Category Archives: North Korea

My nine days in North Korea in 2012

Changgwang Street, Pyongyang, in 1986


I first visited North Korea in 1986, when the Great Leader Kim Il-sung was still alive. He died in 1994.

I went again in April 2012, shortly after his son and successor the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il died (December 2011).

His son Kim Jong-un had succeeded him and was, at that time, being referred to as the Supreme Leader.

Below are the blogs I wrote in April 2012. I wrote them on paper while in North Korea and kept them in my inside jacket pocket at all times and only posted them once I was back in the UK. I am not that mad.


A North Korean stage production in April 2012


12th April – George Orwell’s pyramid looms over the capital city Pyongyang

13th April – A land of nuclear bombs and satellite launches, but no electricity

14th April – Walter Mitty truth in an anarchic, pedestrian totalitarian state

15th April – North Koreans are not the the mindless brainwashed zombies of US propaganda

16th April – The Leaders’ spectacles

17th April – A beacon of hope for the down-trodden masses of the wide world

18th April – Phallic monuments, war lies, famine and an interview with MI5

19th April – “Confess your crimes against the people of North Korea or you will not be allowed to leave the country tomorrow”

20th April – Return from North Korea to China, land of individual freedom & Keanu Reeves

21st April – My undying admiration for their supreme leader Kim Jung-un

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North Korea, Manchester’s Living Dead and the influence of House of Hammer

House of Hammer logo

Some things make you feel old.

So I received this e-mail. It read:

The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue

It’s not great, but you won’t sleep through it…

Wow, you’re still alive! I remember reading your stuff in the House of Hammer magazine when I was 11 or 12 years old. In fact, I was thinking about you when I watched The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue on YouTube a wee while ago. What did you write about it in your review? Something along the lines of: “The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue is no great horror film… But you certainly won’t sleep through it”?!

I used to write feature articles and occasionally reviews for film magazines, including House of Hammer, which was oddly published by Marvel Comics UK and had a wider horror scope than just movies by Hammer Films. It later transformed into House of Horror.

The e-mail I received was from an Ian Smith. He added: “Did you write a feature about David Cronenberg and his first four movies (Stereo, Crimes of the Future, Shivers and Rabid) in House of Hammer — somewhere around issues 13 – 16?  If so, you also acquainted me with the World of Cronenberg for the first time — another feather in your cap! I seem to remember Mark Gatiss fondly waving a copy of House of Hammer on a BBC documentary he did about British horror movies.”

Ian Smith’s blood and Porridge website

The Blood and Porridge website

So I thought Ian Smith might be worth talking to because, born in Northern Ireland and brought up both there and in Scotland, he currently lives in Sri Lanka and spent time in England, Switzerland, Japan, Ethiopia, India, Libya, Tunisia and, he says, “a part of the Korean peninsula that isn’t visited very often”. His website is titled Blood and Porridge.

So I talked to him via Skype in Sri Lanka, shortly after he had come back from a month working in Burma. He works as a teacher-trainer for people wanting to teach English as a foreign language.

When he finds the time, he writes short stories – horror, science fiction, fantasy and, he says, “even ‘mainstream’ ones set in humdrum wee Scottish and Irish towns and villages”. He has also published non-fiction on topics ranging from travel to Scottish amateur league football teams, from linguistic relativity to vampire movies. He has written under the pseudonyms Steve Cashell, Rab Foster, Eoin Henderson, Paul MacAlister, Jim Mountfield and, he says, “occasionally, under my own boring name”.

“So,” I said to him, “a part of the Korean peninsula that isn’t visited very often?”

“Yes,” he replied, “I spent two years working in North Korea with the British Council.”

“Which years?” I asked.

North Korea: the people’s paradise

North Korea: People’s Paradise with a hint of a nuclear bomb

“2005-2007. That’s when they became a nuclear power. I remember I was with the British Ambassador that night and he was looking quite rattled and I told him: Well, you’ve joined that exclusive club. There can’t be many ambassadors who were in a country that suddenly went nuclear. It did not cheer him up.”

“Where were the bugs?” I asked. “The first time I was in North Korea we went, for some reason, to the Indian ambassador’s residence and he started off by just pointing silently to the radiogram, which was where the main bug was.”

“The only thing I noticed,” said Ian, “was that, when I picked up my telephone I would sometimes hear clicking noises. There was obviously someone listening in. I had freedom to go pretty much anywhere in Pyongyang, though occasionally I would spot someone behind me who was obviously keeping an eye on me.”

“Did you get out of Pyongyang much?” I asked.

“Just a little bit. I was generally restricted to the city but there are a couple of places you can go to which are on the official tourist trail. You can go about 30 miles down the road to the beach; and there’s a couple of mountains you can go to. Most of the time I was in Pyongyang and then they’d fly me over to Beijing every couple of months for a break.”

“Much-needed,” I suggested.

“Well,” said Ian, “I have to say I didn’t actually mind the job too much. I got on quite well with the North Korean people: they had a very nice, dark sense of humour.”

“Really?” I asked, surprised anyone risked showing any sense of humour in the People’s Paradise.

