Tag Archives: China

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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Filed under North Korea, Politics, Travel

Kate Copstick’s insight into everyday life in Kenya, including the Chinese effect

Copstick (in blue) at Mama Biashara project

Copstick (in blue) at Mama Biashara project

Comedy reviewer Kate Copstick is in Kenya.

That is where her Mama Biashara charity is based and does its work.

Below is an edited (by me) insight into life in Kenya at the moment, culled from Copstick’s current diaries.

The sort of stuff that never gets reported in ’the West’.

Copstick’s full diaries are on the Mama Biashara Facebook page.


SUNDAY

Doris gets into Nairobi at about 3.00 am. At my insistence, she gets a taxi home to Kenol. Unfortunately her problems do not stop there. She tells me later “there has been an unfortunate occurrence” in Kenol.

Night shift policemen in Kenya are to be feared.

They clock on, take their big guns, do one circuit of their beat and then go to the pub. Where they drink until morning. At about 5.00am, they come out, pick up their guns and do one more circuit (at which point they are dangerous), clock off and go home. Just as Doris was getting home, a drunk policeman shot two completely innocent men on a pikipiki (motorbike taxi).

By the time she woke up later that day, Kenol was a war zone. A thousand pikipiki boys from all over the region descended and attacked the police station demanding the drunk cop be arrested. The police did not seem to think he had done anything wrong.

And so, to deter the pikipiki boys who were barricading themselves in for a fight, the police shot and killed several of them and started throwing tear gas about the place.

Doris, her kids and all of her neighbours fled the area.

MONDAY

I meet up with Joanne – cousin of my late friend Janet – who is working with all manner of needy groups, especially one I met the last time I was here –  mothers of disabled children.

Mental and physical disabilities are not well catered for here. The twelve year old daughter of the group leader was raped and impregnated, giving birth just before my last visit. The four year old a few door along (also mentally challenged) was also raped. By a neighbour. The police did nothing so the women got together and marched him to the police station. Where the police refused to arrest him. So they took him to another police station and refused to leave until they did arrest him.

Joanne tells me about the group of albino children she is working with. They live in fear as there is a roaring trade in albino body parts in Tanzania. Strong magic, apparently. So I say I will meet up with this group and we arrange a meet for Wednesday down in Kibera.

Joanne and I part and I head to Junction to meet Doris.

Doris’ journey back from Mombasa had been horrendous. Apart from the child attacked by the hyena there was also a white man having a heart attack to keep interest up in Doris’ stationary traffic jam.

There are roadworks going on to do with the train line and ‘improving’ the last stretch of the Mombasa Highway and the job has been given (who would have guessed?) to the Chinese.

They are not great on:

  1. the materials they use which, of course, they bring from China (lest there be any hint of aiding the local economy) and which are marginally less than Fit for Purpose
  2. making sure the roads are finished properly so that when the rains come and huge trucks drive along them they don’t just fall apart.

Plus the workers would appear to be following that best-loved of Confucius’ sayings: When your government has their government in its pocket, there is no need to get a wriggle on with the job. And so the roadworks are taking forever and what road is worked seems to fall apart at the drop of a ten ton truck and a bit of rain.

According to Doris, Mombasa is the most horribly racist place imaginable.

In the nineteenth century, the Omani Arabs from Zanzibar took Mombasa from the Portuguese and, even when the whites (that’ll be us, Brits) rolled in and took over declaring all land not under cultivation to be ‘Crown Land’, the people were still under the sovereignty of the Sultan of Zanzibar.

Mombasa and a 10 mile wide Coastal strip was leased by the Brits from the Sultan. But the people were still his people.

This is the basis of the argument made by the Mombasa Republicans who say Mombasa was never part of Kenya and should be allowed to cecede immediately.

Nowadays, the city and coastal strip still has a huge Arab population. They are the rich and the middle classes and they treat the indigenous people like shit. Doris says if you are black instead of brown you are nothing – a sub-species of humanity.

