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    Saturday, September 5, 2009

    Chinese democracy

    Beijing, Saturday, Aug. 29: Living and working in China can sometimes be difficult, especially for a foreign journalist. The ever-growing restrictions on the Internet and freedom of speech can be truly depressing for those of us who make a living saying what we think and trying to coax others to do the same.

    Sometimes it feels like the government in Beijing can behave abysmally and get away with it simply because it is far too economically powerful and important to be challenged any more.

    But a week in North Korea (you can see all the writing, photos and video Sean Gallagher and I produced from our trip here on The Globe and Mail website.) has given me some important perspective on where China is, and how far it has come in the 30 years since Deng Xiaoping renounced Mao's excesses and implemented his policies of reform and opening.

    North Korea hasn't had its Deng Xiaoping or Mikhail Gorbachev yet. It's still trapped in an era many Chinese would recognize from the bad old days. The paranoia that ruled during the Cultural Revolution – the fear that you could be denounced, arrested or worse for the smallest indiscretion – is still thick on the streets of Pyongyang. Catastrophic economic decisions that recall Mao's Great Leap Forward still wreak havoc on North Korea's industry and agriculture.

    Halfway through our week in North Korea, Sean and I confided half-jokingly to each other that we were starting to miss the relative freedom of China. By today, we were lusting for Beijing's smoggy air like a long-remembered lover.

    Following one last scare at Pyongyang Airport that involved a border guard suspicious of my passport, we boarded our Air Koryo flight home after one of the most interesting and intense weeks either of us had ever experienced. As our Russian-made Ilyushin-62 lifted off, Sean and I looked at each other, smiled and exhaled deeply. When it touched down at Beijing Capital Airport at just after 10 a.m., we started laughing out loud.

    Safely back on Chinese soil, we could talk freely for the first time in days. While in Pyongyang, we had been guarded in what we said even inside our shared hotel room, assuming it was listened to (a suspicion that was bolstered every time we opened our door and spotted a Workers' Party cadre lingering in the hall outside with seemingly very little to do).

    In the presence of our minders, who stayed with us from dusk until dawn, we stuck to our cover stories. He was an English teacher, obsessed with correcting my Canadian pronunciation. I was the author of a book on recent Russian history (true enough), and fascinated by the Soviet-era friendship between Moscow and Pyongyang.

    Repeating our lines was nearly as dull as it was difficult. Maybe it gave us some small insight into how careful North Koreans have to be in what they say every day of their lives.

    For all modern China's flaws – and there are many – it is now a place where ordinary people, at least in Beijing and other big cities, can act and dress how they want. No one has to wear a Mao pin or join the Communist Party if they don't want to.

    My earlier caveats aside (and they remain important), Chinese can also largely think and say what they want, provided they don't get too deeply into politics, or try and post those thoughts on the Internet.

    Many Chinese are affluent now, and many more are no longer poor. Most of them are free to decide which way is the best for them to make money and feed their family. Those who have cash spend it how they choose, often travelling the world as they do so.

    All of this progress gets too often forgotten by Western journalists such as myself who see a country in mid-journey and judge it by the distance it still has to go, rather than how far it has travelled.

    Several large Chinese tour groups were in North Korea at the same time that Sean and I were there. Though our North Korean minders limited our interaction with them, I suspect the younger Chinese wanted to see what it looks like to live in a fanatically ideological country that has cut itself off from the world. The older ones came perhaps to remember what it was like to live in just such a place.

    They can do that now. For them, it's the past, no matter how painful.

    Sadly, for North Koreans it remains the here and now.

    The pool hustlers of Pyongyang

    Pyongyang, Friday, Aug. 28: Finally, on the last day of our tour, Sean and I were given a few hours in the evening to unwind, a rare and badly needed break from a carefully packed itinerary that required us to be up and eating breakfast by 7 a.m. every day and that kept us busy until at least 9 p.m.

    Today we started with the 2.5-hour drive south to the Demilitarized Zone (between North and South Korea), then returned to Pyongyang in time to tour the city's Soviet-style metro system. Fascinating, but exhausting.

    Throughout the week here, our days have seemed designed to be so busy as to keep us from having any unscripted moments where we might meet and interact with real live North Koreans. At one point I suggested that we skip some of the formal sights and spend an afternoon in a park. Our guides just laughed, the same as they did when I inquired what Pyongyang nightlife was like.

    So we were grateful to discover that the 47-floor Yanggakdo Hotel that we were confined to at night came equipped with bowling alleys, a casino and a billiards room in the basement. (The photo, in case you're wondering, is completely unrelated. It's from the Arirang Mass Games that we saw the previous night.)

    Sean and I settled on pool as our leisure of choice, and he quickly demonstrated that he had spent far more time in the pool halls of London, England than I had in Stittsville, Ontario. I always struggle in games where there's no ice involved.

