We were halfway across the narrow pontoon bridge on the Tumen river which separates China from North Korea in a remote area not far from Vladivostok when I reflected that what we were doing was completely mad. By then, however, it was too late to turn back. Approaching rapidly was the red-and-blue flag with its central star, and, beyond it, a grimy concrete blockhouse containing the border police of the hermit state.
The story had begun three weeks earlier when I telephoned our Chinese producer, Lu, in Beijing and asked him to inquire about entry to North Korea. His answer was that journalists are currently barred but that he had found a small travel agency which might be able to obtain invitations for a party of businessmen. Two weeks later an excited Lu rang me. ‘The invitations have come through,’ he said, ‘but we must use them within a week.’
Bogus CVs claiming that we were executives of a travel company were hastily concocted. I became regional manager of the International Travel Network; my cameraman, Sean Swan, assistant manager. A small camera was purchased. Feeling distinctly uneasy, I entered the North Korean border post behind Miss Kim, the formidable ethnic Korean travel agent who had arranged our invitations. It was freezing, but inside the post it seemed to be even colder. All round us North Korean border guards in giant Russian-style peaked hats and ill-fitting brown uniforms clasped their chests and stamped their feet in an effort to keep warm. Clusters of officers were soon poring over our documents with a mixture of hostility and suspicion – but they had reckoned without Miss Kim. Bustling from one dirty glass window to another, she chivvied and cajoled. When she met resistance, she brandished our invitation, an impressive green-covered document with a large red stamp which stated that we were permitted entry for the ‘promotion of economic and technical exchanges’.
After two hours the Stalinist bureaucracy gave way. In the dirt road outside we found our North Korean ‘tour guide’, Mr Pak, a small, ill-clad man. We boarded his bus and began to jolt down a heavily pot-holed mountain track towards our destination, the coastal town of La Jin. After an exchange of pleasantries, our cover story came under scrutiny and I made what I hoped were convincing noises about the investment potential of this part of North Korea which, in fact, looked bleak. Mr Pak gave me a dejected look. ‘Our great leader’s policy is to build special economic zone here,’ he told me. ‘We want investment but we have no money for infrastructure.’ Outside the windows of the bus we saw scrawny peasants dressed in drab colours and riding ox-carts or pushing giant barrows. Mr Pak said that this was one of the poorest areas in North Korea. Occasionally I waved at the people we passed, but no one waved back. Meanwhile, Mr Pak and I had moved on to the sort of conversation which I now understand that investors in eccentric locations have to endure.
‘English girls very nice,’ Mr Pak said, with a sly grin.
‘Very nice,’ I agreed.
‘You help me meet English girl one day?’
‘But I am very small. Maybe she not like me.’
‘We’ll find a small girl.’
‘No problem,’ I lied.
Clearly I had given the right answers for Mr Pak started laughing uproariously. ‘My wife very ugly,’ he said, shaking my hand in a firm grip. His eyes glinted, then returned to their normal listless state.
La Jin is a higgledy-piggledy assortment of small, crudely built blocks of flats and clusters of tiny cottages with dilapidated roofs. A sombre bay stretched in front of us, empty except for an old Russian-built submarine lolling at anchor near the foreshore. In front of it was our hotel, a great whitewashed concrete mausoleum with a single receptionist silently freezing in the vast unheated and unfurnished lobby.
A hectic schedule began. A visit to the port, its berths empty apart from a couple of rusty fish-processing ships from Vladivostok. Then on to a souvenir shop where we were encouraged to buy over-sized stamps bearing portraits of the late Great Leader and his son, who has assumed the same title.
‘That’s dandy,’ said Sean. ‘I’ll send a postcard home.’
‘No international post,’ said Mr Pak, and laughed a little gloomily.
A children’s concert had been arranged in our honour at a local school. While we huddled beside a stove, tiny singers and dancers no more than eight or nine years old performed slick routines. A small squad of boys in red pioneer scarves brandished guitars like weapons and sang, ‘Great Leader, we owe our happiness to you.’ Afterwards, I was allowed to ask some of the children what they hoped for in life. One little girl answered with a radiance that seemed genuine, ‘To become a musician and study in Pyongyang.’ Her friend, who had a small, pinched face under the stage make-up, said, ‘To make the Great Leader happy with my music.’ Mr Pak beamed.
