Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Inside North Korea


Sun men trick way into secretive state where lights go out at 11pm, gum is given as change and no one knows Jacko's dead

Sun's Simon and Alex
Duty ... Sun's Simon and Alex lay flowers and bow in front of statues of Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung as expected by the regime
Published: 30th May 2012

THE SUN can today reveal what it is like living in the world’s most secretive country — North Korea.

Posing as businessmen, Sun men Alex Peake and Simon Jones spent a week inside the poverty-stricken state, ruled by the most oppressive regime on the planet.

They got visas through a contact in China working for British-based Lupine Travel. They even set up fake business addresses and email accounts for the applications — although at no point did they tell Lupine Travel or anybody else on the trip they were Sun journalists.

They entered by crossing the border from China into the last Stalinist state on the planet.

At the checkpoint on the North Korean side, the pair were ushered off their coach by gun-toting soldiers in peaked caps and khaki uniforms bearing the Communist badge.

But they were let in... and were about to get an unprecedented glimpse behind the world’s last “iron curtain”.

AS we headed from the border post to a hotel in the crumbling town of Sinuiju we could see six-storey buildings dotted along the banks of the river.

From neighbouring China they looked like nice flats. It was a sham, they were all windowless and empty.

Despot Kim Jong Il had ordered the “homes” to be built to make it appear to the Chinese that North Koreans were living well.

Shut out ... the metro has chandeliers, but people can’t afford to travelIn fact, many of the people here are starving.

Apart from the grey blocks, the only other buildings along the river were watchtowers, manned 24 hours a day by soldiers under orders to shoot anyone attempting to flee for a better life.

It may have been less than a mile from the bright lights of China but it felt like we’d arrived on another planet.

The town was dingy and bleak with no signs of shops or restaurants or any commerce whatsoever.

We drove past either drab grey government buildings or crumbling blocks of flats with paint peeling off the outside walls.

Locals all wore a badge with the late Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il, or the Great Comrade, his father Kim Il Sung, and walked slowly or cycled along the streets.

Propaganda ... blue van belts out party message

Nobody was smiling and most people were walking alone in a zombie-like state, staring at the floor. As the bus passed, many stood and stared at us as we peered out of the window.

We then took a 200-mile journey on a 1940s train to the capital Pyongyang, a six-hour journey.

For miles there was nothing but paddy fields with people knee-deep in water working. As the train chugged past they stopped and looked up to stare. We waved, but nobody waved back.

Every so often we passed through a small town or village and no matter how tiny it was — wherever there were people living — there was a colourful giant mosaic of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il or both.

North Korea ... symbolism

Monuments to the two leaders and their beloved ruling Workers’ Party were erected in the remotest parts of the countryside. We had been warned our rooms could be bugged long before we arrived at the 47-floor Yanggakdo Hotel. It is one of two hotels in Pyongyang the regime use to house the handful of tourists.

They favour the Yanggakdo because it is on an island in the middle of the city, making it impossible for people to wander off without government minders.

Even so, armed guards patrol the only bridge off the island. When we arrived, our guides checked us in as we stood in the massive foyer looking in horror at the giant turtle that was swimming around in the tiny aquarium. The hotel, built in 1995, has six lifts — although none has a button for the fifth floor. Officials say Level Five is where the staff live.

Helping out ... Sun reporter Alex gets to talk to English language students at the Grand People’s Study Theatre

Others are convinced it is where government agents spy on guests, listening in on their conversations.

Every room has a TV. Airtime on one channel is filled with pro-regime propaganda including hours of footage of new leader Kim Jong-un watching military displays. The bars in the hotel mainly sold the surprisingly good North Korean lager at 50p a bottle.

Staff flatly refused tips and instead of change we were given two pieces of loose chewing gum. In the city, thousands of ordinary North Koreans pay daily tribute to Kim Jong Il, who died last December. The mere mention of his name causes them to burst into tears in grief.

Holding a bunch of plastic flowers — as ordered by our guides — I waited my turn to lay them at the feet of a 65ft bronze statue. The Mansuda Grand Monument was unveiled following the Dear Leader’s death. It stands next to a statue of his father Kim Il Sung.

Don’t relish this ... burgers are available only at the Youth Restaurant but despite officials’ claims they taste nothing like a genuine Big Mac

Thousands of worshippers, mainly schoolchildren, are taken to the site to lay plastic flowers at their “divine” metal feet.

Comically, we were banned from taking pictures too close to the statues in case we cut any body part out of the frame. Our guides told us it is seen as a “very grave offence”. Despite desperately fighting against “evil” western ways, there is a burger bar and pizza restaurant in Pyongyang. We went for a burger at the “Youth Restaurant”.

Officials say the burgers were modelled exactly on Big Macs. But God only knows what the meat is, there was no way it was beef.

According to a guide that met us at the giant doors of The Grand People’s Study Theatre, the building holds more than 25 million books. If true, that would make it the largest library in the world.

Not so happy meal ... Youth Restaurant

We asked one guide about America and without hesitation he clenched his fists and began shouting “down with USA”. In the music room, he was bursting with pride when he produced a Beatles album on CD and proceeded to blast out Yellow Submarine.

All three of the guides knew The Beatles and liked the music. Amazingly though, none had heard of John Lennon, Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney or George Harrison.

The only other western star they had heard of was Michael Jackson — but were shocked to discover that he was dead.

Deep underneath the streets of Pyongyang is the most lavish underground system in the world.

As millions of North Koreans starve, surviving on a diet of rice and potato handouts from the government, commuters in the capital can wait for their trains under gleaming gold and crystal chandeliers while looking at beautiful propaganda paintings and murals.

New leader ... Kim Jong-un

The Pyongyang Metro claims to have two lines and boasts 17 stations — but it is believed there are in fact only three stops.

And only privileged Party members can ride on the green and red East German trains, many still with German graffiti on the side.

Rumours are rife the hardline authorities fill the metro stations with actors when foreign tour groups visit because normal citizens cannot afford to travel.

For most of the 24 million population day-to-day life is a constant struggle. Nobody in North Korea is paid a wage. Workers get a property, almost always a grotty flat.

Back in time ... a girl student at the Grand People’s Study Theatre uses an old computer

With the accommodation comes free electricity although demand means it often cuts out.

Even in Pyongyang most of the city is plunged into darkness at 11pm. Only the statues of Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung and monuments to the regime are constantly lit.

Less than one per cent of North Koreans own a car so traffic jams are non-existent. But both in the cities and countryside blue vans with megaphones patrol the streets.

They blare out a relentless message: “Work harder.”

Sun man Alex ... with one of his North Korean guides

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