Inside North Korea - the human dimension

While visiting an ancient royal palace in Kaesong, north of the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, I was chatting to a pleasant young woman in uniform, who was my guide.

For a few minutes, my government 'minder' was out of earshot, and the woman leaned forward, and asked: "Do you know this?" She then sweetly hummed 'Silent Night' in a low voice. I was electrified. This was clearly a statement of dissent, if humming can be called that, to the North Korean regime.

I thought at that moment there was more to North Korea than met the eye.

Perhaps inspired by the militia guide, though I had not darkened the door of a church for years, being a long lapsed Presbyterian, I asked my minder, the inevitable Mr. Kim, if I might visit the Protestant church in Pyongyang 'because on Sunday I wanted to pray to God.'

Eventually, he said yes, adding that, if I hadn't put it the way I did, I wouldn't have been permitted to go. I took two equally irreligious colleagues, and Kim went with us, as he did most of the time. In the church, a pastor, in reasonable English, read some passages from the Bible.

Then I asked him, to the incredulity of my colleagues, if he would say a prayer for us. I closed my eyes, although peeked to see Kim watching me carefully. Afterwards, he said "I see you really are a Christian." I had won that round. But we had been able to see that there really was a Protestant church in Pyongyang, and probably the Catholic chapel they claimed was there too. There was no sign of a Korean congregation.

I was in North Korea incognito, though that sounds melodramatic, having joined a Thai tour group in Bangkok, and having given my occupation as 'history teacher.' At Don Muang airport, I met up with two other people, a Dutch woman and a Swiss man. We instantly recognized ourselves as journalists - are we that transparent? We were the only non-Thais. (and they were the skeptical colleagues in the church) on the tour.

We flew through the night on a Russian airliner of Air Koryo, and the friendly stewardess kept us well supplied with potent North Korean beer.

I knew from earlier covering Mao's China that, in order to shake off the guide, you had to rise before dawn and hit the streets alone. I did this in the port city of Wonsan, on the east coast of North Korea, and walked down to the port to look for the USS Pueblo, seized in 1968 and said by the North Koreans to be a 'spy' vessel, which had been captured by them at sea. The crew were eventually returned, but the ship never was. It remains in North Korean hands.

It was still before 7am, but children in the uniform of the Pioneers, red neckerchiefs white shirt and blue pants or skirt, were walking to school. As they passed me, they bowed deeply to the waist, and greeted me with a 'Good Morning.’

Suddenly I saw it - it was hard to miss because the USS Pueblo was covered all over in ships' flags - I learned later it was the anniversary of the ruling Worker's Party - and this was why.

It was after 6am and just light enough, so I took out my camera and started taking pictures. Suddenly there was the blast of a whistle, and I saw a uniformed man on deck pointing at me and blowing a whistle. I'm for it now, I thought, it's off to the gulag for me. But there was no follow up, and Kim made no mention anything was amiss when I joined the bus. My picture of the Pueblo was later published on the front page of the Washington Times with story.

On the way back to Pyongyang with the Thai group, Kim broke into 'Happy Birthday to you," I asked him who it was for. He looked at me meaningfully and said: "For the Dear Party."

I had been to the DMZ and interviewed a North Korean army major there, and we watched all the Western tourists, and the South Korean army on the other side. I had been with the South Korean army and Panmunjom in an underground tunnel built by the North and discovered to have gone all the way to the North Korean border underground.

But the roles were reversed somehow - now the bad guys had become the good guys. Perhaps because of the nature of my questions, clearly not tourist ones, the major asked Kim what I did, as Kim then told me pointedly.

Maybe some suspicious were raised, because on another trip out of the capital, I saw a young man sitting on a wall - looking like a student and conspicuously reading a book. It was an English grammar. I asked him what he did for a living. "I work at Yongbyon," he said, mentioning North Korea's nuclear power facility. This was a possible frame-up, but I continued dopily with the conversation, unable to break it off - though I should have immediately marched away. But there was no follow-up.

Walking in a Pyongyang park, I saw many young soldiers out with their wives and children, taking family photographs. It was a pleasant family scene, though there was one baby crying hysterically at full throttle. The parents couldn't calm it, but others came over and consoled them. It was a very human scene.

I found if I went out on Pyongyang's streets immediately after lunch, I could talk to people after a fashion on my own, with the help of my Korean-English dictionary. The trick was to stand on the street with a map open and people crowded round to help. One could not but notice that the North Korean girls were very pretty - I had to think, more so than the over made-up South Korean women.

One morning, we were told our tour bus would not move for another hour. I immediately got out and, when there were no officials that I could see, I jumped on a tram car. You needed a ticket that I didn't have, but a young man spontaneously gave me one of his. But the tram went for about two miles without stopping. I had a terrible job getting back to the hotel in time but managed it just before the bus took off - otherwise questions would have been asked.

