Depart from the script and spot the jokes


The North Korean government knew what it wanted me to see. There was the kindergarten class of glassy-eyed infants programmed to point at a relief model of the birthplace of the late president Kim Il Sung and recite that this was where the pre-adolescent Great Leader "made up his mind to serve his country". And there was the model translator in the Grand People's Study House: his pen was poised over a description in Korean of petroleum geology in the Gulf of Bohai, but his tape was playing a technical explanation in English about the design of street lighting systems.

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.

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