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Monday, 14 February, 2000, 13:34 GMT
Breaking the ice in North Korea
South Korean soldiers on the border with North Korea
There has been mistrust between North and South Korea for decades
By Andrew Wood in North Korea

Children do not wave at tourist buses in North Korea. Or at least they did not wave at us when we waved at them.

And perhaps you cannot blame them. It was obvious the North Koreans did not want us to have any contact with ordinary people.

The road to the mountains was lined with barbed wire. Every 100 metres or so, stood a solitary soldier.

North Korea may not be most people's idea of a perfect place for a holiday - the isolated state, cut off from its southern neighbour since the start of the Korean War 50 years ago, is short of money, food and friends.

North Korea's bizarre form of communism and self-reliance has led it to poverty and widespread famine

But North Korea has allowed foreigners to join South Koreans on luxury cruises to the beautiful Kumgang mountains.

The trips are organised by Hyundai, one of South Korea's biggest companies, which has pioneered business links with North Korea.

It felt like arriving at the villain's secret base in a James Bond film

We had docked before dawn. I had got up early, to see the lights of North Korea. But the streets of the port of Changjon were dark, there were no cars, and I could only see three lights. And I think two of them were navigation aids for ships.

Film links

The other side was a different picture: A brand-new floodlit customs complex built by Hyundai.

As we disembarked, with the military-style buildings, the guards watching, the scurrying uniformed construction workers, it felt like arriving at the villain's secret base in a James Bond film.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-il
Kim Jong-il loves films
I kept thinking about films when I was North Korea.

Perhaps that is appropriate. It is a land of fantasy, a worker's paradise with its own peculiar paranoid Korean form of communism, called Juche, which stresses self-reliance.

Its leader is Kim Jong-il, who must be the first head of a communist country to inherit power from his father - the newspapers tell of rainbows appearing whenever he visits towns.

Kim Jong-il loves films. In the 1980s he got his secret agents to kidnap one of South Korea's leading actresses and her director husband to try to teach North Koreans more about making films.

And I thought of different films on the road to the mountains, one set at the end of the last world war.

There were lots of people walking across frozen rice fields. Their clothes were drab. They looked like refugees.

You can understand why North Koreans do not want photographs.

I saw bullock carts, a woman washing a pair of trousers in a hole in the ice of a frozen stream, people taking off their shoes and socks to cross a river.

We passed a school. The glass in the windows was such poor quality that it looked as though it had been made from sheets of sugar.

But what beautiful countryside. There are said to be 10,000 peaks in the Kumgang mountains. We walked for miles along river valleys, past icy waterfalls, and weird and strange rock formations.

'Dangerous misunderstandings'

I remembered a science-fiction story I had read at school - Election Day, I think it was called.

Rich tourists pay to travel back in time for dinosaur safaris. One man steps off the path, and accidentally treads on a butterfly. That causes a series of changes that cascade down the centuries.

When he returns to the present, it is a different present, things have changed for the worse. A dictator has won the election.

It must be the only country in the world where a grammatical mistake could get you sent to jail

I wanted to ask our North Korean guides - who seemed more like spies than helpers - if they had read it.

It seemed unlikely that they had, and it could have been a risky question. On an earlier trip a South Korean woman was jailed for a few days after she talked about North Korean defectors living in the South.

Even simple misunderstandings could be dangerous.

When talking about Kim Jong-il you have to use the most honorific forms of Korean - or face punishment. It must be the only country in the world where a grammatical mistake could get you sent to jail.

And the North Koreans seemed to be looking for offence.

A soldier was found with a ChocoPie - a type of South Korean chocolate covered marshmallow biscuit.

He said a tourist had thrown it from a bus. The entire convoy of buses was detained at the tourist complex while guards questioned passengers. No-one owned up.

We waited and waited and waited. Eventually one of the South Korean guides paid a fine in dollars and after a hour of delay we headed back to the ship.

Hyundai seems to be motivated by patriotism, not short-term profits.

It is losing millions on the tours at the moment. One Hyundai manager told me that all North Korea had supplied when building the tourist complex was sand, water and air.

The "Korean staff" in the tourist complex were from China.

The "North Korean" food was made from ingredients shipped in from the South. Optimists talked of blowing a hole in the border when Hyundai started the tours to the North. Instead, the Hyundai manager said, they had just put a pinprick in it.

One Hyundai manager told me that all North Korea had supplied when building the tourist complex was sand, water and air

He said unification could not be achieved in a few years, as he first thought, but would take decades.

But if the company realises its plans to build ski resorts and car factories in North Korea there is bound to be more contact, which might finally lure the country out of its isolation and suspicion.

And it might already be working a little. The film might yet have a happy ending.

On the coach, we passed some children playing on a frozen pond. They had made skates out of sticks and bits of wood, they were having a fantastic time. They were the first ordinary North Koreans I had seen smiling. I waved at them. They waved back.

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See also:

07 Feb 00 | Asia-Pacific
North Korea opens up to tourists
18 Sep 99 | Asia-Pacific
South to 'end' Korean cold war
13 Oct 99 | Americas
New strategy urged for North Korea
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