The rules of the hotel in East Berlin required everyone who used the pool to wear a bathing cap, but they said nothing about bathing suits so the tall blonde swimming alongside me wore a bathing cap and nothing else. The pool was where the Stasi girls hung out during the day. Later, they were in the hotel’s night club hoping to snare another victim. If, like me, you were single with no secrets to sell there was nothing to fear.
As a frequent traveller behind the iron curtain, I’d been fully briefed by MI6, so I was prepared for the weird and wonderful life of the Communist bloc. But no briefing could prepare me for the strangeness of Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, the most hard-line of the communist states. This was in the days of their Great Leader, Kim Il-sung, the father of Kim Jong-il, who has just died. As with all communist countries, the arrival of a foreign delegation was the excuse for banquets and junkets, except that in Pyongyang even more so. As an example, we were driven to the theatre in a motor cavalcade and when we arrived the whole audience rose to their feet and applauded.
We weren’t allowed the teeniest glimpse of what was beneath the surface, but it was grim, even then, and has grown much grimmer since. The Kim dynasty, who have run things entirely for their own private benefit, have presided over what has become a grotesque experiment on the results of tyranny. In 1950, North and South Korea shared the same prosperity, as well as the same language and culture. South Korea took a while to shake off their military dictatorship but have now evolved into a liberal democracy with a free economy. As a result their citizens are now 18 times more prosperous than those in the North.
The Stasi girls are long gone and the East Germans are happily united with their neighbours. There’s no sign of that happening in Korea, and until it does the North will simply be a powerful reminder of what communism means.