Truth Or Propaganda? Finding Real Stories In North Korea

Sep 29, 2013
Originally published on September 30, 2013 11:21 am

North Korea remains one of the most closed places in the world. And that makes Tim Sullivan kind of a rarity: As the Asia correspondent for the Associated Press, he's spent about six weeks in the country over the course of two trips.

In addition to his stories for AP, Sullivan also wrote an article entitled "The Real North Korea" that's in the October issue of National Geographic.

It's a different kind of reporting trip, Sullivan tells All Things Considered host Arun Rath.

"A lot of my time is spent ... gauging what is real, what is fake," he says. "If something is fake, in what way is it fake? Do they really do this job and they're simply acting for me? Or do they not do this at all, and it's complete Potemkin?"

But for some reason, he says, he forgot that temporarily during his most recent trip, when he visited a Buddhist monastery.

"All I could think of was that I was dealing with monks, that these people could be genuine believers and if they saw me as an opportunity to criticize the regime and they were heard — which they would be because my minders are with me always — they would go to prison," he says. "Their families would go to prison. People could die."

So he avoided the one topic he wanted to discuss, freedom of religion.

It was an uneventful visit. Sullivan says he asked banal questions, chit-chatted with the monks, then left.

Then something happened on his way out: Suddenly, the senior monk and Sullivan's minder were waiting, looking at him.

"The monk said to me, we know what you want to ask, and he was right," he says.

So Sullivan asked about freedom of religion. There is absolute freedom of religion in North Korea, the monk told him, and it's your responsibility to tell that to the world.

But of course, Sullivan says, religion has been crushed in the last 60 years. While there are a handful of churches and Buddhist temples, he says, they're basically there to show foreigners.

Short Skirts And Muscle Shirts

Not every story Sullivan is told has been scripted. One of his favorite places in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang is a bowling alley called Gold Lane.

The 1970s-style bowling alley — a big showcase during the regime of Kim Il Sung — is a popular gathering place for soldiers now.

"The soldiers take off their shirts, they love to bowl in their sleeveless white t-shirts, showing off their muscles," he says.

The scene, Sullivan says, tells you a lot about recent changes in the country.

"By simply being in the army and living in the capital, that makes them a part of an elite, even if they're not high elite. They're somebody. And they're there with their girlfriends, who can dress in a way that was never seen before," he says.

Their girlfriends parade around in short skirts and high heels. Sullivan says it was basically illegal to wear a short skirt until about a year ago. North Koreans are more plugged in than they used to be — hence they realize how out of date they are, Sullivan says.

There is more money flowing into the country, from mineral and timber sales to China. Sullivan says the tiny but growing middle class wants the same things the Chinese middle class wants.

"They want to wear nice clothing and high heels and have iPods," Sullivan says. "They now do have a consumer ideal, which didn't exist there before."

A Country That Identifies With Scarlett O'Hara

Sullivan stumbled across some unlikely American influences in North Korea. One was the book Gone With the Wind, which came to North Korea in the 1990s, one of the worst times in the country's history. North Koreans suffered through several bad droughts, and then the Soviet Union collapsed. Suddenly there was no wheat from Moscow. People starved by the tens of thousands.

"A lot of [Gone With the Wind] is about suffering — about the Yankees treating people terribly," Sullivan says. "The North Koreans are really proud of how they've suffered, and they're really proud of how they've stood up to the Yankees. There are times you read that book and you could change the names and it could be a North Korean talking."

Few North Koreans have seen the movie; the English language institute, open only to government officials, uses the film for language training. It was also a favorite movie of Kim Jong Il, the father of current ruler Kim Jong Un, Sullivan says.

"You can completely see how [the book] could be resonant in a place like North Korea where they have so little literature that's not full of propaganda," he says. "Here's a book that's basically a soap opera, bodice-ripper. But, it's got no propaganda in it. And I think they like that. It's just a pure, simple soap opera."

Accompanied By A Believer

The main minder for Sullivan's reporting trips is a proud North Korean named Ho Yong Il. He's a proper sort of man, carefully dressed.

"It's his job to ensure that I see the picture of North Korea that the North Korean government wants me to see," Sullivan says, "which means we are often bumping heads."

Ho truly believes in the regime, Sullivan says. "I have this constant voice in the background who's telling me what is, in my mind, propaganda, but in his mind is the reality," he says.

Like other North Koreans, Ho could seem a mere stereotype of the communist party faithful. But Sullivan says he's more than that. He has a wife and child — and a job to do.

"There are people who see North Korea as this complete caricature of Stalinist drudgery and robotic people — there is definitely some truth in that," Sullivan says. But this, too, isn't the real story.

