Tag Archives: Pyongyang

At the Edinburgh Fringe: a financial bribe to win a Malcolm Hardee Award

Joz Norris

Shameless Norris tries to sway my principles

Yesterday, with the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award nominations announced, I bumped into performer Joz Norris in the street, who tried to persuade me it was not too late for him to win for a Cunning Stunt Award.

“What’s your cunning stunt?” I asked.

“Although the nominations have been announced and I’m not in them, you could give me the Award on Friday anyway. That would be a cunning stunt.”

“Why should I?” I asked.

“Because I can give you £10 right now.”

“Times are tough,” I said. “It is a tempting offer. Let me think about it.”

Keep your eyes out for the Awards announcement on Friday and see what my conclusion was.

This morning, I got a Facebook message about the Awards from performer Ashley Frieze. He wrote:

Is there room in the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Awards for the “luckiest Fringe venue company”? – It has to go to the Freestival for losing one venue, then another, then all their acts, then having their poorly-attended venue broken into and set on fire… surely… I just wanted to nominate them for something, but “biggest clusterfuck of 50 years of the Fringe” seemed unkind.

I almost regretted the Award shortlist had already been announced on Monday because of some of the shows I saw yesterday.

Not quite… If any of the judges DID see a worthy show, it COULD in theory win because, as a fitting tribute to Malcolm Hardee, the rules are whatever rules we make up along the way.

(R-L) Johnny Sorrow, Richard Drake and possibly deaf sound man

(Right-to-left) Johnny Sorrow, Richard Drake and their possibly deaf sound man yesterday

The shows I saw yesterday started with former main Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award winner Johnny Sorrow, performing with a man in a balaclava who used to be known as Sir Richard Swann and who is now known as Richard Drake. the last couple of days, he has been coming in to The Grouchy Club and sitting in the corner of the room in his red knitted balaclava saying nothing. He could grow to be an elephant in the room.

He and Johnny Sorrow are performing this year as Bob Blackman’s Tray. they previously performed as The Bob Blackman Appreciation Society.

Yesterday, when I came into the Three Sisters venue, I bumped into performer Ian Fox who, last year, was helping out the Bob Blackman duo as their sound technician.

“You’re not doing it this year?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “This year, they have a deaf sound technician.”

I think this was literally true. It would be par for the brilliantly surreal course.

While waiting to go into the Bob Blackman show, I just had time for a half hour chat with Irish-born writer Ian Smith, whom I blogged about last month. He lives in Sri Lanka, has just been working in Algeria and is over in Scotland for a week. But we were interrupted. He only had time to tell me that he once opened a Cuban bar in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, and that, in 2012, the current Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad had his iTunes account hacked into and it turned out he was a massive fan of camp novelty group Right Said Fred. Ian wrote about it in his own blog Blood and Porridge.

“I am a big Heavy Metal fan,” Ian told me, “and you never get murderous dictators who are into Heavy Metal.”

Diary of a Shanghai Showgirl in Auld Reekie

Diary of a Shanghai Showgirl in Auld Reekie

At this point, we got interrupted by an American girl dressed as a showgirl. She was flyering for her show Diary of a Shanghai Showgirl which, annoyingly, I don’t think I can fit-in in Edinburgh (though I will see it in London).

The show sounds fascinating because it is the story of how she – Amelia Kallman –  went to Shanghai and opened China’s first burlesque nightclub. The Chinese authorities and the Triads were not amused.

Since relocating to the UK, she has lectured at Cambridge University, written a graphic novel, scripts for television and a book also called Diary of a Shanghai Showgirl.

Equally interesting was her husband Norman Gosney who was born in Bristol but lived, for 25 years, in the penthouse of the legendary Chelsea Hotel in New York (where he and Amelia ran an illegal speakeasy The Blushing Diamond). It was a conversation we had no time to have, but Norman, Ian Smith and I have all been to North Korea at various points and, when you have, you always want to talk to fellow travellers about it.

There is a promo video for Diary of a Shanghai Showgirl on YouTube.

Other stand-out shows I saw yesterday included Patrick Monahan’s extraordinarily entertaining and energetic audience-thrilling romp The Disco Years. It is his first show where autobiography creeps in but, yet to come, there is still what I suspect will be a humdinger of a future autobiographical Edinburgh show.

