It takes about three days. Then you start dreaming about Kim Jong-un. At Beijing airport, waiting for the Air Koryo flight to Pyongyang, you notice men arriving at the gate in cheap shoes and outdated haircuts, mysterious red badges on their lapels. There are no families and there’s none of the weary cheeriness of groups travelling home. The inflight TV shows one thing: a performance by the Moranbong Band, a group of female soldier musicians who are the latest sensation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and were supposedly hand-picked by Kim Jong-un himself. In the video, the audience of senior military men doesn’t react except to applaud whenever their leader appears on the screen behind the band. Warned of the non-negotiable bag searches and strict censorship laws, I’d left my laptop in London – it would have been impounded – and removed any dubious pictures from my phone, which took a while. I don’t know what the customs official made of my trip to Spain and my Kanye West memes, but he certainly wasn’t happy when he went through my wallet. A few months ago, I’d come across some North Korean money, and had kept one note as a curio. The official jumped when he saw what months of sitting in my back pocket had done to the image of his nation’s founder. It’s illegal to destroy or deface an image of Kim Il-sung, and the soldier glared at me. I began to panic, thinking of Otto Warmbier, the student who died after falling into a coma in North Korean custody not long ago, but the official just lovingly smoothed the note out on his desk and waved me on. Maybe he was just fooling with me to pass the time.
It’s hard to describe how alien Pyongyang appears to Western eyes. The total absence of advertising is striking; instead there are huge propaganda murals, mosaics and posters, usually of the Kims or the trifecta of worker, soldier and intellectual who symbolise the Workers’ Party. Red signs everywhere proclaim revolutionary slogans in Korean characters the size of cars. The streets are Haussmann-wide: Pyongyang was almost totally destroyed in the Korean War of 1950-53 and rebuilt by Soviet architects. Their influence is most pronounced on Kwangbok and Changchun Streets, which are as wide as bomber landing strips, with buildings a kilometre wide and a dozen storeys high running alongside them. I desperately wanted to see inside one, but Koreans can’t have foreigners in their homes and such requests are frowned on.
Pyongyang looks impressive in photographs but up close the buildings are often crumbling. Even the brand-new Mirae Scientists Street – with its six lanes of cars and its tower blocks meant to suggest East Asian modernity – looks decrepit, though it only opened in 2015. It’s not unusual for apartment buildings to collapse. Every building site – and there are many – is manned by legions of soldier builders (their numbers are part of the reason the Korean People’s Army is so vast on paper). The stretches of grass beside the kerb on residential streets, where you might expect to see flowerbeds, are often used for growing crops. The food situation has improved since the famines of the 1990s, but you can see the effects everywhere, not least in the malnourished appearance of the population. For a few dollars I could have excellent bibimbap and the surprisingly nice local beer – Taedonggang has been brewed in North Korea since 2002 with a plant bought from Wiltshire, of all places – but that’s a month’s wages for the poorest citizens.
Every morning groups of women assemble at major junctions to perform flag dances or huge bands of children play patriotic music. I was told these were intended to ‘create an atmosphere for the people going to work’. They really are quite nice. Of the men I saw on their commute, at least half wore military uniform, which makes it tricky to take pictures (photographing soldiers is illegal). It’s quite normal for children as young as four to take themselves to and from school on their own. Anyone who can afford them owns Chinese knock-offs of cutesy Japanese stuff – should the regime ever fall, the owner of the first Hello Kitty franchise will make a fortune.
There’s very little traffic – taxis are a relatively recent addition. People just amble blithely onto the roads, so any journey involves a lot of emergency stops. It’s worse at night, when the city has a ghostly feel. There’s next to no street lighting and few lights inside buildings, so you don’t know anyone is about until they suddenly appear in your headlights. Streets are arbitrarily closed at random times, day and night, to facilitate rehearsals for mass rallies. At major crossings you’ll find Pyongyang’s famous female traffic police, said to be chosen for their looks rather than their command of the rules of the road. Whenever a government car goes by they salute – they’re all the same model of Mercedes and have the same licence plate commemorating ‘Victory Day’ in the Korean War: 27 July 1953. As a foreigner, I got the odd salute too.
If you speak to anyone in the tiny community of expats in Pyongyang – mostly diplomats and NGO people – you’ll hear talk of the regime princelings burning up the streets in their imported sports cars. Not being allowed into the Forbidden City I didn’t see any of this (it’s nothing like the one in Beijing – just a city district with a few checkpoints round it). However, on our way back from dinner one evening we were overtaken by a black car with tinted windows, shiny new and going very fast. The driver went at top speed down the wrong side of the road for as far as we could see, which, given the city’s layout, was a good distance.
