Pyongyang Pastorale – Updated

Pedalling Propaganda by the paddy

(see updated correspondence below text)

October 14, 1994

It seemed an image of rural harmony in developing Asia – a woman riding a pushbike beside a paddy field where peasants were harvesting rice. But in communist North Korea, nothing is as it seems.

This cyclist had fitted to her bicycle two oversized loudspeakers blaring a jaunty revolutionary song: “Kim Jong-il, you are our supreme commander; with you we will win a great victory”. With the tune etched on to a crude metal tape, her revolutionary task was to ride up and down this one-kilometre stretch of road outside Pyongyang for eight hours a day, every day. The “Dear Leader”, Kim Jong-il, the man expected to take over as North Korean President after 100 days of mourning the death in July of his father, directs that the song spur the peasants on to greater productivity.

The speed of her pedalling was directly related to the tune of the song, like a dynamo powering a headlight. If she slowed, the song slurred, and in North Korea nothing is permitted to stop the revolution.

It is impossible to escape the mark of the Great and Dear Leaders in North Korea.

For example, I was proudly shown what I was told was a “typical” high school, the Pyongyang June 9 Senior Middle School – June 9 being the day in 1969 when the Great Leader apparently directed his education authorities to build a new school.

The main entrance is dominated by two-metre by two-metre portraits of the two men, flanked by oil paintings of their respective birthplaces, flanked again by etched writings of their fabled “on-the-spot guidance”.

The headmistress explained that the co-educational school’s main curriculum comprised the Revolutionary History of Kim Il-sung, the Revolutionary History of Kim Jong-il and Communistic Virtue.

Electronics and Biology are also taught, but even then not without the family’s touch.

In the electronics class, students were being taught the miracle of television, fiddling with the insides of a contraption that Logie Baird might have trouble recognising until they got a picture. An image appeared through the fuzz – of the latest Worker’s Party congress.

It’s a similar story in Biology, where students examine organ isms beneath crude microscopes. The subject is the cellular structure of the kimjongilia, the national plant created for and named after the Dear Leader.

(Fences are of wrought iron in the style of the kimjongilia and the kimilsungia).

Later, the school put on a show for me and a group of Chinese tourists from Tianjin.

The show opened with a little girl in a pink and purple tutu bursting into tears, crying that “with a filial mind we must turn our grief into strength and support the Dear Leader Supreme Commander Comrade Kim Jong-il”.

A band strikes up and so does she, into full voice, her colleagues swaying in the background: “Who gives us happiness? Dear Leader Comrade Kim Jong-il.

“Who gives us hope? Dear Leader Comrade Kim Jong-il.

“We are living a happy life of gladness in the bosom of the party and Dear Leader Comrade Kim Jong-il.”

In the Kim family’s North Korea, the Cultural Revolution has never ended.

It seems clear Kim Jong-il, a pudgy-faced man with a bad hair cut, will take over from his father, the late “Great Leader” President Kim Il-sung, after October 15, when the official 100-day mourning period finishes.

Diplomats in Pyongyang say he has spent the past three months shoring up military, intellectual and propaganda support for his rule.

“Kim Il-sung is Kim Jong-il,” Pyongyang Radio said last week, confirming that the world’s first communist dynastic succession seems to be proceeding smoothly.

“Whatever trials and difficulties may confront us, we’ll carry on with the great task of Juche (self-reliance) revolution, and complete it by upholding high the will of Kim Il-sung, and faithfully follow the ideology and leadership of Kim Jong-il,” the radio said.

In the Korean National Art Museum, the first works have begun to appear since Kim senior’s death. In splendid social-realism, they show grief-stricken Koreans comforted by an athletic Kim junior at the foot of his father’s giant bronze statue in central Pyongyang.

Another shows Kim junior astride a prancing steed rodeo-style atop a mountain overlooking the military demarcation line that separates North and South Korea at the Korean War truce village of Panmunjon. The sky on the north side is clear and sunny, on the south stormy.

However, diplomats say it seems that it hasn’t all been smooth sailing for the mysterious Kim Jong-il, about whom very little is known.

The true test of his accession to power will come when North Koreans start wearing his image on the little badges they are required to wear on their left side above their heart.

