“Is our country really that dangerous?”
PYONGYANG – I had heard the North Korea horror stories: a cabinet minister executed in full view of other
leaders after a disastrous currency reform, life under the watchful eye of Big Brother, Potemkin villages and bare cupboards.
The North Korea I visited on a recent four-day reporting trip was indeed secretive and poor. But the North Koreans I met on this carefully orchestrated visit were polite, proud and spirited
– not the grim lot I had expected.
It was my first-ever visit to the hermit state despite 28 years of reporting in China and Taiwan. We were there to witness the debut of the country’s next likely leader, Kim Jong-un, the youngest son of ailing leader Kim Jong-il.
From the day we landed, North Korea lived up to its reputation as the world’s most secretive country. It was 11 pm on Saturday and we had checked into our hotel rooms, but most foreign reporters, including me, were still in the dark about our itinerary the next day.
One of the government minders assigned to Reuters called my hotel room at 5:30 am on Sunday to tell me and my colleagues to be downstairs in 30 minutes.
He didn’t say where we were going, but brought us to the centre of town to see the country’s Ruling Party founding anniversary celebrations and to see the first public appearance of the young Kim.
Minders acted as translators and were there to ensure we did not see things or talk to people we were not supposed to.
One of our minders was shocked when we asked about the young Kim during a television interview with one of the parade participants. He frowned and complained that our question was
Another minder grew pale when he got a dressing down from the chief minder for allowing me to speak to people at a performance. I profusely apologised for getting him into trouble.
When an American television journalist did a stand-up report at Kim Il-sung Square, calling North Korea the most dangerous country in the world, I thought our minders would stop him, but
One of them just walked away shaking his head and asking: “Is our country that dangerous?”
Pyongyang society has barely changed over the decades, according to people who have visited the idiosyncratic city over the years.
The Kim family is omnipresent. Statues and portraits of the late “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung are everywhere. A giant portrait gazes down the city’s main square at passersby, all of whom wear
red pins on their lapels bearing the face of Kim Il-sung.
When Kim Jong-il emerged on the second storey of a viewing stand, parade participants raised their hands and jumped up and down, cheering “Long Live Kim Jong-il”. Some wept tears of joy.
The next day, our minders took us to a display of 17,000 flowers named after Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il.
Pyongyang is immaculately clean. Cars, reserved for the social elite, are rare and there’s little pollution. Most people travel by foot or public transport. Accordion buses and trams are
packed, but neatly groomed commuters queue up in an orderly fashion.
Even though there were few street lights, women and students could be seen walking home in the dark, an apparent sign the city was safe and the crime rate low.
The ruling Workers’ Party of Korea keeps a tight rein over the media, education and all communication.
There are four types of mobile phones in the country — one for foreigners to talk with foreigners, a second for North Koreans to talk to each other, a third for select foreigners and Koreans to communicate and a fourth for government officials.
Like all visitors, we were required to hand in our phones upon arrival at the Kim Il-sung airport.
North Korea suffers from chronic food shortages. During the 1990s, up to a million people are thought to have died from famine after years of floods.
Its economy, once stronger than its southern neighbour’s, missed out on the economic boom enjoyed by the rest of the region and has been dragged down by heavy spending on one of the world’s
largest standing armies. More than 1 million troops are deployed — mostly near the border with South Korea. International sanctions prompted by the country’s nuclear weapons programme have made life even more difficult.
North Korea’s political and military elite, analysts say, is the biggest hurdle to reforms. They fear they will lose out if a society so meticulously protected from the outside world is
exposed to sudden foreign influence.
Common people were polite but wary of us.
On our way to the hotel from the airport, the driver waved his hand to signal he spoke no English or Chinese when I tried to strike up a conversation. But when I gestured to our hotel to ask
if it was where we were staying, he replied: “Dui”, or “correct” in Chinese, followed by a “Yes.”
He realised the slip and waved again.
When I gestured to a hotel shopkeeper to ask if there was a garbage can, she put down her phone and extended both hands for me to throw away a candy wrapper. I embarrassingly obliged.
Even the sternest of minders had a soft spot for a smile. When I was about to leave for the airport, I clasped my hands and nodded at the chief minder who smiled back, nodded and waved.
Or maybe he was just relieved to see us go.