Dec. 7, 2006 — -- As the only Western journalist allowed in North Korea in October, Diane Sawyer got a rare glimpse at what life was like in the "Hermit Nation."
Viewers had many questions for Sawyer about her trip.
Lisa asked, "Did you ever feel that people on the streets rehearsed before you got there? Did it ever seem like 'random' people on the streets knew you were coming to watch and ask questions?"
Sawyer: Two answers: First, we were in Pyongyang, the "model city," the capital. The elite of North Korea live there. It was pretty certain that everyone we met would have already demonstrated loyalty to North Korea. Second, we didn't feel that the people on the street that we talked to were "planted" for us -- we did approach them pretty randomly. But it was eerie that nobody, in our entire 12-day trip, stepped out of line in anyway to criticize the regime. As for the official visits -- to the schools, the museums, the movie studio -- they clearly had particular people there that they wanted us to meet.
Khangai from Chicago wrote, " When you have visited N. Korea and reported from there, behind you there was a banner in Korean…Do you know what [it] is saying on that banner? Thank you!"
Sawyer: Our translator tells us the writing on the monument says: "Long Live Great Leader, Comrade Kim Jong Il." The location was in front of the North Korean television center.
Linda Lee from Joplin, Mo. wrote, "My daughter lives in South Korea, as she is married to a fine young man who is an Army helicopter pilot. She is pregnant, has lived there for 2 years, and now may be staying another year. After being in North Korea -- do you feel that Americans such as my daughter are safe living so close to North Korea?"
Sawyer: It's anyone's guess, unfortunately. But the North Korean officials who sat down with us said that they see their nuclear program as deterrent rather than aggressive; they seem to believe that having nuclear capability means that they won't be invaded. The North Korean missile program has been a point of concern in South Korea for a long time, and the tension has certainly ramped up in that part of the world since we were there.
Steve Potts from Hibbing, Minn., asked, "As a college teacher (history & political science), I'm curious about North Korea's higher education system. How much chance do their students have to learn about the outside world? Do they have Internet and e-mail access? Do they know anything substantial (other than Kim Jong Il's propaganda) about the United States? Thanks for your attention to this little-known corner of the globe. We're looking forward to your program!"
And Linda Bottaro from Myrtle Beach, S.C., asked, "Do you think that young men and women in North Korea have a real grasp on how things are outside of their country, in comparison to how they live and receive information? Are they at least free to express their desires for the future, which will be their own generation?"
Sawyer: Two of you had questions about what young people and students know about the outside world.
It seemed to us that the concrete around the sealed world of North Korea is almost impenetrable. When I asked students in an English class what "democracy" meant, their only answer was "the noun that goes with democratic."
It's illegal to listen to radio from outside the country. There are only three government-controlled TV stations, and the newspapers are filled with articles praising the "dear leader" and his policies. Where else can they get any information?
In every closed society I've ever visited as a journalist, someone would take me aside and ask a furtive question about an American movie star. Not here. They claimed not to recognize any celebrity in the magazines we showed them. The students said they'd never seen an American movie. But surprise: They had seen "Toy Story" and "Shrek" -- they just didn't know they came from their great enemy, the United States.
Emily Graves from Griffin, Ga., asked, "Traveling throughout North Korea, what did you notice about both women and teenagers? Are women permitted to work? Are teenagers in North Korea all as smart and driven as many say? What do you think drives the North Korean society to do what they do; run everyday life; work; rule; etc?"
Sawyer: Emily, women are definitely permitted to work. North Korea has had an Equal Rights Amendment since 1946. We saw many women commuting in Pyongyang on foot, on the subways and trolleys. We visited a textile factory where all the workers were women -- they told us they work six days a week, eight hours a day. The class of high school students we visited was studying English, and the students were brilliant and incredibly eager to answer any question with praise of their "dear leader" and North Korea. What drives them? That was one of the most baffling questions. Korea has an ancient Confucian tradition of respect to elders, and a history of working for the common good, rather than for individual happiness. Perhaps the last 50 years of totalitarian socialist rule have drawn on that. We certainly witnessed complete dedication, from the 3-year-olds performing for us right up to the adults. Of course, we were in the "model city," which is occupied only by the privileged, the dedicated. We have no way to know what the attitudes are in the countryside, and human rights organizations say that those without that mysterious dedication tend to disappear.
John Campbell from Broomall, Pa., asked, "What are the restaurants like in North Korea? I had heard that some of them have Japanese staffs, example the Mong Rang restaurant in the Potonggong Hotel. What hotel did you stay in? What was that like? Did you see any signs of starvation? I had heard that the students of Pyongyang University had been sent into the fields to increase the harvest. Was that true?"
Sawyer: We ate very well in the restaurant in our hotel -- pork cutlets, soba noodles; a pretty extensive menu. From what workers told us of their salaries, the equivalent of about $20 a month. It would be impossible for most to afford what the hotel restaurant charged. We were in the Potonggong Hotel. We were in Pyongyang, barely permitted to go outside its borders, so we didn't see any signs of starvation. When we visited a rice field about 20 minutes away from the city, the farmers said the rains hadn't been good, but that they thought they would have enough for the winter. But the entire time we were in North Korea, we never saw anyone overweight.
Ron Rhodes from Frisco, Texas, asked, "Did you have any preconceived ideas about North Koreans (or stereotypes) that were corrected as a result of your visit?"
Sawyer: We know so little about the North Koreans, it's hard to say what our preconceptions were. But there was one thing that surprised me: In every totalitarian state I've visited, they have parroted the "party line" and then furtively asked me questions about American movie stars. In North Korea, they seemed to really believe what they were saying -- and to really have no idea who anyone in the outside world was.
Rick Bazzano from Wilsonville, Ore., asked, "Diane, do you think the everyday North Korean family has fear of the United States? Do they plan for a confrontation or do they believe there is hope to become more friendly?"
Sawyer: I think everyday families are certainly taught, by all the North Korean TV, newspapers, and "guidance" from the "dear leader," that America is the great enemy. I wouldn't say they were afraid, though -- resentful? Indignant? But not afraid.
Robert Brown from Thurmont, Md., asked, "Why go to a country where the people have been long suppressed and isolated by a nutty dictator bent on threatening the free world with his military and nuclear capability? What do you think will be gained from your trip? Do you think the authorities will allow you to get any real information or do you think the people will openly speak bad of the 'dear Leader?'"
Sawyer: I think any part of the globe we don't understand is a place you want to find out more about. As you'll see in our report, we were dogged constantly by our translator/guides. Of course, they tried very hard to make sure we saw the North Korea they wanted us to see. But still, insight is possible.