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Saturday, 18 May, 2002, 11:02 GMT 12:02 UK
Inside North Korea's bubble
One of the many monuments depicting North Korean soldiers Pyongyang
Pyongyang has an unnerving stillness to it

It took me a year to get my visa for the people's paradise. When it finally arrived, it allowed me and a cameraman four days in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea.

The schedule was prearranged and a pair of cheerful, ruthlessly efficient minders met us at the airport and never let us out of their sight.

Kim Jong-il
Life in North Korea is dominated by Kim Jong-il and his late father, Kim Il-sung
Pyongyang has an unnerving stillness to it. The traffic, even at rush hour, is little more than a trickle.

Public transport is scarce. Everybody walks, often alone and silent, down green boulevards, past huge white apartment blocks.

North Korea has been in crisis for a decade now. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Soviet aid dried up. No more subsidised oil and food. North Korea had to fend for itself.

By the mid-1990s the famine was so severe that more than a million people are thought to have died from malnutrition and related illness.

International food aid saved North Korea. But only in part. The country owes its continued cohesion to its politics.

Life in North Korea is utterly dominated by the cult of personality surrounding its late President Kim Il-sung, known as the Great Leader, and his son, Kim Jong-il, the Dear Leader.

Kim Jong-il is now in charge. He smiles from billboards, and from the lapel pins that every North Korean wears. He drops into factories, farms and offices to give what is called on the spot guidance. His subjects burst into applause and grateful tears.

No-one has ever interviewed Kim Jong-il. The BBC wasn't about to be the first to do so.


In fact, our schedule turned out to be a mixture of those things reporters dread most - monuments, exhibitions, and performances.

We saw Kim Il-sung's birthplace. We wandered through an exhibition of North Korean achievements in heavy industry. And we were taken to the Children's Palace for a cultural performance.

The lobby of the Children's Palace is a monstrosity in marble and chandeliers. In it stands a model - some 20 foot high - of the space shuttle on its launch pad.

In a strange fantasy of technology and power, the space shuttle has become North Korean. It has North Korean insignia on it and North Korean slogans. There is no reference to its true origins at all.

North Korean school children
North Koreans are forbidden to speak to visitors
Every day 5,000 children come to the Palace after school for lessons in music, dance and martial arts. It is a hothouse. Children who show talent are taken into special classes in the accordion or dancing with hoops.

In the martial arts hall, as the afternoon light streamed in, we watched 14-year old girls practising Tae Kwon Do.

They were focused and concentrated unlike any children I have ever seen. One girl, a brown belt, caught my eye amid a flurry of punches. Short haired, arms like steel cable, she looked as if she was about to tear my kidneys out.

'A cultural performance'

The children take their inspiration from the revolutionary exploits of the Great Leader Kim Il-sung, said our children's palace guide, and ushered us on.

The "cultural performance" was a waking nightmare. Tiny girls in thick makeup and skimpy costumes did coy little dances. Talented boys in sequins thrashed away on xylophones. And a choir turned in teary salute to a portrait of Kim Jong-il surrounded by white doves.

It was all technically brilliant, and void of any meaning or artistic merit, a tribute to despotism by exploited, overwrought kids.

The Kim cult has imposed more than ideology; it has imposed a whole climate of thought and behaviour

The children's successes, said our stony faced guide, were thanks to the wise leadership of the Dear Leader and Supreme Commander, Comrade Kim Jong-il.

I have reported from other cities that labour beneath repressive regimes. It is often surprisingly easy to spot the small, spirited acts of dissent - a scrap of graffiti, a taxi driver's joke, an article of clothing worn askew.

The Kim cult

But in Pyongyang, nothing. The Kim cult has imposed more than ideology; it has imposed a whole climate of thought and behaviour.

North Korea cannot go on forever as it is. The country can't feed itself. Its industry has collapsed.

But there is no sign of how, or when, it might begin to change. Optimists say that the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il does want to introduce reform, but doesn't know how to go about it.

Pessimists say North Korea is trapped in an Orwellian hell of its own making. And nothing short of disintegration will bring change.

What do ordinary Koreans make of their predicament? I have no idea. I wasn't allowed to speak to any.

I wish I could say that they are just waiting for their moment; that the students are strumming guitars and reading forbidden books; or that gravel voiced dissidents are holding forth in smoky backrooms.

But I don't know. And if they are, I don't fancy their chances.

Nuclear tensions

Inside North Korea

Divided peninsula

See also:

12 Feb 02 | Country profiles
07 May 02 | Asia-Pacific
06 May 02 | Asia-Pacific
29 Apr 02 | Asia-Pacific
10 Apr 02 | Asia-Pacific
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