Ian Smith

Ian Smith: a very well-travelled man

“They were very British, actually,” said Ian. “Always slagging each other off. I guess you probably need it in that environment. I enjoyed working there. You just had to not think too much about the wider picture.”

“What were you doing there?” I asked.

“I was training-up some teachers of English – giving them some training on the job.”

“Who is getting taught English in North Korea?” I asked.

“It’s quite a big thing,” said Ian. “At the time, Kim Jong-il had said he wanted everyone to speak English because it was the international language for business. Even in the more secluded countries, they now realise there’s a need for it.”

“It sounds dangerous,” I said. “North Koreans would actually be able to talk to foreigners.”

“Well, it’s a two-edged sword,” agreed Ian.

“What did you think when you were told you were going to North Korea?”

“I saw it advertised and applied. I had been in Newcastle-upon-Tyne for three years.”

“So anywhere was better?” I asked.

“I wouldn’t say that, but I felt it was definitely time for a bit of a change.”

“You read House of Hammer when you were about 11 or 12,” I said. “I always imagined I was writing for 16 or 17 year olds.”

House of Hammer No 9

Unusually cheerful-looking House of Hammer

“Well,” said Ian.”you couldn’t get into the cinema to see these films and your parents wouldn’t let you stay up late to see them on TV, so it was a kind of forbidden fruit thing. Someone said: The scariest horror films are the ones you are too young to get in to see. You just imagine them being much worse than they actually are.

“And now you write yourself,” I said.

“I do a bit of writing. I write a lot of horror stories. I usually get two or three published each year. Sometimes hard copies, sometimes internet magazines. I’m not going to make any money out of it. It’s all moved online, but the problem is you get paid less now, if at all.”

“Why did you want to be a writer?”

“It’s just something that seemed obvious to me. Even when I was a kid, I was writing stuff in exercise jotters.”

“And now it’s all gone electronic,” I said.

“I think with a lot of those horror and fantasy writers from the 1970s and 1980s – their actual book market dried up and a lot of them started doing stuff on the internet and self-published – Tanith Lee, who died a few weeks ago published dozens and dozens of books in the last decade or so, but all electronic. Her fanbase would download it.”

“Your next story?” I asked.

One of the online markets for Ian’s work

One of the online markets for Ian’s work

The Groove. It should be appearing soon in a Kindle magazine called Hellfire Crossroads.  It’s a traditional revenge-from-beyond-the-grave story like the ones that used to be in those horror comics all those years ago. In it, the guy who has died is a sort of John Peel music obsessive who has this horrible, bitchy wife. The guy has left these requests for music to be played at his funeral but she ignores them and plays Angels by Robbie Williams. I just thought that, if something was guaranteed to bring me back from the grave in a fit of revenge, it would be that.”

“A sort of Hammer Horrory idea,” I said.

“I was reading,” said Ian, “an interview with the director Julian Richards, who made a film called Darklands in the late 1990s, which kick-started the new movement in British horror movies and he said, when he was a kid, the first film he did was on super-8 and he basically found the story in House of Hammer because they used to do these horror stories at the back – Van Helsing’s Terror Tales – he spent three years turning that into a film. So, in a way, House of Hammer was quite influential.”

“I guess every little helps,” I said.

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Filed under Horror, Magazines, Movies, North Korea, World War II

Again: “Confess your crimes against the people of North Korea or you will not be allowed to leave the country tomorrow”

The comedy film which triggered the problem

The comedy film which Sony Pictures pulled from release…

So Sony have had to withdraw their film The Interview because North Korea hacked-into their computer system, stole their whole electronically-stored and communicated information for the last ten years and threatened a 9/11 style attack on anywhere premiering the movie. And all because Sony made a movie in which Kim Jong-un was assassinated and his head was seen exploding.

I was in North Korea in 1986 and I talked to a girl in a bookshop in Pyongyang. She told me she had actually seen – in the flesh – not a photo but the real person… Yes…  She had SEEN and been IN THE PRESENCE OF… she had actually MET the Great Leader Kim Il-sung. As she told me this, her eyes shone like exploding supernovas. It was as if she had seen Jesus. Well, meeting Jesus would have been nothing compared to meeting the Great Leader Kim Il-sung.

March 1986 - Status of Kim Il-sung in Pyongyang

March 1986 – A statue of Kim Il-sung in Pyongyang. To get an idea of scale, two people are visible at the bottom of the frame

North Korea had built 1984 even before it WAS 1984.

I went back in 2012.

Below is the blog I posted about my last day in North Korea two years ago.

I wrote a diary of my time in North Korea on pieces of paper which I always kept in the inside pockets of my clothes. I typed it all up only after getting home safely to the UK.


19th April 2012

CONFESS YOUR CRIMES AGAINST THE PEOPLE OF NORTH KOREA OR YOU WILL NOT BE ALLOWED TO LEAVE THE COUNTRY TOMORROW…

April - Kim Il-sung (with glasses added) and Kim Jong-Il

April 2012 – Kim Il-sung plus son Kim Jong-il

In North Korea, you can see new buildings being constructed as skeletons of concrete, brick and stone but rough and unsophisticated. The final surfaces, though, are very well-designed and finished. They look superficially perfect.

