This is what I recollect from my trip to North Korea (aka Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, DPRK) in June 2008 when foreign news outlets, including ABC News were invited to witness the demolition of the Yongbyon nuclear cooling tower.
Impeccably made-up Korean stewardesses in tailored blue uniforms and pert hats handed out copies of the Pyongyang Times, moist towelettes, and cups of an orange-flavored drink that tasted vaguely like Tang. It was a Russian Tupalov, a plane unlike any I’d ever flown, with wood accents, and retro, unlighted signs. Airborne, it was a creaky, cranky plane, probably repaired numerous times with cannibalized Soviet-era parts and quite possibly on its last legs. A group of some dozen journalists was on board — including the ABC News producer Margaret Aro, an old North Korea hand, and then-CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour who had been in DPRK just months earlier. We’d been invited by the government to witness an explosion — the destruction of the main cooling tower at the infamous Yongbyon nuclear plant. The premise of the visit itself was extraordinary. Yongbyon was once such a closely guarded secret it could only be viewed from space. And here we were, a handful of representatives of news organizations, personally invited to actually go there and watch the tower get blown up? Earlier in the year, ABC’s Bob Woodruff was one of the first Western journalists to tour the inside of Yongbyon. It seemed possible the Six Party talks had made progress…
Entering Pyongyang at twilight, vans drove us through the capital on a well-paved highway. Before us emerged a skyline of modern, grey buildings, above which towered a triangular edifice that looked like a shrine from a science fiction novel. Apparently it was designed to be a hotel, but nearly three decades after construction had begun, it still wasn’t finished. The exterior was almost done, but the building was empty, lights out. While the city looked modern, there was little visible electricity, almost no cars or people, only shells of buildings.
Everything meaningful in Pyongyang lies behind the façade, but it’s frustratingly difficult to get that vantage point. The façade is so meticulously well-constructed … the triangle-shaped hotel was the first sign of that. If you’ve ever seen the film “The Truman Show,” you may be able to imagine what it’s like inside the remote bubble that is Pyongyang, minus the idyllic tone. This is a set constructed for an era with limited electricity and no supermarkets (at least not when I was there. Apparently Kim Jong Il’s last public appearance before his death was at the grand opening of Pyongyang’s first). In North Korea, everyone is Truman, except the leaders, who narrate and dictate what reality is, what life is. Dance, I say, dance. Sing, I say, sing. And the people do, which is why the most common pictures out of the North are from the annual Arirang festival when the country becomes relatively open to tourists with the right visa. Throngs of North Koreans, adults and children, dance and sing in unison — an army of seemingly joyous celebration. Do we know how they feel about it? No. Most of what we know about the country comes from anecdotes told by those that have escaped. During my 48 hours there, I observed all the well-documented eccentricities that make North Korea so utterly bizarre… The shapely, robotic traffic ladies who direct the very limited traffic (there are no streetlights). The shiny statues and monuments, all celebrating the virtues of the Communist worker. The ubiquitous visage of Kim Il Sung, pinned to the garment of every DPRK citizen, as required by law. All the oddly-shaped hats and starched uniforms, and “Mad Men”-era hairdos. The fact that there are only about three channels on TV sets, which are pre-tuned to stations showing lone newsreaders in front of plain green screens reading the latest government propaganda.
Our cell phones were confiscated upon arrival, but we could pay to rent government-issued cell phones during our stay. And of course, we were never free to wander. Our government minder was a sweet-faced family man named Mr. Kim who I became oddly sentimental about by the end of the first day. Mr. Kim was one of the only North Korean citizens we could actually talk to. We could ask unfettered questions, however he could not answer unfettered. What do you think of the nuclear development in your country, Mr. Kim? “North Korea has a right to develop nuclear power, just like the U.S.,” was the stock answer. What do your people think of the U.S., Mr. Kim? “America is the evil, not Korea.” During my 48 hours in the DPRK, I was allowed to interview only one North Korean citizen, the lady who was giving tours of the hammer-and-sickle monument near the main square. She had exactly the same responses, except when I asked her the questions, she seemed to recoil in fear, as though the Dear Leader himself were listening to her perform the answers. You have to be careful what you ask in North Korea. Just the question can apparently get people in trouble. To this state servant, I, an American, was a sworn enemy, but she was perfectly lovely toward me, almost child-like in her innocence. Even Mr. Kim, who worked for the foreign ministry, had this innocent wonderment about him, even when he was telling me Washington was the devil.
