Sat, Mar 01, 2014 - Page 4 News List

The baffling view from a North Korean tour bus

The Guardian, PYONGYANG

“Do you have many such camps?” she is asked.

“I don’t know. Maybe, but they are far away. I have only heard about them somewhere, sometime. Can I help you with any other information?” she asks.

Maybe that is how it is. Although the guides are part of the propaganda machine, they only get the information that the leader decides they need. Fragile rumors become the only source of information.

Apart from the odd nationalist propaganda poster and the very scarce shop signs, there are no written words. Not a single poster, not a trace of advertising, no magazines, books or brochures.

A city without written words or images — where every wall and every flat surface is completely empty — is a remarkable sight, but the country is not closed to foreigners, that is simply a rumor.

Depending on who you believe, between 1,500 and 5,000 people are allowed in as tourists every year. Journalists are not welcome.

On a road out of Pyongyang the situation becomes almost unbearable. Here, people shamble about pulling carts with hay, tree branches, old car batteries, plastic cans — anything they can find.

There are people on bicycles, riding seemingly aimlessly along a dirt embankment through the muddy fields. In the rice fields above, groups of women are digging and hacking at the earth.

“No pictures here,” the guide says.

As the guide and the driver take their visitors further south along a dirt road, moving at high speed, a man comes running, as if for his life, across a water-logged meadow, toward the road. He probably has nothing and sees some kind of hope in a passing vehicle.

The driver and guide ignore him.

Instead, the guide explains, there will be a short stop just up ahead. She then gets onto her authorized mobile phone and starts a subdued discussion in Korean.

A few kilometers down the road, on the outskirts of a village, something looks out of place.

A woman in a sparkling colored, traditional Korean dress and excessive makeup, not a spot of dirt on her, is playing volleyball with a man in a wedding suit. Three men in black jackets are standing watching the “wedding couple.” They laugh wildly as the guide prompts everyone off the bus.

“Look,” the guide rejoices. “Look how happy the beautiful couple is. Please take a lot of pictures of them. They want you to, they are proud.”

There is no doubt whatsoever that she believes in her heart that the photo opportunity has been a success, but the sky is just slightly brighter than the brown mud that covers the barren earth. The cold pierces through to the bones. There is no shelter, nowhere to go.

In front of a barracks young soldiers burn wooden chairs to try to get warm. A boy stops dead in his tracks at the side of the road.

He just stands there, staring, as if he will never move again.

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