Onscene: The Strange, Weird World of North Korea

I've visited a lot of places around the world, but none quite as strange as North Korea. I realized that just a few hours after our arrival in the capital city of Pyongyang, as I looked down from my box seat in the stadium where they hold the Arirang Games, a multimedia spectacle staged over several weeks every year to showcase the virtues of the North Korean system. The performance, which lasts two hours and calls upon the services of some 60,000 people, resembles a mix between a Nazi Party rally and a 1930s Hollywood musical. Dancers, gymnasts and acrobats move in perfect synchrony across a space the size of a football field while other invisible thousands in the stands behind them act as the pixels in a gigantic series of moving pictures. Thousands of flipping cards render heroically waving banners, happy citizens or the ship of Dear Leader Kim Jong Il forging its way through stormy seas. There's one especially surreal moment when the show turns to the marvels of North Korean agriculture. The card-flipping backdrop depicts giant rabbits, as child performers in bunny costumes scamper across the field beneath. Our North Korean minder explains that the government has a new plan to use hares to boost the country's dire agricultural sector. "We have plenty of grass, after all."

Our minders are always there, by the way. It's impossible to move around North Korea as a visiting foreigner without the government guides who track your every move. There were three assigned to our tour group of seven people, and they rarely let us get out of their sight. On those rare occasions when one of us did manage to sneak away, it was only a matter of seconds before one of our watchdogs turned up in hot pursuit. When I struck up a conversation with two tipsy South Korean businessmen we encountered at one of the tourist spots we were visiting, the North Koreans who were escorting them immediately dragged the men away. Though our guides insisted that they were trying to give us a real picture of life in their country, they evidently didn't trust their own people to share their own thoughts on the subject. Any effort at contact, however superficial, was systematically thwarted. Questioned about everyday life or politics, our escorts invariably gave responses that hewed closely to the government line. When I asked about official policy on gays, for example, one of them responded: "There are no homosexuals in Korea. We don't like them." We were repeatedly warned not to take any pictures of the countryside—apparently for the sole reason that we might have ended up taking snapshots that would reveal the profound poverty of North Koreans who live on the land. Ditto for the eerily empty streets of Pyongyang which, apparently due to a chronic shortage of electricity, fall into near total darkness after sundown. Our minders even freaked out when we tried to capture an utterly innocuous scene of men playing Korean-style chess on an outdoor board.

Yet even despite these constraints it was still possible to pick up many telling clues about the society and where it's headed. Most importantly, perhaps, is the effect of North Korea's booming trade with China, which has mushroomed in the past half-dozen years. Chinese goods, from refrigerators to tennis shoes, are ubiquitous. One group of North Korean tourists we saw tramping through a Buddhist temple complex were attired in T shirts and jogging paints ablaze with English words and logos. Kids in Pyongyang may wear the red-and-blue uniform of the Communist Party youth organization, but they're often sporting Reeboks on their feet. I noticed one woman in the capital who was toting a knockoff Chanel purse, complete with gold chain and the iconic logo. Products from South Korea, which has been cultivating closer relations with the North since the two countries staged a summit meeting seven years ago, are also in evidence. At one point, around 9 p.m., our bus passed dozens of people sitting on the ground in small circles with candles or lanterns in the centers: apparently some sort of improvised restaurant, a fascinating sign of entrepreneurship at work. Such indications of change are all the more intriguing, given a society that in mindset and appearance strongly recalls the early 1980s Soviet Union (complete with strident propaganda posters and pompous proletarian monuments).

