It was the first time we would be confronted with an image other than that of the late General Kim Il Sung (the 'Great Leader') who remains the eternal President and his son, General Kim Jung Il, ('Dear Leader'), the current Supreme Head of State.
While the photographs of these two men to whom everything is credited dominate every available space all over the country, at the Academy of Sciences, there is a third photograph almost competing with that of the famous father and son.
Not surprisingly, this attracted our curiousity because in all the places we had visited and in all the history we were told, only Kim Il Sung and his son did everything for the country. Who then was the woman, we wanted to know. The interpreter told us she was a heroine of the Korean war, "a General in her own right, a sharp shooter who killed several Americans". He told us of several heroic deeds of the woman who gave all for her nation. For the first time, we were sobered because that this woman could be singled out for recognition in a nation where every other thing is credited to only one family was a new vista until someone asked a simple question: "Is the woman related to the 'Great Leader'?".
Yes, came the answer from the interpreter to our shock, "She was the wife of the Great Leader" (meaning that the woman was the First Lady and the mother of the current leader).
Welcome to the world of North Korea, or Democratic People's Republic of Korea as they call it, a country that vividly demonstrates that there can be no greater enslavement than that of the human mind. That is what the late Kim Il Sung has succeeded in proving with his people who still deify and worship him as life President even when he is dead while his son continues on the throne with billions of dollars, scarce state resources, spent to preserve his remains and erect obscene statues of his all over the country while the people go hungry. The tragedy though is that the people who have no access to radio or television or newspaper (forget internet) do not know of any other life beyond paranoia for 'American Imperialism' and the idolisation of their dear and great leaders.
But then we have to begin the story from the beginning. Last week Sunday, I joined the delegation of National Assembly led by Senate President Anyim Pius Anyim on an eight-day official trip to Pyongyang, North Korea, en route United Kingdom and China. The trip was at the invitation of the Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly, the North Korean equivalent of Parliament even when it is no more than a rubber stamp legislature. Other legislators in Anyim's delegation were Senator Musa Adede, Senator Adawari Pepple, Senator Fidelis Okoro and Honourable Mohammed Sanusi Daggash, Chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Finance and Appropriation.
Notwithstanding my initial disinterest when I learnt we were going to North and not South Korea, I considered the experience highly rewarding because now I can appreciate why the late Sani Abacha was so close to the country that he not only trained his body guards there but also gave them a gift of ten and a half million dollars ($10.5million) in 1997 aside verbally awarding the contract for the design of Abuja Stadium to them, a deal which only his death stopped.
We arrived Pyongyang airport last Tuesday afternoon after spending two days in transit and after a brief ceremony we were driven straight to the Protocol House, their own Presidential Lodge located in the middle of a thick forest. Before we left the airport, however, we had been asked whether anyone brought a radio which we gathered is not allowed for reasons that will be explained later. One thing we noticed as we were being driven in a convoy of many cars was that there were few vehicles on the road and no taxi. Only buses were on the road while many were trekking with some on bicycle.
After checking in, we visited Mangyongdae, the birthplace of President Kim Il Sung where we were treated to a long history of heroism by his father, mother and grandparents. We were later hosted to a dinner party at the Mansudae Assembly Hall.
The next day, Wednesday, we visited the tower of Juche idea, a big monument which stands on the bank of Taedong River which runs through the heart of Pyongyang. Made of natural white granite and crowned with a torch it is 170 metres high, it was unveiled in 1982 to symbolise the "seventy years of the great leader who propounded the immortal idea and accomplished everlasting exploits in its successful application".
From there we went to the Assembly where the President of the parliament was waiting. In his remark, he gave the history of Korea most of it the accomplishments of Kim Il Sung and his son, Kim Jong Il. But one point he stressed was on the issue of unification with their Southern counterpart. He said they desire to unify with Seoul but that it would have to be on their terms, not that of Americans. "Let the Americans withdraw their military troops from South Korea and allow Koreans to determine their own future and destiny". He said things had been going on smoothly until the President George Bush administration came with hard-line posture. "But if they believe in hard-line, we will tell them we are super hard-liners" he said.
Before this meeting we had visited the place where the biggest statue of Kim Il Sung was erected so that the Senate President could lay a wreath. It is almost as big as a house, cast in bronze. It was a solemn place with equally solemn music. There was something eerie, if not occultic, about the place. I felt as if I was before a god. I asked Senator Pepple whether he felt the way I felt and he answered in the affirmative. The part I regretted was that we were told to bow before the statue and we did. I felt bad afterwards that I bowed before the statue of a mere man, a dead man.
That then explains why when they told us the next day that we would be visiting the Kumsusan Memorial Palace where his embalmed body is being kept for the people to go and pay homage, I resolved not to go. When the officials came to tell us how to dress and the type of countenance to put up for the occasion, I said I would not go. Why, one of them asked and I replied: "I don't watch dead bodies" They were shocked. In Korea it is a taboo to say Kim Il Sung is dead, he is not, as far as they are concerned, he has only 'passed on'.
I must point out here, however, that in terms of infrastructure, one cannot compare North Korea with Nigeria, it is far more developed. It has a functional metro line that is at least neater than what they have in London, the people rely on electric-powered buses which means they have little or no energy problem, there is a spinning mill and machinery bureau where equipment are produced. The country also has functional steel rolling complexes and there is the West Sea Barrage, which is reputed to be one of the best five of its kind worldwide. And all these were built by the North Koreans themselves.
