- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 14, 2006

Hermit kingdom

We have two television sets on the foreign desk and generally keep one of them tuned to CNN, the other to Fox News.

For two or three days after North Korea announced it had conducted a nuclear test on Sunday night, both channels devoted hour after hour to Pyongyang’s defiance of the world and what could be done about it.

Not once during all those hours of coverage did I see a new picture or film clip from North Korea. Every image — of Kim Jong-il walking and waving, of military parades, of lush green countryside — appeared to be stock footage pulled from the vaults.

That is not to say the cable channels were lazy or negligent. It just meant that foreign reporters and news photographers had no access to any part of the country.

I can’t think of any other nation that could play host to a news story of this magnitude and not be overrun with reporters.

Zimbabwe tries to keep out hostile journalists, but they still find ways to slip in; the same with Burma. China is selective in issuing visas to reporters and restricts their travel, but still has a large international press corps in Beijing. The Kremlin is suspected of playing a role in the deaths of hostile Russian journalists like Anna Politkovskaya, who was slain last weekend, but seldom interferes with foreign journalists.

As always when denied access to a story or a place like North Korea, reporters do what they can to work around it.

They monitor the official North Korean news agency, seeking snippets of useful information amid the self-serving propaganda. They talk to North Korean diplomats at the United Nations — when they will talk. They try to find sources at the intelligence services of other countries that watch North Korea. They cultivate contacts among the handful of businessmen and international relief workers who travel in and out of North Korea.

None of this is particularly satisfying, however, and it leaves us with a lot of sympathy for Western diplomats and intelligence services, who do not seem to have much more of an idea of what is going on in North Korea than we do.

Pyongyang scoop

That is why most journalists jump at any chance to visit North Korea in person, even given the severe restrictions that are routinely placed on them while they are in the country.

When photographer Gerald Herbert and I were invited to Pyongyang for five days in February 2000, we were constantly accompanied and watched by government officials, or minders. Mr. Herbert was warned not to take any pictures out of the car window, and we both were advised not even to look out the windows of our hotel.

Nevertheless, there are several images that still stand out vividly in my mind. Few would have been flattering to the regime, but if we had been permitted to shoot photos and publish them they would at least have served to humanize, and perhaps generate sympathy, for the North Korean people, who are likely to be the losers in the current crisis.

One such image is of a work crew comprised of about two dozen men, carving a 12-lane highway out of the frozen ground in a place where the only traffic consists of an occasional car, truck or tractor. They are working solely with picks and shovels, no earth-moving equipment in sight.

Another is of a spacious, leafy downtown Pyongyang, where elegant official buildings are interspersed with grim dormitory-like three-story apartments with broken windows. At each major intersection a gorgeous policewoman in fur-trimmed powder blue overcoat and high boots directs what little traffic there is with a red-and-white candy cane wand.

But my favorite image is of a frozen river where children and adults alike are squatting on single bladed devices resembling skateboards, and pushing themselves along with sticks. Across this scene trudges a single man dragging a small tree he has cut down on the other side of the river and is taking home for firewood.

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is djones@washingtontimes.com.

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