Among the wider African population, skin lightening is the single biggest ‘thing’ in the cosmetic industry here. Doris says she could feel the looks and the attitude eating away at her self-esteem.

Then she tells me about the Mijikenda widows.

The Mijikenda are an indigenous tribe. The main one.

According to Doris (and she went to this village to see for herself), when the women are widowed, they are ceremonially walked to a village outside the city area where they live for the rest of their lives, forbidden to leave.

On a Friday (and Doris was there on a Friday) the local chief brings a charabanc of businessmen to the village and they have sex with the women, believing that they are ‘clean’, and pay them with a sack of rice and a five litre container of cooking oil.

“It is a cultural thing” says Doris, shrugging.

TUESDAY

I have a very worrying conversation with Mwangi – who designs and makes fabulous jewellery.

I am ordering a collar and ask for it in turquoise (which always sells well). “Not possible,” I am told.

Mwangi shows me the last ornate collar he made in turquoise… The colour is rubbing off the beads even before it has been sold. The same with the burnished gold beads. This is because the government of Kenya have opened up the bead market to China, which is flooding the market with their shit beads.

The Czech beads which everyone had been working with for decades are priced out of the market. One of Nairobi’s best and longest standing bead shops has already gone out of business rather than buy the Chinese rubbish and real artists like Mwangi are finding it almost impossible to get the good beads they need. The real beads have the colour all the way through. The Chinese ones are either black or white and are just sprayed with the colour – which does not last long.

This move could devastate one of Kenya’s oldest and most famous traditions.

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Filed under Africa, Charity, Kenya

Louise Reay’s Chinese language comedy and a man bangs a nail into his penis

Louise Reay Chinese

The Thoughts of Louise Reay – 喜剧演员和电视制片人

I missed a preview of Louise Reay’s show It’s Only Words a few weeks ago. Not that I would have understood it. Her show is billed as “the first ever stand-up show where the audience will literally have no idea what the person on stage is talking about.”

This is because her show is performed totally in Chinese for audiences who speak no Chinese.

“So,” I told her when we met, “you studied Chinese at university. That was very sensible of you, given they’re the rising world power.”

“It may sound sensible now,” she told me, “but it wasn’t at the time. I did it on a whim. My parents are hippyish and we were like a host family for foreign students. When I was like 16, a lot of my siblings had moved out so there were spare bedrooms and we filled them with foreign students.”

“How many siblings have you?” I asked.

“I’m one of four, but I have three step-siblings, so my parents have seven between them and, when each one left, we put like two foreign students in their bedroom until there was just me and my little brother left of the original siblings. We would have these big dinners with like 2 Chinese, 1 Swiss and 3 Mexicans. At one point, we had 4 Brazilians living with us who we couldn’t get rid of. They just kept inviting more people to live with them.

“It sounds terrible to say it today but, at that time, it always felt like the Chinese ones were the most alien. I was like 16 and going clubbing all the time and we had one Chinese girl who came to stay with us and she just read the Bible all the time. It felt weird.

“So I chose to study Chinese on a whim. I thought: Chinese people seem the weirdest to me. That will be the most fun. I can go to university in Beijing. It was as simple as that. It sounds so bad now, but I was only 17. About a year later, the Chinese economy took off and everyone said to me: What a wise decision you made. It was a complete whim.

Louise Reay, fitting in with Chinese culture

Louise always tries to fit in with Chinese culture

“I was at university in Beijing for a year and later I went back to work there for another year. in business. All my colleagues were Chinese women and all my clients were middle-aged Chinese men and that’s why I came home. It was like just really weird?”

“When did you come back?” I asked.

“Quite a long time ago – like 2010 or 2011.”

“The first three times I went to Beijing,” I told her, “were 1984, 1985 and 1986.”

“Oh!” said Louise. “You’re so lucky! Deng Xiaoping! Cool! I went to Beijing again last December. There’s a cool TV series coming out on BBC this summer – The School That Turned Chinese – about a school in Surrey which gets Chinese teachers for a month and I was out there getting the Chinese teachers.”

“Your day job in TV is what?” I asked.

