Pyongyang Peekholes: Looking for Life Beyond the Kims

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In North Korea, the Kims are always with you. A giant portrait of Kim Il-Sung, the founder of the state, greets visitors as they land at the city's tiny international airport. The first stop on the strictly controlled itineraries imposed on foreigners is usually the giant bronze statue of Kim in downtown Pyongyang, hand outstretched over the city he built from scratch after American bombers razed it during the Korean War. The face of the "Great Leader" and Eternal President — Kim died in 1994 — appears on the little red lapel badges still worn by most North Koreans. The image of his son Kim Jong-Il, the "Dear Leader" who now rules this isolated, impoverished communist dynasty, is nearly as ubiquitous. Long chunks of the evening news are dedicated to footage of the younger Kim visiting factories and new public buildings, as commentators marvel in reverential tones at the wisdom of the Great Leader. The Arirang mass games now being performed nightly in Pyongyang are a song-and-dance homage to the wise rule of the Kims.

But a recent trip to this time-locked country suggests there is more to life in North Korea than Kim worship. The regime allowed in an unusually large number of foreigners this month — including a few Americans — for a rare visit. As usual, they were kept on a short leash (banned from taking the subway or even a five-minute taxi ride unaccompanied by "guides"). But it was possible to catch glimpses of ordinary life as your guides raced you around the city from monument to model factory, seemingly trying to run down the clock and send you home again. Last week, Pyongyang's citizens were taking advantage of sunny blue skies to stroll in the city's many parks, fish along willow-lined canals and ponds or take small boats out on the broad Taedong River that flows through the city. There were people buying snacks and drinks at sidewalk kiosks and eating out in the city's many restaurants. North Koreans are prudish about public displays of affection, but you could see couples strolling hand in hand.

But it is impossible to know what ordinary life looks like behind the windows of the tall white apartment buildings that dot the city. North Koreans are strictly forbidden from inviting foreigners into their homes, so the Dear Leader's place there is hard to gauge. Our guides claim to love the revolutionary movies that dominate TV (when the Dear Leader isn't giving on-the-spot guidance somewhere). But these days such fare faces stiff competition from the bootleg copies of South Korean soap operas and American movies like Titanic circulating underground in Pyongang, according to defectors. One of our guides told me she listens to only Korean folk songs on her MP3 player. But we aren't given a chance to find out whether she has recorded anything jazzier. A boy in a computer class I visited says he is too busy studying to play games on it. But wouldn't an American kid say the same thing in the presence of his teachers?

Our guides were the only North Koreans with whom we got to spend much time. They were ready to parry our questions with pat ideological replies, dredging up over-the-top praise for the Kims from rote memory. Our chief minder was a scowling red-faced man given to fits of rage whenever any of the visitors in his care broke the rules. But sometimes the stern socialist facade slipped: During a long bus trip to the south, Mr. Chae, as we called him, tells me a hilarious story about how he courted his wife, threatening to throw her in the Taedong River if she didn't immediately accept his marriage proposal. On our last night, he grabbed a karaoke mike — and one of the women on the trip — and started crooning like a lounge singer manque. The moment didn't last. But for a brief instant, the Kims weren't even in the room.