It is one of the most difficult passport stamps for a journalist to get.
‘Axis of Evil’member North Korea doesn’t like reporters snooping around the world’s last Stalinist bastion. Hardly surprising when millions have starved under brutal dictator Kim Jong-il.
Very few journalist visas are dished out, and posing as a tourist is extremely difficult, as all visitors must be part of a tour group. But in December, the North Koreans, desperate for foreign currency, began allowing day trips inside the Hermit Kingdom.
A South Korean travel agent said it would take anyone – even journalists – to the city of Kaesong as long as they stumped up the cash.
When the list of ‘do’s’and ‘don’ts’arrived by email, it was clear the most difficult part would be getting pictures inside North Korea. It also made great copy. On the list of no-nos were mobile phones – mine was taken off me at the border – and cameras with a telephoto lens of more than 160mm.
Photographer Phil Hannaford and I decided to try to break as many rules as possible. We had a large professional camera, two smaller ones, and a small video camera.
So, we joined several hundred South Koreans on a day trip to a pre-Glasnost world. Everything seemed to be going well as we passed through the razor wire of the demilitarised zone. But, as Phil and I passed through the border on foot and rejoined the coach party, we were approached by a plain-clothed North Korean spook and a South Korean tour guide. I casually lifted the video camera to focus on some innocuous buildings and immediately felt the hand of the North Korean on my shoulder.
‘No, no, no,’the guard ordered.
It soon became clear why. On every junction along the road was posted a soldier in full People’s Army regalia. A sign of Kim’s paranoia.
We passed through dusty streets empty of traffic, past grey tower blocks bearing Communist slogans. At one point during a stop-off I was surrounded by at least six plain-clothed guards. But, gradually, Phil and I grabbed a frame here and a frame there. Our videotape and stills showed a rare glimpse of life inside the hidden land.
As we neared the heavily guarded border, Phil swapped his flash cards and hid them about his person. Without a spare, I placed a tiny piece of cardboard under my camera battery to stop it working. Edging forward in the immigration queue, I began sweating. The jack-booted guards were passing everything through detectors. My camera was found and I was surrounded by stony-faced armed guards.
In the kerfuffle, Phil was searched but passed through the cordon to the waiting coach. I was then marched to a small side room where the flash card was removed from my camera and placed inside a computer. All the forbidden images of soldiers and rural poverty of a failing Communist state were flashed up on the screen. ‘I didn’t realise that was against the rules,’I whimpered, before being led out to a corridor.
Then, for an excruciating 15 minutes, I was left to imagine what life inside a North Korean jail would be like. Eventually, I was fined 100 dollars and had my wiped card returned.
An ashen-faced Phil was sitting on the coach waiting for me and gulping from a can of Tiger beer. He quickly cracked open another for me and smiled. We still had the pictures that the North Koreans were so desperate for the world not to see.