“Assistant producer. Freelance. I just fell into it about five years ago because I speak Chinese. I do all kinds of projects. I did a big economics series for BBC2 that came out in December. I do really random stuff. I’m an assistant producer, so I just run round after the middle-aged man. I came home from Beijing to avoid hanging out with middle-aged Chinese men and all I do now is run around after middle-aged British men. Apparently that’s my destiny. My first ever job in TV was in Zambia filming a documentary about middle-aged Chinese men who were entrepreneurs in the Copper Belt.”

Louise in London’s Soho last week

Louise could not escape China in London’s Soho last week

“So,” I said, “you do live stand-up comedy AND these serious BBC2/BBC4 documentaries…”

“Yes,” said Louise. “I first did stand-up when I was 16. I stopped at 18 after a weird gig in Eastbourne. They had a racist joke competition led by the compere. Then a man in the audience said: If I hammer a nail into my penis, can I get free entry to this club night for the rest of the year? And they said: Yeah! Sure! and they ran around and got a stool and a hammer and a nail and he hammered it in.”

“We are talking here about hammering it into skin,” I checked, “not into the more solid bits?”

“I didn’t look,” said Louise. “But, an hour later, he stood up and said: If I hammer a second nail into my penis, can I get free drinks for the rest of the year? and the audience went Yeeaaaaahhhh!!!! and basically, like, at the end of the night, he was doing a wee into a basin and I went to wash my hands next to him and he turned to me and said: Oh, I really like your set. And wee was coming out of the different holes in his dick. So I thought: I can never do comedy again and I didn’t do stand-up for about six years after that.”

“I have to say,” I told Louise, “I would book him as an act… What have you just been working on recently?”

Louise in China, blending in with the locals

“Dude, we WILL be able to understand what you want…

“It’s really random. There’s like a Harvard professor and he has a TV company in the UK so we were doing like a history of capitalism thing?”

“Why,” I asked, “are you doing this Brighton Fringe and Edinburgh Fringe show It’s Only Words in Chinese?”

“I’ve always been interested in communication. I made a documentary about a Chinese woman called Apple who lived in Croydon. She could not speak any English and she did not go outside except for once a week to go to the Chinese supermarket. She was so isolated because she didn’t speak the language. And I thought: Dude, if you go to an English language shop and try to buy something, we WILL be able to understand what you want.

“People have a real mental barrier about languages and the way we communicate. But just one look can mean so much. We communicate all the time. Look at my hands. I can’t stop them moving. There’s so much more than language going on. That’s what my show’s all about.”

“So,” I asked, “people sitting in the audience will able to understand what’s going on?”

“Yes. That’s the thing. It will prove that you can. There was a very spurious 1960s experiment which proved that only 7% of communication was verbal. So my whole show is an experiment in the 93%. If I did it in French, it wouldn’t work, because most people maybe understand enough.

“A really weird thing is that, depending on where you live, your face ages differently, because you use different muscles in your face depending on what language you’re speaking.

Louise Reay, cleaning a great wall

Louise Reay, a woman with experience, cleans a great wall

“I know a Western man who has lived in China for the past 40 years and he looks like a Chinese person now, because the muscles that he’s used from speaking Chinese every day… Like Chinese is very much in the front of your face, whereas European languages are much more throaty? The whole face changes, because you have some muscles that are not used and other muscles that are used a lot more. It’s like really nuts that you can age your face differently depending on what language you’re speaking each day. It’s mental.”

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Filed under China, Comedy

“How do you sleep at night?” I asked character comedian Matt Roper two days ago in Buenos Aires

Matt Roper as himself in Edinburgh

Matt Roper as himself at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2012

On 10th January, I got an e-mail from British comedian Matt Roper. It said:

“Albuquerque, New Mexico? Or Tuscon, Arizona? I’m at truck stop in New Mexico and I can get to either place to get to where I need to be. But I can only choose one. Your thoughts?”

“The Wikipedia entry on Albuquerque,” I told him, “has sections on Freight Service and Sanitation. If the only thing they can write about Albuquerque to make it sound interesting is its sanitary arrangements, the town has not a lot going for it.

