North Koreans stand onboard a ship in the Yalu River in the North Korean town of Sinuiji, opposite the Chinese border, in 2006. Photo: Liu Jin/AFP/Getty Images.
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Sailing for North Korea: A voyage to the town where no one knows the Beatles

The Chinese have always made the crossing: historically for trade, more recently for tourism. In May 2013, the North Korean city of Sinuiju opened up to westerners for the first time.

The Friendship Bridge reaches across the Yalu River from Dandong in China to Sinuiju in North Korea. It’s an unremarkable construction, worthy of note only because the Chinese have festooned their end with multicoloured neon lights and lasers in a soaring display of civic one-upmanship. At night, from the North Korean side of the river, it’s like looking at Las Vegas. Peering in from China, it’s a bridge into the black.

The Chinese have always made the crossing: historically for trade, more recently for tourism. Friends tell me Sinuiju reminds them of an old China: before Deng Xiaoping’s reforms cleared the hutongs to make way for branches of Gucci. In May 2013, the city opened up to westerners for the first time.

It was an interesting time to visit. The very public purging in December of Chang Song-thaek, the uncle of North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong-un, was still headline news, as was the unlikely alliance between the “Dear Leader” and the retired US basketball player Dennis Rodman.

Meanwhile, there were signs that Kim’s promises to raise North Korean living standards might be paying off. At the border, a line of brand new Hyundai taxis bound for Pyongyang suggested a growing middle class. North Korea is now manufacturing a tablet computer for its domestic market, the Android-powered Samjiyon, which comes with Angry Birds pre-installed.

My guide, Ms Lee, meets me on the North Korean side of the Friendship Bridge. She found work at the state-owned KITC tourism company after learning English at university in Pyongyang. She chaperones me quickly through border control, a scruffy one-room building, stamping her feet to keep warm. Outside, it is beginning to snow.

At first glance, Sinuiju looks like Pyongyang’s unkempt little brother. It’s more industrial and less grand, with Soviet-style housing blocks daubed in various shades of pastel, but it shares the capital’s wide boulevards and large public spaces. We stop at a giant bronze statue of a youthful Kim Il-sung, grandfather of the current leader, where formality dictates that I place flowers before the Eternal Leader and bow, while young boys in old clothes clear the snowfall.

Then we head to the city’s Revolutionary Museum, where our breath forms clouds in the corridors and dim bulbs flicker into life as we move from room to room. At Sinuiju Folk Park, which Ms Lee tells me was built entirely by women, we kick ice from our boots as, in the distance, thousands of people stream home from a mass rally. Coats pulled tight, leaning into the wind, they look like matchstick figures departing an L S Lowry painting.

Questions can be problematic. For journalists, who occasionally sneak into the DPRK on guided tours and who are obliged to ask questions the guides cannot answer, this is especially true. But keep away from the difficult subjects and you’re more likely to build some trust and learn more.

Lunch, which takes place in a private, windowless room in a restaurant next to the Yalu, is delicious: kimchi accompanied by spiced squid, sliced duck, chips and – most unexpectedly – fat chunks of Swiss roll dipped in mayonnaise. The waitresses take turns to sing romantic and patriotic songs, a mixture of backing music and howling feedback streaming from the karaoke machine. We dance and they ask me to sing. There’s no western music on offer, so I try “Yesterday” by the Beatles. Unaccompanied, my amplified voice echoing uncomfortably round the room, it’s obvious they’ve never heard of it, or them.

The highlight is a visit to Ponbu Kindergarten, home to the city’s most extravagantly talented six-year-olds. Two boys in sequined shirts and bow ties perform a complicated duet for drums and xylophone. In the playroom, two more take potshots at tiny American helicopters on a miniature diorama with toy guns while a third, dressed in small military greatcoat, pushes model tanks and fighter jets around a table. The visit finishes with a live show, tiny girls with fixed gymnast smiles juggling, unicycling and hula-hooping. Later, in China, my contact shakes his head when I tell the story: only North Korean children can do that.

As we wait for my bus at the border, Ms Lee complains about the cold and offers me her hands, which I rub. It feels like a touching end to a fascinating, bewildering day.

