Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Hermit KIngdom "Seeking Guidance"

12th April 2012

Back in the DPRK

Perhaps it was the rousing music on Air Koryo, the National carrier of North Korea that set the mood for the flight into Pyongyang or the Cabin Attendant who seemed insistent that boarding and seating meant you must not stop, to put your bags in the overhead lockers. The music was basically at the proverbial Spinal Tap volume level 11. You were in doubt that the destination has lofty ideals.

The flight was ok, if they offer a frequent flyer programme I may be inclined to enroll, but the choice of destinations is somewhat limited to Beijing – Pyongyang.

The in-flight magazine is dedicated to the Kim Jong Il, in fact it has nothing but pictures of Kim Jong Il touring factories and military installations handing out advice. In every photo there are people with notebooks and pens recording advice from the dear (former) leader.

The old terminal is being torn down which is a shame as it is classic Eastern Block 70’s architecture and the new terminal has the warmth of a carpet warehouse on the outskirts of Slough in England. However the pictures of the great father and the great son (recently departed) hang in full glory over the customs line were the x-ray machines, again soviet circa 1980’s scan every bag.

It is a matter of fact that you hand your phones in at customs and they give you an official receipt, it’s that simple. Try living without a cell phone again, the good thing is you never have to worry about losing it or having it stolen. The only worry is are everyone in your contact numbers and email addresses are on a data bank in North Korea’s answer to the CIA.

The drive from the airport to the hotel should of taken about 30 minutes, as traffic jams are not considered a big problem as 99.5% of the population does not have a car, and gas/petrol stations do not exist.

So heading to the hotel and suddenly our bus stops behind a couple of other buses, the few cars that were around suddenly did U turns and went back from whence they came as fast as possible. The reason became evident for the next 25 minutes, as open top army truck after truck came from around the next corner, each with 40 soldiers sitting ramrod straight in the back. They were off to the main square no doubt with a Kim in the title to rehearse for Sunday’s big parade to mark the 100th birthday of the founding father of modern North Korea Kim Il Song. The hotel became that little further away.

Now having just completed a Hostile & Security Refresher Course the week before in England, I remembered the advice for requesting hotel rooms, never go above the 6th floor as that is the limit of a fire engine’s rescue ladder. Well for one having never seen a fire engine in Pyongyang, this seemed a moot idea, and since all the foreign press did not have say on what floor you would like for your personal convince and safety, we were assigned rooms on the 38th floor. It makes it easier for Security to monitor, as on my last trip here surprise, we were also on the 38th floor.

Day 2 Notes Friday 13th April Pyongyang – Missiles and Statues

Given the time zone difference between Pyongyang and New York, thirteen hours behind. You basically do not get much sleep, you shoot all day and start the live rotation for New York at 8pm in Pyongyang.

Having not eaten the night before, I thought breakfast might be a good idea and was heading to the elevators when another journalist explained” have you heard they have just launched the Missile”. The launch of which has had the world in an frenzy, the North Koreans have never successfully launched a ballistic missile in the past two attempts and whilst this one was meant to be carrying a weather station (that somehow resembled a dishwasher wrapped in tin foil), North Korea does have more than one nuclear weapon in its arsenal, and if this launch worked then the whole game of brinksmanship could be taken to the next level.

Grabbing the camera kit I headed down to the Press Center where hopefully a local official would be holding a Press Conference. After jumping the spokesman he reassured the assembled foreign media that a statement would be forthcoming in ten minutes as to the whether the launch had been successful or not. Meanwhile the news was coming out that in fact it had been a stunning failure with a flight that lasted less than two minutes and the rocket had broken up and was now on the seabed somewhere off South Korea.

Naturally in this age of tweet news flashes, it was reassuring that “Darth Vader” had tweeted something along the lines of “Earth People, do not worry, if you need it the Death Star is available to help you”.
Ten minutes turned into and hour and another and the assembled foreign media sat and waited. Breakfast passed and so did lunch, there is no concept of ordering food or coffee. Stale chips and coffee in a can is available if you dare to leave the Press Center, in case the long awaited statement was forthcoming.

Our official government minder, every team is assigned a minder. Naturally had no news or idea and was not even mentioning the missile incident. But we were told to be in the hotel lobby ready for a security check at 1:30pm. We would be told in all good time what we were going to.

Trying to handle the approx 200 members of the Press who had been invited into Pyongyang to report on the Missile Launch and 100th birthday celebrations is never going to be easy. In fact it is like trying to herd cats.

Luckily the American TV Networks were called to the front and marched down the hall.