“As for Tucson, Wikipedia says: The Arizona Daily Wildcat is the University of Arizona’s student newspaper and the Aztec News is the Pima Community College student newspaper. The New Vision is the newspaper for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tucson and the Arizona Jewish Post is the newspaper of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona. You can’t go wrong. It has everything.”

Matt decided to go to Tucson and, on the Greyhound bus trip, he got talking to a bounty hunter. But that’s another story.

When I talked to him two days ago, Matt was in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

“I flew into New York and managed to do everything by train up until Texas and then I ended up doing car shares and Greyhound buses,” he told me. “I really like them, because you really meet the real characters on the buses.”

“Who’s the most bizarre person you met?” I asked him.

“Maybe the bounty hunter. Maybe the pimp’s nephew. There was the 18-stone Baptist preacher who tried to convert me to Southern Baptism. And the guy who coached Bobby Fischer, the chess champion. I think that guy is living in abject poverty in New York; he’s in his seventies, drinking quite heavily. He never received any money. Bobby Fischer went on to make loads and loads and he never gave the guy any.”

“But now you’re in Buenos Aires,” I said. “I’m green with envy. You’re just basically meandering around the world.”

“I’m always writing and trying stuff out, doing gigs here and there,” said Matt.

He performs as the rather greasy, slightly lecherous but strangely charming Spanish lounge lizard singer Wilfredo.

An EP of Wilfredo has just been released

An audio EP of Wilfredo’s songs was recently released

An EP of his songs The Wonderful World of Wilfredo has just been released on iTunes and a documentary film Wilfredo Comes To Town is doing the festival rounds.

“I got connected with some local comics and ended up doing a gig here last night,” Matt told me on Skype. “It was interesting doing a Spanish character in Buenos Aires. I felt as if I was being fed to the lions. But it went well. It’s been really inspirational.

Matt (left) with comic Gregorio Rossello in Buenos Aires this week

Matt Roper (left) with Argentinian comic Gregorio Rossello in Buenos Aires this week

“The Argentinian comedy scene isn’t huge, but I met some local comedians. There’s a group of four young Argentinian comics who flyer every weekend. Their work ethic is so inspirational. They hire this little room above a pub like we do in London – 60 capacity. They flyer all day and night on a Friday and Saturday and do three shows a night every weekend – a 10.00pm, 01.00am and 03.00am show – because no-one goes to bed here till gone dawn.

“I have a blessed life. I support myself with writing commissions and gigs.”

“Yes,” I said, “You write these promo scripts, which is sort-of like what I used to do. But I had to go to places like Salford. You get to travel the world and work via the internet.”

“You’ve been to Tibet,” said Matt. “I haven’t been to Tibet. I’ve never seen the Potala Palace.”

“You’ve come to my home,” I said. “You’ve seen the picture.”

“I’ve seen the Dalai Lama,” Matt said.

“I’ve only seen him talk at Wembley,” I said. “You’ve been more exotic.”

“I was an English teacher in China for six months when I was about 27,” said Matt, “teaching adults. I used to wind them up. I would play Odd One Out with them. I’d put the names of four towns on the board and get them to pick which one didn’t belong, say: Lhasa, Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen. Beijing! they’d say – Why? – Capital city! – Good, but wrong. It’s Lhasa, cos Lhasa’s the only one that’s not in China! They’d go ballistic. I’d been with the Tibetan community in exile at Dharamsala in northern India.”

“Have you seen the Iguassu waterfalls yet?” I asked.

“No,” said Matt. “I fly out of Buenos Aires in five hours. Basically, I’ve come all the way to Argentina, rented an apartment out in the suburbs of Buenos Aires, miles away from anywhere, and mostly what I’ve done is sit here and written, drunk a few bottles of wine and taken a taxi into town every now and then. It’s ridiculous.”

“So you haven’t seen the pampas,” I said. “You haven’t seen men on horseback with large balls. None of that?”

