Finally. An AP reporter goes to North Korea and puts the showpieces of Pyongyang into the context of how people in the rest of North Korea live. Naturally, the reporter is Tim Sullivan.
There are no nightspots here, no modern apartment complexes, no electricity except for a few hours every evening. The shelves in most stores are noticeably half-empty, and dirt sidestreets lead to clusters of small houses, many little more than shacks, with bulging walls and broken roofs.
It is the reality of North Korean urban life — with the notable exception of the capital city, 80 miles north of here, in a carefully crafted totalitarian Oz. That contrast, between Pyongyang and every other city in the country, reflects an ever-growing chasm between North Korea’s elite and the daily struggles of everyone else.
Pyongyang has the Dolphinarium, a cavernous aquarium where smiling, fresh-faced trainers in skintight-suits make dolphins dance for ecstatic crowds. There’s the new 3,000-unit Changjon Street apartments, lit up like a movie set long into the night, a proclamation that North Korea has electricity to spare. It has the Sunrise Restaurant, the latest destination for the city’s nouveau riche, where tough-looking men drink grape Fanta from brandy snifters while their drivers wait outside with their Land Cruisers. It has good government jobs and the country’s top university.
Sullivan, who even discloses that he was accompanied by government minders (was that so hard?), even compensates for North Koreans’ inability to speak freely by interviewing a defector in Seoul:
“Pyongyang is not just another city,” said a doctor who spent most of his life in Kaesong, but who was educated in the capital. The doctor, who eventually fled to South Korea, spoke on condition of his name not be used, fearing retribution against relatives still living in the North. “It’s like another country.”
It’s not the descriptions of the Dolphinariums of Pyongyang that I mind. If placed in context, those descriptions are also useful information. I take issue when reporters on short leashes point their soda straws at ersatz and showpieces and leave less-informed readers with the impression that life in North Korea is all supermarkets, water slides, and mini-golf.
No, Sullivan wasn’t allowed to describe much that North Korea watchers didn’t already know, but he did his job. When his Bureau Chief privately wonders what her most persistent critic really expects of her, she doesn’t have to look any further than this report.
Soon enough, we’ll see just how much of this kind of reporting North Korea is prepared to tolerate.