26 Jul 2013

North Korea: Victory Day tours of the capital

North Korea is marking 60 years since the end of the Korean War. John Sparks is in Pyongyang, where he’s being treated to mysterious city tours, chaperoned by ever-present government minders.

Every morning, people wake up just before six in the North Korean capital – because that’s when a series of different sounding sirens bellow out across the city. I don’t know exactly where the sirens come from – but they work. They’re certainly loud enough to reach us on the island that some dub Alcatraz.

Channel 4 News is one of a number of international media teams invited to Pyongyang to observe a series of events commemorating the 60th anniversary of the end of the Korean War.

You couldn’t really say that the conflict is over though – just a few months ago for example this militaristic state was threatening nuclear strikes against its enemies.

I suppose it’s not surprising then foreign journalists have to stay at “Alcatraz” — or, in other words, the 43 floor Hotel Yanggakdo. It’s inconveniently located on an island in the middle of the Taedong River which gurgles its way through the centre of Pyongyang. I’m told that its island location makes a spontaneous stroll impossible although having said that, I haven’t tried to take a “wander”. Still, we all know that the North Koreans aren’t keen on “accidental” conversation with ordinary citizens.

When the authorities do allow the media off the island, each team is supervised by two personal minders. I wouldn’t say our minders are unpleasant to be around. In fact they are usually polite – and even friendly at times. But their job is to keep us under control. “You can’t film that,” says one. “Please come here,” says the other. Sometimes I say things like, “could we go and see a private market when people buy food with foreign currency?” and minder number one says, “that would not be possible.” I might then ask, “could you come to our hotel room to translate the interviews in Korean we did this afternoon?” and number two says, with a hint of sadness perhaps, “that would not be possible.”

As I write to you now, we are hanging around the hotel, waiting to find out what we are going to do today. The system works like this: the night before, numbers one and two assure me that they have no idea what we’ll be doing the following day. The next morning, they ring us up 20 minutes before a departure time and tell us to get ready. From the hotel lobby we are then ushered into a convoy of six old rickety buses that hurtle through the city with a motorcycle escort. Of course I’d like to take my time, but that’s not on the schedule.

Yesterday, we went to the opening of a new war cemetery in the middle of Pyongyang. Graves from around the country had been dug up and transported to this brand new site, complete with Soviet-style sculpture, as part of this week’s 60th anniversary commemorations — or, in the case of North Korea, the celebrations (they call 27 July — the day the armistice was signed – ‘Victory Day’). I was told that the impressive looking site, complete with massive chunks of granite, had been completed in less than six months.

(TELEPHONE RINGS) ….  I’m interrupting this blog now to say number two has called – we’re off to the Exhibition Hall to look at flowers, I think. Stay tuned folks.

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