When an American journalist arrived at Pyongyang airport Wednesday afternoon, a Korean woman in her early 20s, apparently an immigration officer, came up and inquired cheerfully: "Romanian?"
"American," came the reply.
The woman froze. A look of fright and shock swept her face as she repeated the awful word: "American!" The reality sank in, and she ran off in search of the presumably less intimidating Romanian.
Other North Korean immigration officers were more sophisticated and very friendly.
But the woman's image of Americans, it seemed, had been shaped by propaganda of the type that appears in the most recent issue of the weekly English-language Pyongyang Times under the headline "Monstrous Atrocities."
"(American) GIs burned innocent people, buried them alive and even cut a fetus to pieces after killing a pregnant woman," the article said, in a recitation of horrors allegedly committed by Americans during the 1950-53 Korean War.
"They separated children from their mothers, locked them up in a warehouse and burned them after spraying gasoline on them. They killed a quarter of the population of this country in such a barbarous way."
The abrasive rhetoric and distortions of Pyongyang's propaganda apparatus continue unabated. But this week and next, North Korea is opening its doors wider than ever before, giving itself a chance to peek out more at the world and the world its broadest opportunity ever to peek in.
The occasion is the 13th World Festival of Youth and Students, a kind of leftist quasi-Olympics and cultural festival, being hosted this year by Pyongyang. The festival, which begins Saturday and runs through July 8, will be the largest international event ever held here.
"The World Festival of Youth and Students is an important and grand international stage on which the progressive youth and students of the world, who represent the future of mankind, meet, share one another's youthful ideals and ambitions and strengthen friendship and solidarity," North Korean President Kim Il Sung, known here as "the Great Leader," declared in a speech this spring to the event's organizers.
"It is a highly auspicious event for mankind and is a source of hope and joy for the people who love justice and peace and set store by the future," added Kim, 76, who has ruled the north with an iron hand and a pervasive personality cult ever since the Korean Peninsula was divided into a Communist north and capitalist south at the end of World War II.
About 30,000 people from 170 countries are expected in Pyongyang for the festival, according to So Man Sul, a Korean resident of Japan involved in planning the event, who spoke in May at a press conference in Tokyo. This would exceed the scale of the last festival, held in Moscow in 1985, which drew 20,000 visitors, So said.
The route from the airport to downtown Pyongyang, a series of broad four- or six-lane boulevards lined with willow trees, is decorated with banners in Korean and English proclaiming the themes of the festival.
Kim, in his speech to the organizing committee, also made it clear that the Communist government hopes to gain political mileage from the festival.
'An Energetic Struggle'
"With the support and encouragement of the progressive people the world over, an energetic struggle is being waged in our country against the imperialists' aggressive maneuvers and interference and for national sovereignty, peace and a new, independent life, the ideal of the popular masses," Kim declared. "The situation in our country will convince you of the urgency of the struggle for independence instead of imperialism, and peace instead of war."
As it happens, one of North Korea's traditional annual events, "The Month of Anti-United States Joint Struggle," began here a few days ago.
About 200,000 people, according to official estimates, rallied Sunday to hear Communist Party and government leaders condemn the "war of aggression" that Pyongyang contends was started by "U.S. imperialism" 39 years ago. No credence is given here to the American view that the Korean War was caused by an unprovoked attack on South Korea by the north.
"Let us drive out the American imperialists (from South Korea) and reunify the country!" went one of the popular slogans chanted by the crowd, led by war heroes and family members of those who died in the war.
Despite the hate-America campaign, a bevy of American correspondents, part of a large number of journalists and young people from throughout much of the world, is flying into town to bear witness to the new openness, the new buildings and the new attempt to win friends and influence enemies.
The United States, even if still viewed as Enemy No. 1, is at the same time an important target of the campaign that swirls around the festival.
American officials in Beijing began late last year to hold a series of meetings with North Korean counterparts in the Chinese capital aimed at opening lines of communication and exploring possibilities for improved relations. To date, however, there has been little visible progress.
"Both sides raised substantive issues and stated their positions on political and security issues affecting the Korean Peninsula," U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said after the fourth meeting in this series, held May 15. "I can't say that any progress was made."
North Korea has consistently demanded withdrawal of the approximately 43,000 U.S. service personnel in South Korea as a step toward ultimate reunification and eventual normalization of ties with Washington.
The American position is that no such withdrawal can take place until there is an improvement in relations between Pyongyang and Seoul and reduction of the threat of invasion from the north. Washington thus insists that the key talks be between Pyongyang and Seoul.
The propaganda notwithstanding, North Koreans involved in the festival seem to be working hard to make it a success.
A young, green-uniformed immigration officer at the airport Wednesday strained with his limited English to ask several foreigners whether they had been to North Korea before.
"Is this your first visit?" he demanded of a German man in a tone of strict interrogation.
"Yes," the German replied.
The young man repeated the process with an American and a Frenchman, with no relaxation of the fierce tone.
But then suddenly, mission accomplished, he stood up straight, swept his arm grandly through the air and declared with a beaming smile: "Welcome to Korea."
SOUTH KOREAN ROUTE--President Roh says he's trying to nurture democracy. Page 10