    After three rapid, easy wins, Sean set off in search of what the British call the loo, leaving me to practice bank shots on my own. It didn't amuse me for long.

    I went up to the empty bar and asked the long-haired young woman behind the counter for two more Taedonggang beers. She handed the drinks over, then smiled sweetly.

    “Me, I play with you?”

    I was momentarily confused about what she was suggesting, but followed her gaze to the ready pool table behind me.

    “You play pool?” I asked.

    “A little,” she replied, still smiling.

    It proved to be quite an understatement. She gracefully potted a ball off the break and then proceeded to sink six more in a row without missing. Each time she made a particularly improbable shot, she would give me an apologetic look and say “sorry.”

    In the corner, the nightly news played on a muted television. Looking over, I could see Kim Jong-il had visited some establishment and given advice to those working there, just as he seemed to every day. And yet, no one ever seems to have seen the Dear Leader in person.

    Finally, it was my turn to shoot. Dazed, I knocked a ball uselessly down the table, missing the corner pocket by several inches. “Ooh, unlucky,” my tormentor said, covering her mouth to stifle a giggle prompted by my ineptitude. She swiftly put me out of my misery by dunking the eight-ball.

    By this time, Sean had returned, and another waitress had emerged. She suggested that we play in teams – North Korea versus the United Nations, 1950s style.

    I'm slightly embarrassed to report that despite Sean's best efforts, the North Koreans – dressed in matching blue uniforms that made them look like air hostesses from the 1970s – ran the Western imperialists out of the room, winning four of five games.

    Though they spoke little English, my missed shots and bumbling attempts at speaking Korean gave everyone something to laugh about. Until a Workers' Party cadre wandered in and saw four people having fun that hadn't been government sanctioned.

    He barked at the two women and ordered them back to work.

    On the television set, images of life in this socialist paradise flickered silently.

    Passport games - trying to stay out of Pyongyang Prison

    Pyongyang, Thursday, Aug. 27: For several days now, I have been inside North Korea with a secret. Jammed deep in my pocket, under my wallet, was a passport containing stamps that identified me as a Canadian journalist living in China.

    It was not the passport I'd presented at the border. When we crossed from China, I had handed over an older document that was still valid but had nothing in it hinting at my profession. One of the North Koreans assigned to mind and monitor us had kept that document, saying it would be returned to me when I was leaving the country.

    It was the second passport that occasionally made it difficult to sleep at night. Two U.S. television journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, were arrested earlier in the year for illegally crossing North Korea's border with China. They had been sentenced to 12 years hard labour, and served nearly five months before Bill Clinton flew to Pyongyang to rescue them.

    I found myself wondering if Jean Chr├ętien would do the same for me.

    Keeping the incriminating document in my pocket worked until this sunny morning, when our tour guides informed us that we would visit the mausoleum of Kim Il-sung to bow before the waxy remains of the “Great Leader” who is still so revered here.

    As we pulled up in the parking lot, our guide turned around in her seat and struck fear into my heart with one politely uttered phrase. “You will have to empty your pockets in front of the security guards before you enter the mausoleum.”

    Terror. My run of luck – I had gotten in and out of such journalist-unfriendly places as Zimbabwe, Syria, Belarus and Iraq in recent years without serious incident – was over. If I hid my passport on our government-provided minibus, there was no guarantee it wouldn't be uncovered while I was touring the mausoleum. Putting it in my backpack and handing it over at the coat check seemed equally foolhardy.

    I had no other options that I could think of, so I did the only thing that came to mind. I let our minders exit the tour bus ahead of me, and waited until I was the last person on the bus. Then I took my passport out of my pocket and jammed it down the back of my pants.

    Pleased with myself, I took a few confident steps towards the security guards who were supposed to frisk me. Almost immediately I had the unfamiliar and disconcerting sensation of a small blue booklet sliding slowly over my backside. It picked up speed as it headed south down my right leg.

    Looking and feeling desperate for a bathroom break, I asked where the nearest toilet was and broke into a stiff-legged run as soon as I was pointed in the right direction. I got inside (it was mercifully empty) and slammed the door just in time to grab the passport as it landed on the top of my shoe.

    I still hadn't gone through the pocket-emptying security check, so I had no choice but to try it again. This time, the passport went down the front of my pants. If the guards check there, I decided, we have problems no matter what they find.

    Though I was drenched in sweat by this point, the trick worked and the guards spent only a few seconds at my wallet and the lint I retrieved from my pocket. I joined the long line of tourists and North Koreans who had come to pay their respects to the corpse of a megalomaniac dictator who died 15 years ago.

    Some wept openly, apparently in sadness, at the sight of the man who instigated the pointless Korean War and oversaw one of the cruellest police states in modern history. Others stared at him expressionlessly.

    Maybe it was the uncomfortable placement of my passport, but I found myself wanting to laugh at the absurdity of it all.

