The Strange World of N. Korea's 'Great Leader'

  • Share
  • Read Later
It started with a moment frozen in time. With the Yankees down 3-2 in the ninth, bases loaded, the call came to board the Secretary of State's plane immediately or be left behind. So the journalists, diplomats and security personnel accompanying Madeleine Albright to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), better known as North Korea, left the real world with the bases loaded in the ninth in Game 1 of the World Series — and headed down a rabbit hole.

We landed at dawn outside the capital, Pyongyang, and taxied toward the grim concrete terminal — a single building, definitely no duty free — as peasants stared from embankments above drainage ditches. A few wheeled bikes as if on their way to work, others merely glanced past the electrified fence surrounding the airport at the jet emblazoned with the words United States of America — a name they had only heard in conjunction with words like "imperialist" and "colonialist."

Against a backdrop of disused Russian planes, Albright was greeted by senior DPRK officials, and rapidly whisked off in her armored limo, which had been flown in with two other cars earlier in the week. Her quarters for the two-night stay were in the Paekhawon Guest House, a boxy concrete structure set amid beautifully landscaped grounds, looking onto a man-made lake and the massive Revolutionary Martyr's Mausoleum memorializing the guerrillas who led the fight against the Japanese colonial power in Korea before World War II.

After a brief chance to change and freshen up, Albright headed to another mausoleum — this one containing the embalmed remains of Kim Il Sung, the founder of communist North Korea and father of its present leader, Kim Jong Il. There she paid a courtesy call on Kim junior's number two, before passing through the room where his father lies in state. Despite the fact that he led the 1950 communist invasion of the south, sparking a war in which more than 50,000 U.S. personnel died, she paused briefly in front of Kim Il Sung's waxen corpse as a sign of respect.

Later, at a kindergarten, she was greeted by dozens of singing and dancing children who are among the 8 million North Koreans being fed with the held of the World Food Program. More than one third of the country's population has been threatened with starvation due to the country's extreme poverty, mammoth external debt and collapsed communist economy, exacerbated by recent droughts and typhoons. The U.S has provided 67 percent of the total food aid to the country.

The DPRK's poverty is visible everywhere. From the crumbling buildings to the rusty electric trams and buses, to the dour citizens hauling tattered, bulging knapsacks along the streets of the capital. The overly helpful minder from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was evasive when asked if the houses on the way into the city had electricity. "Yes... there are electric lights in those buildings," he said sheepishly. He meant there are lights there, but no electricity to run them.

Dilawar Ali Khan, UNICEF's representative here, said his access had improved dramatically in the four years he'd worked in the DPRK. He said if the DPRK can open up to the outside world and become a market economy, outsiders would find the population "very hard workers". He said that as far as he could tell, the North Koreans are very keen now to open up. "It's the compulsion of difficulties which is forcing them to look outward," he said.

Well, you wouldn't know they were keen from the behavior of government officials or the cowed population on the street. The minders tried to keep the journalists cooped up inside the Hotel Koryo — clean and pleasant enough, with good Korean food, Japanese beer and working phone lines. The diplomats staying at the hotel were told in their pre-trip briefing in D.C. that they would be in the part of the hotel that was bugged and had surveillance, while the journalists were in the bug-free tower.

It took 24 hours to figure out how best to avoid the minders and get out in the city. In the meantime, the journalists were kept busy covering Albright and her meetings.

After lunch, the Secretary prepared for her first meeting with Kim. His security guards were flummoxed by the digital camera of the wire-service photographer and seemed uncomfortable at the prospect of foreign civilians — American journalists at that — in the presence of the man known in the DPRK, like his father before him, as the "Great Leader." We had been told beforehand to avoid any sudden movements when in the Great Leader's presence. Not to ask any questions unless the Great Leader addressed us. And under no circumstances to stray from our minders.

Inside Albright's guest house, they walked us down a long corridor blessed with a thick, hideous lime green carpet, marble columns and enormous wood doors to a foyer with a large window facing the lake. An enormous, awful mural depicted a stormy, frothing sea crashing against striated rocks while rotund seagulls winged overhead. The next 15 minutes passed amusingly, with the Great Leader's protocol entourage shifting us from one location then to another in the desperate hope of making themselves comfortable with our presence in his midst.

