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Last Updated: Saturday, 18 September, 2004, 11:05 GMT 12:05 UK
North Korea: On the face of it
The BBC's James Robbins
By James Robbins
BBC world affairs correspondent in North Korea

The standard of living appears to be rising in North Korea, but is everything quite as it seems?

Statue of the late head of state Kim Il-sung
The late Great Leader Kim Il-sung shaped politics for almost 50 years

I did not want to stare, but I did want to know if anybody was actually buying anything.

We were in Department Store Number One, Pyongyang.

There was a lot of activity at the counter. Bottles were being pushed across it.

A woman had her handbag open, as if to pay. But the drama being played out for us visitors seemed frozen, or at least the action never quite reached its climax, as far as I could tell.

No money appeared from the woman's hand hovering over her bag. The man next to her fiddled with the bottles, rearranged them on the counter, but never actually packed them, or picked them up.

I was aware they were looking at me, looking at them.

Their smiles too were fixed, almost desperate, willing me to look away, to lose interest.

I am fairly sure there was no sale, that the shop did not have to give up any of its precious stock.

If the goods here were props in an elaborate piece of political theatre - to persuade us that stories of critical shortage in North Korea are not true - then we were proving to be far too attentive an audience.

This was the cue for one of our minders to distract me, and move me on with a polite and gentle push.

Smoke and mirrors

Sale or no sale, and I really cannot be quite sure, a diplomat who was with us told me several interesting things.

Foreign Office minister Bill Rammell, left, tours a North Korean department store
Bill Rammell opened talks on North Korea's human rights record

First, there really was more on the shelves than there had been a year ago - more basic plastic bowls, a few more tins of fish well-spaced under glass counters.

Second, the lights were on for us, in particular for Britain's Foreign Office Minister, Bill Rammell.

Normally, I was told, this shop - a rarity in itself - would be in semi-darkness. There is simply so little power in North Korea it is very strictly rationed.

The day before it was a goat farm with no goats. The only billy to be seen was painted above the doorway as we went into a farm building.

The goats, we were told, had been taken indoors elsewhere on the farm, to keep them out of the torrential rain.

There was no doubting the rain. Excellent, deep drainage channels - lined with large stones - were racing with muddy water a metre deep, water cascading down the slopes of the farm.

But apart from the weather, it was always hard to take anything else at face value.

Deterioration

I had stumbled into a parallel universe.

It had taken 12 hours of flying to get to North Korea from London, and yet I felt I had got no further than East Germany in the 1970s.

Everywhere, the unrelenting grey-black of poured concrete - four and five-storey blocks of flats. The blocks were chipped, battered and peeling. They were shapeless, formless buildings that looked more like prison blocks than family homes.

North Korean army personnel
North Korea is renowned for its rigid state-controlled system

Running between them, rusting trams and trolley-buses, but no cars, not even vans.

Wide city roads which must once have been crowded were all but empty. Every so often, a great cut-out hammer and sickle attached to a wall, or a slogan praising the forward march of revolution.

The whole country, or all that we were able to see at any rate, looked as if it had broken down, with no prospect of repair.

You could see when the glory days had ended, when the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union collapsed.

No more guaranteed markets then for North Korea's shoddy goods, and no more big investment from sympathetic communist neighbours either.

Nuclear scare

It is extraordinary that this utterly rigid regime has survived so long, until you consider the total repression that stifles all opposition.

Site of construction work near Samsu
Officials said the mystery cloud came from this construction site

Reports of huge labour camps dotted across the country for political prisoners filter out from defectors.

When Britain's minister challenged his North Korean counterparts, they laughed off terrible torture allegations, but they did concede that forced labour is an integral part of what they call "rehabilitation".

Extracting that much was a bit of a breakthrough, but North Korea has a not-so-secret weapon to deter any outsider even toying with the idea of regime change.

So, to complete our surreal few days, a nuclear scare.

We may never know what caused a huge cloud over mountains in the far north. Neighbouring countries are so paranoid, understandably, that it was soon labelled a mushroom cloud.

Nothing in North Korea is as it seems.

I had gone there expecting to come out much better informed. Reporters like to believe that.

I may know a little more now, having been there, but then again...

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 18 September, 2004 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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