tariq in pyongyang


Forty-two years ago, I was mysteriously invited to visit North Korea. Pakistan’s military dictatorship had been toppled after a three-month struggle and in March 1970 the country was in the throes of its first ever general election campaign. I was travelling to every major town and many smaller ones, interviewing opposition politicians and those who’d taken part in the uprising for a book. I was still there in May, my work unfinished, when the invitation arrived. North Korea was even then a country set apart. The letter came via a local Communist known as Rahim ‘Koreawallah’, secretary of the Pak-Korea Friendship Society. Short, paunchy, loquacious and full of beer, he was out of breath as he handed me the letter from Pyongyang. I had to leave straightaway, he said. Why? Because the North Koreans were convinced that the US was preparing to invade and needed global solidarity. In January 1968 the Koreans had captured the USS Pueblo, a naval intelligence vessel, and arrested its crew. Relations between the two countries remained poor. Could I leave next week, Koreawallah asked? I laughed and said no. I was on my way to what was then East Pakistan. North Korea was a distraction. Koreawallah was both angry and insistent, but his argument was weak. There was no evidence that Washington was preparing for war. I had experience to back me up. A few years earlier I had spent six weeks in North Vietnam and, as well as crouching in air-raid shelters during US bombing raids on Hanoi, I sat through several military briefings by senior Vietnamese officers who made it clear that they would eventually win the war. For the Americans, already overstretched in Indochina, a new war in Korea would be suicidal.

more from Tariq Ali at the LRB here.