Journalists discover the two faces of North Korea
As the nation celebrates the birth of its founder this month, our reporter explores life in the closed country.
PYONGYANG, NORTH KOREA — As most of the globe follows what is arguably the world's premier sporting event (World Cup), North Korea is staging its own spectacular: a nightly birthday bash for the deceased man who remains its president.
And in a rare display of hospitality, the "Hermit Nation" is inviting foreign guests except Americans to see the show.
That's how I, a British citizen, suddenly found myself after six years of vain attempts to secure a visa surrealistically sipping a Coke on a warm evening in a Pyongyang stadium watching what must rank as one of the most stunning performances on earth. On the field below, an all-singing, all-dancing cast of more than 100,000 bayonet-wielding soldiers and serenely smiling children act out the triumphant history of a revolutionary struggle under a blaze of floodlights and laser beams.
Playing here until the end of June, the 80-minute extravaganza is known as the Arirang Festival. It is an attempt by North Korea to attract foreign currency and overseas support after President Bush included the country in his "axis of evil."
I arrived with a group of 14 other journalists, ostensibly to attend the festival, which is a celebration of the 90th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung, the "eternal president" of North Korea, who remains the subject of religious devotion eight years after his death. But the Arirang was just the first of many sights during a three-day stay that made my colleagues and I wonder if we hadn't all been invited onto an elaborate stage of "The Truman Show." Little was as it appeared or was described.
In an otherwise dark city where diplomats say there have been electricity shortages since Christmas a handful of street vendors' stalls were set up to simulate the vibrant markets found elsewhere in Asia. Each was decorated with strings of lights.
Before my arrival, I had expected to be restricted to the hotel and accompanied everywhere by a government "guide" the restrictions imposed on the handful of journalists who had entered in the past but our group was allowed to wander freely around the city.
We were met with smiles, waves, and a surprising warmth toward foreigners almost everywhere. Few residents show any sign of the malnutrition that has ravaged their nation for much of the past six years.
Some, however, are willing to speak about those times. "We had to get by on a bowl of gruel each morning," says one Pyongyang resident. "It was worse for people in the countryside. Many died. But it is better now."
With a reasonable harvest and economic growth of 3.6 percent this past year, the government has declared the "successful completion of the arduous march" as it refers to the years of famine.
But for most, especially outside the Arirang bubble, life is wretched, foreign observers say. Foreign aid has alleviated the worst of the food crisis, but clean water, power, and medicine are in short supply. "There are lights in Pyongyang's hospitals, but nowhere else," says an aid worker who took us on a private tour of the city's darker back streets. "Doctors say they are getting only 15 percent of the power they need." More than 100,000 refugees are said to have fled to China to seek food.
We were invited to visit the Koryo General Hospital in Pyongyang, supposedly a representative example of the medical situation in North Korea. It was a little too perfect. Despite the squalor in which most of the country's 22 million people live, the floors of the showcase institution were immaculately polished, the attendants' robes crisply pressed, and the plump patients such a vision of good health that they could advertise vitamin supplements.
Our nervous guide, Hyon Chol the vice principal of the institution astonished us by claiming that the average life span of the population has probably increased, despite a famine that is believed to have claimed between 200,000 and 2 million lives. "The government hasn't released any data for 10 years, but I would guess that longevity has improved," he says. "Our country has been on an arduous march in recent years, but our government is doing all it can to rectify the situation."
At the People's Study House North Korea's national library our group was shepherded to a computer room, where factory workers were being retrained to use IBM computers the only PCs we saw in three days.
When asked why none of the machines was connected to the Internet, the librarian in charge of foreign information replied: "Of course, the Internet is available, but we never receive any requests for that service. I've never seen the Internet, and I'm not curious. I'm satisfied with our books." At the time of our tour, there was one person to each terminal. But when I returned unannounced just 10 minutes later, five people were crowded around each machine.
President Bush's "axis of evil" speech has pushed anti-American sentiment always strong to new heights. Pyongyang residents, our guides, and soldiers we met on the North-South border blame Washington for everything, from dividing the peninsula to cutting off food supplies. That's why no Americans were allowed on our tour.
"Their policy against us has become more hostile since Bush took office," says Lt. Kim Gwang-gil. "But we are ready to respond. If they touch our people, or invade us, there is no place on earth where they can avoid retribution."
DURING a tour of the Truce Village, a place inside the tense demilitarized zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea, our group engaged in a friendly ideological sparring match with a People's Army lieutenant.
But the talk turned nasty when I mentioned the North's sacred ruler. "From a journalist's point of view," I prodded, "there is a big difference between the South and the North. In Seoul, reporters can criticize the president Kim Dae Jung as much as they like. But in Pyongyang, it is impossible to criticize Kim Jong Il."
The lieutenant bristled. "As journalists, you must see how highly we esteem our leader. Your insult is unbearable."
My enraged translator, let's call him Mr. Park, shouted an expletive. I shrugged off the incident. But later, catching me alone, Mr. Park vented his full fury. "Never say such things again. To insult our leader is to insult our entire country.... If we had been alone, I would have punched you."
I was stunned. Was this the same guy who had been a model of charm the night before? The man who told us about his childhood dream of becoming a movie star, his love of English, and his hobby of tae kwan do?
But five minutes after threatening me with a knuckle sandwich, we were having a friendly kick (with a soccer ball) in the DMZ.
To my shame, I was not as generous with Mr. Park on the final day of my visit. We were stopped at the country's first fast-food stall. "Buy me a hamburger?" he asked.
"No," I replied.
"Because you are always angry at me."
It was an instinctive response, but I immediately regretted it. I had hundreds of dollars in my pocket, but refused to spend one on a man who had probably never eaten a burger in his life.
Suddenly, my refusal to buy Mr. Park a burger seemed at least as evil as his threat of a socking me. Between us, I thought, we were a lesson in how not to overcome North Korea's troubled relationship with the outside world.