By Sylvia Lee-Goh
North Korea is certainly not everyone's idea of an idyllic holiday destination. When I casually mentioned to a friend where I was heading, the instant response was: "What! That's a place I don't want to go to!"
The propaganda directed against the Democratic People's Republic of Korea is as virulent as the North Koreans' hatred of the devil that is the United States, which stems from the American-Korean War of the early 1950s and American policies and sanctions.
To understand the reclusive country and its people, it is imperative to look back and discover how the father of the nation, Great Leader Kim II Sung, managed to forge the Korea of today.
Grandiose monuments and sculptures
The DPRK just celebrated its 60th anniversary as an independent nation.
But the Korean people have a proud history that goes back 5,000 years.
After centuries of prosperity and glory, the country was conquered by Japan and, from 1905 to 1945, subjected to brutal colonial oppression.
In Kim Il Sung, they found their saviour. Against all odds and with no other country willing to help, Kim's Anti-Japanese People's Guerilla Army marshalled his countrymen to revolt in a campaign that lasted from April 25, 1932, to final victory on Aug 15, 1945 (coincidentally, the day on which Japan surrendered to the Allies).
Then there was the American-Korean War from June 1950 to July 1953. As Pyongyang saw it, Korea was annexed and torn into two, with the South under American control and the North under the Russians, through no choice of theirs.
The fighting stopped with an armistice but the war never officially ended and tensions remained high between the two opposing sides.
In January, 1968, North Korean forces captured the US spy ship USS Pueblo and, to this day, it has pride of place in the country's showcase.
Grandiose monuments and sculptures
Seeing the vessel gives the Koreans a lot of pride because it represents a war trophy from the mightiest country in the world. It looks like a patrol boat to me.
North Koreans remember that in 1976, American GIs attacked the DPRK's guards by throwing axes at them on the DMZ, the demilitarised zone that divides the peninsula. (The rest of the world seems to think that the "Axe Murder Incident" happened when a large group of North Korean soldiers used pick handles, knives and axes to attack several UN soldiers guarding civilian workers trimming a tree, killing two officers.)
Conflicts aside, the country has been in the world headlines for other reasons. There was a devastating famine and also fires in the mid-1990s, and last year was a time of unexpected floods.
Great Leader, Dear Leader
They got through all the adversity with a gritty determination and boundless loyalty to the memory and instructions of former President Kim II Sung and to his son and successor, Dear Leader Kim Jong Il.
Reunification is only a dream and will never be achieved as long as South Korea has a military agreement with the US, which the North describes as "treacherous flunkeyism and manoeuvres of dependence on foreign forces".
There will only be one Kim II Sung-the Father of the People. He distributed land to the peasants, gave women equal rights with the men and ensured that everybody studied, worked and lived well.
The people have free housing, and pay minimal rates for electricity and water. Medical services are free, and education is free and compulsory.
President Kim II Sung died unexpectedly on July 8, 1994, a day when the nation was plunged into shock, sorrow and mourning.
He is the Father of the Nation-highly regarded and never to be forgotten. All visitors are taken to a park where there is a huge statue of him and requested to "bow" in respect.
Dancers at Arirang
The population is not exposed to any outside influence through media like TV, radio, the Internet, or foreign reading material of any sort.
Visitors to the country are not permitted to bring in reading material and mobile phones.
Blissful in this cocoon-like existence and their total ignorance about the outside world, the North Koreans who have never set foot outside the country grade themselves the most privileged people living in a most unique system of socialism, engineered by President Kim II Sung.
Photography is not allowed in many places, a restriction that often applies in the most innocent looking of places and with people.
A visitor needs to be always sensitive and ask permission before snapping a picture or you may encounter problems upon departure.
Strangely, even some ordinary folk take umbrage upon seeing a camera pointed their way and act accordingly.
Obviously, military personnel and installations are way, way off limits, too! The capital city, Pyongyang, is a young city that rose like a phoenix out of the ashes of the 1950-1953 war.
The city's high-rise buildings are surrounded by monuments and sculptures to remind them of their glorious past and present.
Innumerable blocks of residential flats dot the cityscape. They are not luxurious but they are free-the state takes care of its people.
There are big impressive buildings to house different activities to keep the citizens healthy in body, mind and soul.
It is supposed to be crime-free and you feel safe. There is no penal system, only re-education and rehabilitation.
Outstanding choreography at The Arirang
Our visit was timed so that we could catch the spectacular Arirang music and dance extravaganza in celebration of the nation's 60th year of socialism.
It took 100,000 entertainers six months of preparation in the Kim Il Sung Stadium, which has a seating capacity of 150,000.
The programme was very full, tight and fast, with not a minute wasted, not even an interval all through the hour and a half of spell-binding performance.