As North Korea’s slow embrace of western tourism grinds along, these brief glimpses of life beyond the hermit kingdom clichés are becoming a little less unusual. We say goodbye and I cross the bridge out of North Korea and back into the neon. I’m going to send Ms Lee some gloves.

This article first appeared in the 13 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Can we talk about climate change now?

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What it’s like to be a Syrian refugee in Paris

“We fled from terror and it found us again here. It feels like it is always behind us, stalking us.”

Walid al Omari arrived in Paris a little less than a month ago. Having fled the slaughter of his homeland and undertaken the long and dangerous journey, like tens of thousands of other Syrian refugees, to western Europe, he was finally safe.

Ten days later, a wave of brutal violence tore through the French capital as gunmen and suicide bombers put an end to the lives of 130 people who had been out enjoying a drink, dinner, a concert or a football match.

“It felt like terrorism was everywhere,” recalls the 57-year-old Walid, a former small business owner and journalist from the suburbs of Damascus.

“We fled from terror and it found us again here. It feels like it is always behind us, stalking us.”

Syrian refugees, not just in Paris but across Europe and North America, have since found themselves caught up in a storm of suspicion. The backlash started after it emerged that at least two of the attackers arrived in Europe among refugees travelling to Greece, while a Syrian passport was found next to one of the bodies.

It has not yet been confirmed if the two men were really Syrian – all suspects whose identities have so far been made public were either French or Belgian – while the passport is widely believed to be a fake. But, already, several US states have said they will not accept any more refugees from Syria. In Europe, Poland has called for the EU’s quota scheme for resettling refugees to be scrapped, while lawmakers in France, Germany and elsewhere have called for caps on refugee and migrant numbers.

“I fear the worse,” says Sabreen al Rassace, who works for Revivre, a charity that helps Syrian refugees resettle in France. She says she has been swamped by calls by concerned refugees in the days following the attacks.

“They ask me if the papers they have been given since they arrived in France will be taken away, if they’ll be sent back to Syria,” she says.

Anas Fouiz, who arrived in Paris in September, has experienced the backlash against refugees first hand.

“One waiter at a bar asked me where I was from and when I said Syria he said that I must be a terrorist, that all Arab people are terrorists,” says the 27-year-old from Damascus, who had been a fashion student before leaving for Europe.

The irony is that the terrorist organisation that claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks, the Islamic State, is, along with Bashar al Assad’s army and other militant groups, responsible for the long list of atrocities that prompted many like Walid and Anas to flee their homes.

“As a man in Syria you have the choice of joining the Syrian army, the Islamic state or another militant group, or you run away,” says Anas.

He remembers seeing news of the attacks unfold on television screens in bars and cafés in the Bastille area of Paris – close to where much of the carnage took place – as he drank with a friend. Desensitised by having seen so much violence and death in his home city, he didn’t feel any shock or fear.

“I just felt bad, because I know this situation,” he says. “You just ask yourself ‘why? Why do these people have to die?’.”

Perhaps a more pressing cause for concern is how easily extremists in Europe can travel to Syria and back again through the porous borders on the EU’s fringes – as several of the Paris attacks suspects are thought to have done.

Both Anas and Walid speak of the lax security they faced when entering Europe.

“Turkey lets people across the border for $20,” says Walid.

“In Greece, they just ask you to write your nationality, they don’t check passports,” adds Anas. “It’s the same in Hungary and Macedonia.”

Nevertheless, and despite his experience with the waiter, Anas says he is happy with the welcome he has received by the vast majority of the French people.

In fact, at a time when fear and violence risk deepening religious and social rifts, Anas’s story is a heartening tale of divisions being bridged.

Upon first arriving in Paris he slept on the streets, before a passer-by, a woman of Moroccan origin, offered him a room in her flat. He then spent time at a Christian organization that provides shelter for refugees, before moving in with a French-Jewish family he was put in touch with through another charity.

He says the biggest problem is that he misses his parents, who are still in Damascus.

“I speak to my mum twice a day on the phone,” he says. “She asks me if I’m okay, if I’m keeping safe. She’s worried about me.”