Perceptions of North Korea
Landing at North Korea’s Pyongyang International Airport to cover the two-day visit by the New York Philharmonic, we did not know what to expect. Myself, and Reuters TV cameraman Anil Ekmecic, had never been to Korea before, and what must be a fairly unusual experience, we could now say we traveled to Korea via the reclusive North first.
As we touched down, both Anil and I, along with text journalist Jon Herskovitz, the feeling was of intense anticipation of the unknown in a visual sense. The first sight was a welcoming party, consisting of some 10 uniformed North Korean soldiers and more than 60 well-attired officials. All looking tense. Then what happened next must have been a rather unusual sight for North Korea – a media scrum. The traveling press of which we were a part of, consisted of approximately 60 journalists, 20 television cameraman and 10 photographers. But then what we hadn’t counted on was the local media, who appeared from nowhere, and were definitely not used to having to worry about getting in other people’s viewfinders, let alone being told to “get outta the way, Man”.
After the official group photograph of the orchestra had finished, we were introduced to our ‘guides’ for the two-day visit, and shuffled into buses. These friendly yet intimidating officials stated that they all were named “Kim” and they would be more than happy to accommodate our every need.
The convoy then started out to our hotel, about a 45 minute ride into town. At first we were expecting to have to sneak a few photographs and footage as we had been told on all previous official tours was the case, but all of us were pleasantly surprised when no orders to lower our cameras were given. So through thick, badly scratched and tinted windows, we recorded what we saw. A bleak and gray landscape covered in snow, dotted with run-down dilapidated buildings, the occasional car (usually an early 80’s model Mercedes), horse-drawn carts, and many many weary-looking people. Some were collecting firewood, while others were just aimlessly walking or standing by the road.
Then we entered the city itself. The gray and run-down apartment blocks were a stark contrast from the colorful propaganda posters lining the streets. One poster in particular caught the eye of the travelling press – a fist smashing into the head of an American soldier.
After checking into our comfortable five-star hotel (believe me, it wasn’t bad, but no five-star), we were taken to watch a performance by a traditional singing and dancing group that was quite beautiful. But the lavishness and quantity of food laid on at the dinner after was not. I could not bring myself to eat such food in a country where people were so hungry as evidenced by the skinny faces we had seen just a few hours before along the side of the road. The breakfast the next morning was even more extravagant, with an ice sculpture surrounded by food that the lovely traditionally dressed waitresses would surely have never seen before in their lives.
Next, we were herded into buses for a “city tour” that proved quite interesting but not all beneficial at showing real life in Pyongyang. We started at the massive bronze statue of ‘Dear Leader’ Kim Jung-il, which we were politely told we could only photograph ‘full length’, and made clear with a ‘make sure you do as I will check that you have Mr Gray’. Next was the city library, in which we all became very suspicious after being shown a room of some 40 brand new computers, all being used, and by people who we were told we could interview with ‘no problem at all’. And when Anil tried to film in a certain direction, and was promptly told he could not, he seemed to have made a very good friend for the rest of his time in North Korea.
But when we got to the next location, it provided me with my most distinct memory of the entire trip. We were taken to a subway station and ushered onto an 80-meter-long escalator, and while we were traveling down, coming up the other side were ordinary commuters. Their appearance to me was of complete helplessness, all passing slowly as if in a trance, heads bowed, staring blankly, faces unmoved. The best description is a factory conveyor-belt. The beautiful murals adorning the station seemed to become quite horrifying with their messages that all citizens exist to work for the state.
That night, the concert was without doubt beautiful and gave the elite members of Pyongyang society enjoyment. But to hear such gorgeous music in such a bleak environment did seem somewhat out of place.
The next day, our final tour site was an elite talent school for young children, involving performances of singing, gymnastics and dance. What was on stage was both amazing, and scary, with the level of talent leaving you breathless and wondering how long they must have rehearsed.
But what was even more amazing was the audience. Hundreds of students sitting with their eyes lowered, hands on their laps, no talking, no smiling, no giggling, no moving, until someone in charge started the applause. It was as if they also had been training for their performance. A sad moment happened as Anil was leaving and caught a shy glance from a young girl in the crowd. Just the fact that she was able to offer a slight smile and nod of recognition in an otherwise robotic environment gave him and myself hope that change might just be possible.
Once on the plane, after numerous photos on the tarmac for prosperity with our new ‘friends’, a wave of euphoria swept through the plane with the knowledge that being constantly observed and studied was finally over.
My personal impression of this experience – a sense of amazement that you can enter a George Orwell novel and come out the other side, especially when that novel is titled ‘1984’!
(To view an audio slideshow of David’s experience in North Korea click here. The audio is from the New York Philharmonic orchestra’s performance in Pyongyang where they began their show with a rendition of the Star Spangled Banner.)