The young woman waiting in the arrivals hall looks anxious, her small mouth pinched and unsmiling. Every button on the jacket of her pink tweed suit is done up, every hair on her head is combed precisely into place, framing the tidy features of her bespectacled face. All around her, people throng and holler, checking bags, laughing, and loudly introducing themselves to one another.
‘Hurry, hurry, we will be late,’ shouts Mr O, ushering his tour group out of the airport and on to a minibus. The pink-suited lady follows at a neat trot, her heels click-clacking across the tarmac. Perched on her seat, timid as a sparrow, she takes a look around at her fellow passengers. These, the latest batch of tourists tumbling in nervous excitement off the afternoon plane from Beijing, are her first encounter with Westerners.
Miss Kim is 21, an only child, and lives with her teacher mother and translator father on the 5th floor of an apartment block along a park-lined stretch of river in Pyongyang, the capital city. In her spare time, she likes to dance and sing in her bedroom, meet up with friends and mess around on her computer. She’s keen to start aerobic classes at the new gym across town. She is 18 months from finishing her English course at university; as one of the brightest students, she was plucked from her class and allowed to join Mr O in guiding a group of foreigners on a week-long tour of her homeland – North Korea, one of the most secretive and cut-off countries in the world.
For now though, Miss Kim is too shy to speak. Mr O, an old pro effortlessly reeling out a story or a joke, his jet black hair swept back from his forehead, holds court as the minibus races through Pyongyang. Small scenes of life flash through the window: trams stuffed with workers, curious faces peering out into the night; cyclists stopping for a chat on street corners; an open-air cinema, on the screen a nurse tending to a comically bandaged patient; ropes of plastic flowers draped over balconies, rooms beyond lit a sickly green; soldiers marching kerbside in neat lines.
Progress is stilted as we turn towards the May Day Stadium and toot our way through crowds of milling students, edging past Mercedes, BMWs and the republic’s own-make Peace Car. A group of 200-strong women in sailor uniforms – enormous white hats perched jauntily on heads – practise a drum routine, twirling drumsticks in gloved hands. Mr O and Miss Kim are soon off, darting across the car park and up several flights of stairs, past souvenir stalls selling T-shirts, DVDs and posters.
The stadium is full and the show has already begun. Far below the prime seats, taken by military personnel and tourists, North Korea’s version of its own history is being played out on the floor: from the Japanese occupation of a once happy and bucolic land via revolutionary triumphs over the country’s American oppressors to the formation of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, to give the country its official name. But this is no dry presentation. This is spectacle. This is the precision and scale and theatre of the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics ten-fold.
One-hundred thousand people perform each night at the Mass Games, in a display of mass choreography that’s hard to absorb. Gymnasts swoop through the air on zip wires and are catapulted out of cannons. Thousands of tiny children pedal about on unicycles and juggle balls in perfect synchronicity. Soldiers march, choirs sing, athletes somersault, dancers twirl. Behind them, 20,000 kids hold picture books, flipping the pages to create enormous mosaics, of a rising sun, of fighters going into battle, of the North Korean flag.