There is another simile for North Korea here. It looks OK from a cursory glance but, underneath…

The Chinese build better foundations.

It seems to me the Chinese have tried to change their society from the bottom upwards. The North Koreans manage any change from the top downwards. They start with the triumphant monuments to success and then (ironically in this supposed people’s paradise but – hey! – this is Communism) there is a rigid hierarchy through which change may trickle down to the bottom though it seems not to have done in the 26 years since I was last here.

North Korea: the people’s paradise

North Korea: the people’s paradise is truly a place of wonder

One odd feature in the relentless propaganda is that, since I was last here, the Great Leader Kim Il-sung’s mother and early wife seem to have appeared as pseudo Mary Mother of Jesus figures. I do not remember them being mentioned before; now they occasionally appear in pictures. Both long dead, of course. The best icons are.

This is my last day in the People’s Paradise. The train out of North Korea leaves Pyongyang at 10.10am this morning. It arrives in Beijing at 8.33am tomorrow morning. No US passport holders are allowed to take the train out of North Korea; they have to fly out.

In the train, I have lunch with a British woman who lives in New York (she has a British passport). She was at the big military parade to celebrate Kim Il-sung’s 100th birthday. The one we were not allowed to go to. She was with another foreigner who reckoned some of the giant rockets on display were not real: they were possibly made from wood. She does not know; he did not know; I do not know; this is North Korea; I only mention it as an observation from someone who was there.

She told me someone else she knows managed, accidentally, to go onto the ‘hidden’ floor in their hotel – the floor at which lifts do not stop. There was no decor. Just a bare concrete corridor and bare walls. The door to one room was slightly ajar. He looked through the crack. A man was sitting looking at a TV monitor. He left the floor quietly and returned to the ‘allowed’ parts of the hotel.

I also get talking to a man who is one of the three others I share the four-berth compartment with on this train from Pyongyang to Beijing. He was born in a Western European country (which shall remain nameless to disguise his identity). But he has lived in the US for many years. So he has both a US passport and a passport from the European country of his birth. Obviously, as he is on the train, he is using his European passport.

Pyongyang skyline dwarfed by unfinished hotel (not the  Yanggakdo)

Skyline dwarfed by an unfinished hotel (not the Yanggakdo)

Last night, he was booked into the same hotel as me – the Yanggakdo in Pyongyang. He came into North Korea with a Kindle e-reader and a laptop computer which the border guards did not query because neither has GPS.

In my opinion, he was silly on the North Korean trip. He was not in my group, but he told me he had sat at the front of his tour bus, near the two guides, taking photographs of the North Korean countryside (which is not allowed). He had also, with a fellow group member, wandered out of their hotel one night unaccompanied. Again, this is not allowed.

Last night, there was a problem with the keys to his hotel room which escalated to the point at which he was taken off to a room in the hotel and interrogated for seven hours, from 8.00pm to 3.00am.

“Why have you been taking bad photographs to make our country look bad?” the questions started, before moving on to “Why have you been disrespectful of our guides?” and so on, round and round in circles for seven hours with five interrogators.

A poster inside the state film studios

A poster inside the state’s empty  film studios

“You are not a real tourist,” they eventually said. “You have been taking photographs of people in the countryside and in the towns. They are all waiting downstairs to denounce you… We have talked to the other members of your group. They all say you are not a real tourist. You are a spy. We know you are here to spy on our country and take bad photographs.”

They brought in an IT expert with a laptop computer which he attached to the man’s laptop computer to search the hard disk. They then confiscated the hard disk. They then looked through all the still photographs he had taken and erased a lot. “Where have you hidden the other memory cards?” he was asked.

“I have no other memory cards,” he told them. But the questioning and re-questioning went on for seven hours.

It escalated more and more.

“You will not be allowed to leave the country,” they told him. You have committed crimes against the people of North Korea. Confess your crimes against the people of North Korea or you will not be allowed to leave the country tomorrow.”

“Oh shit,” he thought.

“You must sign a confession to your crimes,” he was told, “or you will not be allowed to leave the country. If you publish any photographs you have taken in North Korea, we will publish your confession on the internet.”

“Oh shit,” he thought.

He eventually signed the ‘confession’.

“You have committed crimes against North Korea,” he was then told. “You must compensate North Korea. Do you have $10,000?”

When he made it clear he was not carrying $10,000 on him, they feigned anger that he thought he could bribe them.

North Korea loves a good symbolic building

North Korea loves a good symbolic building, whatever it costs

“If you publish any photographs you have taken in North Korea,” they told him, “or continue your crimes after you have left our country or tell anyone this interrogation has taken place, we will publish your confession to your crimes on the internet.”

“They were frightening but not very efficient,” he tells me. “I had a video camera in my case and they never looked. I declared it at the border on the way in, but they never knew it was there. It had much ‘worse’ images.”

After he was released at 3.00am, he went back to his room and erased all the material he had shot on his video camera. He did this under his bed covers in case – as well as having sound bugs – the hotel room had video bugs.

