Divas and dictators

Secretive, Communist North Korea does its best to keep out journalists from the imperialist West. So, when an opera singer from Middlesbrough asked Steve Bloomfield to accompany her to the nation's arts festival, he jumped at the chance. Little did he realise what was in store...
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It's dark when the Air Koryo flight from Beijing lands in Pyongyang, North Korea. On the roof of the modest two-storey building that passes for an international airport terminal is a picture of Kim Il-Sung, the Great Leader, who despite being dead for the past decade, is still head of state. There are two types of Great Leader portrait: the kindly grandfather with greying hair and a big smile; and the stern statesman with a look that says, "My army's bigger than yours." It's the latter that is waiting to greet us at the airport.

But he needn't look so serious - this plane is full of friendly divas and dancers, one of whom is Suzannah Clarke, a thirtysomething opera singer from Middlesbrough. She has come to Pyongyang to perform at the April Spring Friendship Art Festival, an international cultural extravaganza held annually since 1983.

Each year, North Korean embassies around the globe ask the best artists in the world to attend the festival. Nobody is paid for their efforts and many have to stump up for flights and accommodation. Unsurprisingly, the best artists in the world politely decline. Instead, over the next 10 days, the citizens of Pyongyang will be entertained by a bizarre procession of acrobats, pianists and bands. They come from historical allies such as China and Russia; are Korean ex-pats for whom this is their only opportunity to see the North; or are half-decent performers from the rest of the world who are curious to see what this secretive society is like.

Suzannah, however, fits into a separate category. She is a world-class opera singer who has performed with the English National Opera, the Welsh National Opera and, most impressively, as a principal at La Scala. She came to last year's event in her capacity as a "cultural ambassador" for Middlesbrough and because of her town's unique link with the country (in the 1966 World Cup, North Korea played against, and beat, Italy in her home town). Unfortunately, she got food poisoning, knocking many of her planned performances off the schedule, so this year she's brought support. Her mother.

"I wasn't going to let her go on her own again," says Sheelagh, a short, feisty Labour councillor for Redcar and Cleveland. "She was so ill and they wouldn't leave her alone. All the cameras and the interviews. No, she needs me here. I told her, 'I'm not letting you go on your own.'" Suzannah blushes from beneath her wavy, dark hair and doesn't argue.

Tagging along with them is me. I was sceptical when Suzannah first suggested the idea of a journalist accompanying her to North Korea. The thought of spending a fortnight in a country that detests Western journalists with an opera singer who doesn't stop talking and her mother who I had never met, just didn't sound a wise move. But I said maybe, confident that it was unlikely to ever happen - North Korea allows only a handful of Western journalists into the country each year and they are "looked after" by official guides and often don't get to see anything other than tourist sights.

When we visited the North Korean embassy in London (a detached house in Ealing, just off the North Circular) to request visas, however, the stern, bespectacled diplomat who heard our case, Mr Ha, was surprisingly open. "All journalists write about nuclear weapons," he said. "You write about culture. About our art festival." That was fine by me, though clearly not good enough for someone. Confirmation that we would get our visas came only four days before we flew out.

As we disembark in Pyongyang, we are met by Che, the female guide who looked after Suzannah last year. Che is pleased to see her charge even though she seems to have worry permanently etched on her face. The daughter of a diplomat and a fluent English speaker, she is part of the elite (although even someone in her elevated position would not have enough electricity in the winter to heat her flat).

Inside the airport terminal we pass what has to be the smallest and quietest and least well-stocked duty free in the world (think random bottles of alcohol and cheap perfume). The cashier leans against the desk, gazing into the middle distance. This should be a busy time for her: there are only four flights into Pyongyang a week - two from Beijing, two from Moscow.

Once through passport control, I am greeted by Mrs Kim and Mr Pak. Mrs Kim beams as she shakes my hand. Mr Pak looks at me quizzically before leading me outside. It's now approaching midnight, yet there are no lights anywhere. We are a 20-minute drive from Pyongyang but I can't say in which direction. Any other city would be visible from miles away - street lights, office buildings, uplighting on famous monuments. Here, there is nothing.

Suzannah and Sheelagh have disappeared. "We take you now," says Mr Pak. A car pulls up and I'm told to get in. The driver is wearing sunglasses. My seat belt doesn't work. As we race towards the city Mrs Kim starts grilling me. Mr Pak translates. "How long have you been a journalist?" "What do you know about the country?" "Do you like Kim Il-Sung?"

