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Reporting From Under The Watchful Gaze Of North Korea's Government


The Hermit Kingdom is a term used most often these days to refer to North Korea. But every now and then, the isolated country opens itself up to foreign reporters, though the government tightly restricts where reporters can go and who they can talk to. Anna Fifield covers North Korea for The Washington Post. And she recently got the chance to travel there for the sixth time. She says the process of getting inside is always a bit of a mystery.

ANNA FIFIELD: I have been kind of usually lucky in getting in, but it's always right down to the last minute. You never know when you're going to be allowed to get in. And generally speaking, it's much easier to get in around big staged events like the mass gymnastics, which I have seen three times now, or big events on the North Korean calendar like Kim Il-Sung's birthday or Liberation Day. So those are the times when North Korea likes to show off the city.

RATH: Once you got there on this most recent trip, how much autonomy did you have and how did that compare with the past?

FIFIELD: Absolutely none. I think this was definitely the most restricted trip that I have ever done. The itinerary was set. We generally didn't know what we were doing each day. We were just told to report to the lobby at 8:30 and off we would go. And so there was a general tour of all the kind of monuments to the Kim family and the Workers' Party of Korea. No matter where we were going from the hotel, we always went down the same roads, even though that was often not the most direct route. So it really gave me the impression that only certain streets were fit for public consumption.

RATH: And were you going to the same places you'd been on previous trips, or did you get to go anywhere new?

FIFIELD: I'd been to most of the places before, but there were a few new places there, including this huge water park right in the middle of Pyongyang. It has an outdoor and an indoor area. And it's kind of like something you'd see in America. There were waterslides and kids' pools. And my strong impression there - I can never confirm this, you know, given the nature of North Korea, but my strong impression was that it was definitely for the elites but that everything just felt staged. There was a cafeteria in there that was selling hamburgers and French fries that looked like plastic food you see in Asia to show like display food. And none of the locals were in there buying any of these things. So while the people who were in the water park were having a good time, I felt like it was staged for our benefit. These places do exist, but it just all furthered my impression that this elite are being very well looked after in North Korea.

RATH: Well, what do you think that's about? Because these, you know, facilities and luxuries for the elites - you say these are new. They weren't there the last time you were there. What's behind it?

FIFIELD: There was a lot of stuff in North Korea that was built for 2012, which is the centenary of Kim Il-Sung's birth. And so there was a lot of development in the city to celebrate that. I think also it has a lot to do with the new leader Kim Jong-Un, who is barely 30 and has really kind of created this culture of youth in the city. He's really kind of trying to make it a young people's place. I also think it's because his leadership - I mean, we know very little about the North Korean leadership - but the general outside perspective is that he's quite erratic and that his hold on power may become a little bit shaky. And Pyongyang is home to only the most politically loyal people. And my sense was that he's really looking after those people because those are the people who keep him in power.

RATH: Did you leave this trip feeling like you had a better understanding of North Korea or just more confusion?

FIFIELD: As frustrating as this trip was, I did feel like it was worthwhile to go and I did have a better understanding of it because it'd been six years since I had last been. I hadn't been since Kim Jong-Un had been in power. And even the places that they took us to are quite kind of telling. So on this trip I wrote about going to this very fancy theater where they put on these musical extravaganzas. And they have people in very fancy outfits and lots of electronic displays going on while they sing this revolutionary opera. But when you go to the bathroom in this big fancy hall, there's no running water. And by the same token on a previous visit when I'd been in winter, they took me to the fanciest hospital in Pyongyang in the middle of winter. And I had this big Gore-Tex jacket on and I was freezing inside. There was no heating, no electricity in the hospital. And that just makes me think, wow. If this is what it's like in Pyongyang, in the best hospital, imagine what the conditions are like out in the real North Korea.

RATH: That's Anna Fifield. She's the Tokyo Bureau Chief for The Washington Post and she just finished her sixth reporting trip to North Korea. Anna, thank you so much.

FIFIELD: Thanks, Arun. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.