I wonder what will happen at the border.

This could go one of two ways for me.

I am sharing a compartment with the guy.

Either I will be given a bad time because I will get guilt by association. Or I will sail through because the border guards will focus so much on him.

At the border, the first North Korean border guard comes into our compartment and goes straight for him.

“Camera,” he says.

Pyongyang’s Arch of Triumph - bigger than the French one

Pyongyang’s Arch of Triumph is bigger than the French one

Three other North Korean border guards come in. I go and stand in the corridor as they interrogate the guy, go through his stills camera, picture by picture, find the video camera in his case and examine that.

“My camera – my stills camera – takes videos and I have my video camera too,” he tells them, “but I took no videos while I was in North Korea.”

I think, listening to this in the corridor, that it must sound more than a little suspicious.

“You have more memory cards,” the guards say. “Where are your other memory cards?”

“I have no other memory cards,” he tells them.

“Do you have memory cards hidden in your hair?” one of them asks him.

They interrogate him for around 35 minutes. Then they turn to me:

“Camera,” the guard barks at me.

I give him my camera. He looks at all the photographs. There are 168 on the memory card. He erases 17 of them – one of the border at Panmunjom, mostly just photos of ordinary people in the very public Kim Il-sung Square in Pyongyang.

There are only three sets of photos on that memory card: Panmunjom, Kim Il-sung Square and the music concert we attended in Pyongyang. I had intentionally taken the Panmunjom photos so they could, if necessary, be erased. The other 900+ photos I had taken in North Korea are on another memory card in the rolled-up sleeve of my shirt.

The guards never ask if I have a video camera. Which I do, with five one-hour tapes filled-up.

Afterwards, the European guy tells me that, halfway through his grilling by the border guards, he realised that the European passport on which he was travelling in North Korea had an out-of-date visa for China in it. His up-to-date visa for China was in the US passport in his bag, which the guards superficially searched. They did not realise he had a second, US passport (remember US citizens cannot legally leave North Korea by train) and they did not check the dates on the Chinese visa in his European passport. But, he tells me, “I was shitting myself.”

Soldiers grieving over the death of Kim Jong-Il

Official photo: Soldiers grieving over the death of Kim Jong-il

The guards were paranoid, but not very efficient. However, they may have been hungry.

In another compartment in the railway carriage, a female border guard saw a chocolate bar in the suitcase of some Swiss travellers. She looked at their passports. “Swiss?” she asked. “Yes,” they replied. She unwrapped the chocolate bar and ate it, unsmiling, in front of the two Swiss. “It is good chocolate,” she told them.

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North Korea – my undying admiration for their supreme leader Kim Jung-un

The admirable flag of the supreme leader’s admirable country

A former criminal once told me that it was possible to make money – a lot of money – from crime and not be caught. But only if you had an aim. And most criminals, he claimed, are aimless.

“It’s like gambling,” he told me. “People get addicted to gambling and they may make a load of money, but they throw it all away because they don’t know when to stop. If you have an aim to make £100,000 or even £1 million, you could probably make that. But then you’ve got to stop. If you don’t have a specific number as your target, if you don’t stop, if you just keep going, then eventually, if you’re a criminal, you get caught and, if you’re a gambler, you lose what you’ve won. Because the odds are increasingly against you.”

I do not think I ever had a career aim. I found it more interesting to take things as they came along. As a result, at parties, I have never been able to coherently answer that inevitable question: “So what is it you actually do, John?”

Someone also told me, “You should achieve everything you want to achieve by the time you reach the age of 40,” though, sadly, they suggested this to me after I had passed the appropriate age.

I was once told: “John, your CV has no focus.”

I took this as no bad thing.

Better to die in the gutter with multiple memories than to live in bored comfort and regret unexplored avenues.

I have always thought the Chinese curse “May you live in interesting times” was a rather attractive prospect.

I am writing this blog in longhand on a British Airways 747 flight from Beijing to London. I will re-type it all out onto a computer when I return to the UK and will post it on my blog later tonight. I took no computer, no iPad and no mobile phone on my trip to North Korea. I am not that mad.

North Korea does not allow foreigners to bring into their fine, tightly-controlled country any mobile phones or any electronic device containing GPS. China is not that paranoid but, of course, blocks access to not only Facebook, Twitter and other Western social networking sites but also to all the main Western blogging sites. This blog of mine (hosted by WordPress) alas cannot be read in China. Their loss.

As I write this in longhand on the 747, I am 2 hours 45 minutes into a 10 hour 45 minutes flight back to the UK.

According to the electronic in-flight map on the seat-back in front of me, we are just approaching a set of white cartoon mountains.

Aha!, I just wrote in longhand, this must mean  we are just about to fly over Tibet. But now a wider map shows me we are flying westwards somewhere between Irkutsk in Siberia in the north and Ulan Bator in Mongolia the south.

Just south of both those cities on the very small map is the Chinese city of Chongqing.

At Beijing Airport this morning, I unexpectedly bumped into Ben, who had been in the group I went to North Korea with last week.

