Tag Archives: North Korea

Political gossip. Mick Jagger fondled by MP. Cabinet Minister thrown out of pub

In Sohemia last night: Mark Seddon (left) and Martin Rowson

In Sohemia last night: Mark Seddon (left) and Martin Rowson

I went to the Sohemian Society in London last night to hear about “Gay Hussar Nights”.

The evening was billed as two insiders’ journeys through Bollinger Bolshevism with the Rabelaisian Left: “Former Tribune editor and Labour Party National Executive member, turned Al Jazeera TV correspondent Mark Seddon and multi award-winning cartoonist Martin Rowson will chew the cud and spit it all out for your delectation in an evening of downright irreverence and much jocularity all laced through with a healthy contempt for the British political and media establishment.”

And so, indeed, it turned out.

The Gay Hussar is a famed Soho pub that, in pre-Blair days, was the haunt of left wing journalists and politicians. In the 1960s, the owner threw prominent Labour Party politician George Brown out of the building when, uninvited, he started to feel-up the woman sitting next to him – which was said last night to be “the only known case of a serving Foreign Secretary being thrown out for being drunk and disorderly”.

There were also stories about “the great left wing Labour MP and serial fellationist Tom Driberg” – a gay friend of gangsters the Kray Brothers and rumoured to be a Soviet agent via the Czech intelligence service.

“When Tom got very excited about the swinging sixties,” Martin Rowson said last night, “he tried to entice Mick Jagger to stand as a Labour MP and had dinner with him in the Gay Hussar. Everything was going swimmingly well until he started fondling Mick’s knee and rather blew it, as it were.”

There were two other people at that dinner: Mick’s girlfriend Marianne Faithfull and (the poet) W.H.Auden. While Tom and Mick were talking about Labour Party politics and the coming revolution, W.H.Auden asked Marianne:

Tell me. Have you ever smuggled drugs into the country?”

To which Marianne mumbled a reply. 

“Ever take them up the arse?” asked W.H.Auden

The evening broke up shortly afterwards.

Mark Seddon is a man who obviously shares my taste for the bizarre as, last night, he recommended people should take holidays in the people’s paradise that is North Korea – he has been there seven or eight times. He also told another story about George Brown.

The esteemed Labour politician was at a ball in Lima, Peru. With music playing and, having had quite a few drinks, George Brown was feeling ‘tired and emotional’ and went up to a vision of loveliness in a long gown, saying:

“Beautiful, beautiful lady in the red dress, can I have this next dance?”

To which the reply came: “Certainly not. This is the Peruvian national anthem… and I am the Cardinal Archbishop of Lima.”

1 Comment

Filed under Humor, Humour, Politics

How to write a daily blog? Easy. Incest, grumpy camel stories and nude women

If desperate, use a nude, copyright-free Wikipedia photograph

I can’t remember why I was being interviewed last night by Ian Fox, comedian, photographer and online omni-presence.

It is for some online jollity he is planning and he did mention it to me before I went to North Korea (did I mention I went to North Korea?). In fact, I think he suggested it to me almost two years ago. I have a notoriously bad memory and can’t remember why he was asking me questions.

But one was: You write a daily blog. Is it difficult to keep coming up with stuff each day?

My answer was: “It’s not that difficult.”

Ironically, I then woke up this morning with no obvious subject for a blog.

But incest can be a fruitful thing.

If Ian Fox interviews me for some online project he’s doing, then I can blog about him interviewing me. On this basis, British-based American comedian Lewis Schaffer and I have built up a fruitful cyber-incestuous relationship by occasionally blogging about each other. I quote him in my blog, which he then mentions in his blog, which I then comment on and on and on…

When short of a blog idea, I highly recommend going along to one of Lewis Schaffer’s free shows and then letting him buy you a Chinese meal and/or an expensive ice cream afterwards. It costs you nothing and New York Jewish comedians’ neuroses are always a bottomless pit to excavate. It also makes you feel better. You think: At least my life is not THAT shit…

Also useful is recycling your as-yet unprinted interview answers.

Last night, Ian Fox asked me about the lowlights of my career.

I told him about the occasion when I was working for the children’s TV series Tiswas and a circus provided me with a one-humped Bactrian camel. I was not well-pleased. A child had written-in saying he wanted to ride between the humps of a camel. This requires a minimum of two humps. The circus guy swore blind to me that this clearly uni-humped creature was actually a two-humped Bactrian camel and it was just the way the humps were lying that morning. The camel appeared to be as grumpy as I was; I think it had expected to be on a better class of TV show. The child was, fortunately, just happy to be on any camel.