I’ve never seen a more bizarre place. It was like a grand human experiment…how many of these people thought about escape? Did they even feel imprisoned? Was there a natural desire for freedom and self-determination that would emerge at some point? Could a person be happy if they didn’t know what they were missing? Did they realize this life wasn’t normal? Without the ability to really report, I couldn’t get the answers to really form a picture.
But as the news of Kim Jong Il’s death sparks analysis and speculation about this most reclusive of nations, I wonder whether all that video being played of citizens mourning is truly staged, as some journalists have assumed. Isn’t it possible that he is truly mourned, among a people who know no other way of life or leader?
The day after we arrived, we drove through the countryside, sprinkled with peasants cutting wheat with actual manual sickles in the fields. It would have looked picturesque, even romantic, had I not known that people I couldn’t see were starving somewhere in that vast countryside.
The Yongbyon reactor is located in a remote mountainside town, not unlike the woodsy surroundings of Los Alamos, New Mexico. All the plant’s workers live there but we never saw them. We were shuttled to a location a safe distance from the nuclear plant, where explosives had been rigged in the cooling tower for the controlled implosion. The U.S. government had paid $2 million for its demolition (Pyongyang had asked for $5 million). And so there we were, atop a mountain in North Korea witnessing this surreal event.
A 10-second countdown started, an explosion was heard in the distance, and in a cloud of smoke, the cooling tower collapsed. A small American delegation sent there cheered. And then, in a twist none of us expected, we loaded up the bus and it drove in the direction of the nuclear facility itself. The facility looked unimpressive and Third World, not like nuclear plants I had seen in the U.S. We had about 10 minutes to get out of the bus and tour the remnants of the cooling tower. I did a report standing on top of the rubble (should I have been wearing a radiation suit?). And that was it. None of us seemed quite sure what to make of what we’d just seen.
On the ride back, Margaret was listening to her iPod and asked Mr. Kim what kind of music he liked. He clearly couldn’t think of anything, so Margaret played him some tunes. He especially took to Leona Lewis. I will never forget the smile on his face as he listened to whatever ballad it was. It must have been a tall drink of water to his soul just to hear some new music that wasn’t manufactured by the state.
‘Don’t Rock the Boat’
Ultimately, the demolition of the Yongbyon cooling tower was considered little more than a symbolic, albeit grand gesture, a fleeting moment of good faith in a contentious nuclear negotiation with the U.S. It wasn’t long after that more missile and nuclear tests led to another stalemate in the talks, and only recently has the possibility for rapprochement returned. The death of Kim Jong Il is viewed by some experts as a potential positive for U.S. relations with Pyongyang. Contrary to more hawkish views, Dr. Han Park, an ABC News consultant and University of Georgia professor who was in DPRK as recently as last April, says, “It is an opportune time. As long as the leadership, the [Kim] family is intact, which it is, I don’t expect any drastic policy reorientation. In view of the political culture there, I don’t think there will be any immediate sign of instability in the short or even the intermediate term.”
Former Ambassador to South Korea Donald Gregg points out that many of the elder military generals have stepped aside, ushering a new era of younger blood “that are more sophisticated, more knowledgeable about the outside world. … This will be a good time for an engagement policy.”
As Kim Jong Un, Il’s youngest son and successor, consolidates power, the tone that Washington and Seoul strike publicly are key. A policy of engagement requires being “civil and courteous,” says Gregg. “It’s very important for Seoul and Washington not to overreact.”
Given all the change in the region, as well as potential changes of leadership in Seoul, Japan, and Washington, Gregg says “it’s in everyone’s interest not to rock the boat. … They are groping their way toward change very slowly.”
Early signs are that the Obama administration agrees, remaining terse and measured in its response to Kim Jong Il’s death. “We reiterate our hope for improved relations with the people of North Korea and remain deeply concerned about their well-being,” said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
My last image of North Korea is at the departure gate at the airport. There weren’t many last-minute souvenirs to buy except a few packs of North Korean cigarettes, which I bought just for the novelty of it. Mr. Kim was still with us, watching our every move in his quiet, kind, but stern way. When it was time to board, each of us shook his hand and when I looked into his face, I saw something completely unexpected and poignant — tears in Mr. Kim’s eyes, as though, truly, he would miss us. To this day, I wonder what that was all about … and what his tears might mean today.