All kit goes thru the x-ray machine that’s standard practice. Then the airport style security door and hand wand , but with your hands by the side “please” again standard. Then the Geigemeter is swept around you by another person in case you are carrying a thermo nuclear device in your pocket, unusual to say the least. Then off to the next guy who has a minesweeper device what he was testing for was no one could figure out. Then you are called back to the x-ray machine and every single item in your bag is examined piece by piece and we members of the 4th estate carry a lot a stuff. They were especially on the lookout for cigarettes and lighters, if you had them in your bag then your name was taken in what we termed the naughty book and the Senior Inspector recorded a black mark dutifully.

After the ten minutes it took Greg, Claire and I to get through we realized that this was going to be a long process, straight from security and onto the bus, and wait. And wait, fall asleep and wait. Two hours later the buses were packed with journalists and still we had no idea of where in the hell we were going.

A short bus ride later we were at the site of the famous Kim Song Il statue, which was covered in cloth and we could just make out a new and second statue also under wraps. It was of course the unveiling of Kim Il Jong’s statue next to his father.

The buses then took us a mile away and we exited, then it becomes the whole media zoo circus of trying to get the best position. We were herded by our minders and set off, walking became brisker and brisker, and after a few minutes the frenzy became a run. Now the minders are going bat shit crazy at this point. At one point we came to a roundabout on the path and it looked like a scene from the Tour De France where the peleton splits and half go one way around and the others the other way trying to gain advantage. Up a hill , back down through tress and bushes. From here to there and back and yet we still could not even see the statues.

After explaining that we actually needed to see the statues and not the crowd at the bottom of the hill (more on the crowd in a short while) we were taken to the top of the hill and that was as good as it was going to get. Naturally the cat herding was not going well. And what was all the fuss about security

The crowd, a modest 300,000. Yes half million people are around the area as far as the eye can see. Silently and respectful, dressed in there finest, tens of thousands carrying plastic flowers. And there is no one drinking or eating, not a scrap of rubbish. There are no toilets and ducking behind a tree carries a penalty not worth thinking about in this country.

The band strikes up and a roar deafens every sense in you as the new supreme leader Kim Jung Um appears A spec a few hundred meters away through a sea of waving flowers, clapping hands and triumphal music is blasted as he waves solemnly surrounded by old general with so many medals on their uniforms that it is wonder that they don’t fall over forwards with from the weight.

The new leader never speaks in public, or for the matter Kim Jong Il never spoke but to utter a few words once many years ago. Can you imagine a politician in the West not talking to half a million people. Instead a General steps up to the podium and commences a speech which does nothing but extol the glories of the Kim family and the nation. He somehow did not mention the failed missile test from earlier that morning.

The new leader Kim Jung Um who is only 28 years old, whom during the day had been given a few new titles with the word supreme in them walks over to the switch, naturally out of view of every member of the press and pulls the cord to unveil the new statue of Kim Jong Il next to his father.

At this point the crowd goes wild, fireworks burst in the late afternoon sky. Note to North Korean Officials – Fireworks 101 , they look better at night. The statues are actually very good , big is an understatement, towering is more apt and these will become an even greater shrine in years to come.

Now cat herding comes back in force and each and every team is rounded up to wait to go back to the buses at a much more leisurely pace. Back down the hill and along the path to the square where we are told the buses are now at.

Approaching a main intersection the tens of thousands people on our road start running like a debt collector team is chasing them . The reason becomes obvious as we finally see to our left the largest number I have ever seen coming towards the intersection from a bridge across the river we had no concept that the bulk of the crowd was in fact out of sight a mile or two away. And they were all walking home, there is no other way everyone walks no matter how far across the capital city.

It was an amazing sight as the cross paths met and wound through each other.

Mr. Hong our minder, asked if we would like to use the public toilet, what sane rational person would turn down this opportunity after being on the go for 5 hours. Lets just say that in this public toilet was a smell that will outlast religion. My eyes watered and I doubt that my sinuses will ever be blocked again, and that’s only doing a proverbial number 1, God forbid nature would of wanted me to be seated. I should add this point that it has taken three days to get toilet paper in my room in the hotel.

It had been a long day, failed missile launch to filming the new Kim and New York was only just waking up.

We were told to be in the hotel lobby at 7:30 for security. Did not get the chance to eat today.

Saturday April 14, 2012

Pyongyang, North Korea.

“Another Number 1 Event”

So security is called for 7:30am in the lobby. First up breakfast, it is time to eat no matter what. And whilst every buffet in Number 1 Restaurant was loaded with Kim chi, there was some fried eggs and toast, plus my first coffee in 36 hours, apart from coffee in a can cold.

Now we had figured out that this was another “Number 1” event and that all going well it was going to take two hours to get on the buses, option one is get through security early and get some sleep or two loiter politely to the last moment and minimize the bus time but sacrifice sleep time.

