The long view: Looking back on an unscheduled trip around Pyongyang

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Tomorrow the ground in the main square of the North Korean capital will shake. As the tanks and mobile rocket launchers trundle past, in a seemingly endless procession, the huge square in the centre of Pyongyang trembles below your feet. I know, I've felt it, this time last year I was standing six feet away from what I called a march from the past. A soviet style showcase of defiance.

The view last year: Military members attend a mass meeting called by the Central Committee of North Korea's ruling party.
The view last year: Military members attend a mass meeting called by the Central Committee of North Korea's ruling party. Credit: ITV News

Hundreds of thousands of people stand for hours in regimented ranks to cheer and wave as the soldiers goose-step past and MIG jets fly overhead. All this takes six months to rehearse my government 'minder' informed me. Looking up I could see the young leader Kim Jung-un on the balcony. Joking with the generals, pointing and grinning; appearing much more relaxed than when I had last seen him in the same spot, with his father, back in October 2010.

I was there as a journalist, we had official visas, not everyone did, invited in to witness the parade and report on a rocket launch, which in the end failed.

For five days we were taken to see staged events, statues and adoring crowds, often an appearance by Kim himself.

On the last day of the trip I refused to get on the official bus to join the coach trip of the day.

My 'minder' was in his 20s, he spoke good English, a young man, well educated and he knows about the outside world. He is part of a generation which increasingly knows that their country is very different, aware of their isolation. Despite the state controls on all media; smuggled dvds and mobile phones which can connect to South Korea or Chinese networks near the borders, are giving people a way to see and hear what the outside world is like.

The sights and sounds of the 21st century are seeping into a country trapped in the cold war.

We have seen how modern technology has allowed the people under other dictatorships to connect, discuss and in some cases depose of their oppressors.

North Koreans watch a smuggled DVD of Gangnam Style.
North Koreans watch a smuggled DVD of Gangnam Style. Credit: ITV News

I had a question for the 'minder', your leaders say they are improving your lives, Kim Jung-un has promised a "year of strength and prosperity", so show us how people live in this city. He took a deep breath and frowned. We argued, I persisted. He was saying it just was not possible. Then when he saw I was not budging, he agreed. We got in a taxi, agreed a price in much sought after Euros - the local currency does not go very far.

As we drove through the streets of the capital, there were changes from my first visit 18 months previously. More cars, we were even briefly stuck in a traffic jam. Billboards advertising new cars at major junctions. A woman walking along chatting on a mobile phone, there are now an estimated million subscribers, although overseas calls are blocked.

There are two North Korea's: Pyongyang, the tourist trail and the rest of the impoverished country which few outsiders ever see.

The North Korean Central News Agency released this photo earlier this month.
The North Korean Central News Agency released this photo earlier this month. Credit: YONHAP/AAP/Press Association Images

So I tried to get at least an unscripted look at the showcase capital. If we slowed down I would demand we stop. I would leap out and head into the nearest shop. The 'minder' would chase after me, complaining. The shops I saw, at random, were full of food. Roast chickens cooking on a spit, bags of rice and pasta, biscuits and bread. No shortages.

Then I convinced the 'minder', Mr Lee, to take us to the country's first department store. No we could not go in, he said at first, but we ended up outside and then after more arguing, in we went. The supermarket was a Chinese joint venture. It was no different to shops in Beijing. Seven types of mineral water, flat screen tvs, chocolates. Even basketballs for sale. Hundreds were trying to get in, although the queues of shoppers at the checkout were buying very little. Had all this been laid on just for us? In North Korea you are always having doubts that you are falling for the state's well practiced propaganda. How could they have known we were coming? We were not on some tourist trip with a fixed itinerary, I had forced Mr Lee, the 'minder' to go up that street, then down the other, persuaded and reassured him that this random journey through the city would be fine, no of course he would not get in trouble.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un Credit: YONHAP/AAP/Press Association Images

Shoppers told me they had money, they had enough to eat and they loved their leaders.

I kept pushing, can we go and see a place on the outskirts where 'ordinary' people live. His head sank but he gave in, again. He took us to a residential block, thousands of flats, surrounding a square. There was a game of baseball on, women's teams, neighbouring districts playing a match. A chance for the people I spoke with to hit back at critics of their country. "Of course I have enough food" one woman told me. She raised a bag, "a gift from the government during the national holiday", she told me. Her baby sleeping in the crook of her other arm.

Elderly people sat at tables playing draughts. There was a fairground rifle target stall. I had a go, making sure I got a souvenir photo holding a gun in North Korea.

No one looked that impoverished, there was a festive happy atmosphere, because this was a national holiday weekend.

One man, a former soldier, admitted to me there had been food shortages. "We are through the dark times thanks to our leaders" he added. In all I spoke to 17 people, seemingly at random, my choice but with Mr. Lee's translation. I did not expect criticism, no one would dare speak out with a government minder present.

A North Korean soldier runs across a street in Pyongyang yesterday.
A North Korean soldier runs across a street in Pyongyang yesterday. Credit: Reuters

What I had to bear in mind was that the entire city is in some ways like a film set, a backdrop for the parades and choreographed rallies. Only those faithful to the party are allowed to live in Pyongyang. Increasingly it is a playground for the elite, who can now enjoy pizzas and cappuccinos in new coffee shops and the two, soon to be three, posh hotels.

Life outside the capital is only glimpsed when we get smuggled video footage, mainly from the north of the country near the Chinese border. As we did for last Wednesday's News at Ten.

The grinding poverty, markets with little for sale and children roaming the streets begging, homeless. There is a disproportionate number of orphans, according to UN reports, because grandparents and parents often give their meagre rations to the children, sacrificing themselves for their offspring's survival.

The videos filmed secretly show you what the state does not want you to see. Otherwise, in North Korea, seeing is not always believing.