I am told that during my stay I will see how much the Korean people love their leaders and their country. I smile and nod. Mrs Kim and Mr Pak will be with me for the rest of my stay. "She is guide, I am interpreter," says Mr Pak, as we pull up at the Koryo hotel with its twin 45-storey towers, each with a revolving restaurant on the top floor. And there, waiting in the lobby, are Suzannah and Sheelagh.

I'm standing in the middle of one of Pyongyang's extraordinarily wide roads. Mrs Kim tells me they are designed like this because North Koreans like big roads. Others tell me it's so that in a war the air force could land its fighters in the middle of the city. I think they are right. As there's no war, I'm not in any danger of being hit by a plane. Nor is there much chance of being hit by a car because before it reached me it would have to plough through a hundred drummers dressed in pink and an enormous banner proclaiming "The Great Leader Kim Il-Sung is Always Alive in the Hearts of Humanity". It is the festival's opening ceremony and bizarre doesn't even come close.

Each country's participants are lined up in front of a woman holding a banner with their country's name on it. These women are wearing ceremonial dresses - outfits made out of billowing silk that envelops their figures like a tent and leaves them resembling walking meringues.

A Maori called Kingi with a tattoo-covered face stands alone behind the New Zealand banner. An acrobat and her boyfriend are representing Sweden; Russia has about 50 chain-smoking dancers, some dressed as ostriches. The winner in the best-hat category goes to the Uzbeks.

Mr Pak shoves me in the back. "We go now," he says. I don't argue. I've learnt it's a waste of breath to disagree with either of my guides. Mr Pak guides me through the crowds. We stop next to Suzannah and Sheelagh. "You are England," he says looking at all three of us. Sure enough, standing next to us is a Korean woman holding aloft a banner bearing the word "England"."If you'd asked me if I'd ever represent my country on a parade in North Korea, I would have said you were mad," says Sheelagh. And yet, here we are, ready to march. *

Hundreds of thousands of people line the streets. At their largest the crowds are 20 deep. Despite the heat, most of the women are wearing long black-velvet dresses decorated with colourful Paisley designs. The men are dressed in sober suits but are equally enthusiastic. Many spectators are clasping pink and red flowers which they wave furiously in our direction.

Suzannah is in her element, greeting the crowds, kissing babies. Sheelagh tapes everything, her video camera swinging round from one side of the street to the other, as she desperately tries to capture every flower, every costume. "I can't believe it, I really can't," she says.

During the days, Mr Pak and Mrs Kim have arranged for me to visit Pyongyang's tourist sights while Suzannah rehearses for her evening performances. We go to the Army Liberation Museum where a guide in military uniform patiently explains to me how the Americans started the Korean war in 1950. Next we visit the Grand People's Study Centre, a grandiose library overlooking the river, where they "prove" to me that North Koreans can read more than the works of Kim Il-Sung. Our female guide, Me Hwa, shows me some books in English - a 1970s textbook on mechanical engineering and a recent school book on computing (when Suzannah and Sheelagh visit the library, their guide shows them the same books).

The days develop a strict routine. Whether it's a monument, a museum, or a library, I am taken around by a guide who tells me how long it took to build, how much floor space it covers, and how many times Kim Il-Sung visited it before he died.

The guides are very careful about what they let me see. Pyongyang is a show city. Only the ultra-loyal are allowed to live here and the city limits are guarded by soldiers. Much of the country's crippling poverty is hidden from view, which is why I'm keen to get out and see some of the country. Mr Pak is, understandably, less keen. I ask if we can perhaps go to a village? "Maybe," he laughs. "Maybe."

On a trip outside Pyongyang to the tomb of Tangun - an ancient king whose dynasty ruled Korea over 3,000 years ago - we overtake a truck with about 30 peasants squeezed into the back. I lift the camera to take a picture but Mr Pak stops me. "You must ask them first if you want a photo," he says. I ask if we can stop so I can talk to the farmers we see in the fields with their ox-pulled ploughs. Mr Pak says no, then suggests that I don't take any more photos.

Kim Il-Sung died in 1994 and was succeeded by his son, Kim Jong-Il, known as the Dear Leader. Within a year, North Korea suffered a massive famine. Aid agencies estimate that as many as 3 million people died of starvation - over 10 per cent of the population. But it's only an estimate. The government is notoriously edgy about letting foreigners see the country's terrible poverty and so access, even for aid agencies, is only under strict supervision. Nine years on, North Korea is still reliant on international aid.