Matt with his two constant anti-cockroach friends

“Say hello to my leetle friendz” Matt with his cockroach killers

“None of that,” agreed Matt. “But I’ve seen cockroaches. I don’t mind insects and I love animals, but cockroaches! Buenos Aires is one of the great cockroach cities of the world. You can see them all weaving in-and-out of the human traffic on the pavements. But there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s not because the place is dirty. It’s the heat and… I just can’t fucking cope with cockroaches. I don’t want to cook. I lose my appetite.”

“How do you sleep at night?” I asked.

“I just leave the light on. They don’t like lights and they don’t like noise. So I usually keep some music on.”

“So why,” I asked, “did you want to go to Buenos Aires?”

“Because I had to leave the States cos my visa was up and I’ve always wanted to come to Buenos Aires. But I’m going back to the States now… LA and New York… I have to leave the apartment in 35 minutes. Cockroaches can survive nuclear holocausts, you know.”

“And you’re back in Britain in May?”

“Yes. And then I’m doing a tour of Central Europe in June with your Facebook friend Alex Frackleton, because he’s keen to get back into stand-up. We play Budapest, Bratislava, Vienna, Prague, two dates at an arts festival in the Czech Republic and I’m hoping to play Martin Soan’s Pull The Other One club in Leipzig as well.”

“I saw the first show there,” I said. “It was full. They had to turn people away. Alex Frackleton told me there was a story about you and him meeting up in Prague.”

Matt Roper, Alex Frackleton and Czech friend

Matt Roper and Alex Frackleton with their unknown Czech friend

“Yes, we went to the big Gay Pride event in Prague,” said Matt, “and were photographed with an enormous transvestite. Alex was looking up: Can we have a photograph? – We’re not gay! We’re comedians! – We’re not gay! We’re comedians!

“Why might you play Leipzig?” I asked.

“Because it’s Martin Soan and because it’s close to Prague and because my dental technician is in Berlin. She’s the woman who makes Wilfredo’s teeth.”

Yes, dear reader, Matt Roper wears specially-constructed teeth when he performs as Wilfredo.

“Have you got two sets for safety?” I asked Matt.

“Yes, I always keep one set in my pocket, just in case the first set fly out and break. You gotta have spare teeth, John!”

“No embarrassing questions at Customs yet?” I asked.

“Not yet,” said Matt. “But, when I got to Buenos Aires, I unzipped my bag and the owners of the apartment saw this pair of big teeth and a black wig. Because I don’t speak much Spanish and they didn’t speak English, there was nothing said. Just this silence.”

“I always think travelling makes people better people,” I said. “But has it made you a better comedian?”

“I think the States has given me tons of material,” said Matt. “Not so much Argentina. I think Argentina is more similar to Britain than the States is. It seems to me that Argentinians enjoy nothing more than to see somebody fail. Like the British. They’re very pessimistic. Whereas, in the States, they love to see people succeed. They nurture success and I find that quite attractive. All this Have a nice day! stuff wound me up at first. Have the best day of your life, sir! But, after a while, with everybody saying it, it’s actually quite nice. It’s better than calling somebody a cunt.”

“In Glasgow, calling someone a cunt is a term of affection,” I said, “according to Janey Godley and Jerry Sadowitz.”

“I don’t know Janey that well,” laughed Matt, “but we were both on the Nicholas Parsons show together in Edinburgh and, when she looked across at Wilfredo, she said: Fucking hell! 25 years ago I would have fucking married you!

“Me, half my family is Irish Catholic. My dad’s family is Liverpool, which is naturally like a Celtic city.  All the religious suppression, all the guilt is good for comedy. I think that’s why Liverpool is such a great comedy city. And Glasgow. From that religious suppression comes a lot of humour. How else are they going to get through the day?”

An extract from the documentary Wilfredo Comes To Town in which Matt’s character sings Moon River is on YouTube.

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Filed under Argentina, Comedy, Eccentrics, Humor, Humour, US

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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Filed under China, Movies, North Korea

“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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Filed under North Korea, spying