Feature North Korea has a long history of closing itself off to the world, but there are still opportunities to visit the reclusive state, as our photographer discovered.
Open and shut case
North Korea has a long history of closing itself off to the world, but Sunny Lee reports there are still opportunities to visit the reclusive state, as our photographer discovered. In 1882, an American scholar, William Griffis, wrote a book, titled Corea: The Hermit Nation. The book aroused curiosity about the faraway nation, which didn't want to open its door to the western powers keen to trade with the exotic kingdom. At the start of the Cold War period, the country was divided in two. The northern half came under Soviet-sponsored Communist control; the southern half became a democratic country and key US ally. Today, that northern half is still called a "hermit nation" by the international media, but otherwise goes by its more common name, North Korea. It is frequently characterised as a "reclusive" country, withdrawn from the world, but that doesn't mean you cannot travel there. Figures vary, and tensions over North Korea's nuclear programme affect access to the country. In 2006, for example, only about 20,000 foreign tourists visited the country, a tenth of the usual annual figure. Today, North Korea remains one of the least travelled places in the world. The country's reclusiveness stems from policies initiated by its founder, Kim Il Sung (1912 -1994), who adopted the so-called "juche" (self-reliance) ideology, shunning outside influence. North Korea fought against the US during the Korean War (1950-1953) and today teaches its people that the US is its arch enemy, reminding them that the "American imperialists" are still looking for every chance to invade their land. The paranoid country built one of the deepest subway systems in the world in its capital city, Pyongyang, going 150 metres below the surface so that people could survive a nuclear strike from the US. The poverty-stricken country allocates nearly 30 per cent of its annual budget to military spending - the highest percentage of any country - and is especially keen to develop its nuclear arsenal on top of its massive stockpile of conventional weapons. Since 2003 the international community has had six rounds of negotiations aimed at persuading the North to renounce its nuclear ambition. The countries involved in these talks are the United States, China, Japan, South Korea, Russia as well as North Korea. In September 2005, North Korea agreed to a landmark deal that called for the dismantling of its nuclear programme in return for a huge slice of energy and economic aid. Unfortunately, the agreement soon faltered as North Korea and the US accused each other of not keeping their promises. A similar agreement was signed in February 2007 when North Korea and the US hammered out the so-called "word for word, action for action" principle that required simultaneous implementation of obligations by both sides, but that also fell apart owing to mutual suspicion and mistrust. Since the start of this year, the North has escalated tensions with the launch of conventional and nuclear missiles that drew condemnation from the international community, resulting in UN-mandated punitive measures. North Korea's actions were seen as being motivated by domestic considerations. Its leader, Kim Jong Il, the son of the late Kim Il Sung, suffered a stroke last year, prompting him to nominate his youngest son, who is still in his 20s, as the heir apparent. But during the past few months, the country has again changed its strategy, from hostile confrontation to a charm offensive, inviting Bill Clinton, for example, to help secure the release of two American journalists who had been detained there for illegal entry and "hostile acts". Pyongyang also signaled to Washington its desire to hold bilateral talks to seek a breakthrough in the stalled nuclear negotiations. The US, which in the past had maintained its position to discuss the nuclear matter only through the multilateral negotiation process, accepted the offer this month after North Korea revealed it was in the final stage of a uranium-based nuclear weapons programme. The situation remains fluid. But, surprisingly, despite the underlying political tension, North Korea still accepts a handful of foreign tourists. This time, the performance period for the Arirang Festival - the high point of any visit to North Korea in which more than 100,000 acrobats, gymnasts and synchronised athletic entertainers perform inside the world's largest stadium - has been extended until mid-October to accommodate the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the friendly relationship between North Korea and its closest ideological ally, China. Visitors to Pyongyang these days will notice that people there are busy repairing buildings and roads, a sign that the capital is gearing up for a big celebration, in this case the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung's birth that will fall in 2012. Visitors will note how devoted the people are to Kim Il Sung. Many of them wear badges bearing his image, visit his mausoleum and bow to statues of him around the city. The personality cult may be easily dismissed by outsiders, but inside North Korea, it is practised like a religion, in a sincere form. Surprisingly, relatively little attention is paid to his son and the current leader, Kim Jong Il. Although Kim Jong Il is the face of North Korea to the world, to the people of North Korea, it is still Kim Il Sung they hold most dearly. M's photographer prefers to remain anonymous to safeguard the privacy of those in North Korea who helped him complete this assignment.