    What to do with a stuffed Nicaraguan crocodile

    Pyongyang and Myohyangsan, North Korea - Wednesday, Aug. 26: Ever wondered what to do with that tacky gift you got for your birthday?

    Kim Jong-il has come up with the perfect solution: build a palace in the mountains an appropriate distance away, and stick all the stuff that clashes with your kitchen cupboards up there.

    Like the stuffed crocodile carrying a tray of drinks that Nicaragua's Sandinista rebels thought his father, Kim Il-sung, would just love. Or that stylish but out-of-date bulletproof limousine that good old Joseph Stalin gave his family back in the day.

    The so-called International Friendship Exhibition, two buildings tucked high in the Myohyangsan mountain resort area north of Pyongyang, has to be one of the odder tourist sites in the world. The front room features a map of the world with three digital numbers on it – the first counting the number of gifts received by Kim Il-sung, the second the number given to Kim Jong-il. If you're wondering, father (who apparently continues to receive gifts from admirers even 15 years after his death) still leads son in this who-is-more-loved race. The third number, which glows at 180, keeps track of how many countries gifts have been received from.

    While some gave fancy cars and stuffed crocs, others were more circumspect in their gifting. A serving tray with the word “Jamaica” painted on it looked like it had been swiped from a beach bar. A small blue pinny, again from Nicaragua, seemed like something you'd receive for taking part in, but not winning, a sporting competition.

    Canada, you'll be pleased to know, was among the 180 countries that showed their admiration. A polar bear skin (head still on) was sent to Kim Il-sung's by an anonymous Canadian citizen and now hangs upside-down in a glass display case. The Communist Party of Canada apparently once saw fit to present the tyrants of Pyongyang with a Group of Seven coffee table book.

    After a brief stop at a nearby Buddhist temple (where a token monk spoke to us in the company of a female soldier), we made the 21/2-half hour drive to Pyongyang and were taken to one of the sites I had been most anxious to see: the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum, which in another country might be called the Korean War Museum.

    To visit the museum, in north-central Pyongyang, is to be told to forget everything you know about what happened in the 1950-1953 conflict. The official view put forth by the North Korean government has nothing to do with what's in Canadian history books.

    In a succession of films, murals and moving battlefield mock-ups, visitors are pounded with a single message: that it was the United States that started the war on June 25, 1950 and that the Korean People's Army eventually handed the superpower an embarrassing defeat.

    “Some of the Americans who come argue and say this isn't the case,” said our tour guide, a cheerful woman sporting a military uniform and an unreadable smile. “But history is history. You can't change it.”

    Into the land of the Kims - a journey in North Korea

    Sinuiju, North Korea - Tuesday, Aug. 25: There was, of course, always the likelihood that the North Koreans wouldn't let in the country two foreigners with suspicious back stories (I entered on the premise that I was a Russian historian, Sean as an English teacher living in China). Or worse, that they'd let us in and keep us there until Bill Clinton's next trip to Pyongyang.

    But the border and customs formalities went surprisingly smoothly, likely because we ran into a Chinese tour group that was crossing at the same time and cheerfully adopted the two crazy laowai (foreigners) as their own. By the time they got to the customs room, the guards were too busy going through bags stuffed with boil-in-bucket noodles (some of the Chinese were apparently worried they wouldn't be fed in North Korea) to give our documents more than a peremptory look.

    (I presented a passport that had no markings identifying me as a reporter anywhere on it, and kept my other one – which has an incriminating Chinese journalist visa in it – jammed deep in my pocket. More on that later.) The weather was a warm and clear, and Sean and I were soon working on what we would come to call our Pyongyang tan.

    Our first stop inside North Korea was a massive bronze statue on the main city square of the “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung, the founding leader of North Korea, shaking his fist like he's playing rock-paper-scissors.

    In the official narrative here, the Great Leader didn't really go anywhere when he died and passed his tyrannical powers on to his son Kim Jong-il in 1994. Under the country's constitution, the elder Kim is North Korea's “eternal president,” though it's unclear what his day-to-day responsibilities are beyond appearing in old propaganda films. Red posters around the country tell citizens that Kim Il-sung will be with them forever.

    “In our country, it is custom to bow before the statue of the Great Leader. Will you join us in this custom?” our tour guide said flatly. Sean and I had known this moment was coming. There was nothing to do but bow. When in Sinuiju…

    After a quick tour of the Sinuiju Historical Museum, which was dedicated to the life stories of the two Kims (the elder apparently visited Sinuiju 217 times, the younger 186), as well as Kim Jong-suk, the mother of Kim Jong-il (only two visits to Sinuiju), we ate a lunch of beef, rice and kimchi and boarded the 2:10 p.m. train for the five-hour-20-minute hour journey to Pyongyang.