The badge they wear now is still that of the Great Leader, and diplomats say that attempts to issue Dear Leader badges were stopped after only three days about six weeks ago.

Koreans wear these badges with fear and pride.

Two attempts by this correspondent to buy one in back lanes, both times pressing $US1,100 – two year’s average salary – into people’s hands, were repelled. The first said nothing could separate him from the Great Leader; the second pointed to an adjacent building and gestured like a policeman.

Dr Han S. Park, a Korean-American scholar and President Jimmy Carter’s liaison man with the Pyongyang regime, has had higher contact with North officials than most in recent months, as he tries to broker a peace deal between Washington and Pyongyang over the nuclear stand-off.

Interviewed by The Australian Financial Review in Beijing after a week in Pyongyang, Dr Park said: “Kim Jong-il’s power base is more extensive than we are led to believe.

“Since his father’s death, he has consolidated his grip over the military and the intellectual side.

“His fate is dependant on the performance of the economy. I don’t think the system will collapse Eastern European-style. People are not prosperous but they are not starving. They are thoroughly brain-washed. Almost all Koreans think the rest of the world lives under the Great Leader’s philosophy.

“That’s why there are all those museums devoted to his teachings, with gifts from foreign so-called dignitaries.”

I visited the biggest of these museums, the International Friendship Exhibition centre, about three hours north of Pyongyang. In a huge eight-storey building in traditional Korean architecture, there are displayed 73,035 gifts to Kim Il-sung and 29,831 to Kim Jong-il as at 18 months ago. A new museum is being built alongside to house the new gifts.

Visiting the centre is a near-religious experience, a monument to bad taste, a shrine to the Kims and to the despots of the world. There are even a few Australian gifts.


POST SCRIPT: In 2012, a Briton I don’t know, someone called Tom Law, published this: – on his blog that purports to correct media wrongs. (I discovered it by chance when researching a piece I am writing, after receiving yet another inquiry about the Kim golf story)


Kim Jong-Il claims to be the world’s greatest golfer

In 1994 the North Korean propaganda machine reported that Kim Jong-Il had racked up 11 hole-in-ones during his first ever attempt at playing golf. His 38 under-par round at the Pyongyang Golf Course was verified by his 17 bodyguards.


It’s a great story, but there is no record of either the North Korean media or Kim Jong-Il ever making this claim. The origins of this ‘fact’ are from an International Herald Tribune article. It was an off-the-cuff comment made by a groundsman at the golf course during a chat to an American journalist called Eric Ellis.”

I ASKED Law to correct two of his assumptions he wrote above 1) that I am not an “American journalist” and 2)that the origins were in the IHT and not the AFR. He refused,  later saying he would do so only after the AFR  corrected my own ‘inaccurate’ reports – 18 years later, about a place he admitted he has never been.

This is the bizarre correspondence that followed, perhaps also titled as How to Ill-Advisedly Waste An Afternoon:

From: Eric Ellis <>
Subject: Re:
Date: 26 October 2012 12:24:18 CEST

And the original article, as appeared on P1 of the Australian Financial Review, the Australian FT/WSJ, of which I was Asia Corres at the time.

You amusingly asked if I ‘fact-checked’ my interlocutor’s anecdote. The answer is no, because his remarks were so clearly ludicrous, why would one bother? A round of 34 is about 24 under the established world record. It was more interesting – and revealing – as a vehicle for the lengths some very scared people felt/feel they have to go to deify the First Family. How do I know they are scared? Because I was there – its called journalism.

On 26 Oct 2012, at 12:04, Eric Ellis wrote:
The most honest and correct re-telling of the story, largely because he consulted me, which you didn’t. I’m not hard to find. You tap my name into Google and its usually the first result. Sometimes things aren’t as conspiratorial as they might appear to be, sometimes things are just banal.

On 26 Oct 2012, at 12:32, Tom Law wrote:

Point noted,

I’m genuinely interested in your look at how the Internet is liable to blur lines between opinion and fact.
But I would also ask you to look at your original artilcle in the same light.