He told me that, last night, when another member of the group Googled “Chongqing”, it came up with nothing. The name seemed to have been blocked by the Chinese authorities. An entire city temporarily wiped from existence, presumably because they did not want people in China researching beyond the Party line on the on-going Bo Xilai scandal which, to me, seems less of a scandal and more of a future thriller movie plot.

Ben told me that, even before he went to North Korea, he had started keeping a diary.

“You should write a blog,” I told him.

“I don’t think my life is that interesting,” he said.

“What are you doing when you get back to Britain?” I asked him.

“I’m thinking,” he said, “of starting up an internet radio station… My uncle used to be a weather man and wants to do the night shift.”

It is good to have an aim.

China seems to know where it wants to go and is getting there.

North Korea is perhaps like a floundering gambler with no target. It has changed little since I first went there in 1986. Except for the small matter of mobile phones, presumed ICBM tests and the possession of nuclear bombs.

“Do not treat us as children” was the North Korean reaction when the US complained about their recent rocket launch. That is always a good rule-of-thumb, I think, when dealing with people who have nuclear bombs and a volatile diplomatic tendency towards brinksmanship.

On landing at Heathrow Airport in London late this afternoon, I picked up a copy of the i newspaper. It contained a small piece claiming that the official North Korean website was built using a template which cost just $15 – less than £10.

Typical propaganda in the Western media, trying to belittle the great land of the supreme leader Kim Jung-un.

The business page of North Korea’s website says the country “will become in the next years the most important hub for trading in North-East Asia” and promises that workers there “will not abandon their positions for higher salaries once they are trained”. It also says the country has “a government with solid security and a very stable political system, without corruption”.

In the circumstances, I would just like to state my undying admiration for North Korea’s 28 or 29 year old (opinions vary) supreme leader Kim Jung-un.

I think it is better to be safe and cover all angles.

We live in interesting times.

On its website, the North Korean government is currently offering “an exclusive business trip” to the country from 11th August to 18th August 2012. They say they will “facilitate visit to factories and meetings with commerce officials in charge of your professional area. All passports are invited to apply except for: U.S.A., Republic of Korea (South Korea) and Japan due to special protocol in bilateral relations. The number of visitors is limited to 10.”

Now THAT is a trip I would like to go on.

The website adds: “Participants will be accompanied during the entire visit.”

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Filed under China, Crime, gambling, North Korea, Politics

Return from North Korea to China, land of individual freedom & Keanu Reeves

Keanu Reeves’ new movie “Man of Tai Chi” shooting in Beijing

During the night, on the long train trip back to Beijing from Pyongyang, I mention that, since an accident in 1991 in which I was hit by a truck, I have not been able to read books. I can write books, but I cannot read them.

Our English travel agent guide tells me he was recently mugged in the street in Bristol. “They hit me on the back of the head with a baseball bat,” he told me. And roughed me up a bit at the front, too. I have had difficulty reading – and slight speech problems – since then. It’s very frightening when it affects your mind.”

I develop a slight toothache.

As soon as we crossed the bridge over the Yalu River which divides North Korea from China, two smiling strangers (everyone was smiling) separately observed to me how strange it was to feel that entering China was returning to ‘freedom’.

A woman I did not know said to me, smiling: “It’s like a weight has been lifted.”

Somewhere between a station signposted Tanggu and Tianjin city, I noticed there were satellite TV dishes on some of the old, single-storey peasant homes. Not Party buildings, not notable buildings, not in any way rich homes. And occasional clusters of buildings had solar panels on their roofs; possibly communal buildings; impossible to tell.

Then, for mile after mile after mile, a gigantic new elevated road/train track was being built. Make that plural. Over mile upon mile upon continuous mile, new highways, new tower blocks were being built. It is as if the country is building a new city like Milton Keynes every week or a new London Docklands nationwide every few days.

So very different to when I was last here in 1984, 1985 and 1986.

The irony with China is that, in the Cultural Revolution – the Chinese call it the ‘Ten Year Chaos’ – of 1966-1976, the Red Guards wanted to destroy the past, to start from the ‘now’ and build a new society. That now has happened. The irony is that it is not the future they envisaged; it is the future they feared.

Would this giant leap forward have been possible in a country without the unstoppable anti-democratic will and irresistible totalitarian power to push it through? Who knows? But it is an interesting thought/dilemma.

As we arrived at Beijing railway station, someone told me they had seen on BBC World TV that the North Korean satellite launched last week had exploded shortly after launch. Back in North Korea, of course, they will ‘know’ that Satellite 3 was a glorious success and will ‘know’ the giant leaps which their country makes continue to be the envy of the world.

If you live in a self-contained village isolated from all outside knowledge – or, indeed, in The Village in The Prisoner TV series – you know only what you know. There are no known unknowns, only unknown unknowns.

Living standards and social/technological advances are comparative. The North Koreans can see for themselves – they ‘know’ – that their society has advanced in leaps and bounds – from the electricity pylons of the 1980s to – now – mobile telephones and three satellites in space. And they have seen the tributes brought to their leaders by the admiring leaders of other countries.

