In search of change in Pyongyang: A correspondent's journey

In search of change in Pyongyang: A correspondent's journey

Channel NewsAsia's correspondent Olivia Siong was given the opportunity to visit North Korea to witness how it was celebrating its 70th anniversary. She found a country experiencing a degree of transition.

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Performers at the military parade. (Photo: Olivia Siong)

PYONGYANG: The minute I stepped on board the plane, I instantly felt transported into another world.

North Korean music concerts played out from the in-flight entertainment screens and then an air stewardess thrust her hand in front of our camera to stop us from taking pictures.

This was not allowed, we were told with a firm smile.

We were en-route from Beijing to Pyongyang on North Korea’s national carrier Air Koryo, previously rated the world’s worst airline (its fleet dates back to the Soviet era).

The flight was full with members of the media, foreign delegations and many others like us, invited by the North Korean authorities to witness the country’s 70th founding anniversary celebrations, expected to be on a massive scale. 

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Air Koryo plane at Pyongyang International Airport. (Photo: Olivia Siong)

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North Korean newsletters handed out on Air Koryo flight. (Photo: Olivia Siong)

For in-flight reading, we were handed newsletters - all in English - detailing the North’s achievements over the last 70 years.

They talked about international sanctions: The challenges, but also overcoming them through the country's own strength and resources.

But what the colourful newsletters did not show was a country hit hard by such sanctions.

North Korea’s economy has paid the price as its leader pressed ahead with 23 missile launches and its sixth nuclear test last year, including the first intercontinental ballistic missile which it claimed was capable of hitting the United States.

Data tracked by South Korea showed that its neighbour's economy shrank by 3.5 per cent in 2017, from a growth rate of 3.9 per cent the year before.

And yet, things have started to change. Over the last few months, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has done things which, a year ago, would have seemed impossible.

He has held summits with South Korean President Moon Jae-In and even done what many thought was unthinkable - meeting a sitting United States president face-to-face in a historic summit in Singapore.

READ: Highlights: Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un's historic summit

As Channel NewsAsia’s correspondent based in Beijing, I have had the chance to learn about the reclusive state from speaking with investors, businessmen and many others living on the China-North Korea border.

There has been optimism that North Korea may be ready to open up. But just like the rest of the world, I was doubtful about such a prospect.

So, when I learnt I was to make the trip into North Korea on assignment, I was looking forward to the chance to see and understand for myself first hand the changes that were taking place.


FIRST IMPRESSIONS

We arrived at the Pyongyang International Airport to a buzzing arrival hall full of people - giving off a sense of, possibly, a different North Korea.

What a remarkable turnaround in the country’s image in just a few short months, I thought: From one that sparked fears of a nuclear war, to one that tourists I met hoped to visit for a holiday.

Security checks were also surprisingly brisk.

No examining our cameras or the files on our laptops, which is what others who have traveled to the country previously experienced.

We only had our mobile phones and equipment list checked.

But despite a seeming about-turn in attitude and a thaw in relations, there were things that reminded you that the North still marches to its own tune.

We were given a 10-page rule book for foreign journalists.

Camera-mounted drones or satellite communication equipment were not allowed, and the rule book said we should promote the development of friendship and cooperation between North Korea and other countries.

Acts of distorting the realities of North Korea, or violating the interests of the country and its citizens, were also prohibited.

There were also consequences if these rules were not followed, with some violations landing a journalist in a labour camp for five or even 10 years.

Then there was the connectivity issue.

A local SIM card with just 80 megabytes of data set us back a whopping US$300.

Olivia Siong 1. View of Pyongyang from the Yanggakdo International Hotel
View of Pyongyang from the Yanggakdo International Hotel. (Photo: Olivia Siong)

The only other way to get online, we would later find out, was at the media centre at our hotel - where your seat and the Internet were all chargeable.

But perhaps the most obvious sign we had arrived in North Korea was Mr Ri from the country's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

He was one of those rare, well-travelled North Koreans, having lived in Singapore and Malaysia. He would be our guide, translator and source of information through this trip. 

MODEL PYONGYANG FACILITIES?

In North Korea, journalists do not get to choose what they want to cover, but are shown what the authorities want them to see.

