During the dark days of Soviet rule, the inner workings of the regime in Moscow were anything but transparent. Scholars and journalists had to rely on Kremlin watching, studying every statement and deed of government officials in an attempt to divine meaning. It was an inexact science, but in the Soviet era Kremlin watchers could at least watch the Kremlin. In North Korea today, it's nearly impossible even to discover where the government and its new leader, Kim Jong Un, operate.
In July, I made my ninth trip to North Korea — my fifth to the capital, Pyongyang. But as a journalist based in the region, I can't say I have begun to understand the country. I've traveled with tourist groups, with other journalists and with Korean Canadians hoping to see long-lost relatives. Last month I joined a group of American scholars.
The timing seemed propitious: just seven months after Kim took over after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il. The point was to see whether anything had changed under new leadership, but it quickly became apparent that glasnost had not arrived in the Hermit Kingdom.
On my second day, I asked where the new "supreme leader" lived and worked. "In Pyongyang," my government guide told me. Pressed for a little more detail, she said that information was secret.
North Korea is the only place I have ever been that is almost as opaque from within as it is from without. My questions elicited obfuscation and suspicion about why I was prying into such closely guarded information. Neither journalists nor tourists are allowed to travel unaccompanied or talk to people on the street, and the sights the government guides allowed us to see involved no contact with ordinary people.
Our guide in Pyongyang was happy, though, to point out a similarity between North Korea and America. As we cruised by the enormous Supreme People's Assembly, near the top of the slope that's dominated by the statues of Kim Jong Un's grandfather and father, she said the assembly was equivalent to "your Congress."
She neglected to mention, of course, that the Supreme People's Assembly meets only once or twice a year — and sometimes not for several years at a time. Unlike the fractiousU.S. Congress, the People's Assembly exists only to rubber-stamp decisions made on high, by the Workers' Party and the national defense commission. Kim Jong Un ostensibly heads both of them, as did his father, but what he really does remains a complete mystery.
For all the opacity, however, one can glean a few signs that life in Pyongyang is not totally frozen in time. Traffic lights at major intersections had been installed since my last visit four years earlier, and during our time in the capital we even encountered occasional traffic jams. In previous visits, I don't recall ever having been delayed by other vehicles on the city's mostly empty streets.
On this trip, I also saw people preparing to move into brand-new homes in a row of high-rise apartments in the center of the city, a sign that those with rank and connections, at least, live comfortably.
Much else, however, remained unchanged. Beyond the new apartment buildings, Pyongyang looked as it had when I last visited. The same sights were on the mandatory itinerary, from the childhood home of Kim Il Sung to the Fatherland Liberation War Museum, where the main message was that "the Great Leader" had led his country to victory in two wars, first against the Japanese and then the Americans.
The deification of North Korea's only two previous leaders, Kim Il Sung, installed by the Russians after World War II, and his son Kim Jong Il, who ascended to power after his father's death in 1994, remains strong. The group I was traveling with, like all others, was asked on the first morning of our visit to pay homage with flowers and respectful bows at their statues.
Kim Jong Un by now has ascended to almost the same level of reverence, but he remains a largely unknown quantity. In Pyongyang near the end of my visit on July 11, I saw on the BBC that he had appeared with a mystery woman at a performance featuring Walt Disney characters. But no one I asked seemed to know who she was. In the days that followed, North Korea's state media showed Kim with the same attractive woman.
It seemed to me that the purpose of the whole show might be to portray the youthful Kim as a grown-up, ready at last to assume responsibility for both a family and the nation after emerging from the shadows of
his lofty forebears. My guide, however, professed to know nothing. She had no idea, she said, about her leader's private life. It wasn't until later in July that the state news agency, in an otherwise routine story about Kim's visit to a newly opened "fun fair," identified the woman as his wife, Ri Sol Ju.
So is North Korea changing? Does the introduction of a first lady portend a new openness? Are the new apartment buildings and traffic jams a sign of modernization? North Korea watchers can only speculate.
My latest visit to North Korea, like the ones before, left me with more questions than answers about who's really in charge and where the country is headed. I had no more chance of finding out this time than when I first made the journey 20 years ago. By comparison, Kremlin watching was simple.
Donald Kirk is a journalist and author of numerous books about Korea, most recently "Korea Betrayed: Kim Dae Jung and Sunshine."