‘The sun always shines in Korea,’ one of our two compulsory guides declares. We have nicknamed her the Laughing Policeman. Not only does she never smile, but – being a state-sponsored guide – her job is to keep an eye not just on us but on anyone with whom we come into contact, which includes the other guide.
Her comment tells you all you need to know about the delusion underpinning daily life in North Korea. Firstly, the sun is most definitely not shining. Instead, the drab concrete buildings of Pyongyang glower under a grey sky. It was the colour of the sky that prompted our initial question about whether North Korea enjoys different climatic seasons. We are genuinely interested. Yet our curiosity is fobbed off with a blatant fabrication. Secondly, we are in the only part of the world which continues to insist that Korea is still unified.
We are holidaying (and I do ask myself whether I need to place that word in ironic quotation marks) in a place known internationally as The Hermit Kingdom. But with its doublethink, denial and propaganda, my husband and I have dubbed it The Truman Show. Everything feels stage-managed. In the capital, Pyongyang, shop assistants switch on their store lights as you enter, to reveal sparsely filled glass counters of stamps or posters, only to then switch them off again to save precious electricity before we’ve even left the building. Locals in blue Mao-like suits walk the pavements as if choreographed. And clumps of tourists travel on the underground – in theory to see real North Koreans going about their daily routine – but only ever between Puhung and Yongwang stations. There is also no advertising on the walls or in the streets. All is for air-brushed show.
We follow cars and minibuses carrying couples or parties from other countries visiting monuments, more monuments and the stamp shop. No local ever meets your eye. Instead you only bump into other tourists as you are all chaperoned around the carefully controlled itinerary. In the countryside, the fields alongside the highway taking you directly to the Demilitarized Zone, (the strip of land running across the 38th parallel which acts as a buffer between North and South Korea) are immaculate and abundant with crops. Back in Pyongyang we’re forbidden from taking photos of thin-looking farmers perched on top of a battered truck full of logs. And at the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum in Pyongyang, our second guide looks astonished when I confess to being uninterested in war.
The stilted choreography of life in North Korea hits home most at the Mass Games, a breathtaking cross between the UK’s Royal Tournament and the opening of the Sochi Olympics. Thousands of school children are creepily pose-perfect in synchronised displays of dance, gymnastics and tableaux depicting events from the country’s history. We see no fat children. We see no disobedient children. Disciplined is not the word. We decide on the term ‘brain-washed’.
It isn’t just children who take part in the Mass Games, but it seems like it, because everyone in the country is so infantlised. The hero-worship of Kim Il-Sung, the leader who died in 1994 and grandfather of Kim Jong-Un, the current leader, speaks of a nation cowed in the belief that without strong leadership they will die. Most tourists have gained entry to North Korea on tours arranged by companies in China, and a pre-tour briefing in Beijing not only stresses the need for tourists to respect their Korean hosts (which translates as a hope that no one will try to convert the locals) but also requests that no journalists ever write up their trips. The paranoia in the country is deeply ingrained.
Two moments stand out in our four long days in North Korea. Firstly, our visit to Kim Il-Sung’s enormous mausoleum prompts the one crack in the Laughing Policeman’s stoic demeanour. To pay our respects, as advised in advance, my husband and I have shed our touristy garb and are wearing something more chic and contemporary, chinos and a Liberty tie for him, Louboutins and a Molly dress for me.
The Laughing Policeman always carries a fake Chanel handbag, inviting the question, how does she know this is remotely covetable, if no-one is allowed to know anything about the outside world? At the sight of our outfits she suddenly comes alive. What are your outfits called? She grills me. What are they made of? Where did you buy them? What sort of events would you wear them to, at home? Do you wear them to work? How much do they cost?’ Her change of tone, and her immense curiosity in us as people from another place, is abrupt and admittedly short-lived. But it is so genuine and so ordinary – how many times have women from different cultures bonded over clothing? – that one cannot help but feel that deep down, despite the brain-washing and the regimented life, ordinary North Koreans long to interact as much as we do.
The second memorable event takes place on our final day, a Sunday. We are taken for a walk in Pyongyang’s park. It is meant to be a quick stroll, but at one point we meet a group of elderly locals. We watch enchanted as a sort of teadance takes place, under a pavilion, the men in short brown jackets, the women in pleasant skirts. One chap, cockier (braver?) than the rest can see us laughing and smiling and asks me to dance. You can feel the Laughing Policeman tense up. But hey, I love dancing. Who’s going to stop me?
And so I step forward and start to try to dance along to music I have never heard, with steps I have never learned. But the chap, as well as being quite cocky, is also a very good dancer, very clean in his lines. I find him very easy to follow and before long, I can anticipate the tune, the steps and the feel of the dance. He and I are dancing beautifully together. Everyone on the dance-floor is half-watching, on-lookers are clapping. We dance three dances. Our second guide is loving it, and even the Laughing Policeman is beginning to thaw. I finally bow a good-bye and we continue our stroll.
But word has got around the park. Other groups of local dancers want to find out about this tourist who joined in. And we want to meet them, these locals who are so obviously longing to make proper, spontaneous connections with strangers.
This is why we must travel to North Korea. Yes, the money we spent probably ended up in the state coffers. Yes, we were on the receiving end of the most dreadful propaganda (did you know North Korea actually won the Korean war…?) and in some sense simply had to suck it up for the sake of our guides who would be treated harshly were our behavior to shame them. But on that Sunday afternoon, I made a genuine connection with a group of strangers, communicating through dance, which I shall never forget.
Twenty-four hours after the ‘sunshine’ comment we are driving – crawling would be a better word – from our hotel to the airport. We have just been told, by the now smiling Policeman, that although we paid for our tour some months back, they haven’t got around to buying our return air tickets. The fog, exacerbated by pollution from the nearby factories, is so thick around us that we cannot see the end of the bonnet of the car. And for one scary hour, until last-minute tickets are miraculously produced (cue much forced laughter all round) we imagine we might be trapped in a country locked in its skewed pathology.
And yet, we are relational creatures. We long to connect. We owe it to the North Korean people to reach out to them and show them, by our kindness, our patience, our interest in them and yes, maybe also in our materialistic chinos and Liberty ties, that there is a fascinating world out there beyond their borders, one worth engaging with, if only out of curiosity. Bridges have been built on less.