On the top floor of the maternity hospital in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, I was shown two sets of triplets lined up in a row of metal cots. "Ahh," I cooed, then asked where the worn- out mothers were. "Oh, they are not necessary," was the reply.
The regime claims it venerates triplets. And they do, but not in a way you or I might celebrate. They send a helicopter to pick up the pregnant mother and take her to hospital for the birth. When triplets are born, the state takes them away. In exchange, parents are given gifts, a ring for girls and a silver knife for boys. They say the state looks after them for the first four years but there's no way of checking that – it could be for ever.
While I was there the hospital was celebrating its 415th set of triplets. They had even drawn up a poster, complete with pictures of triplets in the state orphanage, where the Kim dynasty provides for them. They say it is voluntary, but in a country where you face public execution for making an international phone call, if the state suggests you do something, you do it.
The logic behind this bizarre behaviour is that triplets are expensive so that state eases the parents' burden by looking after them. But remember this is a communist country where the state provides houses for free and feeds every mouth. I asked why the state couldn't ease the burden by providing a larger house and more food, but got no answer.
I asked if the parents can't afford to feed them as babies how would they be able to afford three growing four-year-olds when they are supposed to get them back? Again, no answer. There may be a darker reason behind the state's removal of triplets. Kim Jong-il, whose death in December caused millions in the world's last Stalinist state to weep openly, is reported to have feared an astrologer's prediction that a triplet would assassinate him. The regime tells its people that they live in a paradise, they have nothing to envy and with no access to the outside world they believe it. The disconnect between the state's mass brainwashing and the dysfunctional reality is at its darkest in the maternity hospital, a huge Stalinist concrete block. It smelled, not of disinfectant, but of musty neglect.
All North Koreans are allowed to have their first born in the hospital, a privilege that seemed like a curse. It was a living museum. They gave us a demonstration of a 1960s machine which, our guides told us, could cure infertility. It looked like a bad confidence trick. The hospital's take on patient choice was medieval. Mothers have to give birth alone and aren't allowed to meet with any family or even their husbands for at least a week after. The only contact they have is through little booths with phones like the ones in American prison dramas except the mothers aren't behind glass but on a TV screen. The explanation for this isolation is to prevent infection, yet rubber gloves, disinfectant or hand soap did not seem to be deemed necessary.
In the maternity hospital I saw no disabled children. They told me they are cared for in special homes. Six years ago Dr Ri Kwang-Chol, who defected from the North to the South, claimed that babies that were born with physical defects were put to death and buried. I had no way of verifying that but in five days in Pyongyang and three in the countryside no one in our party of 15 (all students, on a 'fact finding trip') – Britons, Italians and others – saw a disabled person. Where are they? Dr Ri's claim of state infanticide does not seem far-fetched.
The buildings in this city can be divided into three types of architecture: sixties Bond-film villain buildings, Soviet-style housing blocks and buildings that would look at home in Thunderbirds. Individual action does not exist. Everybody moves in blocs. We saw clusters of hundreds of people huddled together raking the mud or on their knees combing scraps of grass. Even visits to the war museum, where residents learn how the "American imperial aggressors" bowed down in front of the Korean people, are arranged by factory.
In regular cities the bulk of the people are on the road, in cars, taxis or on buses. In Pyongyang, it's the pavements that are full of people, who hurry away from you like a shoal of fish from a swimmer. The people of this city are especially selected to live there. Everyone looks the same; the women, with jet-black hair swept back, all share the same hairstyle. They all dress in dark colours and pre-war fabrics. In Pyongyang, no one wears jeans. But there is the odd puncture of colour, the female traffic cops, rumoured to have been chosen by Kim Il-sung himself for their beauty, stand out in the their blue coats, painted faces and knee-high boots flashing a rare sight of leg.
The guides are confident they live the good life. "Petrol stations, we have tens of them. We even have four supermarkets," bragged the guide. "Not bad for a city of three million," I replied.
At night it is not just dark but pitch black. You can't see more than a foot in front. I had hoped this would mean – with a sky free of light pollution – amazing views of skies full of stars, but there were hardly any. It was as if even the stars wanted to escape.
In this country everything is done by hand. One group of workers I saw were bent over the ground, one had a spade, the rest dug the soil with their fingers. When they watered a municipal garden, they didn't use a hose-pipe. Instead, hundreds of people would walk back and forth from a tap, filling up their water bottles to sprinkle the ground.
One day on an empty motorway our bus suddenly started to slow down. Ahead were more than 2,000 people, mainly women, squatting in the middle of the road. The driver sped up, anxious for me not to see as the women desperately tried to run out of the way. They had been sweeping dust from the road with brushes made from twigs.
We were taken to the People's Study House – the national library– a giant marble tomb of a place. (Nothing is small in North Korea apart from the people, who are on average three inches shorter than their cousins in the South.) The library boasted a colossal mosaic of Kim against a sunset. Glass chandeliers hung from the ceiling with the class of Pat Butcher's earrings. The library boasted a philosopher, there to answer questions on the regime's dogma, Kim Il-sungism.
I used the library's off-line computer to search the 30 million-book catalogue for titles on Gandhi, World War Two, Hitler, Stalin, Mao and the Holocaust. Nothing. The top three results were: a book on upholstery, another on low temperatures and an article entitled, "Gender Effects Renal Vasoconstrictor Response". The contradiction between our guides' pride in the library and its pitiful content made me cry.
Next was a room with rows of individual desks lined up with 1980s-style boom boxes. People come here to listen to world music. They had already preselected some they thought I would want to hear. As Madonna's "American Pie" played, my eyes welled up again as it was the first music I had heard in days. But when I walked around the room I noticed that none of the other machines was plugged in, nor could they be. There were no sockets – it was all just for show.
As you drive out of town into the countryside the cars thin and the bicycles get more laden. The first old lady I had seen in days was walking up a hill, a six-seater table strapped to her back. The road stretched out ahead, with nothing but brown dry fields on either side. Aside from people you can count almost anything you see in North Korea on your hands. Goats: seven; cows: three; dogs: two, with ribs exposed; jet-black squirrel: one.
In the fields I saw little piles of dark-looking soil. I learned it was human faeces – fertiliser is expensive, out of reach.
On the 100th day of mourning for Kim Jong-il I was whisked out of the city – away from the masses offering paper flowers to the statues and portraits – and taken to the Demilitarised Zone, the most militarised front line in the world.
The DMZ is covered in trees, a hint of what the the country looked like before forests were cleared for firewood or boiled bark soup during the famine of the 1990s. The soldiers boasted of the bravery of Kim Il-sung, the first of the Kim dynasty, who had stood here just feet away from the enemy. They claimed no other enemy leader had dared to visit the South Korean side, this on the day that President Obama was doing just that.
The view south, from the North's chilly un-lit building, was of a bigger, shinier, more advanced South. The North's soldiers looked like Dad's Army with old kit; the South's dressed like Robocops.
I was shown into a little hut that straddles the demarcation line. Standing outside were two North Korean soldiers, in dark brown uniforms, six feet apart, facing each other. When asked why they were staring at each other, their officer told me: "It is our rule, it's for security purposes." But why would they be facing each other instead of the enemy? "Military strategy." When questioned again about such a curious strategy, they conceded it was to prevent defection.
When I pointed out the country's nuclear weapons couldn't hit America – prior to the rocket apparently failing last night – the military commanders giggled, "Yes they can, you will see." We laughed back, nervously. But with even its ally China saying that the rocket had fallen into the sea, it appears the joke may be on North Korea.
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