Thursday, 12 June 2014

Lovely hotels, terrific food and charming personal guides. The only downside: it's North Korea.

Way back in the 90s I was the Best Man at a cousin's wedding: a classy do in the grounds of a historic country house somewhere in Colchester. This particular cousin was and remains something of an intrepid traveller and is in the habit of traipsing off to some of the world's most far flung corners at the drop of a hat.

The spotlessly clean metro resplendent with chandeliers.
Following an incredible lunch, I was called upon to regale the assembled throng with the usual embarrassing anecdotes that is the Best Man's prerogative. I don't remember much of the speech other than my first line, which I've always thought a rather good opening line. If memory serves me correctly, it went something like this:

"Ladies and Gentlemen,

"Today marks a very sad day indeed...  for the economies of Bhutan, Madagascar and outer Mongolia. For I fear that now my cousin has tied the knot, his delightful wife will put an end to her husband's intrepid jaunts with his photographic paraphernalia, which have for so many years helped sustain these third world economies."

As it turned out, I couldn't have been further from the truth. Admittedly, my cousin and his good lady wife do take the usual holidays in civilised parts of the globe. But these are supplemented by regular jaunts to areas the average human being wouldn't touch with the longest of barge poles; expeditions that my cousin embarks on alone.

His most recent escapade was to that very peculiar country, North Korea; a country that the late, great Chris Hitchens described in the following terms:

'Unlike previous racist dictatorships, the North Korean one has actually succeeded in producing a sort of new species. Starving and stunted dwarves, living in the dark, kept in perpetual ignorance and fear, brainwashed into the hatred of others, regimented and coerced and inculcated with a death cult: this horror show is in our future, and is so ghastly that our own darling leaders dare not face it and can only peep through their fingers at what is coming.'

Hitchens, as you can gather, was not a big fan. But my cousin, having already taken trips to South Korea, was keen to see her Northern cousin with his own eyes.

In the unlikely event that you were interested in following in his footsteps, there are just two travel agents in the UK that can arrange such a trip: Lupine Travel and Regent Holidays, both of which deal with the Korean International Travel Company.

Once my cousin had arranged his trip he had to fly to Beijing to pick up his visa and then board a train - the K27 or the K28, which is a sleeper that goes all the way to Pyongyan. It's an extraordinary line that also connects China with Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan and Vietnam, and this particular section is used chiefly by Chinese diplomats.

On arriving at Pyongyan, my cousin was met by his two guides: two very courteous and and well dressed ladies who were fluent English speakers. They would have been members of the most privileged section of North Korean society. And for the following seven days these two would accompany my cousin everywhere except his bedroom and bathroom. Needless to say, the guided tour had to be rigidly adhered to; one could not venture off the beaten track. To do so would result in immediate repatriation at the very least. A couple of months ago a 24-year-old American was arrested for "rash behaviour" when going through customs, and he hasn't been released as this post goes to print. Sadly, his is not the only case. Kenneth Rae, another American has been held for more than a year for conducting a religious service, a crime for which he was arrested and sentenced to 15 years of hard labour for "subversion."

Apparently, the first thing every foreign visitor has to do before taking the official tour is to purchase at his own expense a bouquet of flowers, place them at the foot of the enormous 22 metre bronze statue of Kim Il Sung, and take a deep bow out of respect for the 'Dear' departed leader who lies in state here.

From then on, the tour was clearly a sanitised one. My cousin did not encounter anyone with anything other than a cheerful countenance. There was no evidence of starvation, severe poverty or human rights violations. But then, this, of course, is nothing more than a piece of state propaganda. In 1944 Adolf Hitler chose to show the world how nicely the Third Reich was caring for its Jews by housing them in a place called Theresiestadt. The film shows its inhabitants laughing and joyful, healthy and well-fed. Little did the world know then that Theresiestadt was in fact a death camp.

So on this sanitised tour my cousin was to be shown Kim Il-sung's birthplace; a captured American spy ship; the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum; the gloriously lavish metro system with chandeliers large enough to have impressed Liberace; the Mangyondae Children's palace where kids from the age of five study and perform music and martial arts with disturbing precision; the infamous demilitarised zone, which my cousin found strangely friendly; and the International Friendship Exhibition where you can view vast, cavernous halls housing gifts given to Kim Il-sung by world leaders including Gaddafi, Castro and Arafat.

So if you're looking for a holiday that can provide five star comfort, outstanding cuisine and a most courteously and attentive personal service at all times, North Korea certainly ticks all the boxes. But if you want to see the real North Korea, for heaven's sake don't go there, because it's just possible you'll never come back.

Alex Pearl is author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds 

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