It was a visual delight of time-choreographed musical, dance and formation items with a thousand performers at any one time, backed by a wall of a thousand card-bearers responsible for an ever-changing back drop of colourful scenes.
The pulse of the nation was exposed in the items like the army, productivity of farms, beauty of the children and martial arts, to name a few.
A visit to the War Museum is not to be missed. The first diorama of the American-Korean War was so arresting and captivating that I regretfully did not think of taking any photographs.
It was also sensorama, and the noises of war and the electronically controlled movement of vehicles, lights, drones of airplanes and parachutists all added to the magic of the display. The creavity and planning of this diorama is amazing.
The second diorama is just as spectacular albeit without the noises of war. You can walk around this circular static display, which is below eye level, and behind a barrier.
Kim II Sung regarded children as the most precious future resource and accorded the title of "Kings and Queens" of the country on them, with the hope that with training in advanced science and technology and art and literature, and development of their different aptitudes and talents, the country would produce future able national cadres who will take up roles as officials and technicians in the building sector or in arts and literature.
For this purpose he was instrumental in setting up the Students and Children's Palace, a centre for school children's comprehensive extracurricular activities. It is a grand, gigantic building welcoming visitors to witness the many different activites in progress in the classrooms.
Arch of Reunification in Pyongyang
Visitors then get to experience the musical talents on stage for a performance in singing, dancing, comic acts and instruments. The performers include prodigies as young as five, all carrying themselves with great confidence and maturity beyond their age. What a credit!
The Museum that houses all the gifts from foreign personalities is huge. The exhibits include a car, furniture, household decorations, jewellery, paintings, porcelain, sculptures and anything decorative you can imagine.
Since Pyongyang does not have a shopping centre, this museum is an opportunity for the locals to be exposed to the material goods that the outside world has, all the bling-bling that is not a matter of life and death.
Out and about
The Metro where we took a short train ride brought pleasant memories of a Paris train station. The place is fantastic with paintings on the walls and chandeliers on the ceiling.
I think the train is antiquated. Lunch on a riverboat exposed us to monuments and sculptures and water spouts on the banks. There were also a couple of bridges, spanning across the very wide river.
Three quarters of the country in the north and east is mountainous while 15% of land in the south east is flat and rice is predominantly grown here, with a small percentage of sweet corn and vegetables.
You can see the golden ripening rice in fields that stretch from one corner of the eye to the other. No land is left idle, even hillsides and slopes are utilised.
But alas, the harvest is not enough to feed the whole nation and outside help is needed.
One of the nature sites we were taken to was the Ullim Waterfall, discovered in 2001 and opened up to the public in 2003.
Broad tree-lined avenues
Another was up Mt Kumgan to see the Wood-cutter's Pool. It is supposedly where a celestial being and an earthling engaged in a forbidden romance but it all ends happily. The Chongsam co-operative farm is a showcase commune effectively run and maintained by cadres.
The kindergarten children of the comrades were only too happy to exhibit their dancing and singing skills.
The sunburnt woman cadre was feminine enough to pat powder on her face and colour her lips for our announced visit.
We were greeted by fields of gold and orchards of persimons.
Kimchi, sotong etc The nation's favourite dish is kimchi, the fermented cabbage dish.
Travellers are permitted to bring sauces, sambals, rendang and anything else that will help you through your meals.
There are Chinese restaurants but you are not taken to one for every meal. The everyday menu is, I believe, chosen by the tour company and we were served sotong every day for seven days. I wonder if it is their favourite dish too?
We were led to believe that there are no shopping areas but only what you can find within the hotels.
In the end, they did take the group to a building that sold herbal products, handicraft, paintings and their national costumes.
Might makes right
It is a long 160km straight highway from Pyongyang to the Demilitarised Zone. Panmunjom is a symbol of the tragedy of the division of the Korean nation for over 60 years and where the armistice agreement of the Korean War in 1953 was concluded.
North Korea's strength lies in its military power to guard their homeland against attacks by those who would wreck their socialist political independence and economic self-sufficiency.
They keenly feel that the power of the nation's guns decides its rise and fall and that great military power is the treasure of the nation.
They know best what they need to do for themselves-like developing nuclear weapons-to defend themselves against those who label them "evil".
They fear the outside world, and the world fears them. So, they put on a brave face and front and life goes on.
Don't come alone
Single foreign visitors are not welcome as they will have to be tightly supervised by a tour guide and a minder. You cannot just walk out of the hotel grounds. Tour groups will have to be approved and also supervised.
The tour guides and minders don't take too kindly to being asked questions if you don't understand their system. You are expected to just accept whatever the tour guide tells you, be it about history or current events or whatever he /she has been trained to say.
They strongly believe in everything they tell us, and they have an excellent command of foreign languages. They have been taught well.