Travels Inside North Korea

A little boy skips along grasping a classmate's hand, his cheeks flushed and a badge of the Great Leader's smiling face pinned to his Winnie the Pooh sweatshirt. Men in military green share a joke over beers at a German-style pub next door to the Juche tower. Schoolgirls wearing the red scarves of the Young Pioneers sway in unison as they sing a classic Korean tune I, too, learned as a child.

Everywhere I look, communist North Korea is a world both foreign and familiar to my Korean-American eyes, a place where the men wear Mao suits and children tote Mickey Mouse backpacks, where they call one another "comrade" and love their spicy kimchi.

Since becoming the Seoul bureau chief for The Associated Press in 2008, I have made five eye-opening visits to North Korea. Chief Asia photographer David Guttenfelder has traveled to the country numerous times over the past 12 years.


EDITOR'S NOTE — Jean H. Lee, The Associated Press bureau chief in Seoul, and David Guttenfelder, AP's chief Asia photographer, have made numerous reporting trips to North Korea in recent years. They were granted unprecedented access on their latest journey to Pyongyang and areas outside the nation's showcase capital.


We're among the few Western journalists who've been allowed into North Korea during a period of heightened tensions that began three years ago with the shooting death of a South Korean tourist. A parade of provocations has followed: a long-range rocket launch, a nuclear test, the sinking of a South Korean warship and a deadly artillery attack on a front-line island.

North Korea has come under financial sanctions again for its nuclear defiance and has been condemned for alleged human rights abuses. It has also turned inward, as Pyongyang maps out a sensitive succession plan for the nation's next leader.

The wariness in Pyongyang means most foreign journalists are taken on a brief and orchestrated trip through the showcase capital, with cell phones confiscated at the airport and minders shadowing every move.

But this year, David and I have been granted unprecedented access as part of AP's efforts to expand its coverage of North Korea. We traveled into the countryside, accompanied by North Korean journalists, not government minders. We had a cell phone, Internet access and a van with a driver who took us to Kaesong to the south, Mount Myohyang to the north and Nampho to the west.

During our wanderings, we got a glimpse of daily life in one of the most hidden nations in the world and found a country on the cusp of change.

Some things are entirely foreign: the armed soldiers everywhere, their faces lean and tanned; the banners and posters painted with hammer, sickle and rifle exhorting people to help build the nation's economy; the sense of paranoia that comes with wondering who's watching or listening to you.

Others are familiar: the tang of cold "raengmyon" noodles, the nursery rhymes children sing on both sides of the Demilitarized Zone, the quick, warm wit that emerges after a few rounds of liquor.

More than 60 years of socialism haven't stamped out Korean tradition. Orchestras still play the folk tune "Arirang," along with "The General is our Father." And children learn about the filial piety of the fabled maiden Sim Chung, not just the feats of their late president.

Much of what we see during our reporting trips is calculated to show the bright side of a nation suffering from chronic economic hardship. North Korea's economy produces an estimated $1,800 per person per annum, according to the U.S. State Department, considerably less than the $30,000 in South Korea. The World Food Program says a quarter of North Korea's 24 million people need food aid to keep from going hungry.

The poverty isn't immediately visible in the modern metropolis of Pyongyang. We are led through gleaming hallways and cavernous, chandeliered lobbies by guides in sparkling gowns or neat military uniforms, speaking as though from a script. The hedges are trimmed, the begonias in bloom.

But in between the staged visits, candid moments put a human face on a society enigmatic to the West, more complex and textured than typically portrayed.

At Kim Il Sung Plaza, a determined young man in a blue suit scoots by on inline skates, his tie carefully pinned to his shirt, as a friend spins circles around him. At a cemetery up on the hill, we spot a bride in a billowing, embroidered red Korean gown, a white-and-pink spray of flowers tucked into her hair. Her groom, tall and handsome, wears a red boutonniere affixed to his officer's uniform just beneath his Kim badge.

And, in an astonishing turn of events, we are invited to a briefing at the grand People's Cultural Palace, making us the first American reporters to cover a North Korean press conference, we're told. Journalists from the North Korean press corps snap open Compaq laptops and set up Sony video cameras, and portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il serve as the backdrop.

Ten North Koreans repatriated after their fishing boat strayed into South Korean waters file into the room, the men in suits and the women in traditional Korean dresses. Tearful, emotional, they accuse the South Koreans of mistreatment.

A question-and-answer session follows: The Pyongyang Times wants to know what happened to the four North Koreans, including the boat's captain, who stayed behind in the South. A query from the state broadcaster prompts all 10 to rise to sing an ode to Kim Jong Il.

When we leave the concrete jungle of Pyongyang, we encounter a completely different scene. The rush-rush pace of the big city comes to halt, and we go from skyscrapers and granite monuments to hills denuded of the pine trees that once blanketed the region. Now I understand why the wind in North Korea is so fierce; with no trees to stop it, it whips straight across the peninsula and slams the window in my hotel room in Pyongyang shut with a bang.

Mountains frame the landscape; in between, every bit of land is furrowed and farmed. We see more oxen than tractors, more manual labor than machinery. Without running water in some parts, women crouch by a riverbed to wash clothes and draw water from a village well.

The land turns lush as we near Mount Myohyang, where we climb a hiking trail said to be one of Kim Jong Il's favorites. The rugged landscape is largely untouched, aside from the massive odes to the two Kims carved into the side of the rock.

North Korea figures large in the Western imagination as a place frozen in a Cold War time warp even as allies Russia and China have embraced capitalism. The government strives to maintain strict control over information — and people — coming in and out of the country. For outsiders granted a visa in a process that can feel as elusive as winning the lottery, the experience often is so stilted that they return home painting a picture of an Orwellian society.

But things are changing, if slowly.