Then I was able to catch the end of Spencer Jones’ show as The Herbert in Proper Job – wildly inventive prop-based comedy.

And, when I got back to my Edinburgh flat, there was a message from this blog’s South Coast correspondent Sandra Smith, currently roaming the streets of Edinburgh.

David Mills with a misunderstood flag behind him (Photograph by Sandra Smith)|

David Mills with a misunderstood flag behind him (Photograph by Sandra Smith)|

We are both enormous fans of gay (it becomes relevant in the next paragraph) American comic David Mills.

“During his show, “Sandra told me, “I said: Oooh look. The ISIS flag is behind you. It really did look like it.”

Actually, on closer inspection, it turned out to be a black flag with a PBH Free Fringe logo.

Equally confusing is a video that has appeared today on YouTube.

On Monday, we nominated Miss Behave for an increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award for putting brown cardboard signs up around town with the hashtag MBGS (tangentially promoting Miss Behave’s Game Show). She claims that it is not her putting up these signs and now this bizarre semi-hidden-camera video has appeared on YouTube.

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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 …

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

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

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

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

The Chinese build better foundations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It escalated more and more.

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

“Oh shit,” he thought.

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

“Oh shit,” he thought.

He eventually signed the ‘confession’.

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

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

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

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

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

I wonder what will happen at the border.

This could go one of two ways for me.

I am sharing a compartment with the guy.

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

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

“Camera,” he says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Camera,” the guard barks at me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

… CONTINUED HERE …

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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 beacon of hope for the down-trodden masses of the wide world

North Korea: truly the ultimate Socialist people’s paradise

Last night my hotel, amazingly, had hot water.

But our young female North Korean guide had to sleep on a couch on a first floor landing, because no rooms were free. She has had a painful back for the last couple of days, ever since our coach hit a gigantic pothole in the road and everyone was lifted off their seats. She was standing and fell awkwardly, her back hitting the hard edge of a seat.

Yesterday, our older, more experienced male guide, told us of the devastating American Imperialist bombs which rained down on Pyongyang during the Korean War.

“I think you will understand a little,” he said. “My teacher of English told me there was a little bombing of London during World War Two. I did not know of that before he told me.”

Today, our younger, less experienced guide, a year out of college, asked: “In England, what is the main food? Boiled rice?”

The outside world is not just a foreign place to North Koreans, it is a planet in an unknown galaxy far, far away

This morning, we took the long drive along bouncy potholed roads to the International Friendship Exhibition at Myohyang-san.

I was there in 1986, on my previous trip to North Korea. It is clearly a bunker with a giant building on top of it, containing all the gifts showered on the late Great Leader Kim Il-sung by other world leaders who were/are all, of course, in awe of his charismatic omniscience.

Again, driving through mile after tens of miles of apparently desolate countryside, North Korea seems like a land floundering without direction. What is arguably the most controlled country in the world is floundering.

The Friendship Exhibition seems even more guarded than last time I was here. Armed guards on the building, One-man military outlook posts in the hills surrounding it. Armed guards blocking entry to nearby side-roads. And what appears to be the roof of another underground structure.

Inside the marbled building, expensive gifts from China and, as expected, less expensive gifts from Eastern Europe – what used to be the unwilling dregs of the Soviet Union.

Some of the gifts – rather good gifts, in fact – were from Colonel Gaddafi of Libya. When someone in our group mentioned that Colonel Gaddafi was dead, overthrown and killed in a revolution six months ago, and there had been revolts in Tunisia, Egypt and currently Syria, our younger guide’s mouth almost visibly dropped open. She knew nothing about it and – clearly – did not want to know anything about it.

One of the gifts we saw was a vase given to the Great Leader, she told us, by the people of Cyprus. “It is a million years old,” she told us.

Whether this was a mistranslation, a misunderstanding or simply because the North Koreans make up impressive facts on the basis that anything which is said becomes true… there is no way of knowing.

There is a new, second building, containing gifts given to the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il. One of the rooms contained gifts given by shocked, stunned and saddened world leaders on the death of Kim Jong-il.

We were told to smarten ourselves up before were taken into that room. There was a large statue of Kim Il-sung (not Kim Jong-il) in front of a brightly-coloured rural tableau. We were all lined-up and bowed to the waxwork, then were taken out without being shown the gifts.

Our two guides had preceded us into the room and had bowed deeply to the giant waxwork, like two people going into a Roman Catholic church and bowing to a crucifix of Jesus.

We were taken to a mountain cafe to have a pre-packed picnic by a river. A few locals were having picnics here too. A little away along the riverbank, a girl was sweeping the rocks and the earthen paths with a Wicked Witch type broom so they looked clean.

Then we were taken to a Buddhist temple.

Our older guide told me a few days ago that there are 20,000 Buddhists in the country and 20,000 Catholic Christians. The two figures seem a bit neatly similar.

Today, our younger guide told us: “The Party allows us to believe in religion.”

We are taken to the Buddhist temple which, we are told, was destroyed by the Japanese in the Great Patriotic War and later destroyed by the Americans in the Korean War, but which the Party had faithfully re-built twice. The one monk on display seemed a little sad-eyed and the temple’s official guide seemed a little more over-zealous than most on unsubtly pushing the Party line.

Walking on the wooden floor, I hear a gigantic sharp crack behind me. I turn round. One of our group has his ankle stuck in a gaping hole. One of the floorboards has cracked and collapsed under him.

On local television (which I watch in the hotel) there is, of course, no foreign news. It is like living in the self-contained bubble of a medieval village with no transport and little outside news. It is, in fact, like living in The Village in the 1960s TV show The Prisoner. Everything is happy and good and free and clean and smiling and caring within the village.

In North Korea, as far as I can see, there is no Orwellian Doublethink in ordinary people, because Doublethink means that you know the truth but you choose to believe or discipline yourself to believe the untruth.

In North Korea, really, we are talking about Igno-Think. They know only what they are told. What they have been told since they were born. Nothing exists outside the North Korean bubble. Life continues, self-contained. Only the country exists. In these circumstances, it is entirely reasonable to believe that, in England, the main food must be boiled rice.

If someone in the UK were to read no newspapers, hear no radio, see no television except the Party channel and everyone they met lived in the same way…. Imagine that… Imagine that all they knew, all they had ever known, was what the parish council told them had happened and was happening… then that would be some hint of what life is like in North Korea.

From that viewpoint, the Great Leader Kim Il-sung, the Dear Leader Kin Jong-il (and now the Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un) have led and inspired the country into great social and technological leaps the like of which other countries can only dream of. It has made North Korea an icon for the forward-thinking peoples of the world and a beacon of hope for the down-trodden masses living under the yoke of elitist capitalism. North Korea is a centrally-important country in a world where other leaders and Juche study groups pay homage and give grateful presents to North Korea’s great leaders in awe-filled tribute.

Tonight, my tooth, damaged in Beijing, is giving me very slight pain.

I take some oil of cloves.

I wonder if our younger guide has a bed tonight and how her back is.

… CONTINUED HERE …

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North Korea – the Leaders’ spectacles

A woman walks in front of the Great Statues

Did I mention the loudspeakers on the street lamp posts and the small speaker vans roaming the streets?

At 7.15am, sweet and sickly music drifts through Pyongyang, like unavoidable muzak. Freedom means your own choice of music. There is no choice of music in the morning streets of North Korea.

Last night in my hotel… rock hard bed; no mattress; cold water; no hot water. Our young female guide slept in the lobby because there were no spare rooms.

In the morning, we are taken to see the giant statue of the Great Leader Kim Il-sung on Mansudae Hill, which I first saw when I was here before in 1986. And, in fact, as of today, there are now two statues – of the Great Leader Kim Il-sung and of his recently-deceased son the Dear Leader Kim Jong-Il.

What surprises me is that, in both statues, the Leaders are wearing spectacles.

Kim Il-sung’s statue was not wearing spectacles in 1986.

Our North Korean guide, a little surprised that I had remembered the statue so well, explains that the original Kim Il-sung statue was replaced at some unknown time by a new one in which he wore spectacles and was smiling.

“The Great Leader felt he looked too stern in the first statue,” the guide explains “He wanted to smile at his people.”

