This is the first in a two-part series.
From the beginning, I knew this was going to be no ordinary reporting trip. A visit to the hermit kingdom of North Korea, a still-Stalinist state that enforces a rigid cult worship of its leaders and regularly frightens the world with its nuclear threats, was certain to provide some surprises.
Nevertheless, I was still unprepared for just how weird things were going to get. Twice I had been promised the rare prize of an entry visa, only then to have it withdrawn shortly before departure. One frustrated fellow U.S. journalist had referred to it as the Charlie Brown-and-the-football phenomenon: Just as you expect success—Lucy (or the North Korean government, in this case) pulls the ball away.
So, as I flew into China's northeastern city of Shenyang, home to a North Korean consulate and departure point for our Air Koryo flight to Pyongyang, I still wasn't counting on actually making the trip. It didn't help that the mysterious South Korean woman who was brokering visas for me as well as some other journalists pulled me aside. "I'm worried about you," she said, mentioning the fact I was the only China-based journalist in our group, apparently a category disliked by North Korean authorities who fear we might know a little more about their country. "Immigration shouldn't be a problem, but state security is," she said, emphasizing that I should stress the "business" focus of BusinessWeek if I were to be questioned by North Korean officials.
Fuel Shortage Means Cleaner Air
The next morning when I heard she had the visa for me, I was simultaneously elated and anxious. At the Shenyang airport, I handed over my mobile phone to our visa broker, to be picked up on my return. I also impulsively dumped my BusinessWeek business cards into a trash can.
Soon I was arriving at the tiny, nearly empty airport in Pyongyang. I was immediately struck by the clean air and white clouds, a pleasant contrast to the smoggy sky of Beijing. Unfortunately, the flip side of the clean environment is the broken economy. Because of fuel shortages, few vehicles drive the roads and maybe only one-third of the country's factories are now in operation, many analysts say.
On the drive into the capital city, there was more evidence: run-down, bleak gray concrete high-rises—clearly housing for the city's residents—lined the road into Pyongyang, but traffic (motorized vehicle traffic, that is) hardly became any heavier even as we approached downtown. Instead, everywhere people on foot streamed down the sides of the road, trudging home after a day's work. The most common vehicles were bicycles (still clearly a prized possession) and two-wheeled carts, which were either pulled or pushed by people.
Controlling the Reporters
"We have five kinds of transportation in my country," said 32-year-old Mr. Kim, one of our three guides. He listed train, trolley, tram car, taxi, and subway, as lines of people on foot continued to pass outside our bus window.
It was soon to become clear the primary role of our guides was to keep us from having any unscripted contact with North Koreans. That goal was made easier by the lodging they provided us: the Yanggakdo Hotel, a "five star" high-rise that is situated on its own island and, as such, is separated from the rest of Pyongyang. Residents included a handful of Europeans, large numbers of Chinese tourists lured by the casino in the hotel's basement, and the North Korean staff, all carefully screened before winning this prized, but sensitive, job.
"There are two things you must follow in my country," said Kim with a smile. "You can only take pictures when we tell you to. And you must follow the team. That is how our country is organized, and if you follow the rules there will be no problem." We were told we must be particularly careful not to shoot pictures of soldiers, policemen, and people dressed in "not very nice clothes.
"Everything will become clear tomorrow," our second guide, the serious-faced 35-year-old Mr. Park, had said the night before. (Park apparently worked in the security services and had been seconded to our tour to carefully watch over us.) "Yes, we have so many rules. But that's because our country is divided. When you go to the DMZ [demilitarized zone], you will know why we must have so many rules."
But once we were in the DMZ, all I could think of was how beautiful and clean it was. Yellow-green rice fields shone in the sun, and white egrets poked among the paddies. The DMZ is a birder's paradise, with hundreds of species passing through. There are 240 Korean families that farm the DMZ, Kim said, before cautioning me to avoid stepping off the marked paths. "Don't walk on the grass—there are land mines here," he warned me, a sudden reminder that some of the rules, at least, should be followed without question.
Later we passed briefly through the border city of Kaesong, known for its special economic zone and home to dozens of small South Korean companies making textiles, shoes, watches, and electronic parts with cheap North Korean labor But that site was not on our tour.
"You can see the statue of our Great Leader on the hill," Kim said. But outside our vehicle's other window, hunched women were busily scrubbing clothes in a ditch and a little boy struggled under a heavy yoke balancing two pails of water.
On the trip back to Pyongyang, the road was once again almost completely without vehicles. Instead, activity mainly consisted of workers bent over, carefully tarring potholes and planting rows of yellow and orange flowers in preparation for the Oct. 2 arrival of South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun. Indeed, much of the economic activity we saw on our visit seemed to be aimed at beautifying roads, arches, and parks, all in preparation for what would be the first summit between South and North Korea since 2000.
For Part Two, see "In the Land of the Dear Leader" (BusinessWeek, 10/2/07).