In the hotel, I met Nate Thayer, a journalist who later worked for the Far Eastern Economic Review, a journal of fond memory, who later found and interviewed Pol Pot, roundly beating me, who had been trying off and on to do the same.

Thayer was at the hotel, having unusually for an American been given a visa. He said he had had a date with one of the pretty waitresses. They had a rendezvous at dusk on a bench in a nearby park; it was all very chaste, but unusual this could happen in such a controlled state where, it was said, there was no inter-action between foreigners and locals.

At the state circus in the front row, I saw six spectacular European blondes with a rather sleazy looking male chaperone. I asked them who they were, and the chaperone said: "We are a cultural delegation from Sweden." Later, I saw the Swedish ambassador, but he had heard nothing about such a delegation. Some of the late Kim Jong-il’s floozies, no doubt.

A colleague at China Travel in Hong Kong talked to a spectacular Brazilian woman waiting for a Chinese transit visa. She said she was going to North Korea to 'dance for the leadership.' They had quite a life, the Kim family.

This was my second visit to Pyongyang. My first was in the 1980s when Prince Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia, who was living in a palace near Pyongyang, courtesy of the 'Great Leader' Kim Il Sung, in reply to a telegram I had sent from Peking, as we called it then, invited me to come for an interview.

Would I go around to the North Korean embassy in Peking at midnight, he cabled back - they would open it especially for me. I went there in the dark, and it all looked very sinister, but, sure enough, I had my passport stamped, and was able to catch the Peking-Pyongyang express at 7am that morning. We changed at the border into a North Korean train.

There were a dozen women with pudding bowl-style haircuts, and a kind of blue uniform. The language seemed familiar. They were Cambodian - in fact, they were Khmer Rouge. Some were speaking French, though people who spoke a foreign language in Cambodia are executed under Pol Pot. But they were political cadres or 'Kamaphibal', so immune.

I had recently been on the first trip into the Khmer Rouge area of control inside Cambodia, and I told one sitting next to me in the restaurant that the food that was served in the Dangrek mountains had been very tasty. Using my name, which she knew, she said: "I'm glad to hear you say that, Monsieur Pringle, because I helped to prepare your food, though you did not see me." The hair seemed to rise on the back of my neck.

Prince Sihanouk, Princess Monique, and Prince Sihamoni, now King Father and Mother and current king, were all in residence. I was granted a long interview in a vast ballroom. Prince Sihanouk sat looking forward and declaiming as if there was a whole packed audience. He must have missed the adoring crowds.

I was invited to lunch with the king and his family. Sihanouk has always gotten along well with media, and it is a pity that now, at 90 years old, he is somewhat separated from the press in Phnom Penh - as has been ordained by the present power-holders there.

In these days, in the early 1980s, North Korea was more Orwellian. I stayed at the Potingang Hotel, and every time I picked up the phone, instead of the operator answering, it was my guide. I couldn't escape him for a minute.

Even though I was the guest of the king, my guide said to me in the back of his ministry's imported Volvo: "You seem to take a lot of pictures, Mr. Pringle." I said: "Of course I do, I am a journalist, after all. (This time I was not incognito, of course). Then he said: "Even for a journalist, Mr. Pringle, you seem to take an awful lot of pictures." Whoops, welcome to '1984.'

Nowadays, North Korea is not so Orwellian, just a bit kooky.

I have no illusions about the labor camps and strict control, and after the Thai tourist trip I wrote about all that in a series of articles in my then paper, The Times of London, One of the stories was picked up by the 'Bangkok Post' and I got a call from the North Korean embassy in Bangkok. Would I come round for coffee with the ambassador? He had earlier addressed journalists and said we must come to North Korea, that 'seeing was believing." But no visas were on offer. That's why I joined the Thai tour at the last minute after having managed to get a visa.

By that time, I was being denounced in Pyongyang for my articles, and he said I had written things about labor camps, and social control that were not correct. But then he added: "I enjoyed reading your article in spite of that, of what you wrote about our attractive women, and the happy families in the park."

Later, in 1999, based again in China, I spent five days on the Chinese-border, dodging the Chinese police, and writing about the famine that killed perhaps 2 million people. I looked into the North Korean border towns through binoculars from the sloping hills on the Chinese side , - the river is very narrow - and saw the desolation that life had become, and spoke to refugees who had come to China. They told me ox-carts were moving around the small towns picking up corpses.

The Yalu River is an international waterway, and tour boats in Dandong are permitted to go within feet of the North Korean bank near the North Korean town of Sinuiju. It was bitterly cold, and I saw people with in rough shoes, thin clothes and no socks just feet away. I handed them cigarettes and bars of chocolate, still sitting in the boat, but did not accept their invitation to land. I seemed to have learned a lesson.

(James Pringle was previously China and South East Asia correspondent of the Times of London.)