A Tale of Two Cities

Why does so much of the American reporting from North Korea make me wince? Because so often, the reporters are content to describe the facade without a peek behind the curtain. Take the case of CNN’s Alina Cho, who, contrary to what you may have read elsewhere, tells the Huffington Post how ebullient, well-fed, and prosperous Pyongyang is now that Kim Jong-Eun is ascending daddy’s throne:

Even with these constraints, Cho said she noticed seemingly small changes during her four days in Pyongyang that, to her, felt like dramatic ones in comparison to her 2008 trip. For one thing, there were traffic lights on the streets. Two years ago, female traffic attendants had managed what cars there were on the roads.

More shocking than that, though, were the number of people she saw talking on cell phones.

“It simply was jaw-dropping to see this,” she said, though she stressed that people were only allowed to make domestic calls.

Cho also visited an amusement park that opened recently, and was further surprised to see regular North Koreans on rides, eating hot dogs and french fries and enjoying themselves. She said it reminded her that complexities are present in any country, even one as maligned as North Korea.

“We talk so much about [this being a] sad society, and in many ways it is,” she said. “But what struck me was the laughter that I saw and the dancing in the streets that I saw. I don’t think you can fake the smiles.”

Cho certainly seems to have gotten into the spirit: “I can’t explain to you what it was like as a journalist to actually see [Kim Jong-Il] in person.” Was Cho really that awestruck by the fat kid kid new dictator of the starving nation, or is she as easily impressed by fat kids in P.C. bangs in Seoul? Or is there some other reason that makes her want to portray North Korea favorably?

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“These are people who look somewhat like me… [and yet] they can’t leave the country,” she said. “But the heartening part was that I saw a lot of laughter and happiness. I saw families enjoying themselves and I really thought to myself that what these North Korean families want for their children is what I want for my friends and family. We all want the same things.”

Meanwhile, the Economist’s correspondent appears to have visited another city called “Pyongyang” in an alternative universe:

After the troops, tanks and missiles had thundered past, the audience waved and cheered with seeming enthusiasm when Kim Jong Il waved at them from the balcony. But at the fireworks and dancing display that evening at the same venue–Kim Il Sung Square–the response was less rousing. A few of the thousands of performers wept (as had a couple of female paratroopers as they passed the balcony during the earlier parade). But little fervour was otherwise in evidence.

Some of these are simply subjective observations that we’re left to consider for what they’re worth. Others, however, are simply different selections of facts being reported to us:

There is no sign of the “radical improvement” in North Korean living standards that officials once talked of achieving this year. Neon lights blazed in a few places during the journalists’ visit, but foreign residents say that the city is normally dark at night. Power is so intermittent that policewomen (invariably young and pretty) still direct traffic at intersections with traffic lights, which are a very recent innovation in Pyongyang.

An unsupervised visit to a department store (a rare treat for normally chaperoned foreign journalists) revealed Pyongyang’s dearth of consumer culture. In half an hour, your correspondent saw only a trickle of customers and just four items being sold: a pencil, a wind-up plastic frog, a quilt and a golden statuette of a soldier. On the fourth floor a member of staff adjusted a red curtain at a marble shrine to Kim Il Sung. Others watched television, amid swathes of unused floor space.

At a nearby shop, several people milled around a counter selling DVDs–a hint that DVD players are becoming household items. Foreign residents say DVDs from South Korea are helping to spread knowledge of the South’s far greater affluence. Several people also sported mobile telephones. Pyongyang is said to have gained some 200,000 subscribers since the mobile service was introduced a couple of years ago. Most are permitted only to call other North Koreans, not people abroad or even foreign residents.

The city seems to have largely recovered from last November’s revaluation of the won, which permitted only limited amounts of old bills to be exchanged for new ones. From January until mid-February, when the authorities relented and re-allowed transactions in hard currency, commerce almost ground to a halt. It became nearly impossible to buy food except at great expense on the black market. Inflation soared. “When in Rome, do as the Romanians do,” one official assigned to mind foreign journalists kept telling them, oddly. The Kims, mindful of the grisly end of Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989, will try to ensure that disgruntled North Koreans do no such thing.

Hat tip to James. I can’t help wondering if that guide’s malapropism was intentional. I dread to think that somewhere in Pyongyang, he’s probably explaining it to Bowibu.

Media navel-gazers have become fond of decrying “the corporate media that bought and sold the case for war in Iraq” — you’ve heard that one a dozen times in the last month alone, right? Oddly, I have noted none of the same pangs of conscience about some reporters willfully selling us the North Korean government’s fake reform, fake happiness, or fake prosperity, or soft-pedaling its selective famine and outright mass murder. I see little compunction or skepticism when they print and quote propagandists like Selig Harrison, notwithstanding the fact that Selig Harrison has an almost perfect record of getting North Korea wrong. Ah, but those lies serve the cause of peace. You don’t hate peace, do you?

