PYONGYANG—I had yet to exit the Pyongyang Sunan International Airport when I was greeted by a cheerful, and attentive, minder. Pak Song Il, an analyst in North Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is an impressive figure—near-flawless English, a sense of humor, a firm grasp of his government’s position, and an unobtrusive way of performing his duties. When I missed his cues about something he didn’t want me to do—in this case, visiting some European diplomats—he enlisted his colleague to pull me aside and suggest, once again, that it would be better “under the current circumstances” to cancel the meeting. (I’m still not sure why the appointment was frowned upon.)
But, even confined by the ministrations of my minder, reporting in North Korea is fascinating at every turn. The average reader in America knows remarkably little about a country that is relentlessly focused on, and suspicious of, America. And that’s little surprise, given the constraints on reporting. But, after a few days in Pyongyang, I’ve begun to feel that the experience is less akin to normal foreign correspondence than to theatre criticism. Since it’s impossible to venture out independently, without getting everyone (including yourself) in trouble, the larger task is to be an astute and careful observer of what we can see. There is a show—one show—and it runs at all hours. Proving it to be theatre is beside the point; we already know that. It is difficult and important enough just to describe the show with fidelity and detail.
At times, I’ve found it valuable to flip on my iPhone camera and record the comings and goings. This is the remarkably sparse scene at morning rush-hour in the Metro in Pyongyang, a city where the population is carefully vetted and limited to ensure that it is politically compliant.
Inevitably, there is a danger in reporting on a country where the conditions are so restrictive. By focusing on daily life, as in the scene in the Metro, we gain no access whatsoever to the side of North Korea that a 2014 U.N. study condemned as a “totalitarian state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.” Based on its use of gulags, torture, and starvation, as a tool of punishment, the U.N., last March, approved the creation of a central repository for evidence to be used in future prosecutions before the International Criminal Court at The Hague.
But if the world knows anything about North Korea, it knows some those horrors. The challenge for reporters now is to keep that side of North Korea in our minds and our reporting, while also gaining a better understanding of the rest of life—the part that unfolds everyday at dinner tables, in classrooms, and in ordinary commerce. For the moment, one of the dominant impressions is the sheer absence of life: Pyongyang is changing–it is gradually getting more cars, more markets, more noise–but it remains one of the quietest places I’ve ever been. That silence is an eloquent indicator of the state’s enduring control.