China – with 7.5% growth per year – is living the advance a stagnant North Korea falsely believes it is making.

In the afternoon, in Beijing, I go into a Bank of China branch. It is in a suburb of the city. The door guard and staff look shocked that a Westerner has wandered into their branch.

I get a ticket to go to the cashier. A recorded message on the loudspeaker tells me when my number – Number 46 – is ready to be dealt with and which cashier to go to. The recorded message is in Chinese… then in English. Like the road signs, the metro signs and many shop signs. It is not just for my benefit. Each customer announcement is made in Chinese… then English.

At the cashier’s desk, facing me, is a little electronic device with three buttons marked in Chinese and in English. By pressing the appropriate button, unseen by the cashier, I can say if her service has been Satisfactory or Average or Dissatisfied.

Welcome to capitalism. Welcome to China 2012.

About half an hour later, near the Novotel and the New World Centre shopping complex, I pass a woman with one eye, begging. Welcome to capitalism. Welcome to China 2012.

Close to a nearby metro entrance, an old grey-haired woman is lying flat on her back, immobile, on the pavement. Beside her, by her head, a middle-aged man, possibly her son, kneels, rocking backwards and forwards, bobbing his head on the pavement, as if in silent Buddhist prayer. A large sheet of paper with Chinese lettering explains their situation. Passers-by drop Yuan notes into a box.

Welcome to China 2012.

At dusk, walking back to my own hotel from a metro station on one of Beijing’s busy, modern ring roads – a 45 minute walk – I see some movie trucks belonging to the China Film Group – dressing rooms, a director’s trailer, equipment vans.

Further along, down a side street, they are shooting second unit photography for a movie called Man of Tai Chi – actor Keanu Reeves’ directorial debut – in an area of grey, old-style, single-storey streets just a 15 second walk off the busy ring road.

In Pyongyang, the North Korean film studios had clearly been doing nothing. But they wanted – they liked – to pretend they have a thriving film industry.

In China, they do.

But they also block Facebook, Twitter and, indeed, this very blog you are reading.

Welcome to China 2012.

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“Confess your crimes against the people of North Korea or you will not be allowed to leave the country tomorrow”

North Korea, land of the Kims, is truly a People’s Paradise

In North Korea, you can see new buildings being constructed as skeletons of concrete, brick and stone but rough and unsophisticated. The final surfaces, though, are very well-designed and finished. They look superficially perfect.

There is another simile for North Korea here. It looks OK from a cursory glance but, underneath…

The Chinese build better foundations.

It seems to me the Chinese have tried to change their society from the bottom upwards. The North Koreans manage any change from the top downwards. They start with the triumphant monuments to success and then (ironically in this supposed people’s paradise but – hey! – this is Communism) there is a rigid hierarchy through which change may trickle down to the bottom though it seems not to have done in the 26 years since I was last here.

One odd feature in the relentless propaganda is that, since I was last here, the Great Leader Kim Il-sung’s mother and early wife seem to have appeared as pseudo Mary Mother of Jesus figures. I do not remember them being mentioned before; now they occasionally appear in pictures. Both long dead, of course, as all the best icons are.

This is my last day in the People’s Paradise. The train out of North Korea leaves Pyongyang at 10.10am this morning. It arrives in Beijing at 8.33am tomorrow morning. No US passport holders are allowed to take the train out of North Korea; they have to fly out.

In the train, I have lunch with a British woman who lives in New York (she has a British passport). She was at the big military parade on Kim Il-sung’s birthday. The one we were not allowed to go to. She was with another foreigner who reckoned some of the giant rockets on display were not real: they were possibly made from wood. She does not know; he did not know; I do not know; this is North Korea; I only mention it as an observation from someone who was there.

She told me someone else she knows managed, accidentally, to go onto the ‘hidden’ floor in their hotel – the floor at which lifts do not stop. There was no decor. Just a bare concrete corridor and bare walls. The door to one room was slightly ajar. He looked through the crack. A man was sitting looking at a TV monitor. He left the floor quietly and returned to the ‘allowed’ parts of the hotel.

I also get talking to a man who is one of the three others I share the four-berth compartment with on this train from Pyongyang to Beijing. He was born in a Western European country (which shall remain nameless to disguise his identity). But he has lived in the US for many years. So he has both a US passport and a passport from the European country of his birth. Obviously, as he is on the train, he is using his European passport.

Last night, he was booked into the same hotel as me – the Yanggakdo in Pyongyang. He came into North Korea with a Kindle e-reader and a laptop computer which the border guards did not query because neither has GPS.

In my opinion, he was silly on the North Korean trip. He was not in my group, but he told me he had sat at the front of his tour bus, near the two guides, taking photographs of the North Korean countryside (which is not allowed). He had also, with a fellow group member, wandered out of their hotel one night unaccompanied. Again, this is not allowed.

Last night, there was a problem with the keys to his hotel room which escalated to the point at which he was taken off to a room in the hotel and interrogated for seven hours, from 8.00pm to 3.00am.