One area that I was intrigued by, was this section:

“It seemed an image of rural harmony in developing Asia – a woman riding a push-bike beside a paddy field where peasants were harvesting rice. But the bicycle carried two oversized loudspeakers blaring a jaunty revolutionary song: “Kim Jong Il, you are our supreme commander; with you we will win a great victory.”
Her task was to ride up and down a single short stretch of road outside Pyongyang for eight hours a day, every day. The speed of the woman’s pedaling directly determined the tune of the song, like a dynamo powering a bicycle headlight. If she slowed, the song slurred, and in North Korea nothing is permitted to stop the revolution.”

What efforts did you make to check this or did you use your assumption?
Did you speak to this woman?
How do you know her task was to ride up and down – who told you?
Where did you get the eight hour figure from?
How do you know the lyrics to the song?
You’ve presented this as if the bike was specially rigged up to ensure the woman keeps pedalling as some kind of bizarre propoganda device.
Do you genuinely believe this is what was happening.

How much of this is factual and how much is your attempt to find a story where non-exists?


Eric Ellis wrote:
To address your questions;

I do not work on the basis of assumption.
I witnessed that particular anecdote – it  was – quite a common scene in rural DPRK. The details of that anecdote was happily and openly provided me by the two minders/government officials/guides who accompanied me on my tour. They did so not on the basis that this was unusual. To them it was commonplace, and quite normal. For memory, on this occasion, they pointed it out to me, as a point of pride. (This was also at a time of rumoured famine). I then asked questions, based on many years working as a foreign correspondent in China (which had provided something of a state information revolutionary template for the NKeans to expand) and they provided the answers. Despite what the headline (for which I was not responsible) says, this was not necessarily conventional propaganda. It was precisely as I reported it, the peasantry exhorting each other to work harder, in the interests of the collective/state, and that was that particular woman’s job.

Yes, I genuinely believed this happened, otherwise I would not have reported it.

As for your last remark, it doesn’t bear the dignity of a response. But I hope it made you feel better.

On 26 Oct 2012, at 13:09, Tom Law wrote:

Thanks for that.

So to go back to my questions:

What efforts did you make to check this or did you use your assumption?
(he answers himself) You assumed it from what the minder had told you.

Did you speak to this woman?
(again) No

How do you know her task was to ride up and down – who told you?
(again) You assumed it from minder

Where did you get the eight hour figure from?
(again) Presumably minder

How do you know the lyrics to the song?
(again) Minder?

You’ve presented this as if the bike was specially rigged up to ensure the woman keeps pedalling as some kind of bizarre propoganda device.
So you genuinely believe that throughout North Korea at the time of your visist the government was employing people to ride up and down roads on bikes which were specially rigged up so that they had to constantly pedal to play propoganda music?

You base this on something your minder said. You made no actual effort to check if any of this was true.
You didn’t bother to ask the woman herself – which you’d imagine would be a good place to start when checking if this was accurate or not.

You do not mention in the story that this is just something the minder said. You present it as fact.

You then allowed this to be published throughout the world and to portray North Korea as a deranged world of robot slaves forced by the state into carrying out this kind of insnae life sapping act. Which may or may not be  true.

What makes you think this is any more accurate that the golf anedote your were told?


On 26/10/2012 12:20, Eric Ellis wrote:
OK, mate, you’ve got me…I confess. I’m actually Jerrold M Post. I’ve succumbed to your penetrating interrogation. Well done you, surely a genuine konghwaguk yeongung medal is winging your way. But strangely, rather as I imagine the various doped-up Tour de France cyclists also feel, I’ve now been liberated from the burden of 18 years carrying these carefully-cultivated lies. (I wondered what all those CIA cheques were about) I’m calling Lance Armstrong immediately…

On 26 Oct 2012, at 13:37, Tom Law wrote:

Heh, heh, fair enough. I’ll get back in my box.

As you’ve pointed out – I’m no paragon of journalistic purity. Theres no big conspiracy and the reality is usually banal  – that’s why people aren’t particularly interested in it.

But I do think there’s something genuinely interesting in how a pretty throwaway comment written a long time ago has been appropriated over the years.

One last question.

Did you ever write a story about the fact that North Korea wasn’t suffering from a famine, surely that could have been considered as something of a scoop.

To have the journalistic guile to take a look inside a secretive country and find that some of the reports of famine etc were overexaggerated?

And did you feel your newspaper was looking for a certain angle in the coverage you provided?


