A North Korea Press Trip Comes Packed With Creepy Moments

What's Changing in North Korea?
  • One reporter's experience of Pyongyang's propaganda trail
  • In North Korea's suspicious society, even minders have minders

Even premature babies have a role in the stage show North Korea puts on to persuade foreigners all is well in the isolated country.

In Pyongyang’s maternity hospital, a group of overseas press is introduced to a set of tiny triplets, asleep in incubators. North Korea has a thing about triplets, separating them from their mothers and sending them to state nurseries for at least four years, supposedly to ease the burden on the parents. As we watched, nurses reached into the incubators, raised the babies’ tiny hands, and waved them at us.

Premature babies at Pyongyang’s maternity hospital.
Premature babies at Pyongyang’s maternity hospital.
Photographer: Linda Davidson/The Washington Post via Getty Images

That tableau was one of countless creepy moments during six days in Pyongyang, where I and more than 100 other foreign journalists came for the first full meeting in 36 years of the ruling Workers’ Party.

What happened at the congress, I never saw for myself. While that was supposedly the reason the government let us travel to North Korea, all we got was a tightly-scripted tour of factories, apartments, shops and no end of Stalinist monuments, meant to demonstrate the might, benevolence and wisdom of the dynasty founded by Kim Il Sung and now ruled by his grandson, Kim Jong Un. The harder they tried, the more they reinforced a sense of desperation and inhumanity.

It began with the visa application. North Korea has no embassy in the U.S., so my television colleague Tom Mackenzie and I submitted ours to the North Korean office of the United Nations in New York.

After days of silence, a Mr. Jong with a Gmail account and an iPhone told us we were approved. What followed was a series of fees for things we didn’t want, a useful injection of foreign currency for a regime hobbled by UN sanctions. Inside the country they wouldn’t accept anything but dollars, euros or Chinese yuan from us -- not even their own currency.

The paranoia that Kim Il Sung instilled in his people -- a deep hatred of the U.S., a maniacal control over their lives, the suppression of information from outside -- confronted us once we cleared immigration at Pyongyang’s airport.

Military officers in oversized Soviet-style hats combed through our luggage. I had to turn on my laptop to show I didn’t have any subversive videos.

“What do you think of our check-in process?” one younger guard said, smiling at me. “It takes longer than other places,” I replied. He laughed.

Personality Cult

No matter how much you’ve heard about it, the cult of personality around Kim Il Sung and his son Kim Jong Il is staggering to witness. Their portraits appear on the face of every important building and inside nearly every room. Murals show them standing together or alone, in vegetable patches, test-firing guns, embracing children.

Portraits of Kim Il-Sung, left, and Kim Jong-Il at a silk factory.
Portraits of Kim Il-Sung, left, and Kim Jong-Il at a silk factory.
Photographer: Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images

Pyongyang is North Korea’s showcase city, far more advanced than the impoverished countryside that we weren’t allowed to see. Everywhere there’s a television, someone’s switched on the state broadcaster, playing songs of glory to the leaders. Presenters read scripts about Kim Jong Un in quavering, frenetic tones, as if they’re about to break down and sob.

Chief among the non-optional services we paid for were the minders assigned to each of us. They met us at the airport, deposited us at our assigned hotel and wouldn’t let us go anywhere without them.

‘On-site’ Guidance

At each place we visited (we had to pay entry fees for all of them), a tour guide relayed how often each of the leaders had stopped by to deliver "on-site guidance" -- those moments enshrined in countless photographs of the Kims surrounded by men scribbling into notebooks. The most banal remarks were treated as sacred.

“Marshal Kim Jong Un said all the citizens of Pyongyang will be envious of this farm,” our guide Park Myong Shil said at a commune near the capital. “Looking at the chairs, he said: these are like chairs you would find in an airplane.”

For a country that’s firing missiles into the Pacific and detonating nuclear devices, technology seems a bit of a challenge. At the maternity hospital we were shown a Siemens CT scanner and mammogram equipment, surrounded by people in hospital uniforms. X-rays of a woman’s breast were posted on light boards. Only the patients were missing.

A journalist asked to turn on the computer for the CT scanner, sparking dismay and consternation among the staff. No one knew how to do it. Finally a man came and booted the machine up. As we moved to the next stop on the tour, I watched the woman stationed by the computer trying to work out how to switch it off.

Stop, Stare

My minder argued with me vehemently when I told him it all looked fake. But everything we saw was like a diorama in a museum: Scenes of people doing things, but never to any effect. No one ever came or went. None of the children we saw stopped to stare or giggle at us. Nothing was out of place.

Young dancers at the Mangyongdae Children’s Palace.
Young dancers at the Mangyongdae Children’s Palace.
Photographer: Linda Davidson/The Washington Post via Getty Images

The most unsettling example was inside the Mangyongdae Children’s Palace. The building, a colossus with wings that circle around “like the embrace of a mother,” according to our guide, is where kids in Pyongyang go for after-school activities.

When we walked in, its halls were silent and empty, the escalators still. We were taken down a corridor to a room where rows of girls in black leotards danced a ballet, their movements synchronized, their faces fixed with smiles.

The Minders

Room after room it was the same. Children played guitars and accordions, embroidered intricate tiger designs, sketched model busts of Kim Il Sung. None of them were allowed to stop as long as the tour lasted.

In one room, a 12-year-old girl painted traditional ink characters. “I do calligraphy because it pleases the marshal,” she said tonelessly, referring to Kim Jong Un.

You’re not allowed to ask anyone about this except the minders, and even then the government makes them travel in pairs. The minders have minders.

I asked one overseer if he wonders what goes on outside North Korea. “Sometimes I’m curious,” he said. Then the mask was quickly restored. “Through our media and newspapers and TV and radio, I’m listening and watching happenings in the world necessary for me.”

Despite all the control, it’s impossible to completely hide everyday life. From the window of the bus, we saw people getting their hair cut at the barber’s shop, teenagers playing volleyball without a net, a boy running his hand along a wet railing and watching the water spray away from him.

A child in a lime-green raincoat crossed the street, holding her father’s hand. Her pink rain-boot slipped off and she hopped back to get it. It was those moments when North Korea seemed less distant, more real.

On the bus to a wire factory, we pulled alongside a street tram at an intersection. In the tram car, five or six older women watched us. One of them smiled, and I waved. The rest smiled and waved back. The tram pulled away and they were gone. Only here could such an ordinary moment seem extraordinary.

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