After Albright and Kim arrived and shook hands, we all made our way into a room with another lime-green carpet — this one with in a more muted mustard shade — heavily upholstered chairs and a massive rectangular wood table. Albright took in four aides, while Kim took only his deputy foreign minister and two interpreters. Kim greeted Albright once they were seated. "Let me once again welcome you to our country. It's really for the first time for the Secretary of State of the U.S. to come to our country like this. And this is a new one from an historical point of view and I am really very happy. I thank you very much for making all the arrangements this September for Vice Chairman Jo (Kim's Number 2) so he can meet the president of the U.S." Then the press was evicted, and repaired to what turned out to be a private movie screening room with more hideous furniture and snowflake-shaped lighting fixtures.

After almost three hours of talking, Albright and Kim emerged, all smiles, and headed down the hall toward the entrance foyer. Working to make conversation as they passed a nook filled with orchids and two cages containing parakeets, Albright said, "It's so beautiful." The Great Leader had nothing to contribute on the flora or fauna, so he countered, "President Jiang Zemin (of China) stayed here." Albright responded with some constructive flattery, "You have many, many visitors." "But I think the Americans are deserving more frequent visits," Kim said. "See you in a little while," Albright said. They shook hands and she said, "See you later." Kim climbed in his Mercedes limo and sped off.

Breakfast the next morning at the Hotel Koryo was a treat. Pickled pollack spawn — a brown spiced salty fishy paste — and other delicacies were laid out on the buffet. The room had a mirrored ceiling, a fluorescent painting, two scary ceramic dancing pigs on the buffet table and very loud, saccharine Korean love songs coming over the PA. Guests sat alone in the middle of the room surrounded by six bow-tied waiters.

Downstairs, the minders had sensed restlessness among the journalists, so they preemptively hustled us into buses for a "city tour." The first stop was the memorial to Kim Il Sung's first speech after the defeat of the Japanese. It was a big mosaic, about 20-by-80 feet, depicting happy farmers, machinists and artists looking on in adoration as the original Great Leader spoke. In front of a stadium just past the mural, an old woman with an overstuffed rucksack and a younger man also with a heavy sack on his back got up and started wandering away, frightened of the foreigners and their minders.

Heading back towards the hotel, we stopped at the massive Kim Il Sung monument, a grotesque statue of the late Great Leader flanked by enormous friezes of workers surging behind the Red Flag. Across the street was an overlook above a park. Groups of people sat with children while others wandered in and out of the play areas. Beneath the stairs there appeared to be some kind of workshop where men were hammering the pieces of a large machine — perhaps of the escalator for the nearby subway entrance. The people in the park were variously hostile, curious and friendly.

Later in the day, some journalists had even better luck avoiding the minders, slipping past them and out into the city unescorted. One side street with a few people milling around on it led to an open area in front of a school with play equipment and kids cavorting cheerfully. Inside an open door a long line of shabbily dressed people sat on small wooden chairs along one wall waiting for an audience with a bureaucrat behind a door.

On a main street, we saw workers in blue coveralls in manholes; pedestrians with umbrellas, most dressed in plain clothes — women in skirts, men in Mao suits or just shirts, trousers and plain zip front jackets. Their attitude was subdued, perhaps downtrodden, but not uniformly so. On the street, a mixture of Chinese and Japanese cars, and even a few bright blue boxy Volvos puttered by. A lot of people were hanging around doing nothing.

That night, Albright hosted a dinner at the Magnolia Hall in downtown Pyongyang. Past several gates manned by nervous guards, Albright entered through heavy wood doors into a relatively light and airy interior. At either end of the long hall in which Albright waited to greet Kim, were back-lit photographs of woods, mountains and planted gardens. Kim arrived soon after, shaking Albright's hand, and then moving down the line of her senior aides. His attendant, looking annoyed, repeatedly gesticulated for the Secretary of State to follow Kim down the line, and she did.

They then moved into an ornate, well lit, white octagonal hall to the applause of the 120 guests. Kim pointed out yet another grotesque landscape that would serve as the backdrop for their dinner. Albright gave a toast which Kim received without much apparent interest. He sat solid-faced with a slightly petulant look on his face. Albright's top Korea aide, Wendy Sherman was on his right and would occasionally nod to try to emphasize important points, but there was little response. Albright later gave Kim a signed basketball from Michael Jordan, whom he supposedly likes. As they parted at the end of the evening, Albright said they should stay in touch, and he asked for her e-mail address.

By the time we arrived back in the U.S., the Yankees were on the verge of winning the World Series. But after seeing Kim's weird spectacles and downtrodden society, one hopes the U.S. has something pretty stiff in the bag by way of continuing deterrent. Because when it comes to control, this guy has the Yankees beat hands down.