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Saturday, 28 October, 2000, 16:11 GMT 17:11 UK
Life in Pyongyang

By Richard Lister

It wasn't until I was a couple of hundred metres from the hotel that I felt I might get away with it.

My minder, Mr Li, was having a cigarette and looking the other way, when I sidled out of the lobby on my own.

This was strictly forbidden.

When we first arrived at the hotel, a North Korean official read us the riot act - we were here solely to cover Mrs Albright's visit, and nothing else.

We were not allowed to leave the hotel without official approval, and what he called a guide.

Neither were we allowed to take photographs without approval.

"Do not," he warned, "test our hospitality".


Pyongyang feels like a sort of Leninland - but Leninland at closing time

All of our minders spoke English and were happy to take us to the city's great monuments - but that was it.

Their main job was to stop us escaping from the hotel, which of course became the principal objective for us all.

Mr Li was a diminutive man in his thirties with a boyish face and an open smile which I saw only rarely.

Mostly he just looked worried and I was relieved to get away on my own.

Pyongyang feels like a slightly shabby Communist theme park - a sort of Leninland, but Leninland at closing time with only a few people drifting through the streets and the lights going out.

It's built on a monumental scale, an eight-lane boulevard cutting through forests of concrete apartment blocks, heroic statues in stone and bronze, and technicolour murals praising Kim Jong-il.

Empty streets


There is an antiquated public transport system with rattling electric trolley buses and, I discovered, a metro, with old East German trains complete with their original German graffiti.

A siren sounds at 7am, noon and midnight - work, eat and sleep.

At 8.15am precisely every morning, an all-girl marching band in electric blue uniforms plays rousing patriotic music at breakneck speed to inspire people as they begin their day.

But the people who live in Pyongyang seem ground down by the sterility of the place. They walk in silence, unsmiling.

The apartment buildings are small and cheerless, lit by dim bulbs or fluorescent strips.

The roads are virtually empty.

Free from Mr Li's constraints, I went to the main department store - a once grand building on four floors, its glass-topped counters filled with sad little displays - pencils; blue, plastic childrens shoes; and shampoo.

Treadle sewing machines were stacked alongside rusting stove-top irons and aluminium pans.

Cult of personality

Inevitably, on the top floor there was a large billboard with an old photograph of the so-called Great Leader, Kim Il-sung, buying something from one of the assistants.

The cult of personality in North Korea shifted from the Great Leader after his death in 1994 to his heir, the Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il.

Throughout Pyongyang there are billboards covered with photographs of Mr Kim giving guidance to plumbers, machine tool specialists, farmers and teachers.

There is no trade, it seems, in which he is not an expert.

I bought an English translation of his book, Guidance for Journalists, which is full of accounts of North Korean hacks weeping with joy while covering his official duties.

There is no pretence of objectivity here.

The advice on page 116 is typical: "It is advisable," it says, "that the newspapers carry articles in which they unfailingly hold the president in high esteem, adore him and praise him as the great revolutionary leader".

Flattery

The Pyongyang Times is the end result of all this.

It's basically a rundown of Mr Kim's daily agenda, with a lot of flattery thrown in for good measure.

We arrived the day before Mrs Albright was due.


Madeleine Albight meets North Korean children
I picked up a copy of the Times and, as you might have expected, given the historic visit to come, the front page banner headline read: Kim Jong-il visits catfish farm.

Remarkably, the state media didn't mention Mrs Albright's visit until the afternoon of her first day, and then it was given low-key treatment until she had met Mr Kim.

She appeared to make some important progress in their talks but this is very much a first step.

North Korea is a sad and broken place which won't easily be mended.

Even in Pyongyang, the nation's showplace, food appeared scarce.

One third of the population receives UN food aid, and a survey in 1998 found that almost two-thirds were chronically malnourished, or suffering from stunted growth.

Untold thousands have died over the past five years - we shall probably never know how many.

Liberated

For the South Korean journalists in our party, this was a heartbreaking visit to people who were their countrymen, but who might have been living on another planet.

Inevitably, Mr Li caught me returning to the hotel.

He wasn't happy but we were going soon anyway.

He sighed, and said wearily that journalists were very liberated people - a concept that seemed to trouble him.

As a memento, I gave him a baseball cap, with the BBC logo emblazoned on it.

He took it from me as if it was a piece of broken glass, but as we boarded the bus for the airport, he said cheerily that I should come again.

I'd like to, and I'd like to think that eventually, he might be able to visit me.

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See also:

24 Oct 00 | Asia-Pacific
Kim hails peace prize boost
24 Oct 00 | Asia-Pacific
N Korea's dramatic turnaround
23 Oct 00 | Asia-Pacific
In pictures: Mrs Albright's visit
24 Oct 00 | Asia-Pacific
Korean missile breakthrough
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