that were carried by all UN personnel. Since I was new to the system, it would take another month before I would be issued proof of my diplomatic status. “There is a guest house for sailors where you can wait for me in case they don’t let you in.”
The old road to Nampo is a concrete two-lane highway hugging the northwestern bank of the Taedong River. It was a rough ride. The icy winters of North Korea had not been kind to the concrete slabs, many of which were broken and leaning at disparate angles. The Toyota shock absorbers did their best to counteract the driver’s reckless speed, but I found myself wondering about insurance coverage in the DPRK.
We passed under the hill where—according to Mr. Lim—the Great Leader Kim Il Sung’s grandfather had spotted the American gunboat SS General Sherman steaming up the river toward Pyongyang in 1866, sounded the alarm of an invasion, and led the four-day battle that sank the ship and killed its entire crew.
The Taedong looked peaceful enough today in the mid-day sun, meandering at a slower pace than our vehicle. Occasionally I caught a glimpse of men hip-deep in the water, tossing nets or holding lengthy fishing rods. Here and there on the side of the road, fishers would dangle their catch of fair-sized carp toward our passing vehicle.
We arrived in the city of Nampo in 40 minutes—a trip that would have taken more than an hour had we driven the indicated speed limit. The driver continually leaned on the horn to disperse adults and children who seemed oblivious to the traffic, which admittedly was almost non-existent. I was surprised by the number of people on the move: more than I had seen on the streets of Pyongyang. Were they on their lunch break? Clusters of men sat on the curb smoking cigarettes. Here and there small groups congregated around ladies selling what appeared to be baked goods.
“Are those private merchants?” I asked Mr. Lim.
“Oh no,” he chuckled, as though embarrassed by the question. “We do not have capitalism in our country.” A full-fledged laugh this time. “Each local area has a block association. Sometimes the ladies get together to bake things for some extra income that will be shared among the families.”
We passed a group of women sweeping the road with long brooms made of branches and reeds. I was impressed by the cleanliness of the city, despite the fact that everything seemed to be painted in shades of black and gray coal dust. Were it not for the fresh green leaves sprouting from the trees, I might have had the sensation of driving into a scene from a vintage black and white movie.
In the city center the buildings were more elegant. The glazed colored tiles covering most facades bespoke of a prosperous past. But many tiles had since fallen off, leaving a patchwork reminiscent of an unfinished jigsaw puzzle.
“Nampo used to be a major producer and exporter of ceramic tiles,” explained Mahbub. “But lack of energy and raw materials has brought production to a stop. Over there you can see workers remove tiles from the walls. They will be sold and replaced by stucco.”
Above and beyond the buildings to my left I could see the tops of giant port cranes. We were approaching the harbour. I was surprised by the close proximity of industrial areas to the heart of the city. A small park with large trees stood directly opposite the heavily guarded gates of the port area. But we did not enter here.
“We first have to get a permit for you from the Port Authority,” explained Lim.
The offices of the Port Authority were in a building that also served as the guesthouse of sailors looking for R&R on dry land. As I discovered, there was more rest than recreation available in the gray-white elongated two-story building. Apart from a basic cafeteria and a Karaoke bar with a pool table, there was not much in the line of entertainment. The building stood in a fenced-off area with guards that were more intent on keeping foreign sailors inside than keeping trespassers out.
Lim jumped out of the car as we stopped at the gate and began what turned into a lengthy debate with the entrance guard.
“We’re not usually stopped here,” explained Mahbub. “But there is a South Korean ship in the port, and the crew is confined to the guest house until the ship is unloaded.”
“Even though they’re delivering humanitarian aid?”
“Well, they’re always afraid of spies. With good reason, I suppose. Maybe you heard of the incident two years ago when the entire crew of a South Korean rice delivery vessel was arrested because the North Koreans observed a South Korean crewman taking photographs from the ship before it even reached the port. They were kept here for 12 days until they had it all sorted out.”
“Was that the time the North Koreans wanted the ROK ship to fly the DPRK flag?”
