Upon arrival in Pyongyang, an oddly beautiful city rebuilt by the Soviets, Chinese, and East Germans in the 1950s, I was teamed up with my guide/minder, who would stick with me for the duration of the visit. Any journalist working in North Korea has at least one minder, usually an elite party member who grew up in the relative privilege of Pyongyang. Typically men in their thirties or forties, the minders tend to be chatty individuals who like to boast their knowledge about the outside world (and get us talking so they can obtain as much information as possible from us). One minder told me that he had checked out my newspaper’s website (I get to use the Internet, he was hinting) and he also felt compelled to note that my Web profile photo had been taken when I was 20 pounds lighter. I found such crazy-uncle remarks actually endearing (ah, North Korean men are just as rude as middle-aged relatives in South Korea!). In August 2001, however, I was assigned a slightly senior female minder, perhaps because I was the only female in the press corps.
Once journalists arrive in Pyongyang, it is a ritual for the North Koreans to herd the visitors to landmarks like the giant Juche Tower and the Grand People’s Study House, a surprisingly pleasant library where one can find the complete works of Kim Il-sung in Swahili or Portuguese and check out a handful of Western novels like Gone With the Wind—the novel is beloved in North Korea for exposing racial and class discrimination in the US. Although I didn’t get to go, a typical Pyongyang tour package also includes a visit to USS Pueblo, the ill-fated Navy intelligence ship North Korea captured in 1968. The ship has long since been turned into a museum by North Koreans, but technically it still is a commissioned vessel of the US Navy under enemy captivity.
Throughout the dozen trips I made to North Korea from 2001 to 2008, I rarely got to mingle with regular folks on the streets. It was not just because the minder was with me at all times, or that I was busy meeting multiple deadlines as a pool reporter: I took my South Korean colleagues’ advice that it was not worth the risk to talk to North Koreans, even with the minder out of sight, since we had no way of knowing how such an encounter might affect people’s lives. Although I guessed they wouldn’t exactly be taken to the gulag for uttering a sentence or two, I didn’t want to complicate things.
Instead, my colleagues and I used our observational skills to the maximum, reflecting on what we could see. Why were all the mountains barren? Because wood is the primary fuel, and people use any greens they can find to help fill their bellies. Why did I see two ridiculously fat cows grazing on the road from Sunan International Airport to downtown Pyongyang? It’s a matter of macho pride: North Korea wants to show visitors that its people aren’t as famished as the rest of the world thinks they are.
As we now know, Kim Jong-il’s version of glasnost didn’t quite work out as planned. In October 2000, when US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited Pyongyang, it was seen as a prelude to a summit between President Bill Clinton and Chairman Kim, to be followed by normalization of Washington-Pyongyang ties and eventually, an end to the Korean War; this was going to be Clinton’s Nobel-Peace-Prize moment. (Albright at the time thought Kim Jong-il to be “a man with whom one can do business.”) But the chance for normalization of relations pretty much evaporated, due to the Bush-Gore election fiasco in Florida. In retrospect, the US Supreme Court decision in favor of President Bush may have had as much impact on the lives of North Koreans as it did on Americans. Disgruntled, Pyongyang proceeded with its nuclear build-up.
In this strange land, I enjoyed the freedom to write in peace, without constant phone calls, emails or instant messages from my editor. At the time, there was no domestic cellphone service in North Korea, and foreign satellite phones were confiscated upon entry; of course there was no high-speed Internet. I had to file my stories over the unreliable international phone lines, usually routed via China. Sometimes we South Korean journalists were given access to the government hotlines between Seoul and Pyongyang—but there was no guarantee that the articles and photos would be sent on time. When the North Korean government was displeased with coverage, it would simply cut the phone lines, and since Pyongyang did suffer frequent power shortages, we could not always tell if the communication blackouts were human or mechanical in origin.