“Why have you been taking bad photographs to make our country look bad?” the questions started, before moving on to “Why have you been disrespectful of our guides?” and so on, round and round in circles for seven hours with five interrogators.

“You are not a real tourist,” they eventually said. “You have been taking photographs of people in the countryside and in the towns. They are all waiting downstairs to denounce you… We have talked to the other members of your group. They all say you are not a real tourist. You are a spy. We know you are here to spy on our country and take bad photographs.”

They brought in an IT expert with a laptop computer which he attached to the man’s laptop computer to search the hard disk. They then confiscated the hard disk. They then looked through all the still photographs he had taken and erased a lot. “Where have you hidden the other memory cards?” he was asked.

“I have no other memory cards,” he told them. But the questioning and re-questioning went on for seven hours.

It escalated more and more.

“You will not be allowed to leave the country,” they told him. You have committed crimes against the people of North Korea. Confess your crimes against the people of North Korea or you will not be allowed to leave the country tomorrow.”

“Oh shit,” he thought.

“You must sign a confession to your crimes,” he was told, “or you will not be allowed to leave the country. If you publish any photographs you have taken in North Korea, we will publish your confession on the internet.”

“Oh shit,” he thought.

He eventually signed the ‘confession’.

“You have committed crimes against North Korea,” he was then told. “You must compensate North Korea. Do you have $10,000?”

When he made it clear he was not carrying $10,000 on him, they feigned anger that he thought he could bribe them.

“If you publish any photographs you have taken in North Korea,” they told him, “or continue your crimes after you have left our country or tell anyone this interrogation has taken place, we will publish your confession to your crimes on the internet.”

“They were frightening but not very efficient,” he tells me. “I had a video camera in my case and they never looked. I declared it at the border on the way in, but they never knew it was there. It had much ‘worse’ images.”

After he was released at 3.00am, he went back to his room and erased all the material he had shot on his video camera. He did this under his bed covers in case – as well as having sound bugs – the hotel room had video bugs.

I wonder what will happen at the border.

This could go one of two ways for me.

I am sharing a compartment with the guy.

Either I will be given a bad time because I will get guilt by association. Or I will sail through because the border guards will focus so much on him.

At the border, the first North Korean border guard comes into our compartment and goes straight for him.

“Camera,” he says.

Three other North Korean border guards come in. I go and stand in the corridor as they interrogate the guy, go through his stills camera, picture by picture, find the video camera in his case and examine that.

“My camera – my stills camera – takes videos and I have my video camera too,” he tells them, “but I took no videos while I was in North Korea.”

I think, listening to this in the corridor, that it must sound more than a little suspicious.

“You have more memory cards,” the guards say. “Where are your other memory cards?”

“I have no other memory cards,” he tells them.

“Do you have memory cards hidden in your hair?” one of them asks him.

They interrogate him for around 35 minutes. Then they turn to me:

“Camera,” the guard barks at me.

I give him my camera. He looks at all the photographs. There are 168 on the memory card. He erases 17 of them – one of the border at Panmunjom, mostly just photos of ordinary people in the very public Kim Il-sung Square in Pyongyang.

There are only three sets of photos on that memory card: Panmunjom, Kim Il-sung Square and the music concert we attended in Pyongyang. I had intentionally taken the Panmunjom photos so they could, if necessary, be erased. The other 900+ photos I had taken in North Korea are on another memory card in the rolled-up sleeve of my shirt.

The guards never ask if I have a video camera. Which I do, with five one-hour tapes filled-up.

Afterwards, the European guy tells me that, halfway through his grilling by the border guards, he realised that the European passport on which he was travelling in North Korea had an out-of-date visa for China in it. His up-to-date visa for China was in the US passport in his bag, which the guards superficially searched. They did not realise he had a second, US passport (remember US citizens cannot legally leave North Korea by train) and they did not check the dates on the Chinese visa in his European passport. But, he tells me, “I was shitting myself.”

The guards were paranoid, but not very efficient. However, they may have been hungry.

In another compartment in the railway carriage, a female border guard saw a chocolate bar in the suitcase of some Swiss travellers. She looked at their passports. “Swiss?” she asked. “Yes,” they replied. She unwrapped the chocolate bar and ate it, unsmiling, in front of the two Swiss. “It is good chocolate,” she told them.

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North Korea – Phallic monuments, war lies, famine and an interview with MI5

An amazing erection in Pyongyang: the Tower

(A version of this blog was also published on the Indian news website We Speak News.)

Surprisingly today, our older male guide admitted that North Korea had a famine in the 1990s. It was, he said, caused by “no rain” and, in the period 1994-1999, “only 200,000” people died, not the 3 million he said was claimed by the Americans.

I think Apartheid in South Africa was doomed when they let television into the country. People could see what life was like outside the country.

Widespread tourism in North Korea brings much the same threat.

Being a North Korean must be like being a sheep or a goat. You are born into a place where people look after you and you learn to trust them and believe they care about your welfare. Then, one day, they may slit your throat and eat you with vegetables.

North Korea is an enclosed world of brown countryside and white-and-red towns. Or white-and-off-red towns. Brown earth. Off-white buildings. Red banners and slogans.