“No, that was another incident. You will find that North and South never tire of finding ways to annoy each other!”
Mr. Lim had worked his magic. Not only did the guard let our vehicle through the gate, but the paperwork at the office was ready before Mahbub and I had finished our first game of pool.
The gate to the port was considerably more fortified: concrete barriers, barbed wire, and armed guards. The first sentry disappeared into the guardhouse with our passports, while a stern-faced younger female soldier kept her eyes on us, a Kalashnikov strapped to her back. Lim tried to flirt with her, but no amusement could be read on her face. This girl was not enjoying her job.
Just inside the gates stood a mid-sized warehouse of three walls and a roof, its open side facing a quay at which an enormous freighter was unloading its cargo. Looming above us on the bow I could read “OVERSEAS MARILYN” in ten-foot-high lettering.
“I’m not allowed on board,” Lim said, as we were about to mount a gangplank that reached up as high as the roof of the warehouse. “Besides, you don’t need me to interpret here. Is an hour enough time for you to have lunch?”
“Mahbub, am I ever glad to see you!” The booming voice came from a heavy-set man in blue jeans and t-shirt scrambling down the stairs of the gangplank. “Mr. Lim, please stick around. I’m going to need you.”
“It’s the captain,” said Mahbub to me. Then to the captain, “Alex,[iv] please meet my new colleague Erich Weingartner.”
“My wife’s name is Marilyn,” I offered as introductory repartee, pointing to the ship’s name.
“Yeah, well this old tub could be my wife, for all the trouble she causes me. Are you the new port captain?”
I shook my head, eyes wide. I had no idea what a port captain was.[v]
“This is ridiculous, Mahbub. We need somebody who can be here every day.”
“We’re still waiting for his visa to come through,” Mahbub explained defensively.
“Mr. Lim, can’t you do something to expedite this?” Captain Alex barked, irritation in his voice. “The Port Authority asked to see me again. I can’t make out what they want. We’re just about done with discharging and I was hoping to haul out of here before nightfall, but haven’t received the authorization yet. I’ve got other cargo bound for Thailand, and I’m already three days behind schedule!”
“You want me to come with you?” Mahbub offered.
“Just let me borrow Lim here. You guys get on board and have some lunch. Sorry I can’t join you. You can find your way, right?”
When we reached the deck, the size of this ship astonished me. A five-story superstructure towered above us. Three pairs of crane towers reached even higher. Mahbub was less impressed. Only a mid-sized bulk carrier, he told me; probably about 150 meters (one and a half football fields) in length. It had five cargo holds, each with a capacity of 5,000 metric tons. One of the cranes was in the process of lifting a large net holding hundreds of sacks over the side onto the dock, a broken bag leaving a trail of corn across the gunwale.
“We discourage ships that don’t have their own cranes,” Mahbub explained. “Only three of the five Nampo port cranes are even functional. The other two are being cannibalized for spare parts to keep those three operational. Mind you, with the frequent power outages in this country, even the ones that work tend to stop and go. Port delays are very expensive and tend to infuriate captains, as you may have noticed.”
We walked to the edge of the hold with the open hatch. The enormous cavern was almost empty. Far below I could see sailors loading 50lb bags of corn into another net. A lot of corn had been spilled on a floor that looked black and dirty, as though the previous cargo might have been coal. I noticed a considerable stack of empty bags in one corner of the hold.
“Every bag has to be counted, and the loose corn has to be weighed,” answered Mahbub in response to my query. “This is really the worst way to transport grain. Very labor-intensive and time-consuming, with a lot of wastage. Too many bags get crushed in the bottom. No wonder Alex is fit to be tied.”
“So what happens to the loose corn?”
Mahbub took me to the railing so we could look down on the loading dock. Korean longshoremen were using what looked like antique cargo hooks to fling the bags onto a flatbed truck.
“NO!” Mahbub shouted at them. “Don’t use hooks on those bags!”
Some of the men looked up, but had no idea what he was on about.