For reasons I can’t go into I wasn’t under the usual tourist constraints (scheduled visits, nocturnal confinement, island hotels) but I was curious to know what foreigners are shown and booked myself onto a tour run by the government’s tourist bureau. I went on my own, which is unusual, and was happy to let my two guides and driver maintain any assumptions they had about me from my security file. There are files on the guides too: every tour has two so that they can inform on each other. Mine were two cheerful women in their mid-twenties, and the driver was a quiet middle-aged man who refused the Marlboro Lights I offered in favour of a Korean brand that tasted much like smoking a twig.
The caste system in the DPRK is not as important as it once was, but it still determines how unpleasant your life is going to be. There are three main classes, with 51 subdivisions, all measured by ethnic background and degrees of supposed political soundness. My guides’ careers would have been decided as much by what their grandparents did in the (Korean) war as by their willingness to study hard at school. If your forefathers backed the wrong political horse, owned land, or were caught listening to foreign broadcasts, it’s unlikely you’d be allowed into Pyongyang today, let alone allowed to learn English. My guides had been afforded the rare privilege of access to Western culture. They loved Tom Cruise movies, in particular the first Mission Impossible and The Firm – and had a decent knowledge of American divorce law thanks to Kramer v. Kramer. They were impressed that I grew up in the town where the Titanic was built, and even more impressed that I knew the ship went down on the day Kim Il-sung was born. As we drove, we sang a few songs from The Lion King and The Little Mermaid. I played them some tunes on my phone. They loved Taylor Swift and Adele, but Kanye only confirmed their worst suspicions about Western decadence. Radiohead was met with confusion and they clearly hated the Pogues, which given the number of patriotic anthems I’d already been subjected to, seemed a bit rude.
The countryside outside Pyongyang is striking for its total lack of farm machinery or animals. Here and there you’d see half a dozen old coaches that looked like they’d been sold as scrap by a Chinese tour company. There were usually a few hundred people not far away working the land by hand – tilling, planting crops, looking busy. These were work parties from individual apartment blocks or factories in Pyongyang: apparently, groups are instructed – at short notice – to head out to the country. It became a familiar sight, dozens of people crouched down in the soil. There were no obvious overseers, and no water, shelter or equipment beyond what you might use in your garden. Nor was there any evidence of working animals – on the entire trip, I saw two cows, and they were even skinnier than the people.
Our first stop was Mansu Hill, where Kims Il-sung and Jong-il are memorialised by statues taller than the Hollywood sign. I was expected to lay flowers – foreigners are photographed bowing to the Kim cult’s effigies to show Koreans the esteem in which their leaders are held around the world. We compromised: I bought the flowers and the guides laid them. At the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum, we were offered an interpretation of the causes of the Korean War. There was an impressive collection of American war booty, as well as thousands of banners in glass cases and huge dioramas that neglected to mention Soviet and Chinese participation in the war. There was another huge effigy of Kim Il-sung, looking suspiciously like Kim Jong-un. At a film studio I was roped into doing karaoke with the staff of the employees’ café, one girl gamely pounding away on a full drum kit. There was the brand-new sci-tech complex, laid out in the shape of an atom, where I accidentally photobombed a couple’s wedding pictures. The auditorium had a roped-off seat: Kim Jong-un had once sat there. We went up the Juche Tower, a monument to the DPRK’s ideology of self-sufficiency, more than three times the height of Nelson’s Column. It has an electrical flame on top that’s often the only illuminated thing in the night sky (there are frequent power cuts). From the viewing platform I watched a parade rehearsal in Kim Il-sung Square across the river. You could hear the marching feet from a mile away.
The International Friendship Exhibition, a hundred-room underground facility about ninety minutes’ drive outside Pyongyang, contains more than seventy thousand gifts presented to the various Kims by countries around the world, everything from Nigerian tribal gear to a signed copy of Eric Clapton’s autobiography to an old Soviet plane that must have been taken apart and then reassembled underground. There was a glass plate sent by Derbyshire County Council and a tonne of stuff from Dennis Rodman’s various visits. The patchy electricity meant there were frequent thirty-second periods of total darkness, which are pretty frightening when you’re two hundred metres underground.
