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Last Updated: Wednesday, 18 April 2007, 14:18 GMT 15:18 UK
North Korea diary: Day three
The BBC's Charles Scanlon was given a rare opportunity to visit North Korea. He has just returned and sends his third and final diary entry from his three-day trip to the secretive Communist nation.

North Korean village of Gijungdong near Panmunjom in the demilitarised zone (file photo)
Impoverished North Korea is in sharp contrast to the rich south

Today we're heading to the demilitarised zone. But the first challenge is to get to the hotel lobby.

We're on the 42nd floor of what must be Pyongyang's tallest building. The lifts are not synchronised - they come all at once and then stop a lot on the way down.

It's a long slow journey. Many of the floors we pass are dark and seemingly uninhabited.

Foreign residents say the hotel is shut up for much of the year. It's been dusted down for foreigners invited to attend the Great Leader's birthday celebration.

"I wonder who maintains the lifts," muses a fellow traveller. There's nervous laughter all round.

He has two questions for me: What will it take to improve relations with the US? And do South Koreans really want unification as badly as North Koreans?

There is a military checkpoint at the entrance to the city and then we're out into the countryside, heading south.

The villages are set well back from the road - barracks-style with walls around them. It's sometimes possible to spot giant murals of the Great Leader in the main square.

It's the beginning of spring and there are green shoots in the fields.

Oxen are being used in places for ploughing and transport. Women are washing clothes in the rivers. The living standards are reminiscent of rural China 20 years ago.

Unseen 'committee'

We're just a few kilometres from South Korea - one of the world's most technologically-advanced countries.

Goats are much in evidence but there's no sighting of the rumoured super-bunnies, specially bred giant rabbits, which are the latest scheme to solve North Korea's endemic food problem.

Arirang Festival, picture from Korean Central News Agency
Charles Scanlon was on an official visit for the Arirang Festival

The colonel at the border is very chatty. He cheerfully denounces the United States for breaking agreements on the nuclear weapons programme.

He finds out I live in South Korea and jumps into our vehicle as we drive to the border village of Panmunjom.

He has two questions for me. What will it take to improve relations with the United States? And do the South Koreans really want unification as badly as the North Koreans?

I answer that most would rather wait indefinitely than pay the staggering costs involved.

Picture ban

We've formed a good relationship with our three guides/minders/interpreters. They're young and inexperienced and rather out of their depth.

Every night they remonstrate on the phone with the unseen "committee" that's handling our visit.

They're trying to accommodate our numerous requests and changes to the official schedule and our tendency to disappear at night to meet up with diplomats and other resident foreigners.

They've been told not to let us take pictures from the vehicle, not to stop the car except at pre-arranged points and not to film anything or talk to anyone that has not been set up in advance.

They come to us at the bar at midnight looking mortified.

The "committee" has changed its mind and denied our request for a two-day visa extension - we must leave on the morning flight to Beijing.

They've been friendly and curious - a contrast to my guides a decade ago, who rarely asked questions and boasted about their country's superiority in all things from writing operas to mass callisthenics.

These young people knew more about the reality of their situation, but there's no sign of any diminution in their respect and awe for the dynasty that rules every aspect of their lives.

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