independent

Wednesday 16 April 2014

My bizarre three days spent in eerie, surreal North Korea

In 2001 Miriam Donohoe was the first Irish journalist to get a visa allowing her to visit the reclusive state. Here she recounts her experience and reckons not much has changed

North Koreans dance in front of the Monument to the Foundation of the Workers’ Party in Pyongyang as they celebrate the 20th anniversary of late leader Kim Jong-il's election as chairman of North Korea's National Defence Commission

FROM the moment I set foot in Pyongyang, capital of North Korea, it was clear I had entered one of the most isolated countries in the world. Travelling under escort from the grim, almost deserted airport to the city centre, it was unsettling to see wide streets with no traffic, servile-looking people going about their daily lives in eerie silence, and shops with no customers. No happy, smiling, children's faces.

The current crisis in North Korea has brought memories flooding back of the three surreal days I spent in this hermit state in May 2001. I was the first Irish journalist to secure a visa to this isolated, reclusive, country, as part of a group who were covering a visit there by a high- powered EU delegation.

I was curious and excited about the prospect of seeing at first hand what life was like in a country where people were reportedly controlled and brainwashed and given little opportunity to think for themselves.

We were told, in advance, that like all visitors from the West, especially journalists, we could expect to be treated with suspicion and disdain.

Hanyong, a handsome 25-year-old lecturer who taught Thai in the Foreign College in Pyongyang, (at least that's what he told me), was my almost ever-present 'escort' during my stay. He was courteous and respectful but stressed that at no time was I to wander off on my own.

We were checked into the Koryo Hotel in the centre of Pyongyang, one of three grey and dismal hotels Western visitors were confined to in the city at that time. We were told to go to our rooms for a rest, even though it was only mid-day, and to wait to be called down to the lobby. The room had a very old TV and two state channels which played music and ran film of North Korean soldiers.

Our group was given armbands to identify us as foreign press and was warned to wear them at all times.

After our 'rest', we were brought on a tour of the city centre. North Korea is one of the last remaining Stalinist regimes, ruled with an iron hand by the Kim dynasty. The public adoration of the then North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, known as 'Dear Leader' and his late father, Kim Il-sung, known as 'Great Leader', was in evidence everywhere we turned.

Millions of dollars had been spent on the showpiece city centre with grandiose buildings, over-the-top statues and countless monuments paying homage to the two leaders in a country where possibly millions were starving at the time.

At one 30-metre bronze statue of the deceased 'Great Leader', a group of primary school children marched, bowed reverently and quickly marched away again.

This show of adoration was obviously set up for the visiting media.

So was the ice cream vendor handing out ice-creams to well dressed young children with smiles pasted on their faces at a street junction.

Hanyong tried to tell us that North Korean children were treated very well and this was an example of the kindness shown to them by the authorities.

At an arranged visit to No 1 Senior Middle School, we saw how North Korea's schools were the breeding ground for instilling loyalty to their leaders. A 14ft-by-12ft colour portrait of Kim senior and junior hung in the hallway, while every classroom also had pictures of father and son. One pupil told us Kim Il-sung was as important to the state as the Sun.

During English class, we were treated to students reading passages from a text book about the American enemy and the dangers of the West.

No foreign television, books or newspapers were allowed. There were no billboard advertisements for Western consumer goods, not a trace of McDonald's, Coca-Cola, or a mobile-phone company.

The only advertisements were for this reclusive regime.

On the second morning of our stay I managed to slip out of the hotel while Hanyong wasn't looking. I turned right from the main door not knowing where I was going.

It felt eerie strolling down a big boulevard with few people, and no cars or buses. Nobody made eye contact with me on the street.

I stepped into a five-storey department store called Yokjon. Shelves were stocked with hundreds of the same items – dated-looking televisions, out-of-fashion clothing and household items. There were only a handful of customers. With blond hair I stood out like a sore thumb and people seemed afraid of me.

It wasn't long before I felt a firm hand on my shoulder. "Please come back with me to the hotel. Not only will you be in trouble, but I will be in trouble too," Hanyong said.

The next generation of Kim is now in control, Kim Jong-un, a young and still relatively untested new leader who is attempting to consolidate his power.

Tension is high in the region as he threatens a nuclear strike against the enemy, south Korea, and the United States and its allies in the region.

From what I read nothing has changed in North Korea since my visit almost 12 years ago.

There is still no Coca Cola or McDonalds, and the extent of famine is unknown as access to North Korea is so restricted.

No doubt the next generation of children are being brainwashed too.

Irish Independent

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