Sex and the North Korean bureaucrat

Richard Lloyd Parry went to Sonbong to hear about investment, but found officials had other things in mind

Mr Kim would not strike you as much of a ladies' man. We had been talking, as one does at the Investment Forum of the the North Korean Committee for the Promotion of External Economic Co-operation, of infrastructure projects and investment incentives, and how the government of North Korea planned to turn the rundown cities of Rajin and Sonbong into a "golden triangle" of shipping, manufacturing and international finance.

For a good 10 minutes Mr Kim, a committee official, had been enthusiastically reciting the strategic advantages of Rajin's harbour. Perhaps it was my less-than-rapt expression that caused him to make a drastic change of subject.

"I understand," he suddenly said, in slow, formal English, "that there are many concubines in your country." I admitted that there probably were. "Would you be so kind as to tell me how much a concubine costs?" he asked. I guessed around pounds 40. "So is that for the night," Mr Kim wanted to know, "or just for f---ing?"

North Korea does not prepare you for exchanges like that. The country has been virtually closed to foreigners since the Korean War and, like the cities of Sonbong and Rajin, our hosts at the investment forum had been carefully primed for our arrival. But conversations such as the one with Mr Kim persuaded me that, above harbour depths and container capacities, what North Korean bureaucrats were most interested in was, well, girls.

The standard opener, common throughout Asia, was about marriage, children or, in the absence of these, girlfriends. Frequently, however, questions went beyond the bounds of normal cocktail party conversation. "English women," one man asked, "what size are they?" At the banquet on the first evening of the forum, a foreign businessman was silenced by an even more direct inquiry. "I have a question," he was told by one of the hovering officials. "What is sodomy?"

After his dramatic breaking of the ice, Mr Kim proceeded to fill me in on some of the reasons for this excessive curiosity. Romance, as with most aspects of life in North Korea, is closely controlled. Arranged marriages are still the norm; love marriages do sometimes take place, but are considered unwise, "because there are problems afterwards - too much drinking, and the like".

Sex before marriage is "against the rules, although some people do it anyway". Transgressors are not formally punished, but any who are caught will find their names published, and "the people will criticise them". But we were straying from the original subject. "So," Mr Kim began again, "have you ever been to a whorehouse?"

As it turned out I had, although I did not realise it at the time. The night before, some acquaintances and I were escorted by one of the friendlier guides to the recently opened Rajin International Club. For $30, beyond the means of all but the most privileged North Korean, we enjoyed a hot bath and sauna, watched TV beamed by satellite from Hong Kong and endured a painful massage from a frowning young lady who demanded what seemed an exorbitant tip (our guide was waiting outside). We all declined, excused ourselves from a turn in the karaoke room upstairs, and left.

Conversations with Korean-speaking delegates next day revealed the truth: we had inadvertently wandered into what is possibly North Korea's first brothel.

But prostitution may be one of the few viable industries in Rajin-Sonbong. The area is unappetising for serious foreign investors, having no airport, dismal hotels and a water supply inadequate for anything more than light industry. Its only advantage is its closeness to the booming markets of north-east China, but the Peking government is years ahead of North Korea in its understanding and application of market principles.

At the end of the forum, officials announced more than $280m of foreign investment. Nearly all of this, however, was accounted for by a five-star hotel and casino, aimed by a Hong Kong conglomerate at new-rich Chinese from across the border. Large-scale gambling almost inevitably brings with it other vices, and analysts attending the forum suggested that this may be Rajin-Sonbong's fate. "This place is never going to be a Hong Kong or Singapore," said one. "Maybe their only hope is a kind of Macao, a tax-free gambling and prostitution zone, a gangster's paradise."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?