Breaking Bad in North Korea

Published in the Mail on Sunday (September 22nd, 2013)

A small army of women, identical in long yellow dresses and clutching golden fans, enter the vast stadium to the adulation of thousands of awed spectators. They bow in military unison, turn and kneel to a staggering trompe l’oeil: a burning sun emerging in triumphant blaze over snow-clad mountains.

The glorious North Korean dawn plays out across what appears at first to be a colossal screen the entire length of the stadium. In fact, it is 20,000 well-drilled children turning pages of books with brightly-coloured paper in perfect synchronicity.

These mass games of Pyongyang, capital city of the most closed and repressive state in the world, are twisted propaganda. Last weekend, I became one of the few Westerners to have witnessed epic scenes that would have made Goebbels weep with pride.

For 90 minutes, a bizarre blend of acrobatics, dancing, martial arts and music unfolds in a frenzy of precision choreography involving 100,000 performers.

Thousands of young women in short-skirted army uniforms dance nimbly with swords held aloft. Then long lines of black-belted men throw judo moves before joining forces to hoist up a huge national flag.

Minutes later, massed ranks of small children spin in somersaults to the crowd’s delight. Giant pigs give birth to dancing piglets while chickens twirl with eggs. Human cannonballs high above our heads fly across the entire stadium – the first through a blazing hoop.

Anthems are sung with evangelical zeal: one supposedly written by the last leader. They praise nuclear weapons, promise to unify divided Koreans and scorn American imperialists.

And, from start to finish, this show promotes the fascistic ideology of  a pure people surrounded by evil  enemies, demanding unflinching  obedience to their rulers.

It is undeniably spectacular – but  as a tribute to a successful modern nation, it’s a monstrous fraud. North Korea has been imprisoned in a dark past by three generations of a despotic gangster family.

There is no mention of death camps holding an estimated 200,000 slave labourers, of families tortured for watching foreign soap operas, of mothers forced to drown their own babies – atrocities all documented in a disturbing United Nations investigation.

Investigators catalogued horror stories in last week’s report – such as children condemned to a life in prison for the alleged misdeeds of their parents – and compared the regime’s vile crimes to those carried out by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and the Nazis.

But now another extraordinary revelation is emerging slowly from defectors: that North Korea is pumping out massive quantities of methamphetamine – or crystal meth, the addictive drug cooked up by a chemistry teacher in the dark US drama Breaking Bad.

A new study reveals vast quantities are being made for export by state-trained scientists in collusion with corrupt officials and criminal gangs in a country desperate for hard currency.

Inevitably, it has ended up creating a catastrophic epidemic back home. In some parts of the country up to 50 per cent of the population are reported to be hooked. The study discloses drug abuse has reached ‘remarkable proportions and keeps growing, engulfing new social groups and regions’.

The inquiry, by two South Korea-based academics, is based on interviews with 21 recent defectors. It confirms earlier evidence from the US and China, where there are soaring levels of crystal meth addiction in border regions with North Korea.

Perhaps most remarkably, the trade began as a state-sponsored exercise.

The nation, hit hard by the collapse of the Soviet Union which supported it with aid, began making methamphetamine in large laboratories in its poorer northern regions for export. 

These were scaled down about eight years ago as the drug began flooding back into the country. But instead of slowing down production, this sparked explosive growth in crystal meth manufacture.

Jobless scientists and technicians created their own ‘kitchen labs’, teaming up with smuggling gangs that blossomed during a deadly famine in the Nineties. ‘They were rather old people and their lives were tough,’ one defector told the report’s authors. ‘Private entrepreneurs began to look for such people and employ them.’

Users include soldiers in the world’s most militarised state, women taking it for weight control and sick people unable to access medicines in a country with such chronic healthcare  that doctors use old beer bottles for hospital drips.

‘People in North Korea do not realise what the side effects will be,’ said  Professor Kim Seok-Hyang, who co-authored the report. ‘They think it is a good thing to relieve their pain. A cure-all medicine.’

Parents even offer it to children to help them concentrate – with no inkling of the consequences. ‘One mother I interviewed gave it to her 11-year-old daughter so she could study for her exams to go to an elite middle school,’ said Prof Seok-Hyang.

The word ‘munlan’ has appeared to describe those who have seen their lives wrecked and health suffer because of the drug. Meanwhile, experts estimate up to 40 per cent of North Korea’s foreign earnings now come from illegal activities.

No visitor, of course, can probe at first-hand this sordid underbelly of North Korea. Journalists are barred from the country under threat of jail. So I posed as one of the few Western tourists visiting the country – who must all accept constant supervision.

I entered by train from Dandong, one of the key Chinese towns used by smuggling gangs. As dusk fell over the riverside frontier, a dishevelled man dancing manically outside a shop playing piped music was pointed out as a probable crystal meth abuser.

The difference between the two countries is striking. On one side of the river, a rapidly growing forest of skyscrapers and bustling Chinese commerce; on the other, military watchtowers, rusting boats and two rather tragic theme-park rides. Symbolically, the lights on the bridge linking the two nations end midway over the river.

