The Dining Room
No, this is not the “huge perk for North Korea” that you tried to guess yesterday. We’re getting to it, though.
This is a beautiful bouquet of flowers (imitation) set in warm light (exception) in a 1960-ish (rather appealing but soooo old-fashioned) dining room. A throw-back, to say the least. And this is my table. The first night, my guides sat with me and helped me order from the amazing array of dishes available, but after that, I was on my own. Breakfast, one lunch, dinner.
People away from home find it easier to speak with strangers, and the guys on my right were no exception. I’d been eyeing them a bit because they had a different set-up than I did. They had their own foreign foods sitting in the middle of the table: a jar of peanut butter for example. Four of them, men in their 30’s or maybe 40’s, sat together if they were around at the same time, although they seem to each have different schedules, different purposes in Pyongyang. And they were all foreigners. One of them looked Korean, spoke Korean to the girls, too, but could not possibly have been from South Korea (not allowed; banned; verboten; illegal; absolutely unthinkable).
That’s the guy that spoke to me first. He is of Korean ancestry, a Chinese citizen from Shanghai where his wife and son live; he works for Lafarge Cement, the French cement company, #1 in the world thanks to its huge presence in China; he spends 3 weeks a month in Pyongyang and 1 week in Shanghai, or Paris or Beijing. He oversees an operation of US$ 115m in North Korea, including one large manufacturing facility somewhere southwest of the capital. Very good business for the parent company, he said.
He told me he doesn’t mind the 3-weeks-here/1-week-home work structure because (1) he considers himself very well taken care of by the French company, who will give him a big promotion and even more money after his tour of duty in the DPRK and (2) he has a comfortable set-up at the Pothonggang Hotel, consisting of 2 hotel rooms, one functioning as his residence and the other one as his office.
And he has… his own car, with approval to drive around Pyongyang and the southern part of the country as he wishes thanks to the yellow numbers on his license plate. A huge perk indeed. He asked me to go out drinking with him and his friends one night, and I agreed!
But this is still not the “huge perk” that we’re trying to guess.