Visitors are often keen to talk about the Potemkin village nature of the North Korea they are allowed to see, but the only evidence of deception I saw, other than people parroting propaganda about the regime’s eternal strength, was at the Grand People’s Study House on Kim Il-sung Square. You may have seen this on TV – it’s the building from which Kim Jong-un watches rallies and parades of missiles and tanks. Despite the military associations, the building is actually a library, where – at least in theory – any Korean can come and attend classes, use a computer or read a book. At the entrance, the revolving door had jammed and the rusted metal entranceway was being spray-painted silver, like the set of a school play. The fumes were very strong. Inside, I was taken into some English classes. In one, a group of university-age students in black Kim suits were repeating ‘I’m sorry you have a headache’ over and over again. I wasn’t allowed to ask questions. In a Chinese class, two people at the front were speaking decent Mandarin into microphones that didn’t work. In contrast to the usual smiles you get in Asia when you make an effort to speak the local language, my greetings to the classes in clumsy Korean only caused the students to stare glumly at their desks. A broken lift prompted somebody unseen to yell at my guides. A great fuss was made of showing me the library’s Heath Robinson book-retrieval system. I pretended to be impressed but was momentarily dumbfounded by the set of books selected for me: a textbook on neonatal emergencies, The Complete Encyclopedia of Chickens and a copy of Gone with the Wind. I noticed they were all marked as charitable donations from American universities.
There were few signs of coercion in the mass activities I saw. One evening I wandered through a rehearsal for a mass dance on Kim Il-sung Square. There were around thirty thousand participants, all being directed over a Wembley-grade PA system. It looked like fun, but things are always serious where the Kims are concerned. Il-sung and Jong-il lie in state at the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, and I had made sure to pack a suit for the visit, though some toothpaste leaked in my bag and the jacket failed to pass muster. I managed to get into the vast building in my shirtsleeves and after what felt like hours on moving walkways, looking at yet more honours from the Warsaw Pact countries and passing through antechambers even Donald Trump would find garish, I finally arrived at the threshold of the mausoleum. Two wind tunnels blow dust off you as you enter. Koreans, decked in their Sunday best, processed around the sarcophaghi, bowing ninety degrees at every compass point.
As a visitor, I saw very little of the mechanisms of control that govern the lives of Koreans. The only real kerfuffle took place when we were driving back into Pyongyang from a trip out of town. There are checkpoints on all the roads into the city so Koreans can prove they have the right to be there. It was a sweltering day, and as we were pulled over we could see coachloads of people being methodically searched behind some trees. Soldiers, holding the off-brand AK-47s the army manufactures, demanded our papers; my two companions had theirs, but like a fool I’d left my passport where I was staying. We got out of the car. A Korean friend explained that I was just some foreigner who’d melted his memory with whiskey, rather than a sworn enemy of the Korean Workers’ Party. The soldier wasn’t annoyed, but totally impassive – bored, even. He went to talk to his superior, who went to make a phone call. And we stood for the best part of an hour, sweating in the heat, not exactly at gunpoint, but with a gun certainly in play. The calls came back down the chain of command until they got clearance to let me past. Driving back into Pyongyang, I felt terrible for my friend: there was no way I hadn’t got him into some kind of trouble.
This small experience of the bureaucratic hoops Koreans have to jump through was an indication of how exhausting everyday life must be. My visit took place during a hundred-day push, when everybody is expected to work extra hours and attend extra political classes. People were tired. One man complained to me that his son didn’t open up to him emotionally, another grouched about his wife’s weight gain. One woman told me she’d dumped her boyfriend because he didn’t have a good enough job, and another demonstrated she knew Puff Daddy’s ‘I’ll Be Missing You’ by heart. On a walk around a country park, we bumped into a women’s work unit enjoying a day off. They’d clearly had a liquid lunch, and giddily insisted we pose for group photos with them. I had my arse pinched three times. You can be reminded of the regime when you don’t expect it. I was chatting to a waitress one night just after a missile test, and after we’d discussed my family and why I wasn’t married yet, I asked her how the test had made her feel. She said it made her proud, that the missile would be Korea’s ‘sword of vengeance against the imperialist aggressors’.
Driving out of Pyongyang is not like leaving other cities. Instead of a transition from the city centre to the suburbs to the country, the huge blocks just stop, and then there’s nothing but fields. Where was everybody? I was told there were two and a half million people living in the city, yet despite the mammoth scale of everything I’d seen, it wasn’t nearly big enough to house that many. But if you go over one of the hills that hide the suburban sprawl from the showpiece zone, you end up pretty quickly in what’s essentially a shantytown. Tourists aren’t allowed to see this, for obvious reasons: shabby narrow streets are surrounded by rudimentary homes made from unpainted breezeblocks with gaps for windows. It goes on and on. There’s no sanitation: sewage runs down open drains in the middle of the way. I’d seen real poverty elsewhere, but this was something else. Old women occasionally sell tofu on the streets, but that’s the only obvious economic activity. This is where Pyongyang’s missing millions are, where most of the people live. The people left out of all the threats and communiqués and summits, and the people who’ll suffer most if it all goes wrong.