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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Commons Confidential: When Corbyn met Obama

The Labour leader chatted socialism with the leader of the free world.

Child labour isn’t often a subject for small talk, and yet it proved an ice-breaker when Jeremy Corbyn met Barack Obama. The Labour leader presented the US president with a copy of What Would Keir Hardie Say? edited by Pauline Bryan and including a chapter penned by Comrade Corbyn himself.

The pair, I’m informed by a reliable snout, began their encounter by discussing exploitation and how Hardie started work at the tender age of seven, only to be toiling in a coal mine three years later.

The book explores Hardie’s relevance today. Boris Johnson will no doubt sniff a socialist conspiracy when he learns that the president knew, or at least appeared to know, far more about Hardie and the British left than many MPs, Labour as well as Tory.

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Make what you will of the following comment by a very senior Tory. During a private conversation with a Labour MP on the same select committee, this prominent Conservative, upon spotting Chuka Umunna, observed: “We were very relieved when he pulled out of your leadership race. Very capable. We feared him.” He then, in
a reference to Sajid Javid, went on: “We’ve got one of them.” What could he mean? I hope it’s that both are young, bald and ambitious . . .

***

To Wales, where talk is emerging of who will succeed Carwyn Jones as First Minister and Welsh Labour leader. Jones hasn’t announced plans to quit the posts he has occupied since 2009, but that isn’t dampening speculation. The expectation is that he won’t serve a full term, should Labour remain in power after 5 May, either as a minority administration or in coalition in the Senedd.

Names being kicked about include two potential newcomers: the former MEP Eluned Morgan, now a baroness in the House of Cronies, and the Kevin Whately lookalike Huw Irranca-Davies, swapping his Westminster seat, Ogmore, for a place in the Welsh Assembly. Neither, muttered my informant, is standing to make up the numbers.

***

No 10’s spinner-in-chief Craig “Crazy Olive” Oliver’s decision to place Barack Obama’s call for Britain to remain in Europe in the Daily Telegraph reflected, whispered my source, Downing Street’s hope that the Torygraph’s big-business advertisers and readers will keep away from the rest of the Tory press.

The PM has given up on the Europhobic Sun and Daily Mail. Both papers enjoy chucking their weight about, yet fear the implications for their editorial clout should they wind up on the losing side if the country votes to remain on 23 June.

***

Asked if that Eurofan, Tony Blair, will play a prominent role in the referendum campaign, a senior Remainer replied: “No, he’s toxic. But with all that money, he could easily afford to bankroll it.”

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism