I remember not seeing anyone laugh and a very strong anti-American attitude in North Koreans,” says ON Mehrotra, former senior fellow with the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) about his maiden visit to Pyongyang in July 1995. He had been invited by the North Korean government headed by Kim Jong Il to speak on the emerging Russian policies in the far East. Now retired, Mehrotra still retains the strong impressions North Korea made on his mind.
“I had frequent meetings with scholars from North Korea but I was not allowed to meet any ordinary people. In fact my hosts did not allow me my morning walk citing security reasons. My plans to meet some North Korean diplomats — who befriended me during their tenure in India — met with the same fate,” he says.
“Everyone I met in the government seemed determined to take on the United States. The idea of acquiring a nuclear weapon was very much there and everywhere I went, I found an uneasy preparedness for war. The North Koreans proudly displayed their underground shelters, equipped to deal with a nuclear strike. Eleven years ago, all this surprised me,” he says.
MM Verma, former research director of the Institute of Non Aligned Studies, repeatedly travelled to North Korea in the ’80s and the early ’90s and spoke of how he managed to bring his wife along on one such trip.
“The North Koreans were very particular that every Indian scholar came alone. They did not even allow their own scholars to stay with their wives, as the state considered them to be a distraction. On my third invitation, I put my foot down and told the North Koreans that I would only visit if my wife were allowed to come as well. Three months later, their government conceded and I flew to Pyongyang via Moscow,” he says.
Verma was one of the many Indian scholars invited by Pyongyang to discuss Juche ideas and propagate them all over the world. “The intellectual atmosphere in the country was stifling. The state-authorised intellectuals seldom deviated from the party line, and as an Indian scholar I found the whole exercise a little disconcerting. I strongly opposed them when some North Korean scholars skipped Marx and Lenin and stoutly claimed that their own Juche was an original approach. My criticisms were not all that welcome, but they were taken in the spirit of scholarship,” he says.
The two retired scholars said North Korean hospitality was the best they had seen anywhere in the world. “Their world class hospitality was a kind of irritant to the intellect. It was a factor that displeased me. To show us a rosy picture they chose the places we visited and we were not allowed to meet ordinary people,” Verma says. “But I must admit, when we would visit their bazaars, we would see people washing the streets with water and not a speck of dust in sight. For us Indians, plagued with water scarcity, this was a very pleasant sight,” he adds.