Journey into the heart of North Korea

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

As Pyongyang tries to show its military might, Tomiko Newson shares an exclusive glimpse of the sinister and sad reality of daily life inside a paranoid nation

On the top floor of the maternity hospital in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, I was shown two sets of triplets lined up in a row of metal cots. "Ahh," I cooed, then asked where the worn- out mothers were. "Oh, they are not necessary," was the reply.

The regime claims it venerates triplets. And they do, but not in a way you or I might celebrate. They send a helicopter to pick up the pregnant mother and take her to hospital for the birth. When triplets are born, the state takes them away. In exchange, parents are given gifts, a ring for girls and a silver knife for boys. They say the state looks after them for the first four years but there's no way of checking that – it could be for ever.

While I was there the hospital was celebrating its 415th set of triplets. They had even drawn up a poster, complete with pictures of triplets in the state orphanage, where the Kim dynasty provides for them. They say it is voluntary, but in a country where you face public execution for making an international phone call, if the state suggests you do something, you do it.

The logic behind this bizarre behaviour is that triplets are expensive so that state eases the parents' burden by looking after them. But remember this is a communist country where the state provides houses for free and feeds every mouth. I asked why the state couldn't ease the burden by providing a larger house and more food, but got no answer.

I asked if the parents can't afford to feed them as babies how would they be able to afford three growing four-year-olds when they are supposed to get them back? Again, no answer. There may be a darker reason behind the state's removal of triplets. Kim Jong-il, whose death in December caused millions in the world's last Stalinist state to weep openly, is reported to have feared an astrologer's prediction that a triplet would assassinate him. The regime tells its people that they live in a paradise, they have nothing to envy and with no access to the outside world they believe it. The disconnect between the state's mass brainwashing and the dysfunctional reality is at its darkest in the maternity hospital, a huge Stalinist concrete block. It smelled, not of disinfectant, but of musty neglect.

All North Koreans are allowed to have their first born in the hospital, a privilege that seemed like a curse. It was a living museum. They gave us a demonstration of a 1960s machine which, our guides told us, could cure infertility. It looked like a bad confidence trick. The hospital's take on patient choice was medieval. Mothers have to give birth alone and aren't allowed to meet with any family or even their husbands for at least a week after. The only contact they have is through little booths with phones like the ones in American prison dramas except the mothers aren't behind glass but on a TV screen. The explanation for this isolation is to prevent infection, yet rubber gloves, disinfectant or hand soap did not seem to be deemed necessary.

In the maternity hospital I saw no disabled children. They told me they are cared for in special homes. Six years ago Dr Ri Kwang-Chol, who defected from the North to the South, claimed that babies that were born with physical defects were put to death and buried. I had no way of verifying that but in five days in Pyongyang and three in the countryside no one in our party of 15 (all students, on a 'fact finding trip') – Britons, Italians and others – saw a disabled person. Where are they? Dr Ri's claim of state infanticide does not seem far-fetched.

The buildings in this city can be divided into three types of architecture: sixties Bond-film villain buildings, Soviet-style housing blocks and buildings that would look at home in Thunderbirds. Individual action does not exist. Everybody moves in blocs. We saw clusters of hundreds of people huddled together raking the mud or on their knees combing scraps of grass. Even visits to the war museum, where residents learn how the "American imperial aggressors" bowed down in front of the Korean people, are arranged by factory.

In regular cities the bulk of the people are on the road, in cars, taxis or on buses. In Pyongyang, it's the pavements that are full of people, who hurry away from you like a shoal of fish from a swimmer. The people of this city are especially selected to live there. Everyone looks the same; the women, with jet-black hair swept back, all share the same hairstyle. They all dress in dark colours and pre-war fabrics. In Pyongyang, no one wears jeans. But there is the odd puncture of colour, the female traffic cops, rumoured to have been chosen by Kim Il-sung himself for their beauty, stand out in the their blue coats, painted faces and knee-high boots flashing a rare sight of leg.

The guides are confident they live the good life. "Petrol stations, we have tens of them. We even have four supermarkets," bragged the guide. "Not bad for a city of three million," I replied.

