North Korea like you’ve never seen it

It’s the most tightly controlled nation on the planet. Yet in this fascinating dispatch by Jean H. Lee, The Associated Press bureau chief in Seoul (who traveled with David Guttenfelder, AP’s chief Asia photographer), signs of a country in transition:

At Kim Il Sung Plaza, a determined young man in a blue suit scoots by on inline skates, his tie carefully pinned to his shirt, as a friend spins circles around him. At a cemetery up on the hill, we spot a bride in a billowing, embroidered red Korean gown, a white-and-pink spray of flowers tucked into her hair. Her groom, tall and handsome, wears a red boutonniere affixed to his officer’s uniform just beneath his Kim badge.

And, in an astonishing turn of events, we are invited to a briefing at the grand People’s Cultural Palace, making us the first American reporters to cover a North Korean press conference, we are told. Journalists from the North Korean press corps snap open Compaq laptops and set up Sony video cameras, and portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il serve as the backdrop.

Ten North Koreans repatriated after their fishing boat strayed into South Korean waters file into the room, the men in suits and the women in traditional Korean dresses. Tearful, emotional, they accuse the South Koreans of mistreatment.

A question-and-answer session follows: The Pyongyang Times wants to know what happened to the four North Koreans, including the boat’s captain, who stayed behind in the South. A query from the state broadcaster prompts all 10 to rise to sing an ode to Kim Jong Il.

When we leave the concrete jungle of Pyongyang, we encounter a completely different scene. The rush-rush pace of the big city comes to a halt, and we go from skyscrapers and granite monuments to hills denuded of the pine trees that once blanketed the region. Now I understand why the wind in North Korea is so fierce; with no trees to stop it, it whips straight across the peninsula and slams the window in my hotel room in Pyongyang shut with a bang.

Mountains frame the landscape; in between, every bit of land is furrowed and farmed. We see more oxen than tractors, more manual labor than machinery. Without running water in some parts, women crouch by a riverbed to wash clothes and draw water from a village well.

The land turns lush as we near Mount Myohyang, where we climb a hiking trail said to be one of Kim Jong Il’s favorites. The rugged landscape is largely untouched, aside from the massive odes to the two Kims carved into the side of the rock.

North Korea figures large in the Western imagination as a place frozen in a Cold War time warp even as allies Russia and China have embraced capitalism. The government strives to maintain strict control over information, and people, coming in and out of the country. For outsiders granted a visa in a process that can feel as elusive as winning the lottery, the experience often is so stilted that they return home painting a picture of an Orwellian society.

Still, things are changing, if slowly.

Two years ago, I flew into Pyongyang from China on a spotless but ancient Russian jet, a bumpy Air Koryo flight that had me gripping the armrests. Our flight’s arrival was displayed at the airport on a “flipper” board straight out of a 19th-century railway station.

Now, the airliners are modern, with TV screens that drop down to show cartoons, musical concerts and North Korean films. And the old arrivals board is shuttered; instead, our flight appeared on a wide-screen electronic display rigged up beneath it.

Electronic goods are hugely popular, and we could barely get past all the boxes of South Korean-made Samsung TVs that North Koreans were lugging back from their travels. Cell phones jangled everywhere. David had to relinquish his iPhone upon arrival, standard practice for foreign visitors, but we later requested, and received, a Chinese-made Huawei cell phone.

More than 535,000 people in North Korea now use cell phones, a huge jump from 70,000 in 2009, according to Orascom Telecom, the Cairo-based firm that launched North Korea’s 3G network in December 2008. Most can make only domestic calls.

The digital revolution comes amid a succession movement and a campaign to improve the economy. Last year, Kim Jong Il, now 69, unveiled to the world the son he is grooming to succeed him: Kim Jong Un, Swiss-educated and said to be keen on computers and technology.

Orascom also is said to be pumping money into the construction of the pyramid-shaped Ryugyong Hotel, which rises 105 stories high and serves as a glistening backdrop to the towering bronze statue of Kim Il Sung on Mansu Hill. The concrete Ryugyong had stood abandoned for years, a reminder of Pyongyang’s decay, until the Egyptians stepped in to help amid the mad rush to get the city ready for the 100th anniversary celebrations next year of Kim Il Sung’s birth.

Buildings across Pyongyang are getting a facelift. Theaters are being refurbished, and apartment complexes repainted in pastel pinks and greens. There is more to come: restaurants, a park and “deluxe” twin tower apartments, according to the state-run Korean Central News Agency. On one corner, men with mallets were knocking down the walls of a building to the rousing blare of a military band parked on the sidewalk.

The amusement park near the Arch of Triumph got an overhaul last year, with brand-new rides from Italy and a hall filled with Japanese arcade games. Children race around. Grandmothers watch from the sidelines, tending to the babies. Two girls in Minnie Mouse shirts step gingerly onto rocks in a pond to pose for a photo, and then shriek as they nearly lose their balance.

“Welcome! Welcome!” a young couple calls out in English, waving to us to join them on the roller coaster. Moments later, we are screaming in unison as the ride dips, flips and shoots around the rails at lightning speed.

Officially, North Koreans detest us Yankees. Tour guides, officials and soldiers state as fact that the South Koreans and the “miguk nom” _ American bastards _ started the Korean War in 1950.

But once you get away from the rhetoric, North Koreans love Americana, whether they realize the source or not. You see Mickey Mouse everywhere: on backpacks, shirts, bags. They know “The Lion King” and “Terminator.” One orchestra played “Camptown Races,” perhaps as a welcome to the Americans in the audience.

I never thought I’d see an Oompah band in North Korea, but there was an all-female troupe of tuba and trombone players in white suits and brass buttons led by majorettes twirling batons. John Philip Sousa, famous for composing patriotic American odes, would roll over in his grave.

Pyongyang’s foreign community is a small and select group of diplomats, aid workers, entrepreneurs and English teachers. Our hotel, on the other hand, was full of foreign visitors: Russian dancers and Italian singers in town for an arts festival, a French parliamentarian traveling with his son, Chinese tourists in sunglasses and sweatpants, American doctors in scrubs on a medical mission.

The common thinking is that North Koreans are shut off from the rest of the world. But Robert Carlin, a former U.S. State Department official who has made dozens of trips to the country, once said it is the opposite: We know less about North Korea than they know about us.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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