The author visits a flower show, a sports extravaganza and the circus in North Korea, and finds there is no escaping political propaganda.

The year was 1951, a very testing and tense period of the Cold War Era. Supported by the Russians and the Chinese, North Korea was embroiled in a bloody war with South Korea, which was aided by the Americans. In October, both sides fought fiercely to capture a strategic point — Hill 1211 — and take control of it. The North Koreans came under heavy fire from the Americans, which thwarted their plans to advance and reach their objective. Despite heavy casualties, the North Korean supply of reinforcements hindered American progress. Then, a selfless act by a young soldier of the Korean People’s Army is said to have changed it all. He was officially made a hero in 1952.

For propaganda to work, propagandists look for the ideal protagonist. Today the hero from the battle for Hill 1211 is both highly venerated and also widely manipulated to spread the North Korean doctrine of juche (self reliance), revolution and re-unification. Indian nationalists had Mahatma Gandhi, the American civil rights campaign had Martin Luther King and radical Islam had Osama bin Laden. North Korea has the perfect character in the courageous hero.

In every city, town and village of North Korea, the streets are lined with statues, paintings, banners or portraits of the “Great Leader” Kim Il Sung, and the “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il. On top of Mansu hill in Pyongyang, 20m bronze statues of the leaders tower over you. It is mandatory for all visitors to bow in front of the colossal statues of the two leaders.

Tours can be tailor-made to suit individual interests, but ultimately it is the North Korean tour agencies who decide what you can see and what you cannot. In one of the most secretive regimes in the world, visitors are closely watched and monitored in everything they do or even ask. There is little chance of interacting with the local people. On the second afternoon, I did manage to gatecrash into a game of street volleyball and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Looking out of my bus window, I could see cinemas, sports stadiums, swimming pools and parks like any other city anywhere. The North Koreans portray themselves as people who love singing, dancing, watching movies, playing sports or enjoying a walk in the park. Surely there was more to them than just propaganda? I was eager to find out. Like us, they entertain themselves by visiting flower exhibitions, going to the circus and watching or taking part in one of the greatest synchronised shows on earth — the Mass Games. I wondered if this is where they let their imagination run riot or are such entertaining events highly politicised?

The flower show in Pyongyang is a far cry from the Chelsea Flower Show or the one at Lalbagh in Bangalore. Welcome to the weirdly beautiful. The three floors at a special exhibition venue were decked pre-dominantly with white orchids and red begonias. When I identify the flowers out loud, a tap on the shoulder and a guide promptly corrects me that they are Kimilsungia and Kimjongilia named after the two great leaders. It is not the beautiful flowers that hold my attention. I am riveted instead by replicas of rockets, grenades, guns, soldiers and revolutionary flags, interspersed among the flowers on the flower beds. Simon Cockerell, General Manager of Koryo Tours, has visited North Korea almost 150 times. He says, “There is an exhibition each year and they always have a revolutionary angle based on the paradigm of the moment. Sometimes it is about the birthplace of the leaders, sometimes new constructions, new industries, new technology and peaceful things. This year the exhibits were certainly more militaristic because it coincided with the 60th anniversary of the Korean War, not to forget the threat of war at the beginning of this year.”

Looking around I vaguely understood what all this means to a nation brainwashed by political indoctrination. Wanting to take a piece of it with them, some locals were paying professionals to take their photographs in front of the bizarre exhibits.

Having spent a few days in the country, with an incredible overload of propaganda, my urge to find something else was overwhelming. North Koreans take sports seriously. Hong Un Jong won gold in gymnastics at the Beijing Olympics and they have more medallists at the Olympics than India. Hence the yearly Arirang Mass Games seemed the perfect place to look for something non-political. But I found myself as not just the only foreigner but also the only civilian seated among three rows of military personnel! I felt regimented but quickly soothed myself into thinking this is probably where the Koreans come to escape all things political.

The Mass Games held each year at the May Day Stadium in Pyongyang, could possibly be the most spectacular sporting extravaganza on earth. “Human pixels” — 20,000 school children — on the galleries hold different coloured plaques to form a mosaic. Through precisely choreographed timing, they take the shape of their leaders, the countryside, seasons, flowers, children studying, scientists working, flags, flags, missiles and slogans. It was hard to keep track of the number of times they change the backdrop throughout the performance. In the arena are 100,000 athletes in an array of colours and costumes — from army to navy, women waving silk scarves, fans and flowers, men carrying flags, children skipping and hula hooping, dragons and bears, acrobatic skills mixed with powerful taekwondo punches and tempered with elegant gymnasts, a live band, digital screens, lasers (both new this year) and fireworks. It was incredibly explosive, stunning and engrossing. And yet, throughout the 90-minute show, I was never far removed from their ideology. The mass synchronisation of the show was in itself a symbol of collective rather than individual brilliance — a basic Communist foundation.

The Kumsumsan Memorial Palace in Pyongyang houses the embalmed bodies of the two great leaders. It was a staid and intense experience. I needed something cheerful.

At the circus, a young girl juggled three pigeons while skating on ice, and trapeze artists swung from one end to the other gracefully and effortlessly. The rest of the acts were, however, totally militarised. A trampoline dressed up as a tank, soldiers on horses jumping through a hula hoop and landing on the horse’s saddle perfectly and an act expressing anti-US sentiments. However, the highlight of the show was of their hero, Ri-su-Bok, the soldier who sacrificed his life to capture Hill 1211. The enactment of the battle for Hill 1211 felt like it was played out in slow motion, almost as if they do not want you to miss anything. It was the most unusual circus performance I have ever been to.