Wednesday, September 17, 2003

A Journey Into the Land That Time Forgot

Britain's Times has an informative article by Oliver August about his eight-day visit to North Korea

DURING lunch at one of the few hotels reserved for foreigners in North Korea’s capital, I jokingly complained to a friend that there was no complimentary shampoo in the rooms. A few hours later we found bottles placed neatly by the rooms’ showers.

These are the sort of tricks that one expects from the security apparatus of a totalitarian regime. You could see the wires connecting the microphone poorly concealed behind a wall panel in the hotel restaurant. Presumably they wanted us to know that they listened to everything we said.

North Korea is commonly described as the world’s last Stalinist country, a “hermit kingdom” closed to outsiders, a giant gulag of 20 million people. But even these labels do not do justice to the bizarre picture that emerges from a rare eight days of travelling inside it.

Surveillance of visitors is constant. Tour routes are tightly restricted to hide the severe lack of sustenance that is said to have killed hundreds of thousands of people in the past decade. But the intellectual starvation of an entire society is harder to disguise. Five decades of relentless brainwashing and oppression has visibly extinguished part of the inmates’ humanity.

Many North Koreans seem to have “unlearnt” basic instincts, such as curiosity. One morning I escaped my minders, using a pair of inline skates that I had taken with me. For an hour I zipped solo through the streets of Pyongyang. Not one ordinary North Korean took note of me.

In any other remote country, people would have waved or frowned or at least stared if they saw a white man using such an unusual form of of transport. Instead, people averted their gaze.

Unauthorised contact with a foreigner is a crime. Merely taking an interest in my presence might get them reported by a neighbour during weekly “criticism sessions”, where citizens denounce each other in front of a committee of the ruling Korean Workers’ Party. For many this is the first step to a labour camp.


The streets are mostly ruled by a code of uniformity and people wear either Mao-style tunics introduced by Mr Kim’s father, the nation’s founder, or a pin on their lapels showing his face.

The arts are equally stunted and suffused with ideology. All literature and filmed entertainment carries an identical political message. One day my minders took me to a performance at the Children’s Palaces. Hundreds of under-ten-year-olds sang folk songs and danced in military formations. The screen behind them showed footage from tank exercises, naval combat scenes and missile launch sequences. This was considered light entertainment.

The many public monuments depict either the country’s founder and his son, or generic workers and soldiers. No citizen is allowed any prominence. On television, people are rarely shown except in groups, and applause is hardly ever directed at an individual.


The longer I stayed in this bleak country — leashed to my minders — the more frustrated I became. Most shameful was the feeding game that they played with foreigners. To counter the image of a starving country, we were always given more food than we could possibly eat: a meal had at least seven courses. If you came close to finishing, they would double the portions the next day.

But there were details betraying real scarcity. The feasts were elaborate, but toothpicks seemed to be rationed to one per person.

Despite everything, there was still the occasional person prepared to risk showing an interest in the outside world. One day, a man asked me if I had any spare books. “I want to know about foreign countries,” he said. I gave him The World of Suzie Wong, the novel about a prostitute in post-war Hong Kong; it was hardly appropriate, but nicely subversive.

He said that he had studied in China at the time of the Tiananmen Square student protest. He said of the spring of 1989: “It was very exciting. We were free then, for a short period.”

A few days later in Wonsan, a port city five hours by car from Pyongyang, I sat on the pier at sunset. During daylight I was to all intents and purposes invisible to the North Koreans around me. They avoided all eye contact; some crossed the road to avoid passing me.

But as darkness fell their reactions were transformed. Within minutes people started to act as they would elsewhere in the world. Some came close and stared. Others tried a few words of English. I also noticed couples furtively holding hands: committing the grave crime of showing public affection for someone other than their leaders.

Earlier, I had pitied the North Koreans for the absolute darkness that descended every night due to the lack of electricity. There were no street lamps and almost no indoor lights.

Now I realised that the dark was their salvation. Neighbours could no longer spy on them. It was in the dark that the human spirit survived for the day when North Korea will be free.

When Bush called North Korea "evil", many would-be sophisticates sneered at the "simplisme" betrayed by his statement; there was much jesting about "cowboys" and "evildoers", and there was no shortage of world-weary intellectuals to berate the Americans for their dangerously "Manichean" vision of the world. Stories like this one give the lie to the notion that Bush was being either "simplistic" or "Manichean" in his description of North Korea. This is a truly monstrous regime, ont that must be faced down rather propitiated, and it simply will not do to say "Yes, Kim Jung Il is terrible, but ..."