“No hooks!” Mahbub repeated, then to me in a lower voice: “We keep telling them that the hooks will make gaping holes in these bags. They’ll lose more of the cargo that way. But they’re used to burlap bags. Can’t really blame them. The hooks make it easier to grab and fling the bags.”
“So why aren’t we shipping burlap bags?”
“Too expensive. Woven polypropylene is half the cost of burlap and also much lighter. When you have a limited humanitarian budget, you want to spend as much money as possible on the food to be eaten.”
“Yes, but the wastage, the environment…” I muttered under my breath. My eyes were drawn to the warehouse, where other workers were sweeping and shoveling spilled corn mixed with dust and dirt onto a hill that already reached above their heads.
“Nothing gets wasted in this country,” said Mahbub, anticipating my question. “Whatever of that pile can’t be salvaged for human consumption will be used as animal feed. But have a look over there.” He was pointing to the much smaller ship parked ahead of ours. “That’s the South Korean vessel.”
“What are they doing?” On the landing I could see workers who seemed to be tearing paper bags to shreds.
“I’m not sure what commodities they’re unloading, but those types of sacks usually contain powdered milk or corn-soya blend or sugar. They have a plastic lining on the inside and two layers of paper on the outside. They’re tearing off the outside layer of paper.”
“What on earth for?”
Mahbub began to chuckle. “More games between North and South. The DPRK won’t allow Korean writing on anything entering the country. You will have noticed there’s no Korean lettering on our United Nations vehicles either. But South Koreans keep sending bags with Korean printed on them. Of course, the North claims this is subtle South Korean propaganda.”
“The bags of corn we’re unloading identify USAID as the donor,” I objected.
“Yes, but you won’t find too many local people who can read the Western alphabet. Besides, they also have the WFP logo on them, and since the DPRK is a member state, that seems to be OK.”
“Talk about looking a gift horse in the mouth!”
“It’s a Trojan horse they’re more worried about.”
Mahbub led the way through the corridors of the ship’s “house” and up three flights of stairs to the cafeteria. He knew his way around. The Overseas Marilyn had transported humanitarian shipments to Bangladesh and other places he had worked. Since lunchtime had already passed, the cafeteria was empty. I sat down at one of the six tables. Mahbub followed the sound of clanking dishes in the galley.
A shriek erupted before a contralto voice roared, “Mahbub! What the fuck are you doing in this godforsaken hellhole?”
“I’m a specialist in hellholes, didn’t you know?” Mahbub replied, laughing. “But come meet my new colleague and tell us what’s on the menu.”
Gerda emerged from the kitchen wiping hands on an apron that hadn’t seen a washing machine for a while. She was a good head taller than Mahbub and a lot more muscular. She wore a sleeveless shirt that exposed a tattoo on her deltoid of a red heart pierced by an arrow and the letters MOM in old German script.
“You’re lucky I haven’t done the recycling yet.” Gerda’s booming voice sounded like she had done her training in the engine room. “We still have a great choice of spaghetti with meatballs in the bottom of the pan.”
“Spaghetti was exactly what I was hoping for,” I joked. “And a couple of meatballs on top wouldn’t hurt either.”
The steaming platefuls she brought us were surprisingly tasty. Or it might have been the fact that I was famished. I was in the process of sucking on a mouthful of noodles when Captain Alex punched his way through the swinging cafeteria doors.
“Mahbub!” he shouted. “You have got to get us out of here! I can’t waste any more time. We’ll charge the WFP $25,000 per day if we continue to sit here doing nothing.”
“The meeting didn’t go well, I presume?” asked Mahbub, but Alex was not in the mood for humor.
“They’re complaining about the quality of the shipment. They refuse to sign receipt of consignment, which means we’re struck here till they do. Can you believe that? We bring them free food! They don’t pay a penny. Gift of the US government, for Christ’s sakes!”
Mahbub’s head did a South Asian sideways wobble. Having seen the mess at the bottom of the hold and the growing hill of dust and corn in the warehouse, I was not entirely surprised. I asked what were the specific complaints about the shipment.
