Over the past decade, ABC News has traveled to the reclusive nation of North Korea just shy of a dozen times. Over the years, more and more fellow journalists have been “invited” by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea -- the DPRK, for short, as the North officially refers to itself – mostly to cover events that the government has deemed worthy of international coverage.
It is a tenuous line for the press corps. On the one hand, because of North Korea's reclusiveness, news organizations scramble to accept or apply to get in. On the other hand, there is a wariness about our part in carefully orchestrated events designed to promote the leadership's “juche” (roughly translated as “self reliance”) and “songgun” (“military first”) philosophies. Those dual ideologies define a government – led by the young Kim Jong Un – at odds with the international community. We decided that, on balance, it was worth going and threading the journalistic needle.
On a sweltering July afternoon, the Air Koryo desk (North Korea’s official airline) at Beijing International Airport was jammed with tripods, cameras and suitcases bearing stickers of their respective news organizations. ABC News was part of the group invited to Pyongyang to cover what North Korea was billing as its “Victory Day” – marking the 60th anniversary of the armistice that ended the Korean War. Warm greetings were exchanged between journalists who found themselves invited on their second or third trips, wondering aloud what state of déjà vu this one would bring.
For many, it was their first trip to the DPRK, and the obligatory “Inside North Korea” stories ensued – a natural and obvious one to file, as we did, ourselves, several trips ago.
For the ABC News team, limited once again by what our official guides – or minders – would permit us to do, the challenge was to report something new. The new, in this case, was all cosmetic, somewhat trivial: the high heels North Korean women were sporting, the increase of cars on the street, the installation of traffic lights - reducing the number of sightings of those famous traffic ladies and their elegant roadside ballet. As insignificant as these observations may be, however, they do appear to be glimpses of a modern world in a country so determined to shut it out. One recalls neighboring communist China, whose breathtaking evolution into economic powerhouse has dominated headlines. And yes: They, too, once dressed in monochromatic clothes and shoes – the disappearance of which coincided with its (monitored) embrace of modern culture and fashion.
Most startling on this trip, however, was the surprise appearance of Kim Jong Un amongst a crush of journalists. He even allowed them to come within arms’ length of him as he moved about the newly opened war museum in Pyongyang. The Dear Leader’s heir, paparazzi style, took everyone by surprise, and the group that was there (many from the press corps stayed behind in their hotel to file their stories) - including ABC News' Bob Woodruff and cameraman Gamay Palacios - walked away with an unforgettable encounter with, arguably, the most mysterious leader in the world.
Close encounters with Kim aside, we were left to sort through the footage we were permitted to gather – furtive shoots outside our bus window, moments of tension with our guides, and the encounters with the North Korean people we tried to talk to. It is perhaps a very American instinct to try to connect with another person, and we sought common ground through our very modern American smartphones. Instead of asking North Koreans what they think of Americans (we know what they will say), we tried showing them photos of our families, poking fun at the candids that turned up on our personal photo albums.
More often than not, those gestures of friendliness were returned with a smile or a laugh. It would be too far afield to interpret what those reactions meant, except to expand the theory that it’s a very human instinct to connect successfully - even in very small ways. It was not the bombshell reporting trip one hopes, but a notebook of observations.
To see our encounters with everyday North Koreans and the challenge to accomplish real reporting from inside the restrictive country, check out this episode of “Power Players.”
ABC's Jordyn Phelps, Gina Sunseri, and Gamay Palacios contributed to this episode.