Depart from the script and spot the jokes
Friday 05 May 1995
That is how the North Korea's hardline Communist rulers try to impress visitors. It seemed a good idea to go for a stroll through Pyongyang's spotless streets in search of unscripted reality. Away from the official itinerary could be found the alarming scenes that the plain-clothes police were so anxious about us finding. Down by the Taedong river, groups of old men were playing cards or chatting on park benches, and rowing boats were full of parents with young children. Walking back to the hotel, a group of men trying to negotiate the pedestrian underpasses had obviously enjoyed a liquid lunch.
Such are the unexpected glimpses of the human spirit that one sees during a supervised week in North Korea. On the train home from a hike to the Myohyang mountains, the Korean guards and guides clamoured to be allowed to join a round of "thumper" - an American drinking game not regularly played in the Democratic People's Republic. These were people who knew how to enjoy themselves.
While North Koreans are still barred from even approaching the sliproad to the information highway, a part of the population is no longer hermetically sealed from the outside world. "Tour bus karaoke" was launched by our guide with renditions of "My Way" and "When a Child is Born".
One 18-year-old English student at the lite Kim Il Sung University said she had read Gone with the Wind and seen the films Love Story and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Asked what she liked from Western culture, she giggled: "When bad people go bankrupt, I think it's very nice".
The North Koreans turn out to have an unexpected line in self-deprecating humour. One graduate, 26, explaining his personal finances, said with an impish grin: "I'm an extravagant man. I'm young so I come in contact with so many girlfriends, so I don't save much money."
Such were the lighter encounters with those Pyongyang inhabitants who had been chosen to serve on the front line against the unprecedented 15,000 foreigners allowed in for the Pyongyang International Sports and Cultural Festival for Peace. More difficult to engage were the thousands and thousands of city folk who were putting on a show for us all.
It was the most extraordinary theatre to see. In the Potemkin vegetable shops of Pyongyang, people pretending to be customers were served by people pretending to be assistants, "buying" produce from neatly stacked shelves and delicatessen counters where every container was always completely full. The plot was too easy to read: one afternoon, I watched a woman buy her daily vegetables and leave the shop only to return 15 minutes later, empty-handed, to "buy" exactly the same goods for the benefit of a second Westerner who had entered the shop.
At the Pyongyang Maternity Hospital, the stage-managers had forgotten that North Korean women share some characteristics with the rest of us. As my group inspected the dazzling array of medical equipment available free of charge for the city's mothers-to-be, alarmingly flat-stomached women wandered the corridors in pyjamas.
- 1 Reader dilemma: 'My boyfriend jokes about putting photos of us having sex on Facebook'
- 3 Ralkina Jones: 37-year-old black woman found dead in police custody
- 4 Kanye West praises Caitlyn Jenner on I Am Cait: 'You couldn't have been up against more'
- 5 Five-year-old boy forced classmate to simulate oral sex at primary school, claims mother
Mystery over deaths of 3,000 Napoleonic soldiers in mass grave has been solved
Global Peace Index: Ukraine tops list of countries with the worst relations with neighbours
Labour leadership: New poll shows party is now even 'less electable' than under Ed Miliband
Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, 71, still enjoys 'an early morning joint' for breakfast
Denmark bans kosher and halal slaughter as minister says ‘animal rights come before religion’
The 9 charts that show the 'left-wing' policies of Jeremy Corbyn the public actually agrees with
Labour leadership contender Jeremy Corbyn says 'we can learn a great deal from Karl Marx'
The last thing Labour needs is a leader like Jeremy Corbyn who people want to vote for
What the Labour party could look like under Jeremy Corbyn
I am the Jeremy Corbyn supporter that many will tell you doesn't exist
Public anger after French sunbather beaten up by gang for wearing a bikini in Reims park
£18000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing Insurance Bro...
£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Junior IT Support Technician ...
£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides actionabl...
Negotiable depending on experience, plus benefits: Guru Careers: We are seekin...