North Korea inching open door with Nobel laureates' visit

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The BBC's Rupert Wingfield-Hayes arrives in North Korea with, among others, a European prince

I'm sitting on a plane - the mountains of north-east China are slipping through the mist below us.

A few rows back three Nobel laureates are chatting with Prince Alfred of Liechtenstein. Ahead is North Korea.

It's definitely one of the more curious assignments I've been asked to do.

Journalists will find any way they can to get a glimpse inside the DPRK. Hence I am hanging on the coat tails of this unique delegation comprising an Israeli, a Briton, a Norwegian and a tall European prince.

They have been invited to meet students at Kim Il-Sung University to talk about medicine, economics and biology.

Building bridges

The academics' visit to North Korea has been organised by the Vienna-based International Peace Foundation (IPF).

Image source, AP
Image caption,
Prince Alfred (third left) and the delegation of Nobel laureates on arrival in Pyongyang

Those taking part are:

Nobel laureate for economics Prof Finn Kydland from Norway, who works at the University of California in Santa Barbara

Nobel laureate for medicine Sir Richard Roberts from the UK, who is based at New England Biolabs in Ipswich, Massachusetts

Nobel laureate for chemistry Prof Aaron Ciechanover from the Technion Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa

Prince Alfred of Liechtenstein, who chairs the IPF's advisory board

IPF chairman Uwe Morawetz, who has visited North Korea six times in the past two years

I am hoping for any chance to see North Korea "off script". That may be optimistic.

The last time I visited, 12 years ago, every step of my trip was tightly choreographed and minutely controlled.

Everywhere I went our minder double-act, Mr Kim and Mrs Kim, were constantly at my shoulder. We stayed in an austere glass tower on an island in the middle of the Nam River.

Early one morning I tried to sneak out to see a bit of Pyongyang street life. It was winter and there was ice on the river.

I made it to the bridge when a soldier jumped out of the bushes and ordered me to turn around.

Since that trip some things have changed in North Korea although many have not.

Image source, EPA
Image caption,
North Korea remains an impoverished, isolated country

The Dear Leader Kim Jong-Il is dead, replaced by his corpulent and unpredictable son Kim Jong-un. Next week the first Worker's Party Congress to be held in over three decades the younger Kim will be proclaimed supreme leader - as his father and grandfather were before him.

Young Mr Kim now has a few nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, although not nuclear weapons on ballistic missiles, not yet.

No internet

Back in 2003 mobile phones were still banned for all but the top party and military elite.

I had to leave mine behind in China or risk having it confiscated. Now, I'm told, many have cell phones, and this trip I am bringing mine with me.

But there is no internet in North Korea. The country is still one of the most impoverished and isolated in the world. There is one state TV channel and one state radio station.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Kim Jong-un has overseen a number of tests of weapons systems

The three Nobel laureates I am travelling with are hoping to chip away a tiny bit at that isolation, to meet North Korean university students, to establish a dialogue.

It is a noble aim. As Churchill famously said, "Jaw jaw is always better than war war."

But many have tried to engage with North Korea. China, Russia, the US, South Korea and Japan have all been trying for decades. Now even China, North Korea's closest ally, is fed up.

Last month President Xi Jinping agreed to tighten economic sanctions against the North in response to its latest nuclear test.

If Pyongyang is trying to reach out to the world it has a very strange way of showing it.

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