Having just written a blog with my memories of meeting Vaclav Havel when I lived in Prague - I hopped on a plane in Tokyo to come home to the UK. The moment my plane landed my phone went crazy. Kim Jong Il had died while I was in the air and, as I visited North Korea for my book - The Dark Tourist- two years ago- I was being asked to comment.
Unlike Vaclav Havel, I certainly didn't meet Kim Jong Il during my 10 extraordinary days in North Korea. I certainly saw his face enough though - the cult of leadership in this most secretive of countries is on a different level from any other dictatorship I've visited. From the moment you stepped off the plane in Pyonyang you saw a huge portrait of him and of his father, Kim Il Sung. Every person you met wore a little lapel badge with the Dear Leader's face on it.
Everywhere you went was defined through the leader - the golf course where he supposedly got nine holes in one. The bowling ball he used (presumably a set of perfect strikes) lovingly preserved in a Perspex case at the entrance to Pyongyang's ten pin bowling gaff... I listened to poetry written by the Dear Leader, strolled around massive libraries full of works he supposedly penned and sat trapped in Pyongyang Opera watching a three hour version of one of the three revolutionary operas he composed.
If I'm honest I was sick of the sight of him by the time I left North Korea and entered "free" China. The cult of Kim however was strong. Nobody sidled up to you when no one was looking and had a grumble. If anything there was a massive mistrust of foreigners- hardly surprising when you look at their experiences with, first the Japanese and then the "United Nations."
The weirdest moment was when we approached the huge statue of Kim Il-Sung that towers over Pyongyang. We were lined up and one of us had to lay a bouquet of flowers. We were then informed that we could only take a photo of the whole statue- we were expressly forbidden to take a photo that might cut part of the "dear body" off.
The statues around him had been heavily hit by bird poo but Kim was clean. There were rumours that either there was an electric charge running through the edifice or that the birds knew the harsh penalties for disrespecting the Dear Leader.
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