Then in the gloaming it was on to the food market, an open-air huddle the size of a couple of tennis courts, where Mr Pak declared firmly, ‘No pictures. Watch out for pickpockets!’ On rows of rough-hewn tables sat local produce being hawked by sturdy female traders who are now permitted to engage in a primitive form of free enterprise. With eager determination they tried to interest their poorly dressed, shivering customers in shrivelled vegetables, piles of unwashed fish and boxes of dead crabs. Mr Pak claimed that the ‘difficult period’ – he meant the famine which killed thousands in the region two years ago – was now over and supplies were getting better. It was not clear how many people in La Jin could afford to buy market produce or what happens to those forced to rely on the seemingly empty government shops.
That evening the precariousness of our situation became clear. Suspicion had apparently been aroused by the professionalism with which Sean handled his camera. Mr Pak was reinforced by a second minder, a more smartly dressed character who Lu said was from the national security bureau. Together we dined in the hotel restaurant, in a small, curtained booth equipped with a charcoal barbecue. Interrupted only by intermittent power-cuts which plunged us into darkness, we grilled endless skewers of bad meat and washed the gristle down with fiery Chinese vodka. There was more talk about the purpose of our visit, and I struggled to suppress thoughts of arrest and accusations of espionage. But eventually drunkenness took over and the conversation turned to how the rest of the evening should be spent.
‘Karaoke!’ declared Mr Pak improbably, and we followed him to the basement of the hotel where we found a fully equipped discotheque with rows of empty velveteen chairs stretching out into the cold darkness. At one end of the dance floor was a large screen where the words of the song being played appeared in English. In front of it a plump Korean girl stood with a microphone and attempted a rendition, but only incomprehensible keening noises emerged. The theme from Love Story was played repeatedly and Mr Pak made a determined effort to have me sing along with the plump girl who he indicated was available for any purpose I might desire. I fended him off with round after round of drinks until, feigning exhaustion, our team headed for bed, leaving Mr Pak alone in the gloom.
The tour now began to take on something of the character of a pilgrimage to a Stalinist Lourdes. We went to the foot of a rocky cliff to see the celebrated site where a 12-year-old Kim Jong-Il drank pure spring water while on a visit to the area. Not far away, on a small island, was Kim Il Sung’s favourite fishing spot. At the town museum, recently completed and the only structure in La Jin which appeared to be built to more or less Western standards, we were met by an unsmiling female custodian equipped with a long pointer. She led us past a 20-foot-high portr
ait of Kim Il Sung on horseback, and into the artfully lit chamber which was the museum’s centrepiece. Complete with real pine trees and painted mountain backdrop, it was a mock-up of part of the forest from where Kim Il Sung supposedly directed guerrilla resistance against the Japanese. As recorded birdsong twittered in the background, we were invited to walk down the ‘forest trail’ and inspect true-to-life replicas of the slogans which the guerrillas had daubed on trees. Apart from ourselves, the museum was completely empty and as we left all the lights were turned out.
There was a final surprise. A little way down the coast we descended through the forest into a large bay. The shoreline was bare except for a single great building. This, we learnt, was the crowning achievement of the regime’s new economic policy in this area: a massive casino hotel designed to attract highrollers from China, where gambling is widespread but illegal. The hotel, funded by investors from Hong Kong, was accoutred with all the brass and glass of similar establishments in the West, but its policy towards guests and visitors was curious. The Chinese gamblers who sat morosely at the tables or wielded chopsticks around the buffet were not allowed out. North Korean citizens, including our guides, were not allowed in. Leaving Mr Pak in a chair in the lobby, something which I must admit gave me a certain pleasure, I headed for a roulette table and rapidly found myself up $100. I decided to stop there so that I could at least say that I had left North Korea with a profit.
As we climbed into the bus for the drive to the border, Mr Pak and his colleague were friendly but seemed to have few illusions that they were cultivating genuine investors. Mr Pak leant forward and delivered what seemed to be a deliberate statement in Chinese for Lu to translate: ‘The crisis with the Americans is because they have broken the nuclear agreement with our country. We are ready for war and we will make a sea of fire.’ The rest of the journey was spent in silence until we reached the border and said our goodbyes with what seemed genuine warmth. ‘Come back soon,’ said Mr Pak.
Julian Manyon is Asia correspondent of ITV News. This article is also reproduced for ITV News online and can be seen in ‘Location reports’ at www.itv.com/news.