As most people are aware, Western journalists are not typically welcome in North Korea. The case of Euna Lee and Laura Ling last year was a good example of what can happen to those too eager for an NK scoop. But that didn’t stop David McNeill of London’s ‘The Independent’ travelling to the DPRK just two weeks ago, ostensibly as a tourist attending the Pyongyang International Film Festival, but most likely there to try and cover the impeding Party Congress, initially rumoured to be starting around the same time. He wasn’t the first reporter to enter the country on a tourist visa, and he won’t be the last. But one thing is for sure, his front page story is a classic example of the hyperbolic and sensationalist approach to North Korea reporting that is standard in mainstream media – a standard where fact-checking and normally rigid editorial standards go right out of the window.
McNeill starts his tourist ‘exposé’ by explaining that just behind the boulevards of Pyongyang, “stories abound of poverty and malnutrition.” The reality? Well, as in any other capital city, differences do exist between the showcase boulevards and less well developed back streets. However, this qualitative difference does not mean those living in the back streets are thus starving or living in abject poverty. No, those living in Pyongyang’s backstreets are living in relative luxury to the rest of the country – where McNeill should have gone if he wanted to prove that yes, North Korea is a poor country.
McNeill goes on to describe his guides as treating visitors “like antibodies around a virus, hustling them from one approved site to the next and isolating them in the hotel – dubbed Alcatraz because it’s built on an island”. But many of the guides are extremely friendly and inquisitive people – who, if you have an amenable character, will soon join you for beers, talk about their personal lives, and be as flexible as possible with regards to modifying itineraries. Sure, you might not enjoy the freedoms associated with a weekend jaunt to Paris, but if that’s what you want, then Paris awaits. And although the Yanggakdo Hotel is indeed located on an island, visitors are perfectly welcome to stay at the Koryo Hotel in downtown Pyongyang, just opposite a main road lined with shops and restaurants (open to tourists too).
Obviously distressed by the fact that the Party Congress wasn’t going to coincide with his visit, Mr. McNeill decided to do the next best thing and go with a colleague for an unescorted stroll around Pyongyang – for what better way to “see beyond the façade”? And so at dawn McNeill set off. After walking for more than two hours, McNeill remarks that in the DPRK, “modern life is stripped bare – no iPods, jeans, T-shirts or sneakers – which are banned as foreign affectations…[where] mobile phones are as rare as sparrows in winter”.
While iPods might well be rare, mobile telephones are becoming increasingly commonplace in Pyongyang, with over 250,000 units now sold in the DPRK and a network that spans the length of the country. And although that’s a relatively low number of phones for a population of 23 million, it is nevertheless clear that not just the elite possess them. In terms of McNeill’s fashion observations, Simon Cockerell from Koryo Tours points out, “loads of people wear sneakers, most wear leather shoes, they cost the same, this is nothing more than a choice, jeans of course are rare there – although you do see them being worn, and now some Chinese traders bring them in for sale at the markets”. To suggest these items are illegal is simply incorrect, merely serving to perpetuate the same old impressions of the North.
Having dwelled on the lack of consumer goods visible seen during his 7am stroll, McNeill then describes his walk through the backstreets, where “roads were potholed, the people scruffier and more sullen, [with] some appearing to live in slum-like conditions”. Assuming he had been kept away from the many HuTongs of Beijing (where he undoubtedly started his visit), one can appreciate that witnessing such scenes in a capital city must have very well felt newsworthy for Mr. McNeill. But more was to come.
After rounding a backstreet, McNeill then explains how he “came across a group of maybe 200, huddled around a makeshift street market” – the first sign that even in Pyongyang, “the country’s state-controlled distribution system is shot to pieces”. Describing the markets as “illegal” in North Korea, McNeill describes the angry reaction of customers when he pulls out his camera to snap them – as if on safari in Kenya. When a “man in a scruffy army uniform demanded the cameras”, McNeill’s reaction is to try and run away – around the corner and into a “phalanx of green uniforms – a local guard-post”. And so he and his Times of London colleague were therefore ‘caught’, with the scoop being brought to a premature end. Cameras confiscated, they were escorted back to the hotel where guide Mr. Cha was waiting, shocked to hear of what had happened. A disaster in investigative journalism coupled with a healthy dose of misreporting.
Simon Cockerell explains, “The market isn’t a secret and people don’t get in trouble for trading there, its clearly obvious to anyone looking at it and the sellers in the streets around it too are also there legitimately. Foreigners working in Pyongyang can go to the markets as well”. But regardless of the markets legality, what reaction did McNeill expect to receive when pulling out his camera to snap its customers? That the Koreans stop and pose for him, or perhaps, that he be showered with rose petals?
Back at the hotel McNeill ends his ‘exposé’ by describing a ‘tearful’ Mr. Cha and the consequences of his unescorted walk – the writing of a letter of apology and the confiscation of his camera memory cards. Unfortunately this time, for McNeill, no high-ranking British official would be flying to Pyongyang to secure his release.
In summary, all McNeill’s “exposé” really confirms is that North Korea is a poor country with an authoritarian government. But didn’t we know that already? When travelling beyond Pyongyang as a tourist it soon becomes evident that the country is far from equally developed. There are ample opportunities to see real poverty and hunger – if that’s what you are looking for. As you travel to towns like Wonson, Kaesong and Hamhung, the tour guides most likely won’t be pointing out to the run-down villages, shabby markets, or hungry looking people – but if you look, you will see them. In reality, these things are not the state secrets that many in the mainstream media suggest North Korea is hiding from its tourists. Its just the North Korean tourist agency doesn’t like to draw attention to them. As guides in Washington D.C will keep tourists away from its many poverty-stricken areas, the objective of North Korea’s tourist company is unremarkably the same.