Out of Korea: It's still quite a funny old colony

SEOUL - For much of the world, North Korea is a distant, malevolent Stalinist state that threatens to develop nuclear weapons. For the Japanese, the situation is slightly different. Korea was a colony of Japan until 1945 and it is frequently visited by Japanese political delegations, tour and study groups. There are 200,000 ethnic Koreans whose families originated in the North now living in Japan, mostly descendants of slave labourers.

The Japanese have a large appetite for information from North Korea. Books written by visiting Japanese - usually in a semi-humorous and condescending tone - sell well in Japan. They provide a lively counterpoint to the more stolid, anti-Communist propaganda that originates in Seoul.

Lee Young Hwa, a third- generation North Korean born in Japan, returned in 1991 for a year's study of economics. He described his experiences in One Night's Secret Meeting in North Korea, published this April. Lee is a lecturer at Kansai University, but was surprised to find he could not attend university in North Korea: the professors came to visit him in his hotel. Lee learnt little and decided to leave after eight months when he was asked to write birthday greetings for Kim Il Sung.

He found a high level of discontent among the ordinary people: the 'Secret Meeting' of the title was supposedly a gathering of people voicing their opposition to the government which he attended. Food was scarce, and he wrote that after people take their shoes off on entering a house, they pick up the shoes and carry them in to prevent their being stolen. Surveillance was everywhere: his room maid once prevented him from watering the pot plant in his room: he discovered a listening device in it.

Owarai Kitachosen, or Funny North Korea, which was written by Teruo Ito, the director of a Japanese comedy television show, went on sale last September, and has sold 200,000 copies. Mr Ito, whose trademark is a goblin-like woollen cap pulled down to his ears, went on a 'humour tour' in North Korea last year and among his targets was the 'artistic genius' of Kim Jong Il who is being promoted as the country's next leader. 'Despite the nation's financial difficulties, Kim continues to build one useless building after another. He is an artist among artists.'

The great thing about Kim Jong Il is that he never has to worry about other channels, because 'he has prohibited' them. Mr Ito has a poor view of Mr Kim's artistry: 'Leave him alone, and he will continue making sand castles by himself. But if an older boy - like the US - breaks his sand castles, there will be hell to pay.'

In April this year Kenpachiro Satsuma, the actor who wears the monster suit in the Japanese Godzilla films, published a book about his experiences in North Korea in 1985: The North Korea that Godzilla saw. He and some of his colleagues from the Godzilla films were hired by Kim Jong Il to help make a monster film in North Korea called Pulgasary.

Satsuma and his friends were given VIP treatment, staying in a villa belonging to Kim Jong Il, with all the food and drink that they wanted. They were to assist with special effects in the movie in which the iron-eating monster Pulgasary attacks and kills a Korean king, liberates the peasants and falls in love. They had some difficulties in shooting the film: when they staged explosions, all the North Korean extras would dive for cover. And due to electricity shortages, the lighting on the set was inadequate, and the film was often under-exposed. But, according to Satsuma, the film went on to be a smash hit.