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Cruise in North Korea - on a Singaporean's ship

Owner approached officials after learning that reclusive country had a cruise route

Published on Aug 18, 2013 9:33 AM

Giant speakers thump out club hits as the deejay bellows: "Everybody get on the dance floor!"

The nightspot is a boarded-up swimming pool on a ship sailing in North Korean waters. And the groovers are mainly middle-aged men and women wearing pins featuring pictures of late North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.

Conspicuously missing is the beat of South Korean pop star Psy's Gangnam Style.

"We're not allowed to play that one," explains Mr Danny Tay, the 46-year-old Singaporean who owns the ship.

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Background story


Crew on the Royale Star are allowed to venture beyond the gantries of Rajin port to shop at a nearby market three times a month.

The rest of their days are spent on the ship - guarded round the clock by North Korean military personnel - or at the sole establishment within the port, a small eatery and drinking hole called Seamen's Bar.

There is no Internet access or phone signal. Life on board can be tough, some crew members said.

"I do the same things every day. I work, I eat, I play games on my phone, and then I sleep," said one, who preferred not to be named. "We can't go anywhere, we can't call our families, we're watched all the time. I'm here for the experience but I miss home and probably won't stay long."

About half the 185-strong crew are from North Korea - mostly waitresses and female cleaners as young as 19, hand-picked by the regime. The rest are from about 10 countries, mainly Cambodia, China, Indonesia and the Ukraine.

Most told The Sunday Times that what keeps them going is the tight camaraderie they have developed.

The Royale Star also provides a slice of Singapore life, its bar-lounge serving half-boiled eggs with kaya toast and a choice of Milo, coffee or tea. Tiger beer is available too.

Two senior men are Singaporeans: operations manager Ong Swee Heng, 44, and supervisor Aminuddin Ami, 53, an opposition candidate in the 1991 general election.

Both bark orders and gesture animatedly as they keep the ship running - a job that leaves no spare time, Mr Aminuddin said.

"The biggest danger in working on this sort of ship is having too much free time, so the trick is to keep busy," he said. "Life on the ship is simple, there is no outside communication so you just do your job. I rather like it here."