One man, a smuggler who fled North Korea, wanted Sullivan to understand that.

"'You gotta remember, we're normal,' " he told Sullivan. "'We're normal people, we're like you. We're like everybody else. Our hearts break, we have fights at the office, we fight with our wives; we're just like anybody else.' "

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From NPR West, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Arun Rath.

Coming up, we'll tell you who the real Moneyball team is. But first, a look inside North Korea.

Tim Sullivan is Asia correspondent for the Associated Press, and he has spent much of the last year reporting on the secretive totalitarian regime, including many weeks reporting from inside the country. His most recent trip had some unexpected moments. Tim, welcome to the program.

TIM SULLIVAN: Thanks very much for having me.

RATH: As you've been to North Korea over the last year, you've got to know some of the - well, we'd call them social hotspots. I don't know if that's the right word for them in Pyongyang. But can you describe the scene at the Gold Lane bowling alley?

SULLIVAN: It's one of my favorite places in the city. Picture a large 1970s bowling alley. It's a big place for soldiers now. You go there bowling, and the soldiers take off their shirts. They love to bowl in their sleeveless white T-shirts, showing off their muscles. Their girlfriends are parading around in their short skirts and high heels. And everybody plays with bowling balls that all say made in America on them, although they're all - they look like at least 30 years old, they're so badly pitted.

It's a good place to see, though. I mean, it was basically illegal to wear a short skirt in North Korea until somewhere around a year ago. They now do have sort of a consumer ideal, which didn't exist there before.

RATH: And something else they have access to now, which is one of the weirder parts in many weird scenes you describe in this piece. They have access to a translation of "Gone with the Wind." Can you talk about how that book has taken - has captured the North Korean imagination?

SULLIVAN: To me, it's one of the most shocking things that I stumbled across there. Every person I came across in Pyongyang, every single person had read it. And it was interesting. I'd never read "Gone with the Wind" before, and I read it while I was there. I mean, the story is - a lot of it is about suffering. It's about the Yankees treating people terribly. The North Koreans are really proud of how they've suffered, and they're really proud of how they've stood up to the Yankees.

There are times you read that book, and you could change the names, and it could be a North Korean talking when they're saying, you know, I might starve, but I'm standing up to those Yankees. The kind of things that Scarlett O'Hara says really echo strongly the things that you can easily hear in Pyongyang.

RATH: Have they seen the movie? Is that available?

SULLIVAN: There are some people who have seen it. They actually use it for language training, which I find rather odd. I don't know if they'd come out with, you know, rather stilted language.

RATH: It'd be odd if we have a generation of North Koreans speaking English sounding like, you know, Scarlett O'Hara.


VIVIEN LEIGH: (as Scarlett O'Hara) I'm going to live through this, and when it's all over, I'll never be hungry again. No, nor any of my folk.

SULLIVAN: Exactly. I mean, that's all - I mean, when he told me it was - he'd seen part of it in his language institute, I just thought it was the strangest thing. But you get used to a lot of strange things in North Korea.

RATH: So everywhere you go in North Korea, you're accompanied by your government minder. Could you talk about your relationship with him?

SULLIVAN: It's a - I actually almost always have two minders. Mr. Ho is our main minder. He's with me all the time. I could probably count the number of times I'd gone anywhere without him. He's a very proper man. He's always very carefully dressed. With someone like Mr. Ho, it would be easy for me to sort of see him as this caricature of a World War II Nazi or something like that. But he's not. He's a guy. He's got a kid that he worries about. He's got a wife, and he's got a job that he's got to do.

And so I try not to see myself as a crusader there. I try to view him as a person, even though, admittedly, there are days where we butt heads pretty, you know, pretty regularly.

RATH: You said that, you know, for people that you're interviewing in North Korea, how they answer these questions can be life or death issues for them. So how do - doesn't that sort of paralyze you for being able to ask anything? How do you function?

SULLIVAN: Yeah. It is - it can be really challenging. Every once in a while, people do open up to you. I've had people say some shockingly personal things. Often, I don't even use the quotes because, certainly, if they're critical in the least, these people would go to jail. It's not normal reporting in the least. It's not like I go to North Korea and I emerge with the kind of story I could do anywhere else in the world.

I might come out with 30 percent of the story, but I almost never get the whole story there because I know that these people are so constrained, and I know that even if they want to tell me something honest, they probably can't.

RATH: That's Tim Sullivan. You can read about his time in North Korea in the latest issue of National Geographic. And we have a slideshow of some incredible photos taken by the photographer who traveled with Tim. That's at our website Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.