Monday, March 03, 2008

Inside the Hermit Kingdom

History is defined by events that change, and this week perhaps will go down in the books as such a moment, when the New York Philharmonic Orchestra played the Star Spangled Banner in a concert hall in Pyongyang. Two Nations still technically at war after 50 years. I had tears in my eyes listening to a national anthem that is not even mine as I knew in my heart, history was happening and I was there.

“Pop Quiz? Greg, What have you not seen here?”
“ I do not know? What?”

It would be easy to write a critical piece of oppression and a nation living in fear, because that is a simple fact of life in North Korea. The cult of fear pervades every level of society and life for anyone is so hard that we cannot comprehend the hunger and the degradations of life that are simply a matter of fact for the everyday North Korean citizen.

Greg Palkot and I spent 48 hours inside the Hermit Kingdom, a name the authorities there hate. And unlike previous trips to unknown countries like in May 2001 when we covered the Taliban in Afghanistan. I went into Pyongyang determined to look and try to see what I could not see from the buses that shuttled us around whilst a Government Minder stood a few steps away noting and observing every move, camera angle and word we spoke.

We flew into Pyongyang from Beijing with the orchestra, patrons and a media pack, landing in Pyongyang we were not sure what to expect, what would we be allowed to film, that was taken care of in a matter of minutes. We were hardly off the steps of the plane before Mr. Kim raced over to us and introduced himself. We had our minder and there was not a thing we would do in the next 48 hours when he was not standing in our shadow, listening observing and reporting back. It reminded Greg of the old days when he was in Iraq under Saddam Hussein.

The first thing that struck me at the airport was the North Korean airlines planes all but two of its entire fleet seemed mothballed, and in a fleet that numbers less than thirty planes in total that was the first indication that here was a nation teetering on the edge.

We boarded our bus along with Mr. Kim, and the drive in from the airport revealed one thing so clear and shocking that it defies reality, there are no cars on the roads in any number, sure you occasionally see a few but there are none. Leaving the country driving to the airport 40 minutes outside Pyongyang on at times a four lane highway I saw two cars coming in the opposite direction both military. It was like everyday was Yom Kippur in Israel, when there are no cars on the roads, here in the capital Pyongyang it is just another day of atonement, and tomorrow will be the same.

When George Orwell wrote 1984, he must have been thinking of North Korea 2008, workers in shapeless suits all with the Great Leaders badge on them shuffled on the pavements, the man in the street has nothing to smile about. Lines of 400m were not uncommon to see as people waited for antiquated buses to come along and transport them from misery to misery. Take this into consideration there are no mobile phones and even more shocking was that I did not see one person carrying any groceries, not one plastic bag. Next time you are on a main street stop for 10 seconds count the number of people on mobile phones and carrying plastic bags, in Pyongyang it does not happen.

Dinner the first night was with Mr. Kim in the hotel, which was a 40 storey monolith on a river island, the corridors are bare of any pictures or plants and every time the lift opened I expected the twins from the movie The Shining to step out and whisper praises to the dear leader Kim Jung Il.

Back to dinner, it is a matter of reading between lines. The restaurant was good the menu was traditional North Korean dishes as opposed to the banquet dining room I will write about later. Mr. Kim politely refused to order any hot food, and when our dishes came he still refused to sample the beef or chicken. But he looked and that is what changed me, he was without doubt under orders as to what he could do say and eat. He kept insisting that he liked only cold food and that we must try the “Cold Noodles”.

Thus imagine someone going into your shower and removing the hair that has congealed under the plug, putting it into cold water then add vinegar and mustard. Greg the complete bastard at this stage decided that he had to go and work on a script, but I would stay with Mr. Kim and try to pointlessly schmooze him.

We did the first live shots ever for Fox News from North Korea, an member of the “axis of evil”, Greg had to go outside in the snow and the next day in the wind when the temp dipped to minus 8, I meanwhile stayed inside and constantly whined into his ear that the draft coming in the door was cold. My revenge for having to eat the cold noodles was to watch him come back inside blue from the cold.

Waking the next morning after three hours sleep you could hear the sounds of patriotic music playing in the streets below and watching the people who looked like ants with heads down shuffling, whilst on the state run television happy singers and dancers extolled the virtues of life in the DPRK (Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea).

Again this is a matter of reading behind the words and images, the orchestra, organizers, patrons and media were the largest group of foreigners to have visited North Korea in 50 years, not since the Korean War had this many Americans been on their soil. I have no doubt whatsoever that the state run TV muted its coverage whilst we were there and instead of endless patriotic films of the Great and Dear Leaders we had MTV DPRK style.

We headed out for the morning tour, we had asked for certain things like shops and restaurants the night before, but it soon became clear that this was irrelevant we were pushed onto the bus and the tour would be what they wanted to show us and everything would be staged and timed for the cameras. And it was.
First stop the statue of Kim Song Il , the Great leader, originally covered in gold before being taken back to basic bronze after the Chinese complained that Communist leaders covered in gold is somewhat against the proletariat principles.

I had just framed up my first shot of the Great Leader, when Mr. Kim on cue came running up as if he was going to burst into tears, (Just as I had been told would happen by people who been to Pyongyang before) I must not in any way film anything but the whole statue, you must only show the Great leader complete, do not just film his face and arm extended in fascist salute for example, and then out of the blue 40 or so workers turn up whilst the cameras are there to lay flowers in praise of him. It was just the first of such propaganda that we were to encounter. Do not fight it, just film it. No one in that work party was smiling.

