On holiday in North Korea
And on and on and on it comes, giddying scenes of prosperity, of hope and happiness. Miss Kim grows animated, excitedly pointing out the significance of each song and clapping along. Merry apples dance through orchards, pigs skip and tumble, workers gaily weave textiles, girls spin through hoops to celebrate CNC, North Korea’s industrial hole-punching technology (‘It is the most advanced in the market,’ Miss Kim whispers proudly. ‘Let’s bring the cutting-edge!’). She performed in the Mass Games herself as a child, playing the trombone, and giggles at the memory. ‘I felt like an artist, I loved it. I trained very hard but it was exciting. I was very proud to represent my country.’
The audience reserves its loudest cheers for when the picture books turn to reveal giant portraits of two men, looking cheerfully out from the stage as if into an impossibly bright future. Miss Kim sighs. ‘We’re a great nation, happy and prosperous, but we are great not because of our size or population but because of our leaders.’
Her voice breaks when a fake flower the size of a house is carried out accompanied by a mournful tune. ‘It’s a new breed called Kimjongilia after the Dear Leader,’ she murmurs. ‘How we miss him. He died on his way to his people. The song is written about him. People cry when they hear it.’
It is a first glimpse of the extraordinary cult of personality built around Kim Il-sung and his son Kim Jong-il. Every North Korean wears a pin badge showing the face of the Great Leader or the Dear Leader, as they are known, and must hang their pictures rather than those of family in their homes. Their slogans adorn apartment blocks and walls in the city and are emblazoned across hills and fields in the country. Huge paintings and mosaics show their likeness from factory to farm. Throughout our tour, no opportunity to praise the leaders is wasted. At a school camp we are shown a badly stuffed seal and informed it was a generous gift from Kim Jong-il. At a college dance, we are told that the Dear Leader also wrote the songs and invented the moves that all the students know by heart. At a cooperative farm, our guide reveals that the leaders, including new incumbent Kim Jong-un, have visited in order to offer edifying ‘on-site guidance’.
In Pyongyang, the performance comes to a close for another night, and the crowds spill back out of the stadium. Groups of Young Pioneers, schoolkids in dapper white and blue uniforms, red neckerchiefs bobbing, saunter past, singing a socialist song. A British guide, Hannah Barraclough, waits to round up the last few members of her group. Tourists are allowed into North Korea only on organised tours closely monitored by the state. Hannah has been leading such trips for six years and sees how visitors struggle to tally their experiences, of a population apparently proud of their country, with the stories they read back home. News reports speak of nuclear aggression, famine, summary executions, concentration camps and a people living under a reign of terror. ‘People forget that North Koreans don’t hear these negative stories. They only ever hear positive things about how much the leaders do for their country, how they devote their lives to their people, so it is little wonder that they hold so much respect for them. When you don’t live in a society where you have access to many different opinions, you tend to believe what you are told.’