A few years back, I was invited to a Canterbury language school which taught English to students from across the world.
They asked guest speakers to talk on their area of expertise to students – some of whom would go on to become English teachers in their native lands.
It was quite a lot of fun and I managed to establish a rapport with students from Holland, Norway, Denmark, Italy and Spain.
We knew each others worlds because, I suppose, we were essentially part of the same world, the Christian, western, democratic, free world.
Then I received a call from the school: “Hi Alex. We’ve got some North Koreans coming to Canterbury. Are you free?”
Free? To talk to North Koreans? Of course I’m bloody free. Growing up during the Cold War, I’d been fascinated by the communist part of the world.
We studied the Korean War at the Boys Langton and I jumped at the chance to address people from the northern half of the peninsula.
When I arrived at the school in the centre of Canterbury, I asked the tutor Peter what kind of students these were. He explained they were drawn from the elite, that they would be working in the upper echelons of North Korean government.
Some would no doubt become spies. Some may even have gone on an assignment such as translating between Kim Jong-Un and Donald Trump as they chat gaily about all things nuclear in Singapore today.
A few of the group spoke English very well. A couple I sensed didn’t speak it all. These two men, I suspected, had to have been part of a security detail sent to monitor the students.
We talked, naturally, about newspapers and I explained the kind of work I did. Feeling around for somewhere to take the conversation, I asked about newspapers in the DPRK.
Nothing. No one deigned to reply to my question. It would obviously be too risky to say anything about home.
Peter had a copy of The Guardian with him. I held it up and talked about some of the content, coming across a Steve Bell cartoon of then Prime Minister David Cameron cast as a condom.
It astonished the audience that the political leader of the country could be held up to such ridicule. “You mean this is allowed,” one woman said.
I pointed out that in my line of work taking the proverbial isn’t just allowed, it’s positively encouraged – if you’re any good at it.
The students at least knew who Cameron was. But when I mentioned another name, a name more famous than the PM’s, a name which had been known for years and would continue to be known, I drew a blank.
Now it was my turn to indulge in stunned amazement: “You mean you’ve never heard of Michael Jackson…”
I learned that day that there is a very good reason North Korea is referred to as the Hermit Kingdom.