Our train stopped for two hours as border guards searched bags. They checked my iPhone and flicked through my books. Fortunately,  I had been warned to scratch the GPS sign off my camera or it would have been confiscated.

The journey offered a rare chance to mingle freely with North Koreans – a group of whom invited me to share their lunch of fresh crab, fiery cabbage and tasteless tripe, washed down with potent rice wine.

They could name only one living Briton: David Beckham. The film Bend It Like Beckham is among four Western films permitted on the propaganda-drenched TV station, alongside The Sound of Music, Home Alone and Titanic.

A middle-aged man said he had never met a Westerner before. He refused to let me take his picture, then relented because he wanted a snapshot of me. ‘Don’t let the soldiers see it,’ he warned.

Arriving at Pyongyang, two ‘guides’ attached themselves and remained at my side until they put me on a plane four days later. The pair even stayed at my huge slab of a hotel, stuck on a well-guarded island in the Taedong river, and followed me to the lavatory on excursions.

My minders were friendly yet stuck rigidly to their party line. ‘May I leave the island on my own,’ I asked? ‘That is not advisable,’ came the reply. ‘People are not used to foreigners. You will stand out. It is for your own safety.’

These are the well-educated children of the elite, permitted to live in the pampered capital unlike most citizens, and trusted to mix with outsiders. Yet their lack of awareness of life outside their hermetic world made for some surreal conversations.

One played electric guitar but had never heard of The Beatles, hip-hop or even South Korean superstar Psy. I tried to explain the Gangnam Style video, but floundered since he could not grasp the concept of YouTube.

Their explanations about the nation’s detachment from the 21st century sounded absurd. When I asked why there were no cars on the Pyongyang streets last Sunday, I was told public-spirited families dislike causing unnecessary pollution.

In fact, less than one per cent of the 24 million population have cars  – and laws restrict Sunday driving due to fuel shortages. Permission is needed to drive after 6.30pm on other days.

Infrastructure is decrepit, with bumpy roads and shabby blocks of flats. A visit to one celebrated sight was cancelled because a bridge had collapsed.

Tourists are shuffled around special shops, bars and restaurants. Needless to say, I was told there were almost no drugs in North Korea – and that if anyone did use them, they would be ‘corrected’ by their family or workplace committee.

Trying to explain gay marriage also proved a forlorn task. ‘I would kill my children if they did that,’ responded one astonished man.

Huge meals are served, as if to banish suggestions of shortages. One included an entire chicken and rice cooked in ginseng, followed by soup, squid, fish, duck, noodles, seaweed, stewed bracken, potato croquettes, pickled cabbage, fried egg and more rice. It was all just for me.

But recent reports reveal more than a quarter of North Korean children under five are stunted by extreme malnutrition, while rural poverty remains endemic.

The propaganda is remorseless. Everyone wears a red badge with a picture of either a grinning ‘Great Leader’ – Kim Il-sung who founded the personality cult around which this repressed nation revolves – or his simpering son Kim Jong-il, the ‘Dear Leader’ who died in 2011. Some display both images on their breast.

The portraits adorn homes, public buildings, roads, the underground. There are none of Kim Jong-un, the Swiss-educated, 30-year-old latest supreme leader. He is loosening the economy a little – but is also reported to have had an ex-girlfriend machine-gunned to death last month in front of her family.

I pointed out one tower block with a huge red flower painted instead on its roof, only to be told it was a ‘Kimjongilia’ – a type of begonia named after the late leader that I then started seeing everywhere.

No expense has been spared ramming home the paranoid ideology of the regime and the legacy of its dead leaders. There are 65ft-high bronze statues, monuments to their contorted creed, museums glorifying their deeds and a massive mausoleum displaying their embalmed bodies.

When I visited this tomb, the size of a small airport, I was joined by  40 busloads of officials from the state communications department allowed a rare day in the capital. Travel is heavily restricted, with permits needed to move around and frequent roadblocks.

We were stripped of all belongings and rode travelators – along marble-clad corridors lined with endless photographs of the two leaders – for at least ten minutes while sombre music droned from speakers.

Finally, we went through wind tunnels to blow away any specs of dust, then into a darkened room where we lined up in rows of four to bow to the first body under the eye of armed soldiers and security officials.

Women in traditional costume cried as they moved around the glass cases, bowing three more times; it was impossible to tell if the tears were genuine. I could not help but notice the shoddy application of hair dye on Kim Il-sung’s corpse.

After viewing his car and train, we repeated the performance for the second deceased leader. Each also had a room displaying medals presented by foreign governments and official bodies – depressingly, I noticed one awarded by Derbyshire County Council.

That evening, I joined the same besuited officials bused in to a special performance of the state  circus. Unfortunately, the daring of amazing acrobats was diminished by the debasement of skating bears and baboons.

Propaganda bombarded me even on the flight back to Beijing. Screens showed a gig by the nation’s answer to the Spice Girls, handpicked last year by the new leader and whose hits include Drink To Victory, Fluttering Red Flag and Let’s Meet At The Frontline.

It was a relief to land back in the modern world after my brief glimpse behind the rusting Iron Curtain of North Korea. For those millions condemned to be left behind, one can only hope the sun will soon set on this most bloodstained, most dangerous and most revolting regime.

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