- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 29, 2005

In Pyongyang

Andrew Salmon, our regular correspondent in Seoul, got his first chance to see North Korea in person when he visited with a group of 17 journalists earlier this month. I asked him to send me some notes about the trip for this column, but his account was so entertaining I thought I would allow him to tell it in his own words, slightly condensed to fit the space:

We found that the only time we could wander freely was to slip out of our hotels after midnight. But in Pyongyang, is one ever unobserved? I was startled when an invisible loudspeaker, droning unintelligible Korean from a side street, suddenly burst into “Hello, hello” as I passed.

Covering North Korea from Pyongyang was no easier than from Seoul. Official statistics are not published and getting anything face-to-face is frustrating for two reasons: One, North Koreans clearly have little information themselves beyond the basics. Two, everybody in Pyongyang very clearly feels obliged to spout the party line once a political issue is raised; personal opinions remain unspoken. The result is an opaque muddle.

Take wages. With reporters eager to gauge people’s earnings, we posed the question at an embroidery collective. We were told the basic wage is 2,000 won ($945) per month, but that most workers earn 3,000 won and can make up to 30,000 won during busy periods. The next day, reporters who asked the same question were told the basic monthly salary was 10,000 won.

Even the museums, in the words of Andrei Lankov, a Russian academic who led the group, “are designed more to showcase the activities of the leaders on their visits to the museums, than the objects being exhibited.”

Indeed, in the embroidery collective, there was a diagram illustrating Kim Il-sung’s footsteps around the building.

Even so, some interesting observations were possible.

At one point, we saw a convoy of perhaps 50 military trucks loaded with boxed television sets. These were to be gifts to the troops from the regime’s leadership, part of North Korea’s “military first” policy in action.

In the countryside, we saw largely treeless hillsides that had not been terraced, leaving them vulnerable to disastrous floods that could spawn new famines like those of the 1990s.

In the city, we saw small kiosks selling soft drinks, flowers and snacks, indicating that market economics are beginning to take hold, even if it was unclear who owned them.

Kind-hearted people

And in the rare moments of subscripted contact, it was clear that North Koreans are not the robotic communist Taliban of myth. They proved to be proud, kind-hearted people, however much their views are shaped by the regime’s propaganda.

Even our formidable minder — who delighted in red-faced, finger-wagging, table-thumping diatribes against Washington — proved a karaoke star.

There is a Casablanca-type ambience to the bar of the Koryo Hotel, where government cadres and foreign visitors mingle guardedly over the excellent house ale.

But the officials grew skittish when they realized they were in the company of reporters. After 10 minutes of small talk, a young, high-ranking cadre who had studied in the West left our table with a polite smile.

Minutes later, his guest, an American planning a charity project, received a phone call and excused himself from us. When he returned, he mumbled, “You guys are persona non grata” and left.

In terms of “headline stories” we caught no glimpse of anti-regime activity, got nary a whiff of the gulag and saw not a single nuclear missile. Nor, alas, did we get an interview with Kim Jong-il.

But now, when I write about North Korea, I have a more intimate grasp; that critical “feel” of a place.

Oh, and that midnight walk? All I saw was a sleeping city — but I still wonder about that loudspeaker.

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is [email protected]

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