On 26/10/2012 13:13, Eric Ellis wrote:
I didn’t write a story that it was not suffering a famine because I saw no evidence it wasn’t, and many suggestions that it might have been (people eating earth, drinking grass juice), but not enough to warrant writing a story that it was. Had I written there was no evidence of famine, I would’ve made a serious error as it later emerged there was a serious famine at the time, known as The Arduous March, a local term. It was admitted by the government, and the DPRK accepted international aid to help remedy it. Again, I suggest you do a little more reading before making assumptions.
And, no, my newspaper made no instructions to me.

On 26 Oct 2012, at 14:20, Tom Law wrote:

Thanks for the info.

In light of your comments, you might like to get that article you cite as being the most honest and accurate account revised:

“Ellis was really in North Korea to investigate famines that were rumored to be causing disturbances. This was just after the death of Kim’s father, Kim Ilsung, and before Kim ascended to power. Along the way he saw no evidence at all of famine. “I went to get one world scoop,” he says now. “And I ended up getting a completely different world scoop.”

From: Eric Ellis <>
Subject: Re:
Date: 26 October 2012 14:35:46 CEST
To: Tom Law <>

No, I shall not be doing that because – to go by your standards of what constitutes a fact – I saw occasional things consistent with famine, which is very different from ‘evidence of famine.’ To extend that literally, does the drinking of grass in a juice bar in, say, Islington suggest there’s a famine there? And I don’t know enough about Korean cuisine to conclude that earth wasn’t some sort of cooking ingredient. To write there is a famine based on those observations would be insufficient and irresponsible.

The only factual corrections I deem necessary here are those that provided my initial contact – your assumptions that I was American and that origin of the golf anecdote was in the IHT. As I have explained, that is not so. And, I note, several hours after I pointed that out, that you are still to correct your record.

On 26 Oct 2012, at 14:57, Tom Law <> wrote:

Why didn’t you ask your minder about the famine?

He was the reliable source you relied on to report that North Koreans are paid by the govenrment to drive up and down roads on specially rigged propoganda bikes.

Why didn’t you write an honest report of your experience – that you found nothing to suggest there’s a famine. Yes, there were signs of poverty but you didn’t see a country crippled by           famine in the way the West was portraying at the time.

In light of the evidence you’ve provided me I’m requesting that you take whatever steps are needed to correct your original article. It is wholly inaccurate to portray something as fact when it’s, at best, hearsay from a minder.

The article needs to make it clear that you’re purely repeating something a minder told you and that you made no attempts to establish if any of it is true.


On 26/10/2012 14:05, Eric Ellis wrote:
Mate…truly, get a life….if you want to revisit an 18 year article to complain to a editor who no longer works there that I didnt write that there wasnt a famine in North Korea when the state later admitted there was one, and there was much to suggest there was, well,knock yourself out…correct your “facts” that I originally asked and stay away from those funny cigarettes..

On 26 Oct 2012, at 15:39, Tom Law wrote:

When it was written is irrelevant. It’s published on the Internet and continues to be viewed.

Yes, I do want it changed because I think these things are important and so should you. You were obviously fairly indignant that I had details wrong, something which I’ll hold my hands up to and gladly correct.

You don’t seem to have the same enthusiam, however, when it comes to something which I consider a great deal more important.

As it’s relatively unusual for reports to come out of North Korea from Western journalists, your article obviously has had some influence, and continues to do so.

You went to report on a famine – which you didn’t find. Instead of giving an honest and balanced account saying that – you chose to write a misleading and innacurate report in which you present hearsay from a minder as fact.

My assumptopnm is that this was a journalist looking for scraps to justify the time and expense of an otherwise fruitless trip.

You used this article to create a general perception of a deranged country full of robotic slaves – again, this may or may not be true. But to use the propogandist cyclist to present this viewpoint is inaccurate and misleading when you completely failed to check it was true.

I would be obliged if you could provide me with any of the editorial contacts necessary for me to get this actioned.

On 26 Oct 2012, at 16:54, Eric Ellis wrote:

I shall humour you, for the last time…

You say “your article obviously has had some influence.” I suppose, inasmuch as you – a self-appointed media crimes campaigner – have been among the handful since who have seen fit to incorrectly cite it without bothering to consult me (that’s Journalism 1:01), an oversight which would seem to strongly at odds with your zeal in correcting the general media record. But it was about golf. It was not about famine. You are incorrectly – again – connecting the two. But, as you correctly point out, you are ‘no paragon of journalistic purity.’

