Depart from the script and spot the jokes

PYONGYANG DAYS

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
sportWWE latest including Sting vs Triple H, Brock Lesnar vs Roman Reigns and The Undertaker vs Bray Wyatt
Arts and Entertainment
Louis Theroux: By Reason of Insanity takes him behind the bars again
tvBy Reason of Insanity, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap
videoThe political parody genius duo strike again with new video
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark, TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing