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."

Suggested Topics
Life and Style
Customers can get their caffeine fix on the move
food + drink
Voices
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US
voicesRobert Fisk: Barack Obama is following the jihadists’ script
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
Arts and Entertainment
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
filmReview: Lucy, Luc Besson's complex thriller
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
News
peoplePamela Anderson rejects ice bucket challenge because of ALS experiments on animals
Life and Style
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
tvExecutive says content is not 'without any purpose'
News
A cleaner prepares the red carpet for the opening night during the 59th International Cannes Film Festival May 17, 2006 in Cannes, France.
newsPowerful vacuum cleaners to be banned under EU regulations
Arts and Entertainment
tvSpielberg involved in bringing his 2002 film to the small screen
Sport
sportLeague Managers' Association had described Malky Mackay texts as 'friendly banter'
News
A polar bear’s diet is rich in seal blubber and half of its own body weight is composed of fat
i100
News
peopleCareer spanned 70 years, including work with Holocaust survivors
News
people
Travel
Flocking round: Beyoncé, Madame Tussauds' latest waxwork, looking fierce in the park
travelIn a digital age when we have more access than ever to the stars, why are waxworks still pulling in crowds?
News
London is the most expensive city in Europe for cultural activities such as ballet
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson has rejected criticisms of his language, according to BBC director of television Danny Cohen
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

Head of IT (Not-for-Profit sector) - East Sussex

£45000 - £50000 per annum + 5 weeks holiday & benefits: Ashdown Group: Head of...

Nursery Nurse

£25 per day: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery nurse needed in th...

Supply Teaching jobs in Thetford

£21588 - £31566 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Randstad Education ar...

KS1 teachers needed in Peterborough

£110 - £125 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Randstad Education are ur...

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape