With the cavernous Yanggakdo hotel lobby buzzing with foreign journalists, the sound of the young woman crying on TV went mostly unnoticed.
Several other women followed, appearing one after the other to forcefully make their point.
The drama unfolding on state television — the only kind in North Korea — eventually caught the attention of the hotel’s café workers who stopped serving and stepped closer to the TVs hanging from the walls.
I walked up to one of them and asked what it was all about. She stared blankly at me.
Her expression said: “Where do I start?”
So she didn’t, and just walked away.
The story, we later learned, concerned the defection weeks earlier of 13 citizens who had abandoned their posts at a state-run North Korean restaurant in China.
The women testifying on TV were apparently their colleagues recounting how the defectors were victims of an “abduction plot” by the South Korean government.
This was the insular nation’s official version, and likely the only take most would hear in the most cloistered country on Earth.
“My generation, when I lived in North Korea, we totally believed [former leaders] Kim Il-sung, and Kim Jong-il,” says Ji-Hyun Park, a 48-year-old defector who now lives in the U.K.
But ”this is not a kidnapping,” she says. “[The restaurant workers] wanted to find freedom and a new life in South Korea.”
Park’s own experience tells her as much. Her first escape attempt ended in slavery in China, followed by a forced return to North Korea where she served in a labour camp. She succeeded with her second attempt and settled in the U.K., where she helps other North Koreans who have fled their homeland.
Such epic stories are often edited from North Korea’s national conversation, such as it is. They are bad for business in a place where the outside world is seen as a threat, and where seeking it could land you in prison.
Keeping out the outside world
The world according to Kim Jong-un’s regime is defined as much by what’s said, as it is by what isn’t said.
Even now, in this connected age of Snapchat, tablets and smartphones — and even as the latter two are increasingly available in North Korea — the regime’s ability to control the flow of information and curate content to suit its insular needs is an impressive and fearsome feat.
A crucial pillar of the effort remains old-fashioned propaganda, especially as South Korea and the U.S. step up efforts to reach North Koreans.
Posters, billboards and TV programs extol the nation’s achievements, and music booms from loudspeakers in factories singing the praises of socialism.
News outlets are state organs and all books and music are approved by the regime.
Newspapers usually feature Kim Jong-un on the front page. Each is folded carefully so as to avoid creasing his photo. In one establishment CBC News visited during its trip to North Korea last May, newspapers were placed in a plastic bag and removed from the table to protect them from spills.
The message is constant: North Korea is superior and always under threat.
People on the streets of Pyongyang talk on cellphones, children use computers in extracurricular classes and flat-screen TV are sold in the capital’s only modern department store.
But what you can actually do with such equipment is strictly controlled by the state.
The degree of control is apparent the moment you land at the Sunan International Airport.
Information from the outside world is treated like a communicable disease: travel guides and books are closely examined and those deemed suspect are quarantined. Foreign magazines and newspapers are seized.
Our hard drives were searched — for foreign movies, I was told.
Foreign visitors are prohibited from moving around or connecting with North Koreans without “guides.” Journalists are under even more scrutiny.
More than 100 of us were invited last spring to attend a rare ruling party congress in Pyongyang, the first in 36 years. We were kept well away from locals in the Yanggakdo hotel, which sits on an island in the middle of the Taedong River, within view of Pyongyang’s more developed riverside. Our guides stayed in the same hotel to keep watch.
How the outside world gets in
As journalists, we had access to 3G phones with data service and respectably high-speed Internet. But such connectivity is not widely available. The teens in a computer class we visited didn’t have the privilege.
North Korea has created what some other countries with reclusive tendencies like Iran have only talked about: its own domestic internet. The intranet system apparently allows access only to local websites and information, although according to a recent news report, the regime accidentally revealed it has just 28 websites.
“Internet access is just restricted to a few, privileged types, so most people rely on word of mouth or the country’s intranet for information,” says James Pearson, a Reuters correspondent who has visited on several occasions and is the co-author of North Korea Confidential, a book that explores everyday life in the country.
“Trains, in fact, form one of North Korea’s most useful networks as people from different provinces board with different tidbits of information.”
But travel is also restricted. You need a permit to travel to or live in Pyongyang, and citizens must apply for permission to go abroad.
And while there are plenty of people with smartphones (and some apparently have data that allows them to view local papers and television), most North Koreans cannot call abroad or use email or social media.
The world is presented as a dangerous, suspicious place. Thomas Klassen, a political science professor at York University in Toronto, says North Koreans are taught from a young age that the country is engaged in an “existential struggle for survival against powerful enemies: the U.S. and its lackey, South Korea.”
“Information from the outside world that enters North Korea, say from China or South Korea, is understood in that light: information designed to undermine North Korea and its leaders,” says Klassen, who has worked in South Korea and visited North Korea earlier this year.
Signs of change
But there are signs more North Koreans are tuning out the regime’s imperious airwave and craning to hear the outside world. They are ideological or cultural defectors: they may not have left the country like Park or those restaurant workers, but they’re actively seeking alternate information.
Under Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s ideological defectors used satellite dishes painted green and hidden among backyard bushes to pull in international networks and shows.
Today’s more discreet equivalent in North Korea is the USB stick.
“USB sticks passed from person to person form one of the world’s only genuinely social digital networks,” Reuters’ James Pearson says. “But much of the information being traded in these networks is entertainment — films, TV shows and music.”
By contrast, the only DVDs available in relatively new kiosks in Pyongyang are state-approved movies, local concerts, and sporting events — like international curling championships — and little else.
Park says the border with China is a steady if more expensive source of music, movies and very popular South Korean soap operas.
“[It's] very dangerous, but that is freedom … people want to find freedom.”
Radio is another connection to the outside world, and one that’s reportedly growing in popularity.
The Daily NK, a news site based in South Korea, says North Koreans use radio sets made in China or they “dismantle state-distributed radios” to bypass the set frequencies.
‘[It's] very dangerous, but that is freedom … people want to find freedom.’ - Ji-Hyun Park
Getting caught would likely result in the user and his or her entire family getting thrown in a hard labour camp.
Pearson says the harshness and struggle of life in North Korea discourages the pursuit of information about the world or how it views North Korea.
“Most people are keen to just get their head down and focus on making the money they need in the unofficial markets to feed their families and help them navigate a very difficult society.”
Nevertheless, Park is convinced North Koreans today question the official version of events — like, for example, the case of the 13 restaurant workers.
She believes, like her, they “totally understand” that “everything is fake.”