    The wood-panelled train car looked like something out of the 1950s Soviet Union, with portraits of Kim Il-sung and a youthful Kim Jong-il hanging where Stalin and Lenin would once have been. The scene on the platform as we pulled away was similarly out of a Second World War movie: we could see weaponless soldiers milling around as martial music played over the loudspeakers. Merchants in grey Mao suits tried to shove their wares on the train as it began to roll away, and women waved farewell to men heading south to the capital city.

    We were accompanied for the journey by a group of government-assigned tour guides who were assigned to watch us during our time in North Korea, as well as Workers' Party cadres who silently kept watch over all of us. They spent much of the ride to Pyongyang grilling us about our backgrounds. Why did you want to come to North Korea? How long were you in China? Where did you go to university? What was the theme of your book about Russia?

    (Sometimes the conversations veered into the bizarre. Later in the trip, Sean, a Londoner, was asked what year the Tower of London was built. When he failed that test, our minders began to openly question his Britishness. He tried to brush it off by jokingly saying he was more into science than history, and wound up having to explain the concept of a vacuum as proof of that scientific bent.)

    Out the window, a scene of abject poverty rolled by. Grey industrial with no sign of functioning factories and endless fields of rice and corn that were being worked by hand or by oxcart in the absence of farm equipment and fuel. There were few cars or even bicycles on the roads, and people could be seen walking tens of kilometres from anywhere.

    “Long Live Kim Jong-il, a leader for the 21st Century!” proclaimed a red propaganda poster that we saw in almost every town we passed.

    Our minders strictly warned us not to turn our cameras out the window, and it was easy to see why. This was not the image of a powerful country the Kim regime is trying so desperately to present to the world.

    Through the looking glass: peeking at North Korea from across the Yalu

    Dandong, China - Monday, Aug. 24: Photographer Sean Gallagher and I landed today in the northeastern Chinese city of Dandong after a 90-minute flight on Air China from Beijing. We were met at the airport and taken straight to a hotel called the Pearl Island Golf Club.

    There's a driving range here, but no golf course that we can find. Our room does offer a nice view across the Yalu River into North Korea, though.

    It's our first glimpse into the Hermit Kingdom: a row of grey two- and three-storey buildings that appear to be uninhabited. Further east, there's a Ferris wheel that doesn't turn and an industrial zone where a single smokestack pumps black smoke into the air. The other factories, whatever they make or made, appear closed.

    The contrast with the Chinese side is unmistakable. This side of the river is a construction site, with multi-storey apartment blocks and office buildings rising before your eyes. The locals stroll along a paved boardwalk and sit on the banks to stare at the Hermit Kingdom across the Yalu.

    The North Korean side is deathly quiet in contrast. Even using the zoom lenses on our cameras, we only see a handful of residents, most of them walking or cycling. Not a single car drives by in the time we watch the other bank, though there is the occasional truck.

    After an hour on our own, our tourist agent picks us up and takes us to the waterfront. Our first stop is the Broken Bridge, a broken metal span that was cut in half by a U.S. B-29 during the Korean War.

    But that history is not what draws people here any more. Like the rest of the tourists, Sean and I walk right past the photographs explaining what happened here in 1953. It's at the end that we get our cameras out and resume photographing the south bank of the Yalu. The B-29's intent may have been to cut off a vital supply route for the North Korean army that was then pushing UN forces back south with the help of Chinese “volunteer” fighters, but 56 years later its lasting impact has been to create a tourist stop that allows voyeurs to get a few hundred metres closer to North Korea without the need for a visa.

    “I feel a bit dirty,” Sean confesses in his London accent after we finish the 20 yuan (about $3.50) tour. It does indeed feel wrong to stare and point at the people across the river as though they are zoo animals.

    But peering into Stalinism's last redoubt is a lucrative industry here in Dandong. After our walk to the end of the Broken Bridge, we board a tour boat crammed with more than 70 Chinese tourists. The boat crosses the middle of the river – presumably into North Korea waters – as cameras snap away and tourists pose against a backdrop of patrolling soldiers and bare-chested men wading waist-deep into the water to fish with nets. Another packed boat leaves every 30 minutes.

    Our boat captain has chosen The Carpenters as the soundtrack for the 30-minute excursion. Every sha-la-la-la. Every whoah-oh-oh. At first it seems wildly inappropriate, but later it occurs to me that Yesterday Once More (the song's title) might be exactly how many Chinese feel as they peer at a country still living through the disastrous leadership China itself experienced decades ago during the Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward.

    Dinner that night is an alcohol-soaked affair at a North Korean restaurant in Dandong. Beef, rice, kimchi and a fruit alcohol that our guide mixes into our Taedonggang beers.

    The patrons are in a great mood, singing and clapping along with a lively stage show. It's just a guess, but it feels like they're delighted to be among the very few allowed to leave the paranoid and impoverished place across the river.