A Highly Orchestrated Tour of the Hermit Kingdom

E-mail Greg Palkot

I’m looking out of my hotel room window at the 21st century skyline of Seoul, South Korea. It is very hard to believe that just 120 miles north of here is Pyongyang, North Korea, where we spent 48 hours visiting with the New York Philharmonic during its historic trip.

First things first: the Philharmonic did a great job. They broke ground, made history, and were swell folks to be with. And, maybe, just maybe, their musical prowess will help nudge the diplomatic process between the DPRK and the international community forward.

I had read tons about the Hermit Kingdom but I had never been there. I’d been to Albania, the old east bloc nations, the Soviet Union, Saddam’s Iraq — all before they went Western-user friendly. But, I still found it hard to believe a place like this could exist in 2008.

We knew things were a little bit off when we were approaching the airport on the charter with the orchestra and all we could see was grey tundra outside. When we de-planed, the tarmac next to the solitary terminal was littered with broken down, moth-balled, out-of-date Russian planes.

That’s when we met our friends for this 48-hour stay: government appointed “guides.” In Iraq we call them “minders,” which is a very good word for them, because they “mind” everything we say and do. But again, been there and done that. Stalinist déjà vu all over again.

So, it was off to downtown Pyongyang with my good buddy and long-time cameraman Mal James. That’s when it began to get weirder. Our convoy of half a dozen sleek new buses were virtually the only thing on the highway leading into town … except for the odd military vehicle and government official-driven SUV. There are only 20,000 cars in this country of 23 million and no gas stations that we could see.

We then went to our hotel, probably the best one in town. It was a quasi-modern and dysfunctional affair; kind of like “The Shining” goes “Star Trek.” It was built in the early '90s and hasn’t been maintained too well, with its slashing elevator doors what would make a French guillotine operator pine with envy. It was 47 stories tall and we were convinced there was no one on floors 10 through 30.

When we looked out at Pyongyang from our rooms and our live positions, there was an even stranger sight. We saw monuments and buildings in honor of the Great Leader (the late Kim Il Song) and the Dear Leader (current boss Kim Jong-Il) and a lot of run-down apartment houses which actually, I am told, put the rest of North Korea to shame. (By the way, we wouldn’t be taking this trip to the "other North Korea.")

After a round of live shots for the folks back home, a little bit of cold noodles (a specialty of the North Korean people, of which we could only withstand a mouthful), we got a few hours of sleep. We weren’t even tempted by North Korean state TV, which, for some reason, was running cartoons late into the night. I think they were filling what would usually be empty airtime.

When we woke in the morning, we were off for our guided tour of the North Korea that the government wanted us to see. This was OK, because even on tightly-guarded trips, you could see a bit through the totalitarian fog and catch some glimpses of the real story on the edges … like our bus trip to one of the shrines to the regime.

From the bus, you couldn’t help but stare at the poor folks trudging along the streets and sidewalks in what passed for a morning rush hour, heading to “work” or political re-education class or something that vaguely resembled a store (there are officially only a handful of markets in this “hand-outs-r-us” socialist heaven). You could only feel sorry for them and their plight … being stuck in a place where they have no choice in what they can do or say.

Compatriot Mal is always good with the observations. Two of his remarks: “I don’t see any fat people here,” (malnutrition remains a big problem) and, “I don't see anyone carrying a bag,” (food distribution from aid centers one of the few ways to get groceries.)

We were brought to Pyongyang’s central library, where the Internet room featured computers which mostly could not communicate with the outside world (the Web is pretty much off limits for most folks in the North). There was also an English class where I was able to have a carefully controlled chat with a few folks. The student said that he liked Americans … just not the American government.

No tour of Pyonyang is complete without a visit to the subway system. It’s a garish affair modeled after the old Soviet Union’s underground palaces, with vaulted ceilings, murals to the leader, chandeliers, and no graffiti to be seen. Except we, like most, only went one stop. The mythology about the system is epic: It doesn’t go beyond those two stops. There are other liens just for officialdom. The whole thing is a cover for an air raid shelter.

We got a break from the tour for the concert, which was held at a massively revamped state theater. Places like this, and other buildings we were in, reminded me of the Saddam palaces I spent time in when reporting from Iraq. I imagine there is one global architectural firm which specializes in fake marble, ill fitting columns and gaudy metal work for dictators.

After a long night of live shots and story preparation and two hours of sleep we were off to spend our last few hours in the Hermit Kingdom. Again, our movements were not exactly free and easy. We suggested a few places we’d like to see, but were instead shown a place the government wanted us to see: a huge palace/theater/work camp for children to practice and display being good members of the state.

We were treated to a show of young kids doing an assortment of musical routines, acrobatics and dance routines. But again, for me at least, the public relations effort fell a bit flat. All I could think of was how many hours these kids had to practice to learn these bits. How skinny and sometimes sickly they looked. And, how distant their stares seemed, as they sang the praises again (duh) of the regime.

Next, we were onto the airport where we said our good byes to those “guides” who seemed very relieved to see that the backsides of their wards got onto the plane and off to South Korea. There, we talked to diplomats and experts who all expounded on the fact that change was happening in the north, that the regime could not last long, and that it was all just a matter of time until the current government would fall.

Insightful words from these pundits, but cold comfort to the people who have to endure life there. My warmest hopes to them.

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Greg Palkot is a reporter for FOX News Channel.

Greg Palkot currently serves as a London-based senior foreign affairs correspondent for Fox News Channel (FNC). He joined the network in 1998 as a correspondent. Follow him on Twitter@GregPalkot.