At night it is not just dark but pitch black. You can't see more than a foot in front. I had hoped this would mean – with a sky free of light pollution – amazing views of skies full of stars, but there were hardly any. It was as if even the stars wanted to escape.

In this country everything is done by hand. One group of workers I saw were bent over the ground, one had a spade, the rest dug the soil with their fingers. When they watered a municipal garden, they didn't use a hose-pipe. Instead, hundreds of people would walk back and forth from a tap, filling up their water bottles to sprinkle the ground.

One day on an empty motorway our bus suddenly started to slow down. Ahead were more than 2,000 people, mainly women, squatting in the middle of the road. The driver sped up, anxious for me not to see as the women desperately tried to run out of the way. They had been sweeping dust from the road with brushes made from twigs.

We were taken to the People's Study House – the national library– a giant marble tomb of a place. (Nothing is small in North Korea apart from the people, who are on average three inches shorter than their cousins in the South.) The library boasted a colossal mosaic of Kim against a sunset. Glass chandeliers hung from the ceiling with the class of Pat Butcher's earrings. The library boasted a philosopher, there to answer questions on the regime's dogma, Kim Il-sungism.

I used the library's off-line computer to search the 30 million-book catalogue for titles on Gandhi, World War Two, Hitler, Stalin, Mao and the Holocaust. Nothing. The top three results were: a book on upholstery, another on low temperatures and an article entitled, "Gender Effects Renal Vasoconstrictor Response". The contradiction between our guides' pride in the library and its pitiful content made me cry.

Next was a room with rows of individual desks lined up with 1980s-style boom boxes. People come here to listen to world music. They had already preselected some they thought I would want to hear. As Madonna's "American Pie" played, my eyes welled up again as it was the first music I had heard in days. But when I walked around the room I noticed that none of the other machines was plugged in, nor could they be. There were no sockets – it was all just for show.

As you drive out of town into the countryside the cars thin and the bicycles get more laden. The first old lady I had seen in days was walking up a hill, a six-seater table strapped to her back. The road stretched out ahead, with nothing but brown dry fields on either side. Aside from people you can count almost anything you see in North Korea on your hands. Goats: seven; cows: three; dogs: two, with ribs exposed; jet-black squirrel: one.

In the fields I saw little piles of dark-looking soil. I learned it was human faeces – fertiliser is expensive, out of reach.

On the 100th day of mourning for Kim Jong-il I was whisked out of the city – away from the masses offering paper flowers to the statues and portraits – and taken to the Demilitarised Zone, the most militarised front line in the world.

The DMZ is covered in trees, a hint of what the the country looked like before forests were cleared for firewood or boiled bark soup during the famine of the 1990s. The soldiers boasted of the bravery of Kim Il-sung, the first of the Kim dynasty, who had stood here just feet away from the enemy. They claimed no other enemy leader had dared to visit the South Korean side, this on the day that President Obama was doing just that.

The view south, from the North's chilly un-lit building, was of a bigger, shinier, more advanced South. The North's soldiers looked like Dad's Army with old kit; the South's dressed like Robocops.

I was shown into a little hut that straddles the demarcation line. Standing outside were two North Korean soldiers, in dark brown uniforms, six feet apart, facing each other. When asked why they were staring at each other, their officer told me: "It is our rule, it's for security purposes." But why would they be facing each other instead of the enemy? "Military strategy." When questioned again about such a curious strategy, they conceded it was to prevent defection.

When I pointed out the country's nuclear weapons couldn't hit America – prior to the rocket apparently failing last night – the military commanders giggled, "Yes they can, you will see." We laughed back, nervously. But with even its ally China saying that the rocket had fallen into the sea, it appears the joke may be on North Korea.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Web Development Manager

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: Service and Installation Engineer

£22000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: SEO / Outreach Executive

£20000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client is a global marketin...

Recruitment Genius: Junior Estimator

£17000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has ari...

Day In a Page

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

Homeless Veterans appeal

Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

Scarred by the bell

The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

The Locked Room Mysteries

As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

How I made myself Keane

Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

Wear in review

A look back at fashion in 2014
Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

Might just one of them happen?
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?