Jayne Dowle: Images of North Korea come from a different world

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IT’S the girl eating grass that does it. There isn’t much film footage of life in North Korea, but the image of that filthy child gathering wild plants to eat hits me where it hurts. How can she be living like that, in a country where natural resources do not appear to have been laid waste to by drought or disaster, but by the economic decisions taken by the political ruling class?

It is believed that more than a third of the North Korean population is technically undernourished, a level which the International Food Policy Research Institute classes as “alarming”.

Just imagine what it must be like to bring up a family in such a country?

However battered you must be, however terrified you are of being sent to a work camp for speaking out of turn, the basic instinct to love and to look after your children must still exist. How I would like to meet and speak to a mother and find out how she gets through every day. How much perspective could she give us, with our pampered Western ways and our moaning about austerity measures.

When the news broke of the death of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-il, I heard a BBC correspondent describe the country as the closest thing to a different planet he had ever visited on Earth.

I would love to have been that correspondent, because North Korea has fascinated me for a long time. I think it is because we don’t have all the facts. We know such a small amount, we see just a tiny bit, but we can’t Google this one and get all the answers.

We don’t even know for sure how old Kim Jong-un, the successor to Kim Jong-il, is, although he would appear to be less than 30. A twenty-something hereditary dictator with – it is believed – just the two nuclear warheads at his disposal. But two all the same.

If you didn’t see it happening for real, you would imagine it was the plot of some futuristic Bond movie. Then you learn that behind the scenes he has brothers and a sister and an aunt and an uncle all now plotting and scheming to seize their piece of power. And barely old enough to have children of his own, Kim Jong-un has to assume the mantle of father of the nation.

And how can you not be fascinated by a country in which the population appear to show such blind obedience to their “Dear Leader”? I say “appear”, because it would seem that hairline cracks could be developing in the decades of unquestioning obsequiousness.

There are only about 24 million people there, but more than one million of them are in the military, which is obviously where all the money goes. Another six million belong to the “worker/peasant red guard”, reservists, although you wonder how people who have to exist on grass would be fit enough to fight, should North Korea find itself in a combat situation.

And how can a country remain so closed off from the rest of the world, left so unaffected by the relentless march of global communications and the internet? How can it be, when tides of humans now traverse the globe from country to country, that so few North Koreans ever leave?

How that football team made it to the World Cup in 2010, and scored a goal against Brazil to boot, will never be known. But needless to say, every member of the squad trotted obediently back home again to a six-hour public dressing-down when they got knocked out in the group stages.

To me, the people of North Korea are more mysterious than any lost tribe stumbled upon in the deepest rainforest of South America. In a time when dictatorships are falling like dominoes, and individuals occupy the streets from London to New York because of political and economic flux, North Korea has carried on, hermetically sealed-off from the rest of the world.

Hillary Clinton, US Secretary of State, made a cautious statement, expressing a desire that the new leadership will choose to “guide their nation on to the path of peace by… improving relations with its neighbours, and respecting the rights of its people”.

Not quite as picturesque as, “Korean people’s wailing voices rock heaven and earth”, as the state news agency KCNA described the start of the official period of mourning, but tellingly empathetic in its imagery.

If we thought this year was interesting in international political terms, 2012 is going to be like nothing we have ever witnessed before. Put me down for the first official media tour to Pyongyang.

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