Tag Archives: Kim Jong-un

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 – 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.

… CONTINUED HERE …

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North Korea – A land of nuclear bombs and satellite launches, but no electricity

North Korea reveals the face of the evil Americans

I look out of my hotel window in the early morning and see a Turner sunset with two tall Dickensian chimneys, a yellow golden sun, the indistinct nearby river and a bleak landscape in a misty, disfiguring white haze. It is The Fighting Temeraire with pollution. It is Pyongyang, capital of North Korea.

We are driven south in our coach on long, long, decidedly dodgy potholed-pitted roads to the DMZ – the Demilitarised Zone between North and South Korea. The countryside is eerily empty as we pass through it, as if all human life has been hoovered up by some giant alien vacuum cleaner.

I would like to come back here with a farmer who could explain what I am seeing. The barren brown supposedly agricultural land looks barren to me, as if the regime has over-farmed it or something, but I am no expert. To my inexpert eye, something has gone very wrong; no-one is farming the occasionally slightly-ploughed fields for mile after tens of miles.

If your land is devastated, you would normally invite in specialists with expert advice but North Korea is no normal country and has, I suspect, screwed itself.

On the one hand, they have lived in self-imposed isolation for decades. On the other hand, the Great Leader Kim Il-sung thought up his superficially-attractive philosophy of The Juche Idea.

This basically means the country and everyone in it should be self-reliant. But, this being North Korea – a land which is not of Planet Earth – the Juche Idea is counterbalanced (or negated) by the idea that the Great Leader Kim Il-sung and subsequently his son the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il and now the grandson the Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un go round the country giving on-the-spot advice.

This is a paranoid country with a population indoctrinated since birth into worshipping – and that is not too strong a word – the ruling family. Nothing will happen until the current Leader comes to a factory or a field or a region and says, “I think we should produce more cabbages/paperclips/babies.” Once that is said, a plaque goes up commemorating the visit and (certainly in Kim Il-sung’s day) the fact that the Great/Dear/Supreme Leader gave on-the-spot advice.

How the advised people are going to produce more cabbages or paperclips, of course, is up to them. I imagine they can cope with the details of complying with any advice to have more babies.

But, for whatever reason, the countryside on the long, rough road to the DMZ at Panmunjom looks devastated. And this is dangerous.

North Korea had actual famine in the 1990s and currently the proud, independent nation which follows the Juche Idea of self-reliance and accepts no help from others, gets food aid from its arch-enemy the United States in return for (in theory) not furthering its nuclear ambitions and arsenal.

But picture a country with no real knowledge of how diplomacy, international relations or the outside world actually works. Picture this country with a devastated farming industry, a situation so desperate that they have to go ask their arch nemesis for help. This is a country whose leaders, if they have their noses tweaked or their pride dented even slightly more or unintentionally more, will react with sudden, unpredictable behaviour which is totally OTT. If they think they are being treated like children, they will react like children with no concept of any rules or what is a normal or balanced response.

On our way to Panmunjom, at about 10.30am, we are told that, this morning at 8.00am, North Korea successfully launched its rocket – the one the West thinks is a test for an ICBM – carrying what our young female guide called “our satellite number 3”.

At Panmunjom, next to a small block of gents and ladies toilets, up a slight slope, I see a tall man with his back to me facing a tree. It is evident he is pissing on the tree. A guard spots him. Two soldiers bring him back from the tree. Two non-uniformed men are called. They look shocked. The man’s Western tour guide is called. Much worried discussion ensues. The man looks slightly triumphant. They are standing perhaps 20 feet away from me. It seems, from talking to other people, that the man is an American.

In certain circumstances, it is possible to agree with the North Korean view that the Americans are, en masse, barking at the moon.

Eventually, as we are taken down to the actual border itself, the man seems to be let off with a severe reprimand. But I would pay to be a fly-on-the-wall when he tries to leave the country and the border guards go through his belongings.

At the border, things have changed slightly since I was here in 1986, but only slightly.

There are still three blue huts where peace negotiations have taken place since the early 1950s. In the middle of a central table in the middle hut, negotiations took/take place. The border runs through the middle of the table; the North Koreans sit on one side; the South Koreans/Americans sit on the other side. The huts are painted by the Americans. They are blue because that is the United Nations colour but, since I was here last, it is a slightly darker blue. Perhaps this has been dragging on for so long that they have forgotten why the huts are blue.

When I was here in 1986, opposite a large stone North Korean building, stood a small South Korean pagoda on the upper of level of which stood an American G.I. with what, I presumed, was a directional microphone. Today, the pagoda has been moved to the left (as seen from the North Korea side) and a large building erected to rival the North Korean building.

When I was here last time, the two sides had just finished a ‘flag war’. One side erected a giant flag pole with a giant national flag flying from it. The other side erected a taller pole with a bigger flag. The first side then erected an even bigger pole with an even bigger flag. And so on. And so on. Looking at the poles today, the North Koreans won the flag war.

Party people (a phrase which has different meanings in Manchester and North Korea) wear small flag badges with the Great Leader Kim Il-sung or, less often, the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il’s face on them. The soldier designated to tell us the ‘truth’ at Panmunjom has a badge with two heads on it – both the Great Leader and the Dear Leader. This has more prestige and is, we are told, specially awarded.

I notice that our two North Korean guides wear single-head badges, but our driver wears a double-head badge.

We overnight at a hotel in the nearby town of Kaesong. The hotel has no hot water or electricity.

North Korea launched a satellite this morning, but the country’s agriculture system is medieval. They are proud yet have to accept food aid from their arch enemy America. On a hill overlooking the town of Kaesong is a gigantic bronze-coloured statue of Kim Il-sung. It is floodlit at night. But even the hotel which aims to impress foreigners has no hot water or electricity.

The older male North Korean guide tells me it is too cold in his room to sleep.

Earlier, when it was still daylight, he took us to a roundabout at a road junction to get a better view of the town. Before we crossed the wide road, he warned us: “Take care crossing the street because of the traffic.”

There was no traffic.

Giggles were stifled in the group.

You do not laugh at or with North Korea. This is a land without a comedy club and without a sense of humour.

Humour is a dangerous thing.

But the country has something else which, I think, will eat away at it.

Children sometimes wave at our coach as it passes by. This never happened in 1986. Coaches and people who were visibly foreigners were ignored.

Children who wave at coaches containing people who smile and wave back at them will grow up into adults still willing to believe all Western foreigners are devils. But imperceptible cracks will be inbuilt in their indoctrination. It is the start of a slippery slope.

… CONTINUED HERE …

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