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WEB EXCLUSIVE
Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006
Politely persistent

By GEOFFREY YORK
Globe and Mail Update
Thursday, Sep. 25, 2003

Pyongyan, North Korea — His name was Mr. Kim, and for eight days he was my relentless shadow.

He was polite, mild-mannered and very persistent. As I traveled across North Korea this month, he was always nearby, hovering in the background, watching alertly for any illicit contacts.

From all appearances, he never went home. At the end of a long day of travel, he invariably took up a monitoring post in the hotel lobby, where he could enforce the line of separation, keeping the foreigners inside the hotel and the North Koreans out.

It was always a mystery where (or whether) he slept. In eight days, he seemed to change his clothes only once.

Officially he was just a tour guide, but in reality he was a guardian of North Korea's political purity, a defender of its isolation. His job was to prevent any contact between the citizens of the people's paradise and the dangerous foreign tourists who occasionally moved among them.

If any North Koreans happened to be in the vicinity when we disembarked from our bus, he quickly ushered them away. If we ventured too close to a local citizen, he materialized from nowhere and slipped quietly into view, his presence a none-too-subtle reminder to the North Koreans that they should shut up and move away.

I sometimes speculated about his real job. He spoke fluent Chinese and English and had spent considerable time in Beijing with delegations. In an unguarded moment, he admitted that he was a member of North Korea's ruling political party, the Korean Workers Party. Only 15 per cent of North Koreans — the most zealous and reliable members of the establishment — are permitted to be party members. This meant, almost certainly, that he was a security agent or a political operative.

When we strolled through the Korean War museum in Pyongyang one day he stuck close to me. The museum guide spoke English, and therefore the risk of unauthorized conversations was particularly high. After a tour of the gruesome exhibits in the "Hall of American Atrocities", I asked the guide whether she thought the United States was capable of such evil deeds today. She hesitated and glanced over at Mr. Kim. He whispered something in her ear. She gave an embarrassed shrug. "What should I say?" she said to me.

In this Orwellian society, individual opinions are not permitted. How is possible for anyone to have an independent thought in a country where all thoughts are provided by the regime? Even if someone was able to formulate a private opinion, Mr. Kim or one of his colleagues would quickly be there to crush it.

Look at North Korean television, where the individual does not exist at all. Everything is subordinated to the collective. Faceless audiences are allowed, but only if they are applauding wildly to the latest patriotic song. Individuals can give speeches, but only if they are praising the Great Leader and the Dear Leader. Victorious soccer teams and marching soldiers are permitted, but none of their members are singled out for attention. The announcers are anonymous voices. No athlete or entertainer is interviewed or profiled, because nobody is allowed to gain enough fame to rival the Dear Leader.

In Seoul last winter, refugees from the North had told me how the people are brainwashed and intimidated. Everyone must attend a weekly "self-criticism session" at a local propaganda centre. Everyone must give a summary of their activities over the previous week. Then they must admit their mistakes and promise to do better. Then they must snitch on their friends and neighbors, describing any improper behaviour that they witnessed.

To reinforce the message, "ideological sessions" are held twice a week. Quotations from Great Leader and the Dear Leader fly furiously through the air.

Even for a guardian of purity, however, the climate of isolation is sometimes too much. Toward the end of our visit, Mr. Kim asked whether we might possibly have any leftover books that we could give him. He didn't say why, but I could guess the reason. I had been to the bookstores. Nothing but the collected works of the Great Leader and the Dear Leader is available. Even a dedicated member of the Workers Party might occasionally yearn for something a little different.

I gave him a copy of Shanghai Baby, a paperback novel of sex, drugs and decadence in China's most capitalist city, written by an adventurous young Chinese woman. It had been banned in China, but our agent hungrily lapped it up, reading the opening chapters voraciously on the bus as we traveled to our tourist sites. It was my farewell gift.

Enjoy the book, Mr. Kim.

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