Nigel Richardson, The Daily Telegraph, May 28, 2013
Sombre music leaked from somewhere above, or possibly below; women in brightly coloured chiffon dresses that flared from the bust glided towards us on a moving walkway. A companion later asked if I'd noticed how "glassy" the women's eyes were.
The women were on their way in. The group I was with had just come out – from seeing the embalmed bodies of a father and son who lie in glass sarcophagi and are known respectively as the Great Leader and the Dear Leader. On the wall, as our travelator moved us towards the exit, we passed photographs of the Dear Leader doing patriotic things, such as inspecting a chiller cabinet of what appeared to be frankfurters.
Dammit, I needed to whistle – immediate admonishment from a guard dressed in black who raised a finger to her lips. The tune my subconscious had dredged up was a song first sung by Suggs more than 30 years ago – I couldn't put my finger on the title just for the moment, but it would come to me later. Indeed, it became my own private theme tune for the week I spent in North Korea earlier this month.
So, welcome to the lion's den, or DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea) as it prefers to be known. Step right in to the most secretive, eccentric, thought-provoking, frightening and – yes – amusing destination on earth. Contrary to what you might think it's not hard to get in. Neither is it dangerous to be there, so long as you're not wilfully stupid.
I visited a couple of weeks after the broadcast of the Panorama programme that caused so much fuss. While Kim Jong-un – respectively grandson and son of the Great and Dear Leaders – was rattling his rockets at the "American imperialists" and their "south [the use of a lower case 's' is preferred around here] Korean lackeys", the blossom was coming out in Pyongyang, the capital city. Yellow forsythia and purple azalea too. But no tanks.
"It seems the further people are from the Korean peninsula, the more fear of war there has been," said Hannah Barraclough, an Englishwoman who has been leading tours to the "Hermit Kingdom" for seven years. Nevertheless this was a sensitive trip and in the pre-tour briefing – in the Beijing office of Koryo Tours, a British-run company that specialises in the DPRK – Hannah had laid down some ground rules.
It's worth quoting them because if you object to the conditions then Pyongyang ain't your kinda town. First of all, you can only visit as part of a group that is rigorously shepherded – as well as Hannah, our group of 10 people (from Britain, Holland, Germany, New Zealand and Romania) was assigned three North Korean guides, plus the bus driver and a man shooting a video that he tried to flog to us at the end of the trip.
We needed, said Hannah, "an open mind, and a desire to learn about their country from their perspective. It's fine to discuss religion, politics, whatever. But don't become their teacher." That said, there were certain taboo subjects: defectors (to South Korea), labour camps (up to 200,000 people are detained), and any criticisms of the Kims, President Il-sung, Chairman Jong-il and the current leader, Jong-un. "These are the gods."
Men would also need to pack a jacket, shirt and tie to wear for the visit to the Kumsusan Memorial Palace of the Sun, the Mount Olympus where the deceased gods lie in state. As a matter of courtesy we would be expected to bow in their presence (three times, actually). "This is their equivalent of Mecca," said Hannah.
This is where, two days later, I whistled inappropriately. It is indeed Mecca-like, a place of pilgrimage for North Koreans, hence the women in their elaborate traditional dresses and that spaced-out, reverential air. So far as they are concerned, Generalissimo Kim Il-sung, who became the founding leader of the DPRK in 1948, is still alive. He remains the president and the vast marble catacomb in which he lies is called the Hall of Immortality. "Don't argue any historical facts," Hannah had advised. "From the day they were born – even in the womb – they were taught one story."
We too are taught one story, when it comes to North Korea – that it is a bankrupt hellhole peopled by comedy-zealots. As often as not, this picture is painted by commentators who have been no nearer than Seoul or Beijing, or even London. Among my travelling companions – who included two retired university professors and an aide to an MP – there was a consensus that we didn't believe in the completeness of this picture and wanted to see the DPRK for ourselves.
It would be a snapshot, no more – but that is more than most Westerners get. When our little group took the two-hour Air Koryo flight from Beijing to the internet-free void of the DPRK we became part of a select statistic – only 5,000 to 6,000 foreigners (excluding Chinese) visit in the course of a year, fewer than pass through the gates of Alton Towers theme park in a couple of hours.
