North Koreans show off Potemkin Village to South Korean reporters

James Han, April 13, 2017, 9:47 a.m.


South Korean reporters visited Pyongyang last week to cover the football qualifiers for the 2018 AFC Women's Asian Cup. The event was a rare opportunity to see the reclusive country, which carefully orchestrated each step of the visit. Supervision was tight.

North Korean minders who accompanied the South Korean press were eager to learn about the upcoming presidential election in South Korea and bombarded them with questions. The North Koreans claimed to be members of the regime's Council for Reconciliation and Cooperation and said their job was to monitor South Korean news reports.

The reporters were told before heading to Pyongyang to leave their mobile phones in China, where they stopped over, and to reformat their laptops. And indeed, when they landed at Sunan Airport in Pyongyang, security agents told them to turn their laptops on and proceeded to screen them thoroughly.

The capital looked quite dazzling. Sunan Airport, which was rebuilt in 2015, looked pretty modern, and the Yanggakdo International Hotel, where the reporters stayed, has a bowling alley, sauna and a revolving restaurant on the top floor. The hotel is the biggest functioning hotel and the second tallest building in the North. The banks of the Taedong River were lined with highrisers with more than 30 stories.

But the reporters could not see far behind the facade as they were not allowed to leave the hotel without permission. They paid US$150 a day to rent a bus, but the North Koreans decided where it could go, which meant only the designated routes from the hotel to Kim Il-sung Stadium, where the qualifiers took place, and the football field where the South's players trained.

The bus passed the Mansudae district of Pyongyang, which houses massive statues of nation founder Kim Il-sung and former leader Kim Jong-il, as well as Mirae Scientists Street and Ryomong Street lined with towering condominiums. The route seemed designed to flout showcase attractions -- consulting a map showed that it is just a 15-minute drive from Yanggakdo Hotel and Kim Il-sung Stadium, but the trip took more than 30 minutes to take in all the landmarks.

Pyongyang is a smoker's paradise. People are lighting up everywhere. But when some South Korean reporters smoked in front of the stadium, their minders approached them and told them to stop since they were standing too close to the portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. North Koreans’ idea of a no-smoking zone is clearly quite different from the outside world.

A North Korea source said, "You are not allowed to even blow smoke in the direction of the portraits" that hang on the walls of all North Korean homes and offices.

The minders also grew agitated when reporters tried to take pictures of the portraits hanging on the sides of major buildings. They said that the portraits must always be photographed with respect and from the front. When photos were blurred because the bus was moving or the portraits were covered by trees, the reporters were told to delete them.

The reporters managed to meet only one ordinary North Korean, and that only after repeatedly pestering their minders for the opportunity. The minders grudgingly agreed to bring one Pyongyang resident for an interview in front of the stadium, but the textbook answers suggested that he had either been brainwashed or was a security agent.

The North Koreans showed their visitors a Potemkin village, but they could not entirely hide the raw side of the impoverished state. On the way from the airport, the reporters saw farmers in ragged clothes tilling a desolate landscape with hand-held tools. The asphalt covering the streets was warped and potholed, which made for a bumpy ride.

And when they looked out of the window of their 30-story hotel in the small hours, they could not see a single car in the streets. The only light piercing the darkness was turned on to the giant portraits on the wall of Kim Chaek University of Technology across the street.

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