As for famine or otherwise, consider this a free lesson in Journalism 1:02. No self-respecting professional journalist not going to write there is no famine when there are clear, albeit limited, suggestions of one, just as no self-respecting professional journalist is going to write there is a famine based on those same limited suggestions, when either perspective is virtually impossible to verify within the confines of a highly-controlled state-escorted tour that is only evident upon actually taking it (which you didn’t.) I suggest you re-read that passage above a few times, to take in its subtlety.

As things transpired, after I had left, there was a famine in the DPRK – a very serious one, which I later wrote about – a famine which had begun long before I got there, suggesting the incidents that I witnessed turned out to be proof of sorts, though still limited. So, on balance, at best I erred on the side of caution, at worst I missed the story. And yet – and have a long, long think about your logic here – you are demanding the record should be changed to reflect that there wasn’t a famine, 18 years on, when there, er, was one. That, my erstwhile interlocutor, I find seriously strange and I’m saddened for my industry if when you do undertake work for the media, you do so informed by such logic.

Given that you seem to struggle with logic, and basic journalistic procedure, I’ll put it another way to make it easier for you to understand. Armed with your logic, a journalist visits Nazi Germany in 1940 on a state-directed tour. He/she doesn’t get to see Auschwitz, ipso facto there must not be a Holocaust, despite the dwindling Jewish community insisting there is. But it turns out the Jewish community and others are tragically correct. But, 18 years on, that doesn’t satisfy you. In 1958, long after the Nuremburg trials, even as the Wiesenthal Centre goes after Nazi monsters, you demand the media of the day apologise/correct the record for not writing in 1940 that there wasn’t a Holocaust. That would make you a Holocaust denier, as well as ludicrous.

“Hearsay from a minder”….hmm, did I say that? That looks like another of your assumptions. Again, I don’t recall you being with me at the time, but minders are precisely that, they are there to officially provide information on behalf of the state, as they proudly did on this occasion. Some might call it propaganda (and not propoganda, as you routinely and incorrectly render it).

Fruitless trip? Again, I don’t recall you being with me. Among other activities, I had a very revealing round of golf, which brings me again to the reason why we have had contact today. I look forward to your correction. And, take this as another free Journalism 1:03 lesson, be careful not to make assumptions.

All of which leads to sadly conclude that you are at best illogical and bored, at worst a troll, and I don’t have any further time for either. Were I to put bored, illogical trolls in touch with my editor of the day, he would have strong grounds for suggesting I seek medical help, and I wouldn’t blame him. But feel free to undertake your own research, and make your complaint as you see fit.

Now, I’ve stupidly wasted too much of my day on you, so I ask you to be a nice little chap, please correct the two errors I have pointed out and darken my inbox no more.

In the interim, you might find common purpose with this crowd… And then look up the origins of the term ‘useful idiots’

On 26 Oct 2012, at 17:12, Tom Law wrote:

“But feel free to undertake your own research, and make your complaint as you see fit.”

Thanks, I will.

I’m not interested in the famine – purely in what you reported in that original article which is inaccurate and misleading. As you’ve confirmed.

One lesson you appear to have skipped in journalism school was the one which taught the importance of humility.


It must’ve been Revisit the Kims Day for I also received this, from Seoul..

On 26 Oct 2012, at 10:18, “Kim Young-jin, The Korea Times”  wrote:

From: Kim Young-jin, The Korea Times
Subject: Query from The Korea Times

Message Body:
Dear Mr. Ellis,

My name is Kim Young-jin; I am a politics reporter for The Korea Times in Seoul. I hope this finds you well.

I frequently cover North Korea issues, and I am looking into the oft-cited myth that Kim Jong-il scored 11 hole-in-ones during his first round of golf. I was told by a colleague that you might have the best perspective on this.

I would like to know how this story got started, and hear your thoughts on the situation.

Please let me know if you are willing to chat over the phone and if so, what the best times are to call. If email correspondence is preferable, please let me know.

Kim Young-jin
Politics Desk
The Korea Times