PYONGYANG, North Korea—For journalists, North Korea is the holy grail of foreign reporting trips. It’s almost certainly the most difficult country in the world to get into, and a country that readers just can’t get enough of.
But reporting from North Korea is by turns fascinating and frustrating, exciting and extremely boring.
It’s such a thrill to get an elusive visa and see this closed society with your own eyes, yet so maddening when you realize that you’re moving through a kind of real-life Truman Show.
It’s an adrenaline rush to get to go some place off the tourist trail — I was so happy on one trip to North Korea to be taken to a factory where they made insulation wire — yet most reporting trips involve an endless succession of visits to monuments to the Workers’ Party or the Kim family, where the only people you can talk to are the specially selected and trained government guides.
I’ve just finished my sixth reporting trip to Pyongyang, and my first in more than six years. I first came here in August 2005, when I was the Koreas correspondent for the Financial Times, and was last here in February 2008, when the New York Philharmonic played in Pyongyang in a visit that was billed as potentially the start of a thaw.
What this means is that I’ve visited the birthplace of Kim Il Sung — a modest house that’s supposedly more than 100 years old but which looks like it was born yesterday — six times. Not so much news there the first time, let alone the sixth.
And I’ve been six times to the Juche tower, a monument to the idea of "self reliance" that North Korea purportedly upholds. That’s despite the idea that North Korea has survived only because of the beneficence of the Soviet Union and, more recently, China. Indeed, the entry in the North Korean encyclopedia for the Juche tower is twice as long as the entry for the idea itself, underlining how flimsy it is.
On this latest trip, I ran into Choe Hye Yok, a tour guide wearing traditional Korean dress (complete with a pin of Kim Il Sung) and who speaks flawless English. For a decade, she has been recounting inane facts about the tower ("this poem has 12 lines, to symbolize 1912, the year our great leader was born.") I recognized her immediately — she was the same guide I had during my first trip nine years previously. We even took an updated photo together.
All this goes to show how North Korea carefully stages everything a journalist might see in Pyongyang.
My itinerary is set by the government, and if I’m lucky, they tell me in advance what I’ll be doing that day. Usually, I’m just told to be in the hotel lobby by 8:30 a.m.
A government-appointed minder — Mr. Kim, who had never chaperoned a journalist before and did not appear to be enjoying the experience — had been monitoring my every move, telling me off when I took photos that he deemed "not beautiful" and just generally making sure I was thwarted at every turn.
Can I stop at the side of the road to take photos, Mr. Kim? No. Can we eat in a local restaurant instead of the hotel, Mr. Kim? No. Can I go to Kim Il Sung Square, where I’ve been on every visit before, Mr. Kim?
Nothing was left to chance.
Still, it is worthwhile coming here and trying to crack open a window into this most unknown of countries. There is something to be gleaned even from this Potemkin village.
Take our visit to the East Pyongyang Grand Theater, where the New York Philharmonic played in 2008 and which I visited again this week for an evening of revolutionary opera (the lyrics included words like "fatherland" and "socialism").
On the stage, men in sharp tuxedos and women in sparkly dresses sang away, while the huge screen behind them beamed pictures of missiles launching and a smiling Kim Jong Un. Yet the restrooms smelled like an outhouse and had no running water.
When a minder finally caved in and let us go to a local restaurant, we had to visit three before we found one that was open and serving, and when we did, there was no one in there. So little was it used that someone had to climb under the table and plug in the cord to the hot plate used to cook the meat.
This trip, we also went to the Grand People’s Study House, a kind of faux library in the center of Pyongyang that the government likes to show off as an example of how open this place is. It has Dell computers running Microsoft Windows all lined up in rows, and North Koreans were dutifully copying down notes from their searches on North Korea’s intranet, mostly related to science.
Although one Explorer browser exhorted "Yahoo toolbar, get it free," the computers were not connected to the outside world. Only a select group of senior officials has Internet access.
Still, when I went up to one computer terminal and started typing in Korean into the search box, I suddenly had a bunch of minders around me and, hey what do you know? Time to go to the next room.
But there have been changes here that are notable.
Nine years ago I didn’t even bring my cellphone to North Korea because I didn’t want to have to leave it with the guards at the airport for the duration of my trip, as was required back then. Now, cellphones abound and it’s not unusual to see people in Pyongyang tapping away at their Arirang smartphones — the local answer to an iPhone — or chatting away as they walk down the street. This makes me wonder about the level of information penetration here.
Although the average North Korean, or even the above-average North Korean, can’t access the Internet, I’ve had broadband access in my hotel room this trip. That’s a sharp improvement from 2005, when I was an Internet pioneer for being the first person in the Koryo hotel to have Internet access. It was dial-up.
Having decent Internet access has meant that I’ve been able to tweet and write freely, and the North Korean government does not censor or block what I tweet and write.
The problem is that I can only tweet and write what I see, and I can only see what they want me to see. But the way I figure it, it’s always better to see something than nothing.