For us, that meant a visit to a cosmetics factory and a vegetable farm, the day before the North’s 70th founding anniversary.

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Workers at a cosmetics factory. (Photo: Olivia Siong)

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Cosmetics and skincare products on display at the factory. (Photo: Olivia Siong)

The factory, we were told, was evidence of modernisation in spite of international sanctions.

The farm was equally impeccable, with living quarters affixed with locally made solar panels for electricity, places for recreation and happy children from a kindergarten attached to the farm performing for us. And there were plenty of motivated workers.

“Farms here are able to grow produce all year round in greenhouses,” said Mr Kim Yong Ho, who has worked on the farm for the last 20 years.

“We harvest vegetables four to five times a year throughout all seasons and we plan to increase production by importing advanced farming technology."

When queried further, Mr Kim said this technology would come from other farming units or the country's agriculture research institute.

I asked the workers if the farm could produce enough food to feed the people, and they told me that it did.

Still, it was difficult not to have some doubts.

This was, after all, Pyongyang, the capital. What about the farms in the provinces, what do they look like?

Curious as I was, I knew I would not get the answers during this trip to Pyongyang.

I also could not shake off the feeling that I might actually be part of a big reality show  -though perhaps I will never know - and that the workers were being closely watched, and that every move they made and every word they said, was all scripted.

Understandably, with so many foreign journalists around, the workers were probably under a lot of pressure to make sure they projected the right image of their country.

70, AND A NEW MESSAGE TO THE WORLD

It was Sep 9 - the day of North Korea’s 70th founding anniversary.

With a 7am call time, we were running on less than three hours of sleep, after being taken to a surprise performance marking the start of celebrations and filing our stories the night before.

Still, it was a mad rush for camera positions at the sprawling Kim Il Sung square. This, after all, was the country's biggest day.

Like us, invited guests also arrived several hours before the start of the parade, many dressed in their finest clothes.

But it was evident the heat and the lack of shade would be tough for even locals to handle, as many started using their invitation cards to shield themselves from the scorching sun.

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Guests at the military parade shield themselves from the sun. (Photo: Olivia Siong)

However, all this seemed to be forgotten as thunderous cheers erupted when North Korean leader Kim Jong Un appeared on the balcony overlooking the square.

While parades commemorate important dates, they are also a chance for the country’s achievements to be put on show.

In the North’s case, these are always credited to their Supreme Leader.  

Standing just a few metres away from the action, I could feel the ground shake from the sheer force of the units marching through the square.

Thousands of people goose-stepping in perfect synchronicity were testament to months and months of training - something North Koreans, including our guide, viewed with great pride.

But at this year’s parade, it was what was missing that garnered the most attention.

Big machines were rolling past one by one, but there were no signs of the North’s most advanced long-range missiles.

Instead, the parade continued with thousands of people waving flowers and floats, symbolising efforts to build the country’s economy.

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Military parade to mark North Korea's 70th founding anniversary. (Photo: Olivia Siong)

This was the biggest news of the day, and a theme that would continue as we squeezed our way into North Korea’s May Day Stadium in the evening.

With a capacity of 150,000 people, we were all gathered to watch the world-famous mass games of North Korea - an elaborate music, art and dance performance that usually involves thousands of people, including children as young as four years old.

The show made a come-back for the first time in five years.

More than 17,000 students - known as the human pixels - formed the ever-changing backdrop with their coloured cards.

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"Human pixels" form the background at the mass games performance. (Photo: Olivia Siong)

The precision and scale were simply surreal, and I still get goosebumps to this day looking back on the footage.

But as much as I enjoyed the show, I began to feel somewhat disturbed.

I asked our guide Mr Ri how long it took performers to train.

He didn’t give me an exact answer and would only say a few months, although he proudly told me that he too had taken part in the mass games when he was young.

I asked if it was tough.

He said this was something the children were used to and the entire experience would benefit them greatly.

15. Performers at mass games (Credit - Tan Lek Hwa)
Performers at the mass games. (Photo: Tan Lek Hwa)

There was also another narrative in the performance clearly meant for foreigners, including those of us in that giant stadium, as well as those who would watch the show perhaps from a TV screen outside North Korea.

While the International Friendship segment is a regular feature of the games - typically about the country’s friendship with China - this time, the sea of coloured cards displayed a message of friendship and cooperation in English as well.

