It is not easy to get news out of the North Koreans. It took the CIA to basically break the story of Kim Jong-Il's stroke; as an expert pointed out in today's Washington Post: "We don't know diddly about what is going on inside that closed country."* But it turns out Kim Jong-Il likes publicity! "I know I'm an object of criticism in the world," he told Madeline Albright one time. "But if I'm being talked about, I must be doing the right things." (Hey, think we've identified Spencer Pratt's PR role model??) Anyway, every year the hermit kingdom invites a few journalists to bask in its glorious spectacle of self-reliance, and every year we read the resulting works of journalism and think "Well who in the name of Engels let that guy in?" After the jump, find out how the likes of Parade, Vice and a random graphic novelist infiltrated the Stalinist hermit state.
North Korea Propaganda posters, which is an awesome site." />
Vice 2007, for its photo issue. Oh good grief, who let those guys get in? Unclear. Somehow they managed to get on the roster to cover the 2007 Airirang Mass Games following several months of back-and-forth, but while North Korean officials left many of their colleagues at a consulate somewhere in "northern China" the Vice guys ingratiated themselves by getting drunk and joining a nationalist singalong with some North Korean "girls" from the Secret Police. Key findings: They are among the only 15 spectators at the games, which feature 100,000 competitors. They find it impossible to determine whether anyone truly believes, or is simply lying about believing, all the shit they shovel about how North Korea is a glorious country whose model of self-reliance is the envy of all the world.
At the end of the museum tour, you must put on a tie before entering the final room, where you are permitted to view a wax sculpture the Chinese made of the Great Leader Kim Il-sung. You have to bow to the statue and speak in a whisper. After us, these Korean women came out of the statue room bawling their eyes out. They'd met their Great Leader. We were like, "Come on, it's a wax statue." But to them, it's almost like they've really met him. They save up money their whole life to come to the museum done up in all their finery, tiptoe up to this statue, and cry their eyes out. And it's really kind of a shitty statue too. One of the guys we were with said it looked like an old 1950s ad for hemorrhoid cream or something. He was right. It was sub-Madame Tussaud's quality. (Oh, and they had a wind machine blowing its hair, like it was basking in a gentle breeze. We are not kidding.)
Parade 2007, for its "Who Is The World's Worst Dictator?" Issue How did they get in? Contributing editor David Wallechinsky is the vice president of the International Society of Olympic Historians, so he could apply under a slightly less hard-hitting guise than Parade. Key findings: Basketball is popular in North Korea, according to Wallechinsky's minder, because Kim Jong-il says "playing basketball will make us taller," he notes, adding that "reports say that 7-year-old North Korean boys are 8 inches shorter than their South Korean counterparts."
Pyongyang, a 2005 graphic novel by French Canadian cartoonist Guy Delisle How'd that guy (heh) get in? On a work visa from a French Canadian animation company that, mindblowingly, outsources animation work to Pyongyang. (We are not sure how that fits in with the whole "self-reliance" part, but okay.) Key findings: North Koreans who've visited Paris speak only of the beggars and traffic. A friend to whom he lends George Orwell's 1984 returns it two weeks later complaining that he doesn't "enjoy science fiction."
The New York Review Of Books, 2003, for a story called "A Trip To North Korea" Huh. But NRB subscribers are not stupid at all! So how did they get in? The author is a novelist with family ties to the North who manages to slip in as a supposed delegate of some pro-North Korea group in the U.S. Key findings: The author seems to go in with as open a mind as she can keep and then sort of starts to lose it. There are four lousy planes on the tarmac when she arrives in Pyongyang. She stays in what should be the country's most luxurious appointments and there's no hot water and very little electricity. She comes across a procession of dancers practicing for a parade in Kim Il Sung Square and is told they've been practicing for two straight days — in temperatures below zero. And in a country where nearly all books are banned, Gone With The Wind is a national favorite and Scarlett O'Hara, according to a publisher, is "the new bourgeois heroine," about which the author says "it occurred to me that it is not only a story about a civil war between North and South, but also about Scarlett, who chooses her homeland over everything. And, of course, the North wins." Related: From Hell With Love [Time Asia] Journey Into Kimland The North Korea Of The Privileged The Hidden Gulag
*Oh, his slang is outdated, you say? Yeah, check out Pyongyang, asshole!