A little boy skips along grasping a classmate’s hand, his cheeks flushed and a badge of the Great Leader’s smiling face pinned to his Winnie the Pooh sweatshirt. Men in military green share a joke over beers at a German-style pub next door to the Juche tower. Schoolgirls wearing the red scarves of the Young Pioneers sway in unison as they sing a classic Korean tune that I, too, learned as a child.
Everywhere I look, Communist North Korea is a world both foreign and familiar to my Korean-American eyes, a place where the men wear Mao suits and children tote Mickey Mouse backpacks, where they call one another “comrade” and love their spicy kimchi.
Since becoming the Seoul bureau chief for The Associated Press in 2008, I have made five eye-opening visits to North Korea. The chief Asia photographer, David Guttenfelder, has traveled to the country numerous times over the past 12 years.
This year, David and I have been granted unprecedented access. We traveled into the countryside, accompanied by North Korean journalists, not government minders. We had a cellphone, Internet access and a van with a driver who took us to Kaesong to the south, Mount Myohyang to the north and Nampho to the west.
During our wanderings, we got a glimpse of daily life in one of the most hidden nations in the world and found a country on the cusp of change.
Much of what we see during our reporting trips is calculated to show the bright side of a nation suffering from chronic economic hardship. The poverty isn’t immediately visible in the modern metropolis of Pyongyang. We are led through gleaming hallways and cavernous, chandeliered lobbies by guides in sparkling gowns or neat military uniforms, speaking as though from a script. The hedges are trimmed, the begonias in bloom.
But in between the staged visits, candid moments put a human face on a society enigmatic to the West, more complex and textured than typically portrayed.