A waltz and Russian and Chinese music provided the accompanying soundtrack.

“It’s obviously a very positive message and no one could disagree with that,” Tim Stangr, a British delegate, said at the end of the two-hour long performance.

“I think it’s amazing, the awesome amount of talent in music, dance and choreography. I’m totally impressed,” added June Goh, who is the President of the Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations.

As the performance ended without a hitch, it seemed my days in Pyongyang had so far gone perfectly according to script too.

13. Performers at military parade (Credit- Tan Lek Hwa)
Performers at the military parade. (Photo: Tan Lek Hwa)

OFF-SCRIPT PYONGYANG? 

It was our last day in Pyongyang, and I wondered if we would ever get a glimpse, off-script, of how life for North Koreans has changed under Kim Jong Un's new focus on the economy.

I asked Mr Ri if he could bring us to see more of the city, and when he told us he had got approval for us to head out, we were excited.  

However, this was somewhat dampened after we were informed that many of the places we had asked to see were closed.

It was a public holiday, and people were resting after the celebratory events the day before.

Instead, we ended up at an older amusement park - one in Mangyongdae, the birthplace of the country’s revered founder Kim Il Sung.

It was as if time had stopped at the park for the last 40 years.

All the rides had not been changed since it was built in 1982.

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Children at an amusement park in North Korea. (Photo: Olivia Siong)

I was invited by Mr Ri to try the park’s roller coaster and for friendship’s sake, how could I say no?

The one-minute plus long ride, which included a 360 degree loop, was extremely bumpy - perhaps a reflection of its age.

But visitors we spoke to, as expected, had nothing but praise for the facility.

“Recently Pyongyang has many leisure grounds but this is Mangyongdae and this place is very special for me because this is the birthplace of President Kim Il Sung and I love it here," said 24-year-old Kim Ho Nam, a taekwondo athlete who was visiting the park with his younger brother.

“Pyongyang has a lot of newly built leisure grounds,” added Ms Kim Hyang Mi.

“There’s the dolphin aquarium, so many parks and restaurants. So, our people can enjoy more than before.”

This improvement in living standards was something Mr Ri was keen to show us.

We drove through a street lined with new housing for teachers and scientists, and for lunch we stopped by a recently opened seafood restaurant.

Some I spoke to said their family can enjoy a full meal at just US$14.

That was something we did not get to try for ourselves as the place was full – not with tourists, but locals.

“I had clams, hairy crab, sea cucumber and blowfish. I ate four dishes and it was much cheaper than expected,” said Ms Jung Chang Suk, who happened to be a journalist herself.  

“Thanks to the generous leader he lowered the price for his people and it was so delicious because it was fresh.”

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Diners at a seafood restaurant in North Korea. (Photo: Olivia Siong)

As we headed back to the hotel, we were left with some free time before our 3am flight back to Beijing.

I found myself looking at souvenirs in the hotel’s bookshop, but also striking up a conversation with 46-year-old Kim Hi Son who worked there.

She had warmed to me after hearing I was from Singapore - the place where her leader met US President Donald Trump, an event which she admitted took her by surprise.

It was not until she saw the trip unfold in a documentary on state TV that she realised a historic summit had taken place.

“Singapore’s beautiful cityscape made me realise the beauty of human invention. I think we will move forward with even more beautiful dreams and hopes,” said Ms Kim, who used to teach Russian.

“I think the US will approach the Korean peninsula not in a hostile way, but with the role of securing peace. I think it will correct its strategy and play a big part in establishing peace on the Korean peninsula.”

One would not expect to hear any openly critical comments from locals in the country, especially to a foreign journalist.

The friendly tone for the US, though, seemed surprising.

But with time running out, a flight to catch and our movements restricted - perhaps this was the closest I would get to understanding what locals thought.

I cannot say that I have necessarily achieved what I set out to do, which was to figure out if North Korea’s changes seen by the outside world are also at work within the country.

The reality may be bumpier and more challenging than we were shown.

But it is my hope that the optimism seen in Ms Kim and other North Koreans I spoke to will become a reality of a better future.


Click here to watch Days in Pyongyang, Olivia Siong's documentary about North Korea.

Source: CNA/nc

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