Kim Jong-Il's announcement in 2002 that the country was to restart its nuclear programme - ending an agreement reached under President Clinton that the US would supply oil in return for the country halting such activity - has also caused problems. President Bush has bracketed the country with Iran and Iraq as part of his Axis of Evil. Electricity supply is falling again and a poor harvest this year could plunge the country towards another damaging food shortage.

In the evenings, Mr Pak and I are driven to a theatre halfway up a hill that overlooks the city to watch Suzannah's concert. In all there are nine different concerts at venues across Pyongyang. Tonight, Suzannah is singing just two songs. Unfortunately, so are about a dozen other opera singers. And there's a pianist. And a violinist. And a clarinet player. And an orchestra. The concert lasts three hours.

The next day, the organisers tell everyone to perform only one song. After a third performance, however, even the pared-down version is so daunting that Mr Pak agrees to take me to a show featuring an English steel band, the Melodians (they didn't make it for the parade's start).

I think Mr Pak is secretly pleased that he doesn't have to sit through all those singers and musicians for a fourth time either. "It is good to be different," he says with a smile. I'm warming to Mr Pak. A short man with floppy hair, he laughs a lot and likes to tell me how much he loves North Korea and how I have to write good things about the country. He's also more honest than I expected. The economy is in a poor state and there is not enough electricity, he admits. Of course, he blames US imperialists.

The concert turns out to be a karaoke night. Three Vietnamese women dance and mime to a second-rate disco track. A cheesy Indonesian guy does the same but with less dancing. Then there is Spain's entry. The Korean presenter introduces her and the audience obviously like what they hear. She walks on, everyone claps and then... she mimes to a second-rate disco track. As she finishes, however, the crowd gives her a standing ovation. I can't work out why everyone thinks she's so great. "She wrote the song in praise of Kim Jong-Il," bellows Mr Pak over the din of the rapturous applause.

Everywhere we go, cameras follow. Suzannah is interviewed half a dozen times a day. Every time she is asked about her thoughts on the Great Leader and the Dear Leader. "I feel like a politician," she says. "You have to be so careful."

As the week progresses, the press begins to turn its attention to her mother. Sheelagh's getting good at giving interviews. "They asked me, what are your convictions?' I nearly said, 'Well I've got two speeding fines!' But I said, 'I believe in helping people. You've got to help people as a society and that's why I'm a member of the Labour party and support Tony Blair.' I think they'll cut that bit out.

"Yesterday, they said to me: 'Kim Il-Sung is loved by all Koreans and by everyone around the world. Don't you agree?' "I said, 'The people do seem to love him very much here.' You can't answer questions like that."

There are other questions that can't be answered. Throughout our trip we are constantly told that all Koreans want the two countries, North and South, to be reunited under the leadership of Kim Jong-Il. But South Korea is a democracy, I say. It has elections. Will it agree to be led by Kim Jong-Il? Mr Pak doesn't answer. When I mention a free press he says the state-run newspapers and television station that run adulatory coverage of the Dear Leader are free to publish or screen whatever they like. What I don't understand, he says, is that everyone loves the Great Leader and the Dear Leader. Everyone? "Everyone," he beams.

Suzannah is singing at the closing ceremony, where they will be handing out prizes. "I don't think it should be a competition," she says. "It's not that sort of festival - it's supposed to be about friendship." When the awards arrive on stage, however, it becomes clear that there will be more winners than losers.

Dignitaries and government ministers take their places on the stage to hand out the awards. Names are read out by one of the ministers. Performers step forward to receive their trophy and shake the hand of North Korea's prime minister. More names are read out and more people come on stage. More names. More people. Soon, the stage is a mess. Performers weave in and out of each other posing for pictures, picking up awards and shaking hands. Some people don't get on stage soon enough, missing their moment. Chaos ensues as a Chinese conductor picks up the award for best dance group that was supposed to go to Ukraine. At the end, there appears to be one award too many, so the last recipient gets two. Relieved it's over, the ministers on stage start clapping. We all clap.

Then something odd happens. Throughout the event, most Western performers have managed to steer clear of politics. This is all blown by the head of the Italian delegation. To close the ceremony he reads out a letter he claims is from all the performers to Kim Jong-Il. "I don't recall writing a letter," mutters a member of the steel band. It starts off fluffy and light. The country is beautiful, the festival was great. And then: "We happily witnessed with our own eyes that, despite vicious intervention of alien forces who go against the mainstream of history, your people are making miraculous achievements and living optimistically with firm confidence in a brighter future under your wise leadership."

On the drive back to the hotel I ask Mr Pak why the performers weren't told about the letter. "They all love the Great Leader. Everybody loves him," he laughs. "You agree, yes?" He laughs again and we drive on.