Saturday, June 23, 2018

Wrong turn grants glimpse behind N. Korean curtain

PYONGYANG, North Korea — The press bus took a wrong turn Thursday. And suddenly, everything changed in the official showcase of North Korean achievement.

A cloud of brown dust swirled down deeply potholed streets, past concrete apartment buildings crumbling at the edges. Old people trudged along the sidewalk, some with handmade backpacks crafted from canvas bags. Two men in wheelchairs waited at a bus stop. There were stores with no lights, and side roads so battered they were more dirt than pavement.

"Perhaps this is an incorrect road?" mumbled one of the North Korean minders, well-dressed government officials who restrict reporters to meticulously staged presentations that inevitably center on praise for the three generations of Kim family who have ruled this country since 1948.

So as cameras madly clicked, the drivers quickly backed up the three buses in the narrow streets and headed toward the intended destination: a spotlessly clean, brightly lit building that preserves digital music recordings and makes DVDs.

The foreign journalists, invited into North Korea as it commemorates the centennial of founder Kim Il Sung's birth, arrived at the Hana Music Information Center, where a guide told them second-generation leader Kim Jong Il made one of his last public appearances before his December death.

"I hope that the journalists present here report only the absolute truth," said Ri Jinju, her voice trembling, her hair frozen with hairspray. "The truth about how much our people miss our comrade Kim Jong Il, and how strong the unity is between the people and leadership, who are vigorously carrying out the leaders' instructions to build a great, prosperous and powerful nation."

In North Korea, it's hard to know what's real. Certainly, you can't go looking for it.

Anyone who leaves the press tour, or who walks from the few hotels where foreigners are allowed, can be detained by police and threatened with expulsion.

But even in such a controlled environment, reality asserts itself.

It's not clear why the regime hides places like the dusty, potholed neighborhood, which is just a mile or so from the center of town. To most North Koreans, one-quarter of whom depend on international food aid, living in homes without electricity or running water, the neighborhood would look upper-middle-class.

But there's a certain view of North Korea they want visitors to have. Maybe, though, the regime is opening up. In past years, media minders would order reporters to put down their cameras if they saw something they felt didn't reflect well on North Korea. But Thursday, the minders said nothing as the cameras clicked away.

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