Related, perhaps: I’ve linked Kernbeisser’s photoblog before, but his latest additions (hat tip to Jason Bastrop) are a must-see. After the sensory deprivation of Pyongyang, a stray image of Seoul nearly damaged my retinas, and I loved the old pictures of Harbin as well, especially the old churches and synagogues. While stationed in Japan many years before he met my mother, my father dated a stunning half-Russian, half-Chinese girl from Harbin and had told me about the large Russian emigre population there. I can’t help wondering what happened to them after Stalin’s tanks rushed in during the closing days of World War II.

10 comments

  1. milton says:

    Something I’ve been wondering for a long, long time: Who is Kernbeisser and how does he have such seemingly unlimited access to photograph the country? Anybody know anything about the guy?

  2. slim says:

    Alina Cho’s stuff has already been taken up by the DPRK propaganda machine.

    http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Korea/LJ19Dg01.html

  3. Theresa says:

    Journalists are supposed to dig for a story, not buy into the Truman Show. Grrrr

    Loved the Kernbeisser photos.

  4. kushibo says:

    Joshua, though I agree with your overall sentiment that North Korea is still horrifically oppressive and many journalists eager for a rare chance to see an enemy state are often unwittingly or willfully duped into singing its praises, I would submit that an increase in cell phones and other such communication devices is a significant matter.

    At some point, their proliferation makes it harder to monitor (and therefore effectively control) what ideas they are used to communicate.

    If there is a point in Kim Jong-un’s journey to the throne where dynasty loyalists are pitted against a more reform-minded faction, I would hope there are lots of cell phones around Pyongyang for them to use.

  5. kushibo says:

    willfully duped –> willingly duped

  6. Alec says:

    The Kims, mindful of the grisly end of Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989, will try to ensure that disgruntled North Koreans do no such thing.

    Another palace coup?

  7. chris says:

    That amusement park should have been described in the CNN report as “re-opened after extensive refurbishments”, since it is not in any sense new and has been at the foot of the hill up to the TV tower since the 60s.

    But regardless of that, it would seem that the park has been heavily, by NK standards, invested in. That is worth reporting, of course. Development is worth reporting, not least because it might beget wider changes in future and because it breaks the (very unhelpful) myth that NK is a communist monolith of grey horrors.

    But, like Joshua, I am horrified by the unbelievable simplicity of the reporting of most of those who were sent to Pyongyang to cover this event. it casts a very long shadow across some supposeedly professional news organizations that they took this chance and what they fed to the international watching public was literally exactly what the North Korean government wanted them to say. It takes a second to call up an expert and get a bit of balance.

  8. KCJ says:

    Cell phones, media reports, parades, etc… mean nothing until one accepts that religion, not simply media and propaganda is used to control the population of North Korea. Until one comes to grips with Juche as a religion and the coercive mechanisms that compel submission to the cult, most analysis is so much nibbling around the perimeter of the real center of gravity in the state whic the US Commission on International Religious Freedom called the Prison Without Bars.

  9. david woolley says:

    Juche is not a religion: it is a cult. It is simply one manifestation of national socialism, a racist claim to be better because of who one is, and who one’s leaders are. National socialism is not a religion, but a perverse way of thinking. I know, an atheist could use that description for religion in general — but religions, on the whole, wish to include others in order to achieve their goal of making things better for the new members. There is no such concept in triumphalist national socialism, which sees others as simply slave fodder. I think you give juche too much intellectual power when you describe it as a religion.

  10. KCJ says:

    David, far from it. I am giving it the proper classification to understand what drives political and social behavior in the DPRK. The Juche cult in NK functions much like the Taliban. You have one choice: believe and obey or go to the gulags. Now that messages from outside NK are impossible for the regime to control, the cult becomes more rigorous, more obligatory, more coercive. This is all the more necessary in establishing the deity of Kim Jong Un as the blood successor to the Su-ryong Kim Il Sung.

    The regime has associated the Kims with Tan-gun, mythical ancestor of the Korean people (b. 2333 BC) who is said to be born on Mt. Baekdu. They have co-opted Confucian filial piety to posit Kim Il Sung as the “eternal father of all Koreans.” Kim Il Sung is still the legal, current president of the DPRK even though he’s been dead since 1994. North Koreans must attend revolutionary doctrine classes once a week and display their lapel pins of KIS at all times. The first words every NK child are taught are, “Gumsa hamnida, abaji Kim Il-sung” (literally, “thank you Father, Kim Il Sung”).

    40% of the DPRK’s GDP is spent on the cult and its required gala, idols, ceremonies, propaganda, museums, media, etc… Adherents.com lists Juche as the world’s 10th largest religion.

    But to get the real scoop, ask a defector.

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