Surreal Korea: North Korea Is Even Stranger Than the Picture Painted of It, as Mark Seddon Found out after a Close Shave

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Astonishingly, General Ri Chan-bok, North Korean commander of border forces at the heavily fortified Panmunjom armistice line between the communist North and the freewheeling, capitalist South, agreed that I could leave my camera running. I was with my old friend and veteran Korean shuttle diplomat, Glyn Ford MEP, on one of the now numerous trips I have made to the hermit state. It had been a bumpy few days for me, however, and as the general waxed lyrical on the threat posed by the US, and talked of his country's readiness to use all means necessary, I reflected on the close shave I had had earlier.


Wandering past the main railway terminus in the capital, Pyongyang, I'd been arrested by a very angry female soldier who had spotted me filming lines of women waving red plastic flowers at the departure of some dignitary. Being marched off to a room where we were joined by another irate female soldier, with my passport back at the hotel, was not the best introduction to the country. When my guards stopped shouting and left the corridor clear momentarily, I saw my chance, and ran as fast as my legs would take me.

This was the first ever "interview" to camera--though more like a monologue--with a member of North Korea's military. And it was my friendship with Glyn, coupled with my being at the time on Labour's National Executive Committee and a journalist, that was to give me the most remarkable access over the next four trips.

"Mr Seddon! What do you think of Korean goals?" asked Mr Kim, our minder, as we munched our way through hand-picked fungi at a completely deserted mountain resort, north of the capital. "Well," I said, on-message, "Korea is making much progress towards modernisation and electrification!" "No, Mr Seddon, what do you think of Korean goals?" Off I went again: "Soon everyone will have mobile phones." (In fact, the few thousand handsets that had been given to trusty officials were soon to be confiscated by Kim Jong-il, because, er, they could not be trusted.) "No, no, Mr Seddon! Korean goals!" At this point, the bewildered Mr Kim pointed towards the shy, prim, kimono-clad Korean girls who had been serving us the fungi they had picked earlier.

North Korea, or "the land of eternal happiness", as I prefer to call it, is even more surreal than the lurid picture painted of it. Its inhabitants live in a time warp, cut off from the rest of the world, with no phones, no internet, no satellite television and (as the old Soviet Politburo would have described it) no noise pollution--meaning pop music. Curiosity has been replaced with the certainties of Juche, North Korea's ideology of self-reliance couched in Marxism-Leninism and, through the two Kims (Kim Il-sung, the Great Leader and father of Kim Jong-il, Dear Leader), old-style emperor worship. …