'Just do as you are told and there will be no trouble,' said my host in Kim's kingdom

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The Independent Online

Robin Cook has just set his civil servants an all but impossible task. What do you give the man who really does have everything (including a ceramic plate of the Tolpuddle martyrs)?

Robin Cook has just set his civil servants an all but impossible task. What do you give the man who really does have everything (including a ceramic plate of the Tolpuddle martyrs)?

Every official visitor to North Korea is obliged to add an offering to the treasure trove of the immortal Kim Il Sung and his son, the intriguing Kim Jong Il. And the Foreign Secretary will be hard-pressed to outdo the generosity of previous visitors. Stalin gave a presidential train, so Mao Tse-tung did too; Fidel Castro left a cigar roller, Colonel Gaddafi gave a camel saddle, and the Sandinistas from Nicaragua presented a stuffed crocodile posing as a waiter. Roger Clinton, the US President's brother, bestowed a pair of cufflinks he had borrowed from Camp David.

As a rare tourist visitor to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea earlier this year, I was shown these crown jewels lovingly displayed in a museum dug into mountains north of the capital, Pyongyang. The show reeks of personality cult and a bunker mentality that refuses to acknowledge the end of the Cold War, let alone the plight of 23 million impoverished people. But I bowed as instructed before a waxwork of the late Great Leader. "Just do as you are told," warned my English-speaking guide, "and there will be no trouble." Madame Tussaud's was never this intense.

At least my countrymen had done me proud. The Tolpuddle plate, donated by the New Communist Party of Britain a decade ago, was the highlight of the British gifts section, eclipsing an earlier present from the "old" British Communist Party, itself a victim of the changing world order that seemed to pass North Korea by. The Soviet Empire has disintegrated, and Communist China has embraced capitalism, but for 55 years North Korea has clung stubbornly to its version of socialism.

After his father's death in 1994 scuppered the last serious attempt to open dialogue with South Korea, Kim Jong Il maintained that "socialism will win in the end", though "we may die hundreds of billions of times". These were sadly prophetic words for the two million North Koreans estimated to have starved to death since 1995. The portly Mr Kim is in sharp contrast to his emaciated citizens, who travel on foot to most destinations due to shortages of vehicles and fuel.

Since the landmark North-South presidential summit in June this year, the diplomatic permafrost melts by the day, yet internally North Korea remains perhaps the most bizarre and sinister society on earth. Worship of the father and son dynasty continues unabated. Billboards proclaim their ideological slogans on city streets, their solemn portraits adorn every home, office and metro car. Like the hordes of local pilgrims, foreign visitors are also required to bow before their gargantuan statues.

From the moment you enter North Korea to the moment you leave, visitors are watched, guided and chaperoned like visiting royalty. Unfailingly friendly, even when prohibiting photography, government minders succeed in minimising all contact with local people. This seclusion extends to the small band of resident expatriates, including a dozen or so Britons, most of whom have never visited an ordinary Korean home.

Once the game rules are established, the tour begins with an appreciation of Pyongyang monumentalism. In 1953, as the Korean War ended in stalemate, the Americans claimed its bombers had returned North Korea to the Stone Age, and that Pyongyang would not rise again for 100 years. The Pyongyanites have proudly proved them wrong, erecting a socialist nirvana of broad avenues and proletarian purity. Consumerism is kept to a pathetic minimum, so no litter sullies the pavements, and there is little traffic to dirty the 13-lane highway that is Kwangbok Street; its central lane is reserved only for the Kims.

Several vast squares offer perfect practice grounds for mass propaganda displays that put Olympic opening ceremonies to shame. In 1993, I watched 150,000 people pack Pyongyang's May Day stadium to celebrate "victory" in the Korean War. Last week, a million people marched through the capital on the 55th anniversary of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea. The North Korean people have known nothing else for all these years.

At the June summit, Kim Jong Il surprised his visitors with claims that he reads South Korean newspapers every day. Koreans south of the border enjoy some of best modern communications in Asia, while their northern brothers remain the most isolated, denied all contact with the outside world, bar a wave from a bus carrying earnest delegations, or theodd tourist (and you must bea little odd to come here on holiday). Lest you try to contact the outside world on an untapped phone, you must leave your mobile phone at immigration.

To solve his gift dilemma, Robin Cook may seek advice from his US counterpart, Madeline Albright, who arrives in Pyongyang this weekend to prepare the ground for her boss. President Bill Clinton's choice of gift is easier. If he cannot promise US troop withdrawal from South Korea, he might try a set of Big Bertha golf clubs. The Pyongyang golf course may be the loneliest in Asia (my caddy told me I was wise to beat the weekend rush of up to half a dozen players), but its course record is second to none.

During his maiden round, Kim Jong Il opened with a hole in one, and required just 18 further strokes to finish the par 72 course. He only missed the ultimate scorecard by taking two at the par 5 18th. In thenot so Democratic People's Republic of Korea, nothing is quite what it seems.