National Geographic : 2013 Oct
114 national geographic • october 2013 and now grandson—that has controlled life in North Korea for 65 years. It’s a country where reporting often feels like a series of strange, bloodless battles. Some times—like that morning at Ryongthong—the government wins. But if you stay long enough and look deeply enough, there are days when you learn more than you expected. It’s why we keep coming back. Over the past year David and I have been part of a small team of Associated Press journalists who have been able to visit North Korea regu larly. We’ve traveled to collective farms, attended countless political rallies, and visited Pyongyang hot spots like the Gold Lane bowling alley, where the capital’s elite hoist battered balls made in America. In a country where dull, Sovietinspired clothing had always been the rule, soldiers’ girl friends now parade through Gold Lane in short skirts and high heels, thanks to the capital’s small but growing consumer economy. But for the most part we still see only what our minders, and the powerful government agencies looming silently above them, allow. The minders meet us at the airport when we arrive and drop us off when we leave. Every morning they’re waiting for us in the lobbies of our hotels, behemoths of relative luxury built for foreigners. They are places with reliable heat, electricity, and even Internet access but where guests spend their days lost amid acres of scuffed marble and floor after floor of empty rooms, wanderers in these failed attempts at 1970s Las Vegas elegance. Our main minder is a pleasant but purpose fully distant man named Ho Yong Il. He is with us at the Children’s Department Store and dur ing rallies in Kim Il Sung Square. He goes with us to restaurants and factories. Mr. Ho (he is al ways Mr. Ho to me) is our translator, our guide, and the man charged with never allowing us out of his sight. If we tried to slip away from him— something we have never tried to do—no doubt our visas would be revoked. I spent far more time last year with Mr. Ho than with some of my closest friends. Yet after many attempts to get him to open up, here is what I know about him: He studied English. He once saw part of the movie Gone With the Wind. He likes Charles Dickens. His wife is a homemaker. He is also a patriot. Though he is interested in the larger world, curious about American slang and how David and I work, his reverence for his homeland is obvious. To spend time with Mr. Ho is to see North Korea through the eyes of a be liever. He clearly enjoys talking about his coun try’s history, its leaders, and its monuments. But requests to see something unexpected—to visit a car dealership or watch a university history lesson—are usually met with Mr. Ho’s warning “ That might be difficult.” Most of the time that means no—though it’s rarely clear who actually makes the decision. It’s hard to know how much of what Mr. Ho allows us to see is real. One day he takes us to meet a pair of workingclass newlyweds in their new threebedroom Pyongyang apartment, with its 42inch flatscreen TV. The apartment is in one of the city’s showcase housing complexes, its outer skin a grid of blue and white bathroom tiles. These upscale towers near the Taedong River were built for the minuscule elite of the longruling Korean Workers’ Party, or KWP. But Mr. Ho wants to prove that they’re open to everyone. The couple, we are told, were given the apartment because the wife, Mun Kang Sun, had been declared a Hero of the Republic for her astonishing productivity at a textile factory. Mun, a demure woman in her early 30s who looks much older, sits quietly as her husband speaks. “All the people of my country are like one big family with the leaders as our parents,” says Kim Kyok, a technician at the same factory. He says his apartment shows how the regime cares for its people. But as he speaks, he picks nervously at his fingers. A trio of people—two minders and a tall, scowling man no one both ers to introduce—is listening to everything. In a country where meeting foreigners without People speak to reporters in surreal, mechanical hyperbole, spouting praise for their leaders.