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 Woman and two children killed by mob in riots over 'blasphemous' Facebook post in Pakistan
- 2 The secret report that helps Israelis to hide facts
- 3 Danish TV reporter is all business up top, all party down below
- 4 Ross Burden dead: MasterChef and Ready Steady Cook star, dies aged 45
- 5 Businessman charged £75 for three small bottles of water in London hotel
Danish TV reporter is all business up top, all party down below
Israel-Gaza conflict: President Obama presses Netanyahu to call ‘immediate and unconditional’ Gaza ceasefire
Ross Burden dead: MasterChef and Ready Steady Cook star, dies aged 45
Zayn Malik on Israel-Gaza: One Direction singer bombarded with Twitter death threats after posting #FreePalestine
MH17 crash: Black boxes show plane suffered 'massive explosive decompression' following shrapnel hit
The secret report that helps Israelis to hide facts
A day in the life of Vladimir Putin: The dictator in his labyrinth
Were 'Poor Doors' added to mixed developments so wealthy residents don't have to go in alongside social housing tenants?
A new Russian revolution: The cracks are starting to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Arizona execution lasts two hours as killer Joseph Wood left 'snorting and gasping' for air
Opponents of Israel's military operation in Gaza are the real enemies of Middle Eastern peace
£26000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful international media organ...
£35000 - £41000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: QA Manager -...
Very Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: LONDON - BANKING / PROPERTY FINANCE - ...
£28000 - £30000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: An ambitious...