Sat, Mar 01, 2014 - Page 4 News List

The baffling view from a North Korean tour bus

The Guardian, PYONGYANG

A stunningly beautiful, 20-something woman dressed in black performs her death wail in the main hall of an obscenely luxurious palace in central Pyongyang.

Her face seems to contort as her voice breaks over and over again. Speaking in a monotone, a guide translates the weeper’s words into English.

“The departed supreme leader’s love will fill our hearts for eternity,” the guide says.

The voice just keeps going and in a glass cage in the middle of the room lies the embalmed body of former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.

The weeper is preaching the everlasting omnipotence of North Korea’s second leader, expressing the grief of a nation more than two years after his death.

Everyone in the mausoleum bows their heads before the body — or perhaps the wax doll — flanked by North Korean army officers at attention. Anything else would be intolerable and would result in immediate arrest.

It is all part of the baffling experience that awaits the visitor to the world’s most closed country, which was recently compared to Nazi Germany. Mass dancing, synchronized swimming, ritual bowing and weeping all are de rigueur on certain days of the year when the country’s first family are to be remembered and revered. Otherwise public spaces are vast and eerie.

Visitors are accompanied and corralled, all the time, everywhere. There are clear, continuous instructions about when photography is permitted and when it is not.

On one occasion a guide discovers unauthorized filming of two elderly women on the outskirts of Pyongyang. Their backs are bent at 90 degress, each weighted down by a bundle of dry grass and fire wood, as they sit down to rest.

“What would anyone need those pictures for?” the guide hisses.

In a bookshop in central Pyongyang, where the stock, by the way, consists only of books by one of the leaders or written as a tribute to them, two staff members witness an unfamiliar, foreign customer folding a copy of the Pyongyang Times and placing it under his arm. They instantly begin gesturing at the visitor and snap at the accompanying guide, who flushes red and gets a wild look in his eyes.

“Take the newspaper out and unfold it,” the guide prompts. “Unfold it.”

No image of any of the leaders may be folded, rolled up or otherwise treated disrespectfully and the front page of the Pyongyang Times always carries a picture of the leader.

At Kim Il-sung Square in central Pyongyang, groups of about 100 people wait for their turn, then climb the steps leading to the 20m bronze statues of the first leader, the eternal president Kim Il-sung, and his successor, Kim Jong-il. At the feet of the two statues they then bow in unison.

Then the next group comes forward. Then the next and so it continues for two days.

How would they, or any North Korean, respond if asked about the prison camps?

The question is finally put, with an attempt at a naive tone and a smile, to one of the guides: What would the police here do should they come across any robbers? Are there jails?

“Of course,” the guide replies. “All countries have jails and prisons, but here they’re not really prisons, they are...”

“Labor camps,” she is interrupted.

“Well, those who have committed serious crimes go away. They go to live far away, I think, they get to work hard and are re-educated. They learn how to think in the right way,” she says.

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