So now both statues smile.

Then we are whisked off to a gigantic flower exhibition packed like sardines in a thimble. And to the Great Leader’s birthplace.

We are also taken to the American spy ship USS Pueblo, captured in 1968 and now moored on the river bank in Pyongyang. It is guarded by armed sailors. Do the North Koreans really dream the Americans will try to snatch it back? We are shown round the ship and treated to a film on the perfidy of the American Imperialists, but we are not allowed to enter the ship’s code room, the entrance to which is blocked by a uniformed, unsmiling North Korean sailor.

Why? I wonder.

Do they think there are still secret messages lurking there, un-decoded since 1968, which we could use to undermine the people’s paradise of North Korea?

As we leave the Pueblo, there is an American standing on the bow, like Leonardo Di Caprio in Titanic. On the river bank, a cameraman is profusely thanking a North Korean minder. We are told the man on the bow is a reporter for the (right wing) Fox News TV channel in the US and he is recording a report.

Have the North Koreans totally lost the plot?

Yes, of course they have.

We are taken for a ride in the metro. Only a few stops because, as I understand it, only a few stops are decked-out in the Stalinesque marble-and-chandelier manner.

Our first train is relatively empty. Our second is packed tight, not dissimilar to the London Underground in the high tourist season but even more like the Tokyo Metro with people pushing and elbowing to get on. I stand by the door, my back protected, slightly separated from our guides/guards by the shoulder-to-shoulder throng.

A small, wiry man perhaps in his mid-thirties pushes onto the train and sees my white Western face.

“Where you from?” he asks.

We have been told (true or false) that English is now taught in all North Korean schools.

“England,” I reply. “UK… London.”

“I love your country,” the man says, pushing past, looking into my face. “I love your Par-lee-ment. Our country is…”

His last word is, annoyingly, inaudible. It sounds like “putrid” but cannot be: it is too sophisticated a word for his limited English vocabulary.

I hold my finger up to my lips, as if to say, “Quiet!” and glance sideways towards our guides to warn him they are there. Then he is lost in the stuffed carriage.

I do not know what he said, but it was not complimentary.

Short and slippery slope, I think to myself.

Later, I ask one of our guides where Kim Il-sung used to live. I am told he used to live in what is now his mausoleum: the very grand Kumsusan Memorial Palace (currently closed for unknown reasons)

“Where did Kim Jong-il live?” I ask.

“I do not know,” I am told. “It is not known.”

In fact, anyone outside North Korea can see inside what used to be Kim Jong-Il’s compound on Google Earth. You can see the swimming pool, the water slide, the personal train station which linked into the metro system and, one presumes, into the above-ground rail system.

That is what is so mystifying about the North Korean paranoia about GPS positioning. You can bring a computer into the country; you can bring a WiFi-enabled Kindle into the country; but you cannot bring in mobile phones or tablets, because they have GPS positioning. They have not yet twigged that the more modern digital cameras have GPS. They are obsessed with the danger of people with GPS-enabled devices.

But anyone with a GPS iPhone or iPad is not actually a security risk who is going to help the Americans target their cruise missiles. Because the GPS positioning we use comes from the American spy satellites anyway. Anything I can do on an iPhone or iPad is something I do courtesy of the CIA and the NSA.

The North Koreans are obsessed by people seeing into secret above-ground areas, but seem to ignore the fact that the satellites can see everything anyway and, going to any computer in my home, I can see Pyongyang in detail on Google Earth.

In the evening, from my hotel window, I see another big fireworks display taking place near the river, by the Tower of the Juche Idea.

… CONTINUED HERE …

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North Koreans are not the the mindless brainwashed zombies of US propaganda

Today is the Big Day in North Korea.

The 100th anniversary of the birth of the late Great Leader Kim Il-sung.

That is the reason this abnormally high number of foreigners have arrived in Pyongyang – to see the guaranteed to be over-the-top celebrations.

So what do the North Koreans do? They round-up all the foreigners in the country and bus them to a sparsely-kitted-out children’s amusement park on the edge of town so that they can be kept away from the celebrations.

“It will be a chance for you to meet the locals,” our guide tells us. North Koreans, like West Coast Americans, have developed no sense of irony.