This is not to say that people are doing well. It's manifest that the benefits of the trade aren't trickling down to most ordinary North Koreans. The North Korean elites—senior party members, army officers and secret policemen—are thriving while the visibly careworn lower classes continue to pursue exhausting lives on the edge of subsistence. North Korean roads are virtually empty, but when you see a car, it's frequently a Toyota sedan or a Mitsubishi SUV being piloted by people wearing the Mao suits and lapel badges of officialdom. Meanwhile, members of the silent majority slowly pedal or trudge down paths along the edges of the highways, often miles from the nearest town, and frequently carrying enormous loads. During our visit to a scenic Buddhist temple complex, I watched as a Kim Jong Il wannabe (complete with olive-drab monosuit, shades and a bouffant hairdo) posed for photos with his friends. They were fully equipped with the latest Japanese-made digital cameras and a Sony handycam. The person taking the photos asked his subjects to pose by using the English word "cheese"—just as South Koreans often do. Meanwhile, people out in the countryside were preparing for the spring planting with ancient two-wheeled oxcarts, 50-year-old tractors or rudimentary hand tools.

We certainly didn't see much evidence of fundamental transformation of the North's domestic economy. The western city of Nampo is one of North Korea's primary ports—but the ships that offload there do so apparently without ever getting close to a freight container, that key component of today's global marketplace. Here and there we caught glimpses of small private markets, usually concealed from prying eyes by high concrete walls, but this is more of a grudging capitulation to hard economic realities rather than part of a systematic reform campaign. When we asked our minders if we could visit a market, they told us that we'd been misinformed, insisting that the North has no private economy. The North pays for most of the goods it imports by exporting raw materials—from iron ore to medicinal roots—to China's resource-hungry economy. Some particularly enthusiastic North Korean entrepreneurs are said to have cannibalized entire factories for scrap metal. In the southern city of Kaesong I noticed that the metal rainwater pipes once fastened to the sides of high-rise apartment buildings had been stripped away.

Meanwhile, a myriad of sources attest to the fact that money increasingly trumps ideology in the North these days. Sources who travel frequently to the country say that corruption is widespread. Nor does the country appear to be safe from crime, one of the customary selling points of police states. The first- and second-story windows of many buildings are heavily barred. All this taken together, it's hard to avoid the assumption that the North Korean state has little incentive to get rid of its newly acquired nuclear arsenal. After all, that may be one of the few areas where the regime has some sort of genuine achievement that it can brag about to its citizens. This is particularly crucial when you take into account the fact that the North (as one of our minders conceded) now acknowledges that the South is more successful economically.

Yet, make no mistake. Despite all these pressures, the government's tight political control remains unchallenged. Indeed, as some experts have pointed out, the North Korean state in its present form looks less like a conventional dictatorship than some sort of powerful religious cult. That became vividly apparent during our visit to the International Friendship Exhibition, the museum complex that houses thousands of the official gifts presented over the years to Kim Jong Il and his father Kim Il Sung (who founded the North Korean state and even now, in death, remains its president). The artifacts on display in the two huge museums range from the historically resonant (an armored limousine given to the elder Kim by Josef Stalin in 1945) to the kitschy (animal knickknacks donated by African leaders) to the comically absurd (a stuffed crocodile standing on its hind legs and carrying a tray full of glasses, a token of affection from the Sandinista government in Nicaragua).

The whole collection may look ridiculous, but the intention is deadly serious. For North Koreans, who are brought to the place in droves, it's all calculated to demonstrate how seriously their country is taken by the international community, while foreigners are supposed to take away the lesson that the Hermit Kingdom is not as isolated as it seems. Few visitors from the outside world will be convinced, but those people who have grown up inside the system—who seldom have access to any competing version of the truth—can't help but succumb. One of the highlights of the tour is a visit to the room that contains a diorama featuring a bizarrely lifelike effigy of Kim Il Sung, smiling serenely as an artificial wind ruffles the branches of a nearby tree. We paid our respects, as our hosts demanded, while just managing to suppress a giggle at the sheer creepiness of the whole scene. Yet North Koreans who went into the room emerged wiping away tears of emotion. "For them it's as if they had just met the Great Leader in person," one of our guides solemnly explained. Reality, however harsh, may have a hard time catching up.