Two years ago, I flew into Pyongyang from China on a spotless but ancient Russian jet, a bumpy Air Koryo flight that had me gripping the armrests. Our flight's arrival was displayed at the airport on a "flipper" board straight out of a 19th-century railway station.

Now, the airliners are modern, with TV screens that drop down to show cartoons, musical concerts and North Korean films. And the old arrivals board is shuttered; instead, our flight appeared on a widescreen electronic display rigged up beneath it.

Electronic goods are hugely popular, and we could barely get past all the boxes of South Korean-made Samsung TVs that North Koreans were lugging back from their travels. Cell phones jangled everywhere. David had to relinquish his iPhone upon arrival, standard practice for foreign visitors, but we later requested — and received — a Chinese-made Huawei cell phone.

More than 535,000 people in North Korea now use cell phones, a huge jump from 70,000 in 2009, according to Orascom Telecom, the Cairo-based firm that launched North Korea's 3G network in December 2008. Most can only make domestic calls.

The digital revolution comes amid a succession movement and a campaign to improve the economy. Last year, Kim Jong Il, now 69, unveiled to the world the son he is grooming to succeed him: Kim Jong Un, Swiss-educated and said to be keen on computers and technology.

Orascom is also said to be pumping money into the construction of the pyramid-shaped Ryugyong Hotel, which rises 105 stories high and serves as a glistening backdrop to the towering bronze statue of Kim Il Sung on Mansu Hill. The concrete Ryugyong had stood abandoned for years, a reminder of Pyongyang's decay, until the Egyptians stepped in to help amid the mad rush to get the city ready for the 100th anniversary celebrations next year of Kim Il Sung's birth.

Buildings across Pyongyang are getting a facelift. Theaters are being refurbished, and apartment complexes repainted in pastel pinks and greens. There's more to come: restaurants, a park and "deluxe" twin tower apartments, according to the state-run Korean Central News Agency. On one corner, men with mallets were knocking down the walls of a building to the rousing blare of a military band parked on the sidewalk.

The amusement park near the Arch of Triumph got an overhaul last year, with brand-new rides from Italy and a hall filled with Japanese arcade games. Children race around. Grandmothers watch from the sidelines, tending to the babies. Two girls in Minnie Mouse shirts step gingerly onto rocks in a pond to pose for a photo, and then shriek as they nearly lose their balance.

"Welcome! Welcome!" a young couple calls out in English, waving to us to join them on the rollercoaster. Moments later, we are screaming in unison as the ride dips, flips and shoots around the rails at lightning speed.

Officially, North Koreans detest us Yankees. Tour guides, officials and soldiers state as fact that the South Koreans and the "miguk nom" — American bastards — started the Korean War in 1950.

But once you get away from the rhetoric, North Koreans love Americana, whether they realize the source or not. You see Mickey Mouse everywhere, on backpacks, shirts, bags. They know "The Lion King" and "Terminator." One orchestra played "Camptown Races," perhaps as a welcome to the Americans in the audience.

I never thought I'd see an Oompah band in North Korea, but there was an all-female troupe of tuba and trombone players in white suits and brass buttons led by majorettes twirling batons. John Philip Sousa, famous for composing patriotic American odes, would roll over in his grave.

Pyongyang's foreign community is a small and select group of diplomats, aid workers, entrepreneurs and English teachers. But our hotel was full of foreign visitors: Russian dancers and Italian singers in town for an arts festival, a French parliamentarian traveling with his son, Chinese tourists in sunglasses and sweatpants, American doctors in scrubs on a medical mission.

The common thinking is that North Koreans are shut off from the rest of the world. But Robert Carlin, a former U.S. State Department official who has made dozens of trips to the country, once said it's the opposite: We know less about North Korea than they know about us.

For years, Pyongyang has been subject to international sanctions for illicitly building nuclear bombs and long-range missiles. South Korea, reversing a decades of warming ties, has largely cut off trade and aid, incensed by Pyongyang's nuclear defiance and two attacks that killed 50 South Koreans last year.

The aim may be to isolate Pyongyang, but North Korea has neighboring China as its chief benefactor and protector. So much of North Korea is "made in China" these days, or perhaps passed along through China, from the BYD sedans to "Die Hard" DVDs.

Foreign fashion is also seeping into Pyongyang. While you still see women in traditional dress, they're also wearing pantsuits, platform shoes and polka-dotted wellies. They're getting perms and plastic surgery. Some wouldn't look a bit out of place in Beijing, Bangkok or Seoul, apart from the red Kim Il Sung badges pinned to their bright, belted jackets.

We could be anywhere from Paris to Peoria, and maybe that's the point. The government seems determined to convince its people they can have all the riches of the West even if they're not at peace with the West.

It's hard to tell whether they believe it. There's a self-restraint and self-censorship inevitable in a country so defined by rules and order. Criticism of North Korea's leadership is taboo, and questions that may seem innocent often are met with a beseeching look that begs: "Please don't ask me that." Trust is only earned after many rounds of Korean wine and beer.

North Korea is a country in transition; you can see it on the streets.

Most people walk or cycle to get around, and you still see trucks packed with people in the back. But new buses and more sedans and SUVs are filling the roads, from locally made Pyonghwa "Cuckoos" to imported Land Rovers and Toyotas.

Pyongyang now has traffic lights, though the iconic traffic ladies in turquoise blue remain ready to jump in, white gloves flashing, when the power cuts out.

One day, we got stuck in traffic along the Taedong River amid the rush of construction consuming downtown. Drivers leaped out of cars and buses to argue with two police officers trying to reroute traffic.

Tempers flared. The drivers shook their fists, shouted and slammed their car doors.

It was a sign that one of the endemic ills of modern life has reached North Korea: road rage.