When I arrived in Seoul, I joked to my editor that I hoped this was not going to be like Ukraine. I went there for three days and ended up staying for five weeks because a war broke out. This time the threat of war is implied, rather than real, although a Korean conflict would be far more lethal and terrifying. Soon after arriving, I met Hwee-Rhak Park, a former army colonel who teaches strategy to young officers. We talked in his university office, high in suburban hills overlooking the smog and skyscrapers. He calmly told me how he had tried to persuade his children to leave and fully expects to die in one of the north’s hideous concentration camps. He believes that when Kim Jong-un develops nuclear weapons that can reach the United States, the south will be annexed with dire warnings against intervention to the White House. Despite such fears, shared by many older conservatives, life goes on as normal. This is a city that has learned to live with bellicose threats from the world’s most repressive state. There may be huge guns just 35 miles away, dug into hills over the border, plus stockpiles of who-knows-what chemical weapons. But young people especially — growing up in a different era and naturally more liberal — tend to ignore the north. ‘I don’t think people are really taking it seriously,’ said Christine, my 25-year-old translator.
I met Christine and her friend Heeyoung last year. Christine has never knowingly met someone from the north, showing how the bolshie neighbour is often ignored in the south. Both women are smart, ambitious and highly polished. Seoul is a global centre for cosmetics and plastic surgery — young people tend to be manicured and made-up, regardless of gender. Back then the pair were setting up a translation service. They were amused when they learned I’d been a speechwriter for David Cameron, having had the misfortune to be taught English from his speeches. Today, one works in private equity and the other in real estate. They keep their gazes firmly on the future.
Tales of life in the Hermit Kingdom remind us that there is nothing amusing about the eccentricities of North Korea and its dynastic dictatorship. I have talked with more than a dozen northern defectors. One man told me he had been so badly tortured even before being thrown in a forced labour camp that he could only crawl on his hands and knees, a shattered wreck weighing under six stone. Many people criticise Donald Trump for sabre-rattling towards Pyongyang, yet he is right to pressure China to abandon support for the cruellest regime on earth. We must just hope his aggression does not backfire.
When I visited North Korea four years ago, masquerading as a tourist, I went by train from northern China. This ensured four hours without the pair of lovely minders who would later stick to me like limpets, even during a raucous night out in a Pyongyang karaoke club. As we trundled through the countryside, a family nervously asked me to eat with them. They had never met a westerner. Our conversation over the crab was limited, given their English and my Korean. But I learned that the only Briton they had heard of (apart from the Queen, of course) was David Beckham. Later I discovered this was because Bend It Like Beckham (in which he appears only fleetingly) was one of four permitted western films on North Korean television. The others were Home Alone, The Sound of Music and Titanic.
In the right context, even such bland examples of western culture can be seen as revolutionary. I have heard two female defectors say that Titanic showed them the power of love for a fellow human being, rather than the compulsory adoration of the Kim dynasty which is drummed into North Koreans from birth. Another said she would intently study the furnishings in propaganda films about the south. Now, all kinds of subversive materials, from soap operas to human rights information, seep through the borders of this secretive state. Last week, a former special forces operative told me he lost his own faith after seeing a pirate copy of Saving Private Ryan, which blew away propaganda that only North Korean soldiers believed in honour and brotherhood. ‘The more I was exposed to foreign films, the more I questioned all I had been told,’ he told me. Even the thickest walls come tumbling down eventually.
Ian Birrell is contributing editor of the Mail on Sunday