Locals, of course, are sparse on the ground in the amusement park. There are smatterings of performing North Korean children, tour guides and North Koreans in black suits with cameras plus a couple of visible video cameraman filming the entire thing, presumably to show foreigners cavorting in celebration of the Great Leader’s birth.

The centrepiece is a little area towards the back of the park where ‘sports’ are put on… These largely involve cute children in national costume grabbing overweight foreign men and running round hand-in-hand with them in ‘games’.

A Swedish man says to me: “It’s Make-The-Foreigners-Look-Silly Day,” but it feels more like a paedophiliac school sports day held on the outskirts of Nuremberg during one of Hitler’s rallies.

I meet Russians, Vietnamese, American and many other foreign visitors wandering around, bemused although, oddly, the Americans seem to rather enjoy it. There are tens of coaches parked in long lines on the periphery.

Because the amusement park is isolated and fairly self-contained, we are allowed to wander around it individually and unsupervised , but one woman in our group is told: “Do not walk too far away” – ie don’t leave the amusement park – “because there are tigers and wild animals in the hills”.

This is hardly the most believable or subtle piece of crowd control and is akin to saying: “Don’t leave Trafalgar Square, the elephants may trample you to death in Whitehall.”

I wander to the other end of the amusement park, where a handful of ‘real’ children and adults are almost absentmindedly meandering. I have my camera out and I am taking a photograph of an unused children’s rocket ride – the irony of the North Koreans sending up a real rocket two days ago – when three small children of maybe 6 years old come up to me.

“You pay?” asks one, looking at my camera. “You pay?”

Nearby adults urgently call the children back.

They have not heard what was actually said to me. But the fact that the children were interacting with a foreigner is bad enough – dangerous enough.

North Korea is on a slippery slope.

Like all such countries, it needs dollars and foreigners. But first we have children waving at coaches carrying foreigners and seeing smiles and waves in return. Then children talk to foreigners. Then money gets involved. I doubt if any ‘ordinary’ North Korean could do anything with a US dollar even if they got one – let alone a child. But it is a short and slippery slope from this to the regime starting to lose Big Brother control.

In the evening, we are taken to the circus. You can seldom beat Communist regimes for perfection of performance and this is no exception. It includes a juggler who briefly juggles eight balls (it may have been nine); this is mind-numbingly difficult. I am never impressed by anyone juggling three balls but, as I understand it, juggling eight balls is six times more difficult than juggling three balls. No-one can do it for more than a few brief seconds.

Communists are never strong on promoting though.

“No photos. No photos. No videos.” I am told by an official who stays near me throughout the show; but some videos have escaped onto YouTube.

Everything is a big state secret, including showbiz talent which is a pity, because there is a jaw-dropping white bird act (I don’t know if they were doves or not).

The act is indescribably good, involving the birds performing tricks unsupervised and climaxing with perhaps ten birds being released from various parts of the vast auditorium and flying to the small female performer standing alone on the stage. Perhaps they even have the birds brainwashed in North Korea.

In the evening, at a tourist restaurant, a Western tour guide tells me that the North Koreans are anarchic. I had already realised this. Extreme Centralised Control = Anarchy. No-one wants to take the responsibility of making a decision in case it turns out, in some way, to be a wrong decision.

Kim Jong-un (left) watches the parade in Kim Il-sung Square. (On the right is Kim Yong-nam, the de facto head of state)

The reason foreigners were not allowed anywhere near Kim Il-sung Square, where the big birthday celebrations were held, was that it was partially a big military parade, but the decision to make it a big military parade rather than a jolly dancy-pracey celebration was not made until very late. Or perhaps it was made earlier but no-one even in the Korean bureaucracy was told.

After the parade, there is a massively spectacular and massively expensive fireworks display on the river bank opposite Kim Il-sung Square – we sit in a foreigners/Party restaurant watching it on TV – but, although it was known there would be a massive firework display, no-one knew exactly where or when it would be until the last moment. Everything in the country is either a late decision or a massive secret (for no real reason) or both. The culture of fear and indecision runs deep.

