North Korea, From The Inside

From left, CBS News producer Marsha Cook, cameraman Randy Schmidt and correspondent Barry Petersen, stand on the tarmac at Sunan International Airport in Pyongyang, North Korea.
Tokyo-based CBS News correspondent Barry Petersen has been covering Asia since 1986. He has headed the CBS News Tokyo bureau since 1995. Though he had traveled previously to North Korea, Feb. 25 - 27, 2008 marked Petersen's first visit to the reclusive communist state's capital, Pyongyang. Below is a series of observations he recorded during his trip.

Minders are a part of any North Korean visit. Men in black suits with Kim Il Sung lapel pins assigned to watch, translate and sometimes guide you to shoot what they consider important and not what they want to hide.

When our team arrived at Pyongyang airport - myself, producer Marsha Cooke, and cameraman Randy Schmidt - the minders were waiting on the tarmac.

We submitted pictures in advance for our visas so it wasn't hard to know who was who in the press corps, but it was still spooky to have a stranger walk up and say, "Mr. Petersen."

His name is Lee Gyong Il, and his job was minding we three. But we could tell this was going to be an unusual visit when he put on his best "welcome face" and for the next two days, seemed almost anxious to please. No stopping us from shooting this or that, no hands in front of the camera, and no problems interpreting when we spoke to people that we selected.

The nine-hole golf course stopped me dead in my tracks.

But, there it was, in front of the Yanggakdo International Hotel. The hotel is on an island in the Taedong River in the heart of Pyongyang. The golf course - it's in front.

Nine holes. In a country where most people don't get enough to eat, a golf course. But it gets better.

While we were visiting North Korea, doing stories on the visit by the New York Philharmonic, it snowed. Call it a light dusting.

Next morning, workers of this "People's Paradise" were on the golf course with brooms, carefully clearing off the greens. In freezing cold of in winter, the greens were ready, in case someone wanted to go nine holes.

Here's the joke: When you go to North Korea, set your clock back 20 years.

Or maybe more. North Korea invaded the South on June 25, 1950. Three years later, a truce was signed.

To this day, the United Nations and North Korea are still technically at war, since there was no peace treaty and Korea remains a divided county - except in my "Sightseeing Guide to North Korea," bought at the hotel.

It shows a map of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (what North Korea calls itself) and shows all of Korea, including such places as Seoul - the capital of South Korea. If you didn't know better, you would think the North won the war and now runs the whole country.

Delusional? Sure, but in a world of big lies and propaganda, it fits.

I started calling it "Pyongyang by the numbers" because, here, size really does matter.
For instance, Kim Il Sung square. He was the founder of the Communist North who died in 1994, not that you could tell since artist's renditions and photographs of the "Great Leader" are everywhere. At left, CBS News producer Marsha Cook is seen dwarfed by an imposing bronze Kim.

His square, the guidebook tells me, covers 807,293 square feet.

The Grand People's Study House (library) has room for 30-million books and, if you're counting, has a roof of 750,000 blue tiles.

Dominating the skyline is the Juche Tower. Juche is the ideal of self-reliance promoted by the Great Leader. Translation - if we can't afford to buy it, we'll either make it here, or, since you imposed all those economic sanctions, just skip it.

The tower is 492 feet high, with a torch adding an additional 66 feet at the top. The statue in front weighs 33 tons. Fountains shoot water almost 500 feet into the sky.

And, says my guidebook, the tower was built in 1982, so that Kim Il Sung's "revolutionary exploits would be remembered for all ages."

Pyongyang by night is a city of lights - as long as we're there. Kim Il Sung square and, down the road, his monster-size statue were all lit, as were other government buildings and lights along the main roads, including large starburst displays on lamp poles every few yards.

To the average North Korean, this was an omen - lights-on means visitors are in town. In normal life, the lights are turned off. Electricity is a coveted commodity in this poor country, and even the capital goes without power on a regular - almost daily - basis.

So, if the lights are on, locals know something is up.

After the Philharmonic performed, orchestra members and the press got onto buses and headed back the hotel. Someone looked back and saw the starburst displays of light shutting off one-by-one, once the last bus had passed.

Pyongyang is clean and neat. People look good, some women favor bright colored winter coats and scarves.

The subways are graffiti-free with chandeliers of many colored lights and murals of what I can only call: "Socialism on the Move," usually with Kim Il Sung or his son and current leader, Kim Jong Il, leading the charge of the masses.

When the orchestra arrived at the airport it was greeted by a high level official delegation, who arrived in Mercedes-Benz sedans.

But all this hides the Potemkin Village that is North Korea. Residents of Pyongyang are not the ordinary people, they are the lucky. Commit an infraction and you'll end up spending the rest of your life in a village eating grass soup for dinner.

What's for dinner in a country where people still starve to death?

If you are an invited foreign orchestra and the press covering them, try this:

Appetizers of sliced turkey, vegetables fermented with strong seasonings (called kimchi), rolls and butter, special fish dumplings and main courses of salmon, roast beef, sweet soup and - already on the table when we sat down - a chocolate cake served with ice-cream.

Can you explain the subprime mortgage crisis? Try doing it for an apparatchik North Korean official over dinner (see above).

He was lean and smoked Marlboro lights. The American brand cigarettes and his talk of listening to the BBC and Voice of America made it clear he was one of the elite. His job, as best we could tell, was bossing the many "minders" assigned to various press people.

First, I tried to explain the whole idea of a mortgage to a man raised in a country where there is no private property. Then I pushed forward bravely by explaining how some mortgages were different - riskier than others.

Did he get it? No idea. But that was the last thing I would have expected as dinner conversation in North Korea.

It struck us that people were careful not to see us. Example: Randy was shooting a line of people getting off the subway. Not one turned to look at him. In their world, curiosity is dangerous. Seeing could be fatal. Best to keep eyes forward.

A mass of foreigners; many carrying video or still cameras rolling and clicking away. No one waved, no one even smiled.

Randy got one nice shot; a mother with her small child, walking towards his camera. The child looked and seemed ready to smile. Kids are like that. One good yank from Mom and they were gone.

How do you keep a failed nation going? Perhaps we can borrow a clue from the Jesuits, who taught that if you get them while they're young, you will have them for life.

That was my thought while watching children at the "Mangyongdae School Children's Palace" performing during our last event before leaving. By the way, the Palace covers 300,000 square meters.

The kids - they looked younger than teenagers but, in a country where food is scarce, children don't grow as fast or tall as elsewhere - were gaily decorated and were wonderful singers and dancers.

They opened with "Best is My County". We got renditions of "Jingle Bells" - complete with performers dressed in red and white, like Santa's elves, and a bit of American folk music with "Clementine", and an ode to the late Great Leader, Kim Il Sung.

They closed with two known crowd pleasers: "We are the Masters of the Future" and "We are Faithful Only to General Kim Jong Il."

Children are believers. That is why we take such care in what we teach them. And so, quite obviously, do the leaders of the North Korean Hermit Kingdom.