Arriving in North Korea is to step into another world in another time, writes Sky's Richard Bestic. There are no mobile phones, no internet and all radio stations are jammed except for one that plays rousing martial music. The streets are almost empty of cars, with most of the vehicles being military lorries from the 1950s. Outside influences are minimal.
'Stalinist theme park'
Government minders are proud that western pop music is freely available. As if to prove it, they played me an extract from the Beatles' 1966 Rubber Soul album, afterwards asking: "Do you like listening to that music in the West?" From the start, the North Korean experience has the feel of a Stalinist theme park. On arrival, foreign visitors are immediately ordered to pay homage at the statue of the man they call the Great Leader, laying flowers that would cost a month's wages in this impoverished land.
'Serious and unsmiling'
It's not only the first obligation of visitors, it's also the first duty of newlyweds. Bowing deeply to the memory of President Kim il Sung, the founder of the North Korean state, their reverence is serious and unsmiling. To be seen to be acting in a frivolous fashion at the feet of the Great Leader's massive bronze statue would be regarded as nothing less than sacrilegious. Here Kim il Sung is described in official government writings as the Eternal Sun of Humankind.
Dead head of state
Declared President for eternity, North Korea is the only place in the world which has a dead head of state. Although he died eight years ago, Kim il Sung's glowing image, complete with halo, still beams down from giant hoardings on every street corner. This year is the 90th anniversary of Kim il Sung's birth. His birthday is cause for what the official propaganda says is the greatest holiday of the Korean nation. With the help of the government, it would seem North Koreans now genuinely believe Kim il Sung has the characteristics of a demi-god. His thoughts, published as the Juche Idea, form the basis of the world's first Communist religion.
Bent on invasion
North Korea's bitter hatred of the United States stems from a devout belief that the Americans are bent on invasion. For the regime that rules this backward Stalinist land, the captured spy boat USS Pueblo is proof the Americans are plotting an attack. That it all happened 25 years ago does nothing to dampen their sense of possession. The Pueblo was kitted out with what would have been at the time high-tech surveillance equipment used to search out North Korean secrets.
Ready for a fight
It now serves as a pristine museum piece and a potent symbol of national pride. The curator of the spy boat, Kim Jung Rok, one of a handful of North Korean sailors who boarded the Pueblo in 1968, says that should the Americans make a return trip the entire nation is ready for a fight. I think he could be right. The government it appears has instilled in just about everyone an all consuming militaristic fervor for the heroics of never-ending war.
However, the only invasion I saw was of American wheat. US generosity feeding the people, because the North Korean government cannot. Much of this aid is believed to be illegally diverted to the country's million-strong military. It's 'necessary' because the army props up the creaking administration of North Korean President Kim Jong Il. In a building called the Children's Palace, the smiling innocence of childhood is used for the greater glory of President Kim Jong Il and his late father.
'Missing our general'
In room after room youngsters undergo hours of training in the performance arts.
The purpose of daily drill is a regular show in which the children sing and dance before giant pictures of the two Kims. "We plant flower seeds to glorify the Great Leader's revolutionary exploits. We are missing our general," they sing, even though most of the tiny performers weren't even born when Kim il Sung died. Behind the exquisitely choreographed utopia lies a terrible truth.
In the countryside many of North Korea's 22 million people are thought to be starving. Aid agencies believe that after seven years of food shortages, anything between 100,000 and two million people may have died of starvation. Almost 10 million are malnourished. An estimated 300,000 have escaped and are living illegally in China. In the capital, Pyongyang, continues what foreign diplomats call the fantasy of an orderly existence.
The city is littered with expensive tributes to the Kim family dynasty, including an arch built three metres higher than the Arc De Triomphe in Paris, a tribute to Kim Il Sung's thoughts in the shape of a huge tower rising 170m off the ground, and what must be the grandest folly - A 105-storey pyramid that dominates the capital's skyline.
Apparently overwhelmed by structural failures, work stopped 10 years ago on what they had hoped would be a prestige hotel. For the next month, overlapping with the World Cup in the South, North Korea is putting on a festival, which it hopes will sow the seeds of an embryonic tourism industry. But North Korea has done nothing to curb its belligerent relationship with the rest of the world. Holding onto power would appear to be the sole justification for the actions of the DPRK government. So far and at an extraordinary cost in human suffering, that agenda has proved highly successful.