Ode to springtime in Pyongyang

Our Man in North Korea takes flak for his upbeat blog in celebration of elections in nation of the oppressed
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The Independent Online

It is a nuclear-armed totalitarian state with a network of secret labour camps and is warning of war over a missile test. Its paranoid leaders have just halted international food aid for its starving people. Yet this is the moment Our Man in Pyongyang chose to publish a blog apparently celebrating the "very festive atmosphere" of the elections in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

"Outside the central polling stations there were bands playing and people dancing and singing to entertain the queues of voters waiting patiently to select their representatives in the country's unicameral legislature," wrote our ambassador, Peter Hughes. "The booths selling drinks and snacks were very popular with the crowds and everyone seemed to be having a good time."

He reported that all the candidates, including the country's dictator, Kim Jong-il, were elected with 100 per cent approval after a turnout of more than 99 per cent. There was no background explanation about the penalties awaiting those who failed to show up to vote or the reason for the lack of opposition candidates. In North Korea, say diplomats who have served there, the brainwashing by the regime of the "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-il is so complete that the people in the isolated and impoverished country believe the official lie that they are the luckiest people in the world.

Mr Hughes has now back-pedalled on the Foreign Office (FCO) website as he responded to correspondents who accused him of making North Korea sound "idyllic" in his blog which "read like a press release issued by the North Korea news agency". One said: "A 100 [per cent] approval rating for unopposed candidates isn't news and a 99 [per cent] turnout merely highlights that 1 [per cent] of the population will be 'offered re-education' shortly. Has Our Man In Pyongyang gone native?"

Mr Hughes agreed that "the songs... at polling stations would have been tributes to the system and its leaders, not ballads or traditional melodies". As for the elections, he recognised that "there were no opposition candidates; in fact there was only one person standing for each seat which is why all the candidates were elected with 100 approval; and there was a 99 turnout because the compulsory voting was strictly enforced". He said the blog was "not intended as political commentary, rather it was an opportunity to show that Pyongyang is not a dark and evil place populated by demons, but a city inhabited by human beings who make the best of their lives in spite of the difficulties they face on a daily basis".

The FCO says reaching out to the public through the blogs is part of the "new diplomacy" promoted by the government which now tweets as well. Bloggers include the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, who has said that "lying for your country" – as defined long ago by Sir Henry Wooton – "isn't the right answer". Blogging offers "a more direct dialogue with the public", said an FCO spokesman.

Some diplomats may regret their openness. Marianne McCurrie suffered a mailbag of sarcastic comments and national headlines for writing last November about her "cushy" job in the Seychelles. "It's all amazing beaches, palm trees and jealous friends and relatives," she blogged.

Stephen Hale, the FCO head of engagement, digital diplomacy, admits: "We've learned lessons from the blogs that haven't really worked." But he points out that since they were launched in September 2007 by six bloggers, they have expanded to open a window on the world from Afghanistan to Vietnam.

As for Mr Hughes and his rose-coloured spectacles, an FCO spokes-man added: "We are under no illusions about the situation in North Korea. As Peter Hughes himself makes clear, North Korea is 'not an idyllic country'."

The ambassador's blog: An extract

The weather was relatively warm and sunny all weekend for the elections of the 12th Supreme People's Assembly on Sunday 8 March.

There was a festive atmosphere throughout the city and people were out walking to or from the polling stations, or thronging the parks for a picnic or just a stroll.

Most of the ladies were dressed in the colourful traditional hanguk pokshik and the men had donned their best suits.

Outside the central polling stations, bands were playing and people were dancing and singing to entertain the queues of voters waiting patiently to select their representatives in the country's unicameral legislature. The booths selling drinks and snacks were popular with the crowds and everyone seemed to be having a good time.

The list of successful candidates was published on Monday. There was a reported voter turn-out of more than 99 per cent and all candidates, including Kim Jong-Il, were elected with 100 per cent approval.

In a few weeks, the Supreme People's Assembly will open for business which will include voting for the Chairman of the National Defence Committee (presently Kim Jong-Il), and drawing up the budget for the coming financial year.