Surreal Korea

North Korea is even stranger than the picture painted of it, as Mark Seddon found out after a close

Astonishingly, General Ri Chan-bok, North Korean commander of border forces at the heavily fortified Panmunjom armistice line between the communist North and the freewheeling, capitalist South, agreed that I could leave my camera running. I was with my old friend and veteran Korean shuttle diplomat, Glyn Ford MEP, on one of the now numerous trips I have made to the hermit state. It had been a bumpy few days for me, however, and as the general waxed lyrical on the threat posed by the US, and talked of his country's readiness to use all means necessary, I reflected on the close shave I had had earlier.

Wandering past the main railway terminus in the capital, Pyongyang, I'd been arrested by a very angry female soldier who had spotted me filming lines of women waving red plastic flowers at the departure of some dignitary. Being marched off to a room where we were joined by another irate female soldier, with my passport back at the hotel, was not the best introduction to the country. When my guards stopped shouting and left the corridor clear momentarily, I saw my chance, and ran as fast as my legs would take me.

This was the first ever "interview" to camera - though more like a monologue - with a member of North Korea's military. And it was my friendship with Glyn, coupled with my being at the time on Labour's National Executive Committee and a journalist, that was to give me the most remarkable access over the next four trips.

"Mr Seddon! What do you think of Korean goals?" asked Mr Kim, our minder, as we munched our way through hand-picked fungi at a completely deserted mountain resort, north of the capital. "Well," I said, on-message, "Korea is making much progress towards modernisation and electrification!" "No, Mr Seddon, what do you think of Korean goals?" Off I went again: "Soon everyone will have mobile phones." (In fact, the few thousand handsets that had been given to trusty officials were soon to be confiscated by Kim Jong-il, because, er, they could not be trusted.) "No, no, Mr Seddon! Korean goals!" At this point, the bewildered Mr Kim pointed towards the shy, prim, kimono-clad Korean girls who had been serving us the fungi they had picked earlier.

North Korea, or "the land of eternal happiness", as I prefer to call it, is even more surreal than the lurid picture painted of it. Its inhabitants live in a time warp, cut off from the rest of the world, with no phones, no internet, no satellite television and (as the old Soviet Politburo would have described it) no noise pollution - meaning pop music. Curiosity has been replaced with the certainties of Juche, North Korea's ideology of self-reliance couched in Marxism-Leninism and, through the two Kims (Kim Il-sung, the Great Leader and father of Kim Jong-il, Dear Leader), old-style emperor worship.

I witnessed this emperor worship at first hand, from the VIP box at the staggering display that is North Korea's mass Arirang games. The North Koreans are quite rightly proud of this astonishing ensemble of 20,000 gymnasts, as only a state so thoroughly centrally planned and organised could manage such a feat. As the music built to a crescendo, the bouffant-haired figure of Kim Jong-il emerged from the recesses of the huge stadium. Clad in his olive-green zipped Mao jacket, the Dear Leader took the massed applause and salute. Most surreal of all was the walk back through Pyongyang's dark and silent streets as the 100,000-strong crowd dispersed. I had been in the military section, surrounded by thousands of North Korea's fearsome top brass. The sound of all those clinking medals will stay with me for a long time.

I had a second chance to view the Dear Leader at close quarters when, placed on a dais overlooking Kim Il-sung Square, I witnessed a rally to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the communist Workers' Party of Korea. On this occasion, as the crowd roared its approval, I could make out only the Dear Leader's dark glasses and raised arm.

Leaving aside emperor worship and worrying tangles with the military, I have good impressions of the country. One of my happiest memories was our picnic at a state trout farm on the way back from Namp'o. A county chairwoman, Madam Hu, was our host, together with officials from the party and our ever-present minders. Madam Hu had taken a particular liking to my Chairman Mao lighter, which played "The East Is Red" when you flipped the lid open. Even in my inebriated state, as toast followed toast, I noticed it disappearing into her voluminous skirts.

Madam Hu insisted that all the delegations continue with the toasting and singing, but I couldn't help noticing that Glyn was a bit further gone than me - and we had already done "The Red Flag" and "The Internationale" twice. It fell to me to sing "God Save the Queen", accompanied by our tired and emotional North Korean comrades. Mr Kim was busy throwing up.

"Mr Seddon! In Korea, this means you live," Mr Kim said, giving me the thumbs-up, "and this means you die." Whereupon he gave me the thumbs-down. As the train slowly started clanking out of Pyongyang on the long journey to the Chinese border, Mr Kim looked at me and turned his thumb down. Then, smiling, he turned it up. But I couldn't help wondering: What was he really thinking?

Mark Seddon is diplomatic correspondent for al-Jazeera English

This article first appeared in the 30 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Brown v Cameron. Game over?