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In North Korea, a peek into the sealed state

The Arch of Reunification, on a Pyongyang street that heads toward South Korea, symbolizes the goal of a single Korea. On the Web: View more of Jaeger’s photos at

Photo by Stefan Jaeger

The Arch of Reunification, on a Pyongyang street that heads toward South Korea, symbolizes the goal of a single Korea. On the Web: View more of Jaeger’s photos at

A week of ominous news from North Korea — nuclear tests, missile launches and threats of war if provoked — has reminded the world of how difficult it is to figure out what is going on inside.

The totalitarian regime, so secretive that it has been called the Hermit Kingdom, maintains its isolation by keeping almost all Western journalists out.

I was one of the few who got in.

Two years ago, as a reporter for an Austrian newspaper, I went to North Korea to cover a women's hockey world championship. I was much more excited about getting a peek inside a country that at the time had been resisting world pressure to cease its nuclear weapons program.

The moment the crew opened the door on the aging Soviet-era plane at Pyongyang International Airport, I got a reception as chilly as the wind blowing across the tarmac.

Soldiers peered up the stairs. Minutes later they stripped me of my cell phone (even though North Korea claimed it had no network) and my passport.

"You speak when asked to," one of the border guards told me. Instantly, I had been turned from a guest into a closely guarded visitor. In a country consistently ranked last in the world in press freedom, a foreign reporter is a potential risk.

Two guides ushered me to a bus. Nothing would happen without their approval during my 10-day stay. I couldn't talk to anyone without their consent.

Nevertheless, while we drove from museum to museum and from monument to monument, I tried frequently to learn how much North Koreans know about the world outside.

"Oh, we have news," one of the guides would say, "people know what they need to know."

Most people there don't even know the Internet exists, much less have access to it.

What did they think of the United States?

"It was the American imperialists who drove the fatherland apart," was the standard answer. As far as they are concerned, the United States is always poised to invade.

Asking questions about the nuclear crisis was a no-no. To them there was no crisis.

The country's isolation is reinforced by the state ideology of self-reliance or juche, which was crafted by North Korea's deceased but nevertheless "eternal president," Kim Il Sung. When a famine struck the country in the mid '90s, North Korea's leadership accepted foreign aid only reluctantly. It came too late for the estimated 600,000 North Koreans who died of starvation.

"Why would you want to leave my country? It's beautiful here," one of our guides answered when I asked if the average North Korean would be allowed to travel abroad.

What he didn't say was that any North Korean caught trying to leave the country without permission would most likely be imprisoned.

It took me a while to understand that I wasn't the only one being watched. My guards were watching each other, too. When I began to speak German with one of them, the other interrupted, demanding that we speak English so he could understand.

On only one occasion did the door seem to open to more intimate conversation. I was pulled into a little office by a friendly guy to whom I had given cigarettes earlier. He closed the door behind us and sat down.

"I have been abroad," he said. "I know what you think. But it will do no good to our people to know about the world out there."

I didn't say anything. I was too afraid. In North Korea you never know for certain the room you're in is not being watched.

Whenever I would use the ridiculously expensive Internet connection at the "International Press Center," two to four pairs of eyes behind me would follow my every click.

It was impossible to escape my guides for very long, but parts of the capital seemed empty of people. I stood in the middle of a road once to take a picture of a monument; there weren't any cars to worry about.

Driving through Pyongyang one day, a towering concrete pyramid came into view. I knew that it was the 105-floor Ryugyong Hotel and that work had ceased in 1992. It was empty.

"What is it?" I asked innocently.

"A hotel, but it's still under construction," the guide said.

"Where are the workers?"

"They are working inside," he barked, turning away.

Later I learned that officials deny its existence, though it's by far the city's largest building.

It was the same kind of denial I noticed at a museum where representation of the Korean War stopped at the moment the North captured Seoul. They didn't mention that it was recaptured by southern troops.

After 10 days I felt exhausted, nodding at stories I knew were fabricated and "facts" that weren't true.

I could see a reality the North Koreans pretended doesn't exist — that many people wouldn't have jobs if the government didn't force them to practice for parades months in the future, that people are so poor they cut branches from trees around the city just for firewood. If they wouldn't acknowledge what was right next to them, it was easy to ignore the world outside.

In North Korea, a peek into the sealed state 05/29/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 2, 2009 11:27am]
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