“They claim the corn is poor quality, very broken, with a lot of dust and full of debris: pieces of stalk, cob and other stuff, including a piece of metal. Frankly, I don’t care. This is not my problem. They should take it up with USAID. Or with the WFP.”
“North Koreans are very hierarchically oriented,” offered Mahbub. “Might have helped if you had worn your uniform when you went to meet with them.” Before Alex could give voice to his scowl, Mahbub held up a defensive hand and added, “Okay, okay, I will see what I can do to get you out of here tomorrow. Tonight is too late anyway. Your men are still cleaning out the bottom of the hold.”
“You get on the phone with whoever you need to—in Pyongyang or in Washington or to the bloody pope in Rome, for all I care.” Then to me in a much softer voice, “Sorry about this. What was your name again? If I’m ever back here, I’ll treat you to a proper lunch. On good days, Gerda is really an amazing cook.”
Back in the Land Cruiser, we were stopped at the exit gate. Lim had turned his good-natured charm to maximum strength and actually got the female soldier to giggle behind her hand. I saw movement in the rear-view mirror, when suddenly three barefooted boys darted out through the gate, past the distracted guard, using our vehicle to shield their escape from her view.
The boys looked like they were barely 10 years old, but I learned to distrust my judgment of ages in light of the severe stunting of children in North Korea. Each was holding on tightly to their pants as they ran. Tucked-in shirts bulged out around their waists like inflated tires. But the odd kernel of corn that fell on the road betrayed the nature of their cargo. These boys had sneaked into the warehouse and helped themselves to the dirty corn pile, using their shirts to carry as much as possible at a running pace.
The guard saw them only after they had already passed the gate and were running across the road. She shouted after them, but by then they had disappeared behind the shrubbery in the park across from the port entrance. Then she laughed with the rest of us in the vehicle. I had the impression she was relieved not to have had the chance to un-sling her Kalashnikov.
On the way back to Pyongyang, Mahbub told me stories about the ingenious ways people have found to steal food from trucks, warehouses, fields and trains.
“When we bring food in from China, it arrives by train in sealed cars. The seals can be broken only on arrival in the presence of the WFP. But many rail cars are old. Some have cracks in the walls, or the sealed doors might not be completely tight anymore. You cannot remove a bag of rice through those cracks, but hunger is the mother of invention.”
A favored method, he told me, is to stick a small tube through the cracks, barely thicker than a drinking straw. If the end is sharpened, it can pierce the bag, and rice will begin to flow through the tube. With frequent stoppages due to power outages, train cars can be stranded anywhere along the route, day or night. This provides opportunity for the devious and the desperate.
“I have seen shipments with almost empty bags all along a narrow crack between the wall and a sliding door of the wagon.” Leaning close to me, Mahbub added, “I’m not going to write this in any report to our donors, but in my estimation, we’ve just seen the best possible commodity distribution. Those three boys have done what we are all trying to do: bring food to those who desperately need it. When starving people help themselves to WFP food… Well, aren’t we here to feed the hungry?”
[i] Mahbub Ul Alam became a close colleague and family friend, especially since he and I were among the few who brought their families to live in Pyongyang.
[ii] The name Flood Damage Rehabilitation Committee (FDRC) had political meaning both internally and externally. It signaled that food shortages and other desperate needs were caused exclusively by natural disasters, unrelated to government policies.
[iii] Foreigners had difficulty remembering three-part Korean names, while Koreans had difficulty pronouncing names like Weingartner. We soon developed the convention of calling Koreans by their family name, preceded by Mr. and Ms. By the same token, foreigners were known mostly by their more easily pronounced given names. That is how I became “Mr. Erich.”
[iv] Names of minor characters in this drama are fictional. I have no recollection of the captain’s real name.
[v] In WFP usage, a port captain is an official in charge of all harbor activities relating to ships delivering commodities to an emergency site. It would take several more months before a permanent resident WFP port captain would be assigned to the Pyongyang office.