Reporter's Notebook: Diane Sawyer's Reflections on North Korea

ByDIANE SAWYER via via logo

Oct. 20, 2006 — -- North Korea: a land hidden in the shadows.

First, you see the incredible discipline, the eerie perfectionism of the children. At the same time, there are signs of a nation with no money: dark halls, few light bulbs, and rundown buildings.

But a family we visited are proud of their three rooms, walls covered with pictures of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.

A few oddities: Korean bowling shoes, house slippers with rubber soles.

We also noticed that traveling through the streets, we never once saw an obese person. We never once saw a dog or cat either, for that matter.

Here's how we lived as journalists: very well, from our hotel rooms to our work space. In the dining room every night, there were pork cutlets, if you wanted them.

But also every night, we experienced the arduous task of arranging the one phone line to set up a satellite that may or may not work.

For people used to high technology, we had no cell phones or faxes. It took a bit of chewing gum and rubber bands to try to get on the air. Not to mention the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of dollars they charged us for every single phone call.

And make no mistake, translating was hard.

For instance, I ask one woman if she likes curly hair. The answer? As she fluffed her curly hair, "No!"

What does that mean? What did the translator say? We never really found out.

But again, we are looking at two worlds with very different views and few bridges between.

We noticed a magazine that said the United States was the biggest human rights violator in the world. Why?

Because women make just 75 cents on the dollar compared to men, and there are 14 million people in America without health care. True statistics, seen very differently here.

And there was the old man who told us capitalism was just fine -- if you're rich.

Meanwhile, Americans, looking from across the ocean, see suppression of freedom, of hope, of dreams.

And by the way, the North Korean newspaper announced that an American journalist was here to try to learn more about North Korea, but most of all, to try to take the message of the people back home.

We travel outside the capital city, where rice is being harvested. We climb down the hillside to talk to some of the workers.

Th rice they harvest must feed an entire village.

The workers tell us it's not as good a crop as it was last year, which always raises a tremor in this country because it has seen so much starvation.

Remember, the average income for a family in this country is $700 per year.

And all of this comes at a time when sanctions are being imposed, with the food aid from the rest of world withheld.

Working in the field with her mother, a little girl tells me she is 6 years old. Next year, she'll start school.

As we meet her mother, we notice something: Her hat has the Nike "swoosh" insignia on it.

I ask her whether she knows where Nike comes from. She thinks for a minute and says, "Oh, it must come from Japan."

On the streets all the movie posters are beautiful.

The heroic workers are beautiful, too. On television, you can see what is beautiful and glorious. There is even beautiful music everywhere, military bands that travel the country to play patriotic songs to make the workers happy.

No wonder the leader himself advises on virtually every film. The latest film is called "The Diary of a School Girl."

And the star is an 18-year-old named Kim-Sue-Reyan.

Inside a movie studio in Pyongyang, we take a tour with her of a museum, which lists every time the leader has advised on a film.

They tell us that he has advised more than 12,000 times, and given suggestions along the lines of, "Check with me first on this."

Anything he ever touched at the studio is there, too -- like a camera, which he apparently touched two places.

Outside, there are monuments to his father Kim Il Sung, who came up with the idea for a movie studio.

Kim Il Sung even wrote a screenplay once, directed in part by his son. And when then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited Kim Jong Il, he talked about his fascination with American movies, reportedly a 20,000-film collection.

He knows the U.S. Academy Award-winning films, and his favorites include James Bond.

His theories about filmmaking are contained in a book he wrote called "The Art of the Cinema."

It says that cinema should be used for noble and cultivated traditions truthfully, portraying the uniquely beautiful life of the people.

He goes on to say that the hero must always occupy the center of the stage.

Back at the studio, we tour the sets.

There is a set for Japanese films, in which the Japanese are usually vanquished.

There is a set for Chinese films, and there is a set for North Korean films about the time the glorious leader introduced socialism.

We ask the young film star if she's ever seen any American films. She looks a little puzzled and says no.

The young star's film is almost certain to be a giant hit in this country.

And as the leader and adviser has written, a film that champions the positive and combats the negative is the best work a writer or an artist can perform.

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