The next stop was the library where all tour groups go, it was so hollow that you could almost gag on the farce of what they showed, room after room of people wearing comfortable clothes and Kim suits quietly studying, poorly paid actors nothing less, it was complete with showing us internet which did not connect with one page outside the building, they filled the screens with basic Microsoft OS which fooled 90% of the media. Hit F2 when you boot up next time and enjoy what North Koreans can surf. The English class was just foolish with students and a charm teacher. All with the same message just like the girl on the Internet. The trouble is that we were so desperate to talk with any North Korean that we had to deal with the actors, Greg tracked it well in the script that night, enough respect but also enough doubt that we were being lead on a dog and pony show.

There were funny moments have no doubt, like Greg messing up the safe combination in his room with all of our money in it and then having to deal with getting the manager up to open it, or the time our bus almost rammed the only taxi we saw in Pyongyang. In 48 hours I saw one taxi, a city of nearly three million and one taxi.

Perhaps I look harder know, but in our time there I saw a maximum of five shops open because I was counting, one obviously had food as there was a small crowd outside the windows two deep, the other department type store you could see people moving around counters.

At no stage could we ask our bus to stop and just examine an area or store, it was the tour – point A to point B. I have never shot so much from a moving vehicle since the Iraq War. The funny thing is that apart from no traffic every intersection has a hot looking traffic chick, women only and good looking. They were like hip hop robots with there moves, it became a running joke on the bus as due to the complete lack of traffic we were never stopped and had the chance to get some good shots of the traffic chicks, but I did get one great sequence.

The Concert itself was attended by the political elite, but not the man having a bad hair day. One thing both Greg and I found out was just how normal the musicians of the orchestra were, I had always had this image of elitism, yet they were the funniest most normal people I have met in years whom you could strike up a conversation with in seconds.

After the concert I was talking with a leading musician and asked him how he felt playing the National Anthem in such a historic moment, and he told me that for the first time in eight year he was proud to play the Star Spangled Banner, had to laugh because he also told me that it had been a good gig and that they had played well tonight, I left him with the words “d├ętente does not have to start with words”.

Earlier in the day I had what I call my Bourne Moment, we had asked to see the famous Pyongyang Metro (Subway). It is the deepest subway in the world, and has large steel doors, which just so happen to make it a handy nuclear shelter. There are only two lines and stations are named after great events in the revolution rather than suburbs. Previous journalists visiting have only ever gone between two stations and true to form we did exactly that. No one knows if the subway is just turned on for the visiting tourists and journalists or if more than two stations exist.

We were not given the chance, the only thing was that this was the only time I managed to slip away from the minders, by going thru a side door and straight onto the elevator I was a hundred meters ahead of the pack and if a train was about to pull out I was going to jump the tracks with my camera and try running loose in Pyongyang, but strange as it was the train waiting on the platform waited till all the rest of the media turned up before leaving and exposing the murals on the walls. By the time Mr. Kim caught up with me he was breathless, anxiety and western cameraman on the loose was not on his schedule.

In the 48 hours we spent inside the hermit kingdom, Greg and I did not get more than 5 hours sleep, and it was to get worse once we were out and could say more, After our second night and our final morning Mr. Kim bounds up to me in the corridor and asks

“Mr. Mal, what would you like to do this morning?”

My sense of humor had left me. This is what I wanted to say

“Ok Mr. Kim, I would like to film, A gulag work camp where people are starving and dropping dead in front of the lens, then an interview with the Dear Leader, followed by a tour of your Nuclear Reactor program, oh and if there is time came we go to an orphanage and see children dying of hunger and disease.”

The reality was I said this

“ Mr. Kim, does it matter what I say or ask for, just tell me what time I have to get on the bus and go where you are taking us to “

“ I am going to breakfast first”

Very rarely am I disgusted with my fellow travelers, but on this occasion I was. We had been told that a complimentary breakfast was available for the traveling party, the previous morning Greg and I had just gone into the coffee shop and ordered a simple basic affair that included single serves of butter and jam that were out of date, the coffee was good (in fact better than Starbucks any day)

I walked into this breakfast buffet and almost walked out in the disgust at how could members of the traveling party accept this. Here was every dish from Smoked Salmon to Mutton Curry being served for breakfast, and outside the door were locals who were not permitted by the regime to even taste hot food. I was beyond words and actually took out a small camera to secretly film this opulence of decadence. I walked over took two pieces of cold toast and some cold chicken made a sandwich and felt like choking on every mouthful. Around me people had omelets, fresh fruits and whatever they fancied along with espresso coffees.

We drove out to what we termed Potenkim Village, a showcase of modern high rise buildings and apartments, not one shop or store open, not one car, a six lane highway through the middle of it.

We were taken to the hall of the Children for a performance, the auditorium held maybe a thousand people and all seats by coincidence were full with locals, the women in the front dressed in elaborate national dress, we were not permitted up the back. What followed was almost as obscene as the breakfast scene.

Greg and I dubbed it “Camp Evil” children smiling as if they would be whipped for doing any less performing acts that are not natural, hours, hundreds if not thousands of hours of robotic regime training, so that they can extol eternal happiness to there Dear Leader, when his image came on at the end the scene on stage was one of adulation beyond words and what was worse was that all the audience went even wilder with their clapping upon his image being shown.

In years to come, his regime will fall like they all do, and people will say do you remember that kooky regime.

But as we took off and I looked out the window and saw my reflection, I shed a tear in my heart for all the normal average people of North Korea, I had seen a snapshot of the model capital city, just how bad could it be in the countryside. No one may ever know.

To answer my pop quiz, I turned to Greg ...

In 48 hours, we did not see one gas station.