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Saturday, 1 September, 2001, 14:44 GMT 15:44 UK
Life in the secret state
A North Korean soldier looking out over the South Korean border
North Koreans are isolated from the outside world
By Brian Barron in Pyongyang

Neatly lined up at Pyongyang airport is an imposing fleet of Soviet-era jets in the blue and white livery of North Korea's airline. The only drawback is that most cannot fly anywhere.

They are gradually being cannibalised for mechanical bits and pieces because Russia, to which North Korea owes billions of roubles, is not willing to supply any more spare parts.


Even on this, my fourth visit to North Korea, it is hard to do justice to the extraordinary mix of the bizarre, the absurd, the sad and the sinister

But the country's dictator, Kim Jong Il - the only leader in communist history to inherit power from his father - has an eye for cosmetic detail. The planes are artfully arranged to impress visitors.

The same obsession with appearance surfaced in the capital the other week during a visit by a South Korean delegation.

While they stayed in a central hotel, Pyongyang's street lights burned brightly. As soon as they left the plug was pulled, and the lights dimmed to almost black-out levels.

Life was back to normal, and so was the capital's hand-to-mouth existence, with power and fuel shortages.

Even on this, my fourth visit to North Korea, it is hard to do justice to the extraordinary mix of the bizarre, the absurd, the sad and the sinister.

Dead head of state

The revolutionary leader Kim Il Sung has been dead seven years, but he remains head of state. All over the land, vast shrines have been built in his memory.

Like Lenin and Ho Chi Minh, he has been embalmed and lies on view in a huge mausoleum.

Kim Il Sung's mausoleum
Despite being dead, Kim II Sung is still the head of state

Along with thousands of others we entered the marble portals and, soon after boarding an immensely long escalator, we struggled to keep our balance as our shoes were compulsorily cleaned by rotating brushes underfoot.

Then we had to walk through an x-ray system - the biggest I have ever seen - presumably looking for cameras or weapons, though who would be armed in a mausoleum?

Several escalators later, we were deposited in the building's gloomy bowels.

Urged on by our official minders, we half-ran, half-walked through a wheezing, sucking contraption that plucked at our clothes - in effect a giant vacuum cleaner designed to purge us of any contamination.

Inner sanctum

In this sterilised state, we were quick-stepped past military honour guards and, buffeted by the recurring, thunderous chords of a melancholic funeral march, we found ourselves in the frigid windowless inner sanctum, bathed in an eerie red light, with the General Father, as he is known, horizontal under a crimson shroud.

Kim Junior
Kim Junior has just acquired the same Great Leader title as his father

"We're not a religious people," whispered Miss Yom, our government guide. "But we believe the General Father was a god."

"And what about his son?" I asked, referring to Kim Junior. Miss Yom had no doubts. "Yes, he too is a god."

As we left the mausoleum an entire division of soldiers, men and women, were advancing along the incoming escalator for their mandatory glimpse of North Korea's almighty.

Lack of information

Most northerners have no accurate knowledge of the outside world, of the fact that their country has fallen 30 or 40 years behind their southern neighbours - and indeed most of Asia. They are forbidden to talk to foreigners.

Every Friday is what is known to Pyongyang's tiny diplomatic community as No Contact Day because civil servants in institutions like the Foreign Ministry and the Overseas Trade Ministry are prohibited from any discussions, even on the phone.


By normal yardsticks, North Korea seems in slow-motion collapse

Instead they must toil on construction sites or community projects. For diplomats, this is certainly a hardship post.

What they dread most is toothache. The shortage of medical supplies means dental extraction will be done without anaesthetic.

Slow-motion collapse

By normal yardsticks, North Korea seems in slow-motion collapse.

Outside the capital work teams try to repair flood-damaged bridges with chisels and pick-axes, lacking heavy equipment. Around the innumerable shrines to the Kim dynasty, people cut the lawns with household scissors.

Any major road through the countryside has a large quota of broken-down lorries and cars - and this in a state where there are very few vehicles and none privately owned.

In the capital there are more bicycles in evidence these days, but recently Kim Junior, who has just acquired the same Great Leader title as his dead father, announced that women should not ride bikes. "They are not agile enough" he said. "It is too dangerous for their safety. "

And this is from a dictator whose military scientists are developing long-range missiles!