The camel farted.

That’s the way to fill up a blog when you have nothing specific in your mind.

Tomorrow, though, I should be OK for a blog subject.

Because today I am having a ‘death lunch’ with Lynn, my friend of 37 years. We are executors of each others wills and occasionally meet to update where we keep our money, our knowledge of Kyrgyzstan and other goodies.

After that, I am eating with miniature comedienne Laura Lexx, then comedy scriptwriter Mark Kelly, then street sensation Paolo Ferrari, then doyenne of comedy critics Kate Copstick… and then I am seeing Lewis Schaffer’s ongoing twice-weekly comedy show Free Until Famous in Soho. And possibly getting a free curry or ice cream out of him afterwards.

Surely one of those people has some bloggable story I can steal. My motto is: Get someone else to write your blog for you. If all else fails, Lewis Schaffer’s neuroses can be excavated.

The downside is that, with all those meals and muffins and sitting around, I get ever fatter.

Writing a daily blog?

It’s a piece of piss.

Which is possibly what a reviewer would say.

* * *

The interview by Ian Fox appears HERE.

Leave a comment

Filed under Blogs, Comedy, Writing

While I was away in North Korea, they were crying and mugging in London

The startled Conservative candidate

I came home on Saturday, two days ago. My eternally-un-named friend had been staying at my place while I was away.

“A few days after you left,” she told me, “some Conservative Party canvasser for the local elections came to the door and asked if Mr Fleming was at home. I said you were in North Korea. He looked a bit startled.”

She told me the contest for London Mayor was also in full flow:

Ken Livingstone was going mental while you were away. Bursting into tears saying he would let the people down if he didn’t get elected and said the amount of tax he’s paid over the years would have been enough to have bought an aircraft carrier.

“But Paddick pointed out Ken had got away with paying less income tax than the average person because of some loophole.”

“Who’s Paddick?” I asked.

“The gay one,” she told me.

“The policeman?”

“Yes. He’s Liberal,” she added.

“I guess so,” I said.

“Some Green Party person,” she continued, “referred to someone who had come in their chauffeur-driven car and hadn’t caught taxis like ‘the rest of us’. That was rather unfortunate because a load of people in the audience had come on bicycles and this was the Green Party person implying everyone should have come in taxis.”

“This was Question Time?” I asked.

“No, I think it might have been some Mayoral debate. I could be mixing up my politics. Boris Johnson said in a newspaper he’d offer the Green person a job working on his bikes. There was something slightly embarrassing in the press about Boris, but he didn’t care. It was Ken who was going mental.”

“So Ken burst into tears on TV?” I asked.

“I think it was at the first screening of some new campaign video of his. But I was reading it all off the front pages in newsagents and supermarkets, like I do. So I don’t really know what was actually happening but you know what I think about Ken. Someone who’s managed to make something like three single mothers and he gives all the teenagers free public transport so they can go to different parts of the town and stab each other and phone each other to come along and help with the stabbing.”

I also got an e-mail from comedian Bob Slayer:

“I am gigging in Ireland this week,” he told me. “The week before last, I was in South Africa and foolishly de-climbed Table Mountain on the Wednesday. The next day, I took an economy flight home with very knackered legs. They even offered me a wheelchair when we changed planes at Dubai.

“And on the Friday I did a gig with Eddie Izzard at Pull The Other One in Herne Hill (although I went to their club in Nunhead and was late).

“After the show, I had to get on two night buses to get home and was taking the short cut across Mile End Park as I have done maybe hundreds of times… The next thing I remember is waking up the following day with a huge lump on the back of my head and feeling doolally… I assumed I had fallen over due to my wobbly Table Mountain legs.

“But I had aching ribs, a sore jaw and there were marks down my back, so I thought It must have been one hell of a fall. Then, by 2 o’clock the next afternoon, I remembered that I had been beaten up by a group of youths in the park.

“Concussion is a very odd thing, I had it numerous times when I was a jockey and I’ve had it a few times since. I am aware that it can play tricks on your mind but I am absolutely certain I was beaten up by a bunch of blokes in dresses and lipstick… Maybe I was beaten up by an Eddie Izzard vigilante squad.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Comedy, Crime, Politics

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.”

Leave a comment

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.

… CONTINUED HERE …

1 Comment

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.

… CONTINUED HERE …

3 Comments

Filed under North Korea, spying

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 …

1 Comment

Filed under North Korea, Politics, PR