The Great Leader Kim Il-sung’s Juche Idea of self-reliance – much touted when I was here in 1986 – seems to have been superceded by the Songun philosophy of “military first” – which “prioritises the Korean People’s Army in the affairs of state and allocates national resources to the army first”. Interestingly, this first seriously appeared in 1995, the year after Kim Il-sung’s death, when his son the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il took over the country.

I wonder what sucking-up to the military Kim Jong-Il’s son the new Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un will have to do.

All towns seem to have at least one tall thin monument in a central position with slogans carved around or on it – the ultimate being the Tower of the Juche Idea in the country’s capital Pyongyang with eternal sculptured flame atop. It all seems a bit like worshipping a stone phallus erected in the middle of ancient communities with dwellings huddled round it.

North Korea is very big on icons.

We were taken to the national film studios today. The late Dear Leader Kim Jong-il was much bitten by the would-be-Hollywood bug. We were proudly told that he had visited the film studios more than 590 times. We were told the studios made 20 films each year. So that would be almost two per month with lots of overlapping.

But the studio buildings and the widespread backlot streets were deserted. The ladies and gents toilets were closed and had to be found and specially opened. The gents was flooded. Someone told me there appeared to be an old woman sleeping in the ladies toilet.

The man in charge of the film studios said that the Great Leader Kim Il-sung himself had given advice on the positioning of the studios. He had said they should be outside the city.

Good advice, I believe.

The school year here starts on April 1st, which seems a very appropriate date given some of the facts learned in school. We were taken to an ‘ordinary’ school today.

In reality, of course, foreign visitors are never taken to ‘ordinary’ schools.

The school we were taken to – the June the 9th Middle School Number One School – was closed. This is the fourth day of a two-day public holiday. the extra two days, we were told, are “because in the previous two days the people had to celebrate”.

The science schoolroom had a small, cheap microscope on each desk. There was one room devoted to lessons about the Great Leader Kim Il-sung. And one room devoted to lessons about the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il. “The children have one lesson each week on them,” we were told proudly.

Some children had been dragged in to perform for us. As with all performances in North Korea, they were perfect in every way, though with a slightly unsettling emphasis on accordion-playing.

I was very impressed by one small picture among many others stuck on a wall. It was of the small children undergoing military training – crawling under barbed wire and the rest.

Then we were taken to the War Museum where we had explained to us why the Korean War started. Basically, as I understood the story, the US made lots of money during the Second World War by selling its armaments. When the War finished, the US went into a big economic Depression and decided to start the Korean War to stop the Depression.

Last time I was here, in 1986, the line was that the Korean War started when the running dog South Korean lackeys of the US imperialists wantonly attacked North Korea, but the valiant North Koreans pluckily fought back, drove the Americans back to the sea and the Yanks begged for a peace treaty.

This fails somewhat to explain why the border between the two Koreas remains in the middle of the peninsula and, as told in 1986, the Chinese Army was not involved in any way. Presumably North Korean grandfathers who remember US/UN troops surging northwards through their village and then remember Chinese troops surging southwards through their village see the value of keeping schtum.

Today, I asked if many Chinese visitors came to the War Museum and if they saw the same rooms as us. “There are four Chinese rooms in the museum,” I was told, “but we do not have time to see them today.”

I do not really care. The more important factor to me is that, although there is some talk of the US conning the UN into being involved in the Korean War, it is the Americans who are 100% blamed (or credited) with the war. We see their downed aircraft, captured vehicles and photos of their POWs. Britain is never mentioned because it seems important to keep the focus of North Korea’s xenophobic hatred on the Americans alone.

That’s fine by me. It gives me a quieter life as a Brit.

In the evening, as a special treat, we are taken to Pyongyang’s main theatre for a special mega-performance by a cast of 2,000 in honour of Kim Il-sung’s 100th birthday. Broadway and Andrew Lloyd-Webber eat your heart out. A stupendous production of professional perfection. It is later put on YouTube:

But, really, you had to be there to appreciate the scale of it.

At a restaurant meal, one of our group tells me his story about being interviewed for a job in MI5. He passed the tests where you are given lots of disparate information from different sources about a fake situation and have to compile a risk assessment  situation report. He got through to the interview stage and failed. He says he thought it was because he was around 22 years old at the time and “they like more fully-formed people… all the others were older, maybe in their early 30s.”

I wonder how uni-directional the microphones are in the restaurant. I feel reassured that the North Koreans have better people to bug in this celebratory period.

When I get back to the hotel – our final night is unexpectedly in the 5-star Yanggakdo Hotel – the television, very bizarrely, has the BBC World TV channel on it. What are the authorities thinking of? North Korean workers in the hotel can see this. I think of South Africa and Apartheid.

The BBC is saying there has been a Los Angeles Times report with photos of US soldiers posing with the severed limbs and other body parts of suicide bombers… and North Korea has said it will no longer allow UN nuclear inspectors into the country because the US has withdrawn food aid to North Korea in response to the launch of their rocket last week.

We live in interesting times.

Most of it utterly unknown by the people of North Korea.

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