The sense of national decline is palpable, but that does not mean the police state's days are numbered. Control is absolute. So is the indoctrination, which starts in the nursery.

Propaganda machine

At seven every morning a siren wails across the concrete apartment blocks. It is the wake-up call courtesy of the ruling Korean Workers Party. Moments later the propaganda loud-speaker vans start grinding out their fiction.

Food aid
North Korea relies on food aid from abroad

Nearly two million people are allowed to live in Pyongyang - I stress allowed because every single one has to be vetted by the party.

In one corner of the vast space of Kim Square army bands rehearse for the next parade. In another thousands of child gymnasts practise mass routines.

The Kim dynasty has borrowed a technique from an earlier tyranny - that of Ancient Rome. Bread and circuses was the formula that kept emperors on their thrones.

In North Korea today there is less bread, because decades of misjudged agricultural policies have taken their toll. But there are plenty of circuses of a political kind.

These are steely, stoical people, now struggling to survive the sixth year of food shortages. The irony is they are dependent on shiploads of grain donated to the World Food Programme by countries Pyongyang detests - most notably Japan, South Korea and the United States.


Not even Chairman Mao's China during the brain-washed days of the Cultural Revolution matches the obsession with the Kim personality cult

Every day of the week, the regime re-fights old conflicts. In the capacious basement of the war museum, dozens of American tanks and heavy guns are proudly shown to visitors.

"We captured these from the Yankee killers in the Korean War," says the girl soldier escorting us.

Not even Chairman Mao's China during the brain-washed days of the Cultural Revolution 30 years ago matches the obsession with the Kim personality cult the northerners lavish on their autocrats.

Every night the only TV channel devotes most of its output to documentaries eulogising father and son. News as we understand it in the West does not exist.

Museum of gifts

At Marvellous Mountain, 100 miles north of Pyongyang, we were taken to two large museums, separated by a few acres of parkland and flowerbeds. Each is devoted solely to displaying gifts received by father and son from around the world.

Kim Senior's depository is so big - at least 150 rooms - that it contains an armour-plated train given to him by his patron, Stalin, in the late 1940s. No one could explain to us how, rather like a ship in a bottle, the train was placed inside the building.

Another chamber has a convoy of limousines, polished and gleaming, each donated to North Korea's founding father by a succession of yesterday's strongmen - Malenkov, Bulganin and Brezhnev.

A starving child
Unofficial pictures show the reality of North Korea's starving children

But not all donors have their heart in this zany business. There is a gift from an Australian delegation which looks suspiciously like a boomerang from Sydney airport's gift shop.

Still, it is reverently accorded its own glass display case near the silver-plated sub-machine gun presented to the Great Leader by Romania's executed despot, Ceaucescu.

The climax came in an enormous hall. We knew it was an important moment because the guides insisted on rolling down our sleeves, rather like a fussy cleric telling women to cover up before entering church.

Crowning glory

Facing us was a life-size waxwork dummy of the late Kim Senior, clad in a grey suit, glassily eyeing the future.

"For 10 years I have been hoping to come here," said Mr Lee, another of our official minders. "This is wonderful, truly amazing." As he spoke tears glistened in his eyes.

Exhausted, we reeled into Kim Junior's palace of goodies. It was on the same epic scale. A Korean soldier with a chromium-plated AK47 stood guard as the towering bronze entrance doors slid open.

Inside, high-ceiling corridors stretched away almost as far as the eye could see. Densely packed Korean tour groups crisscrossed the labyrinth - they had been bussed in from all over the country under the Propaganda Ministry's indoctrination programme.

Our spirits sank when the museum guide told us it could take two days to visit everything in Kim Junior's kitsch emporium, which is topped up with newly arrived gifts every month.

Then the unpredictable happened - the lights flickered and went out. For a precious two or three minutes one was alone with one's thoughts in the darkness. Bliss indeed in a land where individual needs are submerged by the sound of obediently marching feet and the mad adulation a despotic dynasty demands.

See also:

29 Aug 01 | Asia-Pacific
Britain moves into Kim's secret state
16 May 01 | Asia-Pacific
Plea to help North Korean refugees
16 Jan 01 | Asia-Pacific
North Korean defections up
02 Sep 00 | Asia-Pacific
Korean communists go home
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