North Korea cruise trip triggers offbeat moments

A senior official suddenly belts out opera on the deck of a rickety cruise ship, waitresses shimmy at an impromptu dance party below. It's the good life, North Korea style.

The unexpected, unguarded moments were as offbeat as the trip itself - a cruise on an ageing boat for a group of Chinese tour operators and foreign journalists on a rare visit to a notoriously secretive nation.

The first song from Hwang Chol-Nam, the dapper vice-mayor of Rason who was co-hosting the trip, came as the ship ploughed through rough seas one night and he gazed out over the waves from the deck.

It was, predictably, to the glory of leader Kim Jong-Il, who rules the isolated country with an iron grip.

"That's my favourite song," he said.

But then the tuneful deputy mayor let loose with a song by Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli, another favourite.

Journalists are normally banned from going to the impoverished state, but a dozen reporters were recently invited on a visit to North Korea aimed at promoting tourism in a remote region.

The five-day trip that ended earlier this month took in the special economic zone of Rason in the northeast and the politically-sensitive resort of Mount Kumgang down south, linked by a "cruise" on a 39-year-old vessel.

The 21-hour trip on the relatively small boat, which left from an ageing port in Rason, provided a rare opportunity for passengers to come close to North Korean officials.

Hwang, the singing vice mayor was fluent in English and Russian and was particularly open, holding press briefings on deck with copious amounts of beer and food at hand.

"There are three problems: we need to develop land, power, and infrastructure," he said, and spoke in detail about Rason, an area designated as a special economic zone 20 years ago that never took off and remains poor.

The tour guides - tasked with keeping their guests in line - also opened up on the boat, talking for instance about girls they loved and broke up with.

But sensitive issues - such as serious food shortages and poverty in the country and most of the population's ignorance of the outside world - were carefully avoided or swept under the carpet with vague answers.

Perhaps it was the novelty of the trip at sea for all involved that led to another unguarded moment.

The ship's stewardesses kicked off a party one night in the dining hall, singing rapid-fire karaoke and dancing energetically, in a break from their normal duties on the boat.

But once back on land in Rason old habits kicked in as reporters were given a rare glimpse inside a local market - one of the biggest in North Korea - full of locals buying and selling goods.

The journalists were made to walk quickly in single-file, to avoid making contact with the local population, and were forbidden to take photos or videos, or even to write in their notebooks.

As one of the world's last remaining centrally-planned economies, North Korea has in the past cracked down on market activity, but has always relented due to the strain brought by international sanctions.

The market was bulging at the seams, full of goods from skinned rabbits and clothes to torches, loudspeakers, and Sunsilk and Lux beauty products - most of which are imported from neighbouring China.

Locals were surprised to see foreigners - still a rarity in this region - and the nervous guides regularly shouted at reporters to keep moving.

Other glimpses of everyday life remained fleeting during the trip, seen mainly through bus windows as locals - many dressed in monochrome clothes - cycled past.

One resident in Rason who had been filmed by a reporter complained loudly to an accompanying guide - the fear in her face a stark reminder of the repressive nature of the regime.

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