As our bus drove towards Pyongyang from the airport our chief guide, Mr Li, took the microphone and acquainted us with another proscription. "When taking pictures [of statues and monuments], please put the whole part of our leaders on the camera, don't cut in half." Later in the week, I was to fall foul of this edict, but we'll come to that.
Outside the window, Pyongyang rolled by – clean, concrete, high-rise, even (in the spring sunshine, with the blossom and flowers) pretty. In its squares and public spaces thousands of Young Pioneers, soldiers and paramilitaries were practising for the Mass Games that take place every summer, a spectacle of machine-like choreography precision-tooled by countless hours of drill. And from buildings and street corners the faces of the Great and Dear Leaders beamed indulgently. Was that a clock I heard striking thirteen?
We booked into the 1,000-room Yanggakdo Hotel, known as the Alcatraz of Fun among Westerners, which sits on the prow of an island in the Taedong River and features a revolving restaurant on the roof and a basement of delights: a casino, a swimming pool, a bowling alley and a karaoke bar. In the lobby bulletins of important events were posted on a noticeboard: "Kim Jong-un provides field guidance at the Pyongyang Hosiery Factory."
Our week-long itinerary – which could have been tailor-made for Dave Spart, Private Eye's favourite leftie – included two nights outside Pyongyang and covered, inter alia, the Revolutionary Martyrs' Cemetery, the birthplace of Kim Il-sung, the Schoolchildren's Palace (where we watched a revue of music and dance by precociously talented children), the Grand People's Study House (where the Panorama reporter asked in vain for a copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four; had he requested that wellspring of American art and literature, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, he'd have been in luck), the Metro, the Museum of the Construction of the Metro (sadly, there was no time to see the Museum of the Construction of the Museum of the Construction of the Metro, which really exists), the Demilitarized Zone that cuts Korea in half between Pyongyang and Seoul (the military guides here were notably relaxed and affable) and a funfair patronised by Kim Jong-un. If much of this sounds boring you'd be wrong. It was fascinating, if mesmerisingly weird.
The guides' explanations at the various sites were heavy on dates and statistics: "This embroidery was presented to our leader, Kim Il-sung, on the 15th anniversary of the founding of the institute. It is called 'Glory'." But these personable ambassadors – two men and a woman in their early to mid-twenties – were subtler than we gave them credit for at first, and in that subtlety there was humanity and hope, a place where minds can meet.
They acknowledged some political realities (such as the terrible famine of the 1990s and the feeble power supply that maroons cities in darkness at nighttime). They said they liked a drink (the men anyway) and that they wanted to see their country open up more to tourists. "I would like many more foreigners to come," Mr Li told me, "because they have a very negative view of this country from their media. If they come, they can see for themselves."
But what would they be seeing? That became our problem. As we trundled back and forth through the city on well-worn routes a creeping paranoia took hold in our bubble of a bus. Pyongyang is known to be a showcase, the wholesome face of a society that otherwise remains in the shadows. Visiting the busy Metro – the stations we passed through were beautiful caverns of mosaic murals and colourful chandeliers – and the funfair, we wondered whether the experiences could have been contrived for our benefit. After all, a system that can mobilise thousands for the Mass Games could surely pull off illusions of public transit and pleasure. "I just don't know what to think any more," said one of the group.
Only on our two trips outside the city did we feel we were seeing something of the real DPRK. Here, beyond the runway-wide motorways that carry less traffic than a B-road in the Fens, we saw for ourselves the poverty. With next-to no mechanisation, the workers in the bare earthen fields were stooped over like Van Gogh's toiling peasants. In slanting evening light there was a peculiar beauty to these scenes, which were like propaganda posters come to life.
But for much of the time I felt as if I were spiralling pleasantly through layers of absurdity. One morning, while the others went to a combined fruit farm, I opted to visit Pyongyang's newest visitor attraction, "Mini Pyongyang", a theme park that consists of scale models of the city's monuments.
That song (I remembered it now: Welcome to the house of fun…) began coursing through my head in anticipation, and Mini Pyongyang would have been fun except that there were killjoys posted everywhere with megaphones and whistles, intent on stamping out delight and spontaneity. In "Kim Il-sung Square" – about half the size of a tennis court and accessorised with a military parade of tanks and rockets – one of these vigilantes demanded to see the photographs I had taken and stood over me as I deleted them.
My crime? Including in the pictures the scaled-down images of the Kims on one of the model buildings in the model square. The ridiculous thing was that I had stood in the actual square the day before, taking pictures to my heart's content. Mr Li looked embarrassed. "I'm sorry," he said, "it's complicated."
This was one face of North Korea. But there was another. The tour was timed so that we were there on May Day, International Workers' Day and a national holiday in the DPRK – even for the killjoys and snitches. Fountains were switched on along the Taedong River. Red flags fluttered at road junctions. And the citizens of Pyongyang seemed to breathe a collective sigh of relief.
In Moranbong Park, amid the pagodas, ornamental lakes and clouds of blossom, people spread picnics, drank soju (rice liquor), sang sentimental folk songs and embraced us foreigners as guests and friends. Flushed with dance and drink, a man in a fake designer sweater told me in excellent English that he worked in a government ministry. "You are from England? I love England!"
Earlier in the week one of our group had said to me, "You just don't know what's going on in their heads." But as the tour progressed the North Koreans we encountered seemed to become more open and friendly. I realised this was an illusion, however – it was we, not they, who had changed. We had begun to shed preconceptions that we didn't even know we had. In the process we began to glimpse the real people.
I give the last word to one of our guides, Miss Han. Standing in front of the huge bronze statues of Kims Il-sung and Jong-il at the Mansudae Grand Monument she intoned solemnly: "The height of the statues is 23 metres."
"Ah, but how much do they weigh? " I asked, teasing. Miss Han looked disconcerted. "You don't know?!" I persisted.
"I will find out," she said. Later, when we were back on the bus, she caught my attention. "I know the answer to your question."
"Yes. The statues are the weight of all the Korean people's hearts. That's my answer." And Miss Han allowed herself a sly smile.
This visit to North Korea was arranged by Cox & Kings (0845 154 8941; coxandkings.co.uk ). A nine-day/seven-night escorted tour leaving on September 29 costs from £2,795 per person including BA flights, transfers, two nights in Beijing with breakfast, flight in and train out of North Korea and full board and all excursions while there.
When to go
April/May for the May Day holiday, July to September for the Mass Games, and October.
Flying time and time difference
10 hours to Beijing plus two hours Beijing-Pyongyang. GMT +9hrs.
Tours start in Beijing with a flight to Pyongyang. There is the option of taking the train out (23 hours to Beijing). See details at end of main article.
Most foreign tourists are put up in the Yanggakdo Hotel, where the rooms are clean and the showers hot. The Japanese style tea house we stayed in in Kaesong, near the DMZ, does not have hot water, but there is plenty in the Hot Spa Hotel in Nampo, where warm spa waters are piped into hydro-baths.
Eating and drinking
Tours take in a variety of restaurants, including a pizza house. Local food is good and includes rice, noodles, chicken, kimchi (pickled cabbage), barbecues of pork and squid and even (once) frankfurters. Fruit, however, is scarce (see Tips, below). Alcohol is widely available and there are several excellent micro-breweries in Pyongyang. Go easy on the soju.
Buy plenty of fruit and snacks in Beijing.
Bring small gifts from home for the guides.
Don't take photographs of anything military, of bridges or of construction sites.
Ask permission before photographing people.
Do not bring any literature that is critical of the regime.
The local currency is the won but foreigners must use either euros or Chinese RMB. Take small denominations.
What to buy
Lapel badges of the DPRK flag (two for €1). Hand-painted propaganda posters (from €10 to €100).
Visas are arranged by the tour company and included in the price. Stick to bottled water, take sun protection and pack a good first-aid kit.
North Korea (Bradt Travel Guides, £14.99); Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick (Granta Books, £9.99) – but don't take the latter in with you.