At this point, our North Korean tour guide senses that everyone is wondering why we have not been allowed to see the clearly non-military fireworks display which is taking place perhaps a ten minute drive from the restaurant. So, our meals still unfinished, he gets us all into our coach and tries to cross the bridge or, at least, get close to the firework display so we can have a view. But all roads and bridges are sealed off by the police.

Eventually, he decides to park by a road tunnel and, with the tunnel closed to traffic, we leg it through the dark to try to get to the other side. By this time, the fireworks display is ending or has ended and thousands of North Koreans are coming through the tunnel in the opposite direction. We smile and wave at them. They smile and wave at us. Some say, “Hello!”

I think to myself: “Slippery slope”.

These are not the brainwashed zombies of American and South Korean propaganda. These are just people who have been enjoying a good night out with friends and family. Never assume the pictures and news coming out of South Korea are any less mindless propaganda than the stuff coming out of North Korea.

It is a great mistake to believe that the North Korean people are under an oppressive yoke from which they wish to escape. By and large, they are not being forced into doing or believing anything. They mostly genuinely lap up all the ‘facts’ and information spewed out by the regime.

In 15th century England under the rule of Richard III, the people did not yearn to own a Toyota Land Cruiser, an iPod and Google on the internet for a cheap flight to Spain because that alternate world did not exist.

In 21st century North Korea under the Kim family and the generals, the people, by and large, do not yearn for the ‘better’ life which they do not know exists. They believe, they ‘know’ – that their cutting-edge advanced country is the envy of the world. They have seen their living standards rocket. They have seen electricity pylons erected in the 1980s; they have been told and have seen the Juche philosophy of the Great Leader Kim Il-sung  sweep the world; and now some people in the cities have mobile phones.

When I was here in 1986, we were taken to the Library in Pyongyang and, as we looked at bookshelves, a photographer appeared, snapping away. Presumably our photos appeared somewhere later as British students of the Juche Idea coming to study the Great Leader’s thoughts in the most-admired country in the world.

North Koreans know they are blessed and are one of the most advanced nations on earth. They have seen the tall apartment blocks rise in Pyongyang; they have seen those mobile phones arrive in the country – around one million of them; they have seen that rocket shot into space two days ago with, atop it, the advanced satellite which is, even now, transmitting to the world songs in praise of the Great Leader Kim Il-sung.

Truly, they know for certain that this is a people’s paradise.

In my hotel room, I watch TV coverage of the day’s events. The parades. The Supreme Leader Kim Jung-un watching from his balcony on high with his generals. His speech to the gathered tens of thousands in Kim Il-sung Square looks uncharismatic. His mouth is dry. As he watches the parade, there are cutaways to him, watching from the balcony. He seems slightly awkward, slightly nervous at first. But, as the parade progresses – from marching soldiers to lorries to armoured vehicles to tanks to rockets on giant trailers to a fly-past by five jets – he becomes more relaxed, more smiling, more happy. It is as if he is having displayed to him fully for the first time the toys he can play with.

He will have seen all this before but it is as if you can see, for the first time, the full reality dawning on him that he has all these boys’ toys to play with. He owns his own air force. What more could any young man want?

Also on TV, there is a celebratory stage production including a military ballet.

And the occasional, inevitable patriotic music videos develop into a sequence in which various world leaders – including President Putin of Russia, Fidel Castro of Cuba and American Evangelist Billy Graham – are shown in Pyongyang, coming to meet and pay tribute to the three truly great Leaders – father, son and holy grandson.

They come like the Three Wise Men came to pay tribute to the baby Jesus.

Because, as everyone in North Korea knows, the world acknowledges that the Land of the Kims is a truly great land. Other countries’ leaders come to pay tribute, just as lesser nations’ leaders came to pay tribute to the Caesars in Rome. Coming to North Korea, paying tribute to the Kims was and is like paying tribute to Albert Einstein, Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela all rolled into one.

That, I am sure, is what it feels like for North Koreans to see this on TV. Or it would be if they had ever known Albert Einstein and Mother Theresa existed. Who knows if they have ever heard of Nelson Mandela? Possibly only as a fighter against colonialist imperialism.

North Korea is like a young girl kept locked in a cellar for 25 years with no access to or knowledge of the outside world…  except what her captor tells her.

… CONTINUED HERE …

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