We opted for the later and after being searched for thermo nuclear devices again. The wheels on the bus went round and round back thru the streets of the capital. Going to a Number 1 event means that you are not allowed to film whilst you are driving and for a change its nice to be able to see the city and observe it, rather than through a one inch black and white viewfinder.

Its what you observe rather than what you see that is the key to trying to understand this country. You never see people with bags or groceries walking around, you never see obese people, and you see police and military everywhere. Shops if and when you see them are empty of customers, there are few restaurants and local fast food is glimpsed on rare occasions. There are no advertising billboards , only propaganda slogans here and there. By the train station is a park with a large jumbotron, which looks like it has films on it and of all things a penny arcade style shooting gallery on the corner. You look two blocks down side streets and see dilapidated apartment blocks. Not the better ones that line the main routes through the city. A whole new cityscape has been built in one part of the city yet seems unoccupied, the buildings shine out at night all light up, yet there are no lights in the actual apartments. It’s the story that you cannot see here that is the story, and the frustration is that you are not free to explore and tell the story.

At least the minders tell us today that yes it is a “Number 1 Event” and everyone on the bus agrees that there will be no running today, which is the irony as we pull up outside one of the sporting stadiums in the city.

Walking into a stadium is a gladiator moment and as we were ushered through, it was scene that took my breath away 50,000 plus soldiers and people were seated in every available seat perfectly. Not one gap in the stands or on the field. There is almost a quietness of politeness. Again not one sign of food or drink, nobody going to or fro from their seats.

And for once there is actually space for the media so we don’t have to try and kick the proverbial out of each other for no good reason. Down on the pitch, naturally best quality Vinalon artificial turf . We point the cameras to the podium and wait. Not one person in the crowd is talking, the only buzz comes when the doors are opened on the podium level. This Kim family has a large executive box.

The Generals arrive and file in, the band starts up and the crowd goes wild as the Kim Jung Um appears, the only problem is that no one can see him as the official state press are on podium level and totally block him, swing the camera around and the stands full of military are united as one in cheering and clapping. Just what sort of society can collectively enforce this is the story. Is it true admiration or just fear of not being seen to admire as a collective. They clap as one , they stop at precisely the same time, and no one claps early or late.

Eventually the state media move and we can see Kim Jung Um. He does not speak but listens as yet again the virtues of legacy and glory are expounded. Every few minutes, at the correct time the stadium erupts with cheers and deafening clapping. Kim Jung Um has this new hand signal of “please enough, but keep clapping” .

The speech ends, the crowd erupts but for what ?. The leadership goes back from where they come and the stadium empties. There is no story here, it is merely a dog and pony show in a sense. Nothing is proclaimed the leader does not speak, the rhetoric remains the same.

We are herded back onto the buses and back to the hotel. It was a show and only a show.

Tomorrow the main event the parade, a big Number 1 Event, must remember not to consume any radioactive food tonight, then again it’s to late and the restaurants are closed.

Sunday 15th April 2012

Bucket List Day

It really is one of the coolest events in the world to cover, and yet at the same time you actually do not see the event. A North Korean Military Parade is just one step away from total awesomeness.

We all have watched them at some stage, commented on the precision, the complete devotion of the adoring masses and of course the benign dictator waving from the stands.

The bottom line, like everything in North Korea is that it is a show, a demonstration of might and power. That has many facets, the first is that for North Koreans it clearly shows the power and might of their armed forces, secondly and it scares the Western World.

The sheer precision of the marching in complete goosestep, then when they get to the actual spot in front of the podium they kick into double time goosestep, in complete sync, just shocks your system. It is clinical in its precision and timing, and no one not one person in tens of thousands is ever out of step, men and women.

Naturally we, had been ordered to assemble by our minders at some silly o’clock because naturally no doubt one of us had assembled a thermo nuclear device and had ingested it overnight in our hotel room in a cunning international plot to ruin the 100th birthday celebrations of the regime.

This time, due to the complete and utter lack of “guidance” from our minders, who were not allowed to actually tell us that we were going to the parade, the media decided that of the 4 buses we were seated on waiting for two hours, that the bus number was a clue as to your position at the parade. So it all of a sudden became a game to play move to another bus, which we all did at least once. Only to realize that it made no difference as we all ran around and thru the shrubs on the front of the parade ground, which only added to the minders screaming at us. If they had simply explained what was going to happen then nothing would of happened to cause them angst, but quite a few small official shrubs were killed in the filming of the parade, due to lack of “guidance”.

Guidance is without doubt the best and most over used word by the regime in North Korea. Somehow the Kim – Song/Jong/Un dynasty somehow cannot go anywhere without giving guidance in a photo. The text under every photo of the leader – Great, Dear or Supreme, shows them in some factory or army base ‘giving guidance”. Kim Jong il even gave guidance on how best to eat cold noodles properly and what’s scary is that the word of the Kim is gospel. If they declare that only two meals a day is more than enough, then surely having only one is even better.

So for the media the trip became a game of seeking “guidance” from our minders.
Or to use a better line “What would Kim do”
So having kicked the living shit out of each other, we all realized that in fact there was enough space for everyone so why the professional tensions, for fucks sake a bit of guidance from the minders and there would have been no destruction of small shrubs in front of the parade ground.

The parade starts, and then honestly the biggest shock of the trip, is that Kim Jong Un steps up to the microphone and starts to give a speech. In the West we naturally expect our leaders to speak at every event they attend. In North Korea, Kim Jong Il only said about seven words in public ONCE and was never heard again. So for the new leaders to actually give a full speech was incredible, forget the goosestep pictures it was now all about the “kid”, and he addressed issues from atomic weapons to the famine. But above all the message was clear “military first”.

Then the parade kicks off in full glory, you hear every goosestep, every tank rumble under your feet, the sheer volume of adulation, as every soldier is screaming, as they approach, not one mistake, not one error. It was honestly watching military perfection.

Then to wrap it up, Kim Jong Un does this whole parade closer thing when the people, read hundred thousand plus who have been diligently waving plastic flowers over their heads for the past two hours, one in each hand. Laugh about it, but try doing it – two hours both arms up, just a flick of the wrist on the count of one / two. However you can have a piece of string connecting them around your neck, just in case you have to stop waving to hear some guidance. So Kim does the walk, fantastic pictures and the crowd is going wild and its all stage managed, middle aged men screaming as if they were teenage girls at a boy band. Of all the things in the world to try and film this is one of the easiest “ a mass adoration shot at a military parade in Pyongyang”.

The goose-stepping is visual but the missiles are the showstoppers that everyone wants to see, and after the failure two days before of the Missile Launch of the dishwasher wrapped in tin foil. The word was that a new missile was going to be shown for the first time in public. Which actually means “Western Powers” here’s what we got, be afraid and we have the bomb, in fact we have at least ten atomic bombs according to all reports. Success in the North Korean missile program is defined by when they can strike America.

Parade done, bucket list for me ticked. And once again thru the whole charade of security again, to film this time a fireworks show. Because the Supreme Leader was there we had to have security clearance even though he was 500 meters away and they blocked our view of him with a bus. What we did see though for the first time was that every single person at these events, hundred’s of thousands are indivually screened and checked as well. Documents checked, any Kim event is ticket only.

Filming fireworks is one of the most boring things in the world, after five minutes you honestly have everything you need and the bottom line was that it was all cheap loud bang fireworks. I finished filming and realized that after six hours of this event, not a single frame would make air and it didn’t.
Monday 16th April 2012

Have and Have Not’s

There is no doubt that the regime wants to showcase Pyongyang, and according to analysts it is working. The problem for the regime is that they are definitely creating a two-tiered nation. We cannot go outside Pyongyang freely, not that we can do it in the capital itself, you are always being ‘minded” Mr. Hong a nice guy but he is doing his job to put the message out. Turn the camera to something slightly dodgy and you are reminded.

But for the first time, we were actually allowed to go out, not in the vast press gaggle of 4 buses. But in our own people carrier alone, sounds silly but here this is a major step, we actually had the chance to film whatever we wanted (to a degree), the message clear and loud we want to show off Pyongyang. Look we have cell phones and taxis, never before have we been allowed to just film on the streets, of course with minders watching.

Up market restaurants, pizza and wine … of course you can film.

They want a message out, BUT only the capital, only the showcase.

Starvation, poverty and gulag work camps never an option. You cannot leave the capital, so you have to take what you can, but not drink the Kool Aid.

Of everything I filmed on this trip from parades to stadiums and fireworks, they meant nothing compared to one sequence just after lunch we walked over to the river and watched a group of about twenty people simply having a picnic.

Nothing planned or planted, just a group of friends having a bbq, telling stories and jokes, sharing a laugh, singing songs just simply having fun. It was ten minutes, of honest magic it was the chance to actually see and film people in a non orchestrated manner. And yes they did sing songs of praise to the Supreme Leader, that’s what people do in North Korea it’s a fact. But they simply sat around and laughed, offered Greg and I food and drink.

And you know what at the end of the trip, the closing sequence to Greg’s final prime time story was not the dog and pony shows of hundred’s of thousand’s, idolizing the regime.

It was the picnic and with reflection the most honest and genuine shots I have filmed in North Korea.

It was a one and half hour flight back to Beijing, and the 21st Century.


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