Put simply, the country is far more technologically advanced. They use solar energy, they manufacture their own generator and gas turbines. We were at these factories and we saw them at work. It was a crude system but it works for them making me to wonder if Nigeria would not be an advanced society today if we had encouraged the Igbo scientists after the civil war. With several sky-scrapers and well paved express roads that have several lanes, it would ordinarily qualify as a developed society if development were to be looked at from such perspectives.
Of course we had a lot of arguments. Hon. Daggash, for instance, believes the people have done very well for themselves given the level of infrastructural development. He argued that Kim Il Sung did so much for his people putting to us the question: With all our freedom in Nigeria what have we done with our resources? Senator Adede took this line of reasoning too even when he once had to puncture the myth of Kim Il Sung's invincibility and I should digress here. While we were being taken round the war museum building called Victorious Motherland, they showed us the weapons used to prosecute the Korean War and how they defeated American imperialism.
Quite naturally it was a one-sided story and at every point, whether it was a ship or armoured tank that was being displayed everything was credited to General Kim Il Sung until we reached a place where there were aircraft. Pointing to the first, the guide told us how General Kim Il Sung maneuvered the jet to kill Americans. To this senator Adede, a trained pilot who also owns an airline asked: "Was he a pilot too?" They said No. "How come you now say he fought with this aircraft?" One could see from their countenance that they did not take kindly to that question one bit.
Back to our discussion on whether North Korea is a developed society, my friend, Orji Ogbonaya Orji, the Special Adviser to the Senate President on Media Affairs disagreed with this notion of development. As he argued, any development that does not reflect in the material condition of the people is meaningless. The people from what we can see are hungry while they work as if they are slaves. There is no room for leisure in the country yet no one earns salary, everything belongs to the state. Orji brought a comical dimension to it when he asked our embassy officials whether there are Igbo men doing business in Korea. The answer of course was no. There is only one Nigerian in Korea, a female medical doctor working with UNICEF. We conferred on her the Chairmanship of Nigerian community in North Korea only to learn later that none of the three other African countries (Libya, Ethiopia and Egypt) that have missions in the place has a single national. The meaning is that outside diplomats and their relations as well as staff, the UNICEF Nigerian woman is the only African in the country!
From what one could see, the problem with North Korea is that the 'Dear Leader' who evidently took some lessons from his late father knows too well that opening up the system and allowing the people the much needed freedom would mean subverting the political structure that keeps him in power. His highly militarized state is therefore one that encourages and indeed justifies draconian policies under the pretext of being threatened by mortal enemies, in this case United States of America. The people have been so worked up about what Americans want to do to them that all they talk about is their preparedness to fight American imperialism with their lives.
It is therefore no surprise that most of their resources are being devoted to the manufacture of weapons of war in this age of globalisation. The people are also so ignorant of what is happening even within their country that when I told our guide, a university professor, that their leader was on a train ride to Russia, he shouted: "who told you that? it is not true. The Dear leader is in the country". He was so agitated that I regretted telling him when the story was already on the CNN and other international media. The whole world knew their President was abroad but in his country everybody believed he was at home.
The best demonstration of the madness going on in the country was, however, captured at the Kumsusan Memorial Palace where the remains of the dead 'Great Leader' is resting. The place is twice as big as our Aso Rock Presidential Villa and it could not have cost anything less than two billion dollars to build. All to preserve a dead body even though they say he is not dead. On grounds of principle, having told the people I don't watch dead bodies, I was the only one left outside, with our guide of course. Hon. Dagash said I missed a lot by not going in but I have no regrets. Inside, according to them, was the train the man was using, his Mercedes 600 limousine and a 'resting place' cast in gold. Citizens of the country who visited him were also shedding tears as they filed past his body. They have ensured that people go in at regular interval perhaps to keep him company and as they told us, "it is a great honour to be allowed to see the Great Leader".
A member of our delegation who went in said having seen the opulence in which he (Great Leader) was 'living' as a dead man he wondered how he must have enjoyed while on this side of the divide. Because of this, when he passed by the remains, he said he whispered to the dead body in Pidgin English: "O'l boy, you wicked o!" Now, all activities in the country are geared towards celebrating his 90th birthday next year April.
By and large we enjoyed our stay and the Nigerian ambassador is a very nice man who took good care of us. We also had interesting times together. At every forum he had to speak, the Senate President was rather assertive in his condemnation of military rule which he gave as reason for our problem back home. Since we were in a country with military dictatorship in its crudest form, this was a courageous stand which earned him the title of 'Great Leader', which I had the 'honour' to announce to him.
And to this he exclaimed: "Segun, you want to kill me!" But Hon. Dagassh said he would "move the motion" at the National Assembly back home in Nigeria. Now, President Olusegun Obasanjo has something to worry about.
Altogether it was fun being on the trip and I remember my prayer to our guide who had become a friend shortly before we departed the country: "God will deliver you people". I am convinced beyond doubts that at the fullness of time, North Korea shall be free. And I will be there again to rejoice with them.
• This piece was first published in THISDAY in 2002