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World & Nation

We went to North Korea. You asked hundreds of questions. Here’s what we found

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Jonathan Kaiman in Pyongyang.
(Times staff)

I’m Jonathan Kaiman, the Times’ Beijing bureau chief, and I spent five days this month reporting in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea. During my trip, we solicited reader questions about life in the country — and the response was overwhelming. We received hundreds of terrific queries, many of which helped guide my reporting. I’ve already replied to many individually; here’s a small sample of the rest.


What do North Koreans eat?

I’d be interested in learning about the food in North Korea. Put your Jonathan Gold hat on and report on what people eat in the DPRK. — Jon White

The single most popular line of inquiry was about food — are people starving? What do people eat? What does it taste like? I’ve published one article on this and have another one coming.

In Pyongyang, people seem to be well-fed. The countryside — which I did not have the opportunity to visit — may be a different matter. Hazel Smith, an expert on North Korea’s food security at the School of Oriental and African studies in London, laid it out for me:

“North Korea of 2017 is not the North Korea of the mid-1990s, when there was a famine,” she said. Malnutrition is now quite common; starvation is quite rare.

“We have good nutritional statistics because all the big U.N. organizations have been in North Korea for 25 years continuously,” she added. “North Korea is doing much, much better than people in India and Pakistan.”

“Like a lot of places in Asia, rice is the favorite dish,” she continued. “If they can get it, they eat it. It’s really cold in the north of the country, so there’s more millet and even potatoes — they’re cheaper, but they’re difficult for North Koreans to store and move around.”

Otherwise, “It’s the same diet as South Korea. If they can get the things they eat in South Korea in the North, they eat them: kimchi, bulgogi [barbecued beef] if they have the money, and bibimbap, rice and veggies. Or they just eat what they can get.”

Here’s a video that played on a loop in my hotel, showing how to make spaghetti and cucumber sandwiches.

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North Korea isn’t as scary as it seems

Are you scared? — Aaron Hirsch

This was probably my second-most common question. I wasn’t, to be honest. Despite all the provocative rhetoric coming from both sides, both Pyongyang and Seoul — which would be the most vulnerable in a military conflict — were pictures of orderly calm. Koreans have been living in a state of semi-war since the 1950s, and it takes a lot to get them riled up.

Although thousands of Americans visit North Korea every year, only a few are detained, usually for proselytizing or, in one case, attempting to steal a propaganda poster. I made sure not to do either. Besides, I was in a group of more than 100 foreign journalists — it was a good team, and we kept an eye on each other.

That said, a torrent of emails from readers, friends and family asking whether I was “insane,” “suicidal,” or “ready to be taken hostage” certainly didn’t help.

Here’s a shot from Pyongyang’s calm, orderly streets.

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The North Korea happiness index

Are people genuinely happy? — Annell Del Rio

This is a tough one. Are people genuinely happy in the U.S.?

Though I can’t imagine that North Koreans are universally happy with their lot, they absolutely have the capacity for genuine happiness. I saw countless Pyongyang residents enjoying moments that any American would find familiar — enjoying a day out in the park, rowing on the Taedong River, eating ice cream, snapping family photos. You can’t fake that.

Are they filled with joy every time they think about their leaders? Probably not. But that doesn’t make them joyless. Take a look at this family enjoying an afternoon at the zoo.

https://twitter.com/JRKaiman/status/853513432322129920

Forbidden movies sneak in from South Korea

What can you discover about access to media? One of the most interesting articles I’ve read about North Korea was about the DVD black market and what comes over. For example, “Hunger Games” is very popular. If you were to make a reference about feeling like Katniss, who would get the reference? — Lauren Issen

Probably very few people. North Korea’s state-sanctioned media is strictly propaganda, and its black-market entertainment is mostly South Korean, smuggled in from China. Even if a North Korean did understand the reference, he or she probably wouldn’t admit it, especially to a foreign reporter — in North Korea, foreign entertainment is strictly banned, and such openness could carry unthinkable consequences.

Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Kookmin University in South Korea, told me that while Kim Jong Un, the country’s current leader, has overseen limited economic reform, he has taken an even harder line than his predecessors on foreign influence.

“His father [Kim Jong Il] was relatively tolerant of foreign ideology,” he said. “Kim Jong Un knows this is a risk, and he works to curtail it. Kim essentially closed the border with China — for decades, the border was very poorly guarded, hardly more guarded than the U.S. border with Canada. Not anymore.”

Kim has also been “cracking down on South Korean movie distributors,” Lankov said. “Of course it’s illegal to distribute South Korean movies. But a significant portion of the population is doing it anyway — and he’s cracking down on that.”

Here’s a shot of dozens of North Koreans playing an entertaining — and arguably quite cruel — carnival game at the Pyongyang zoo.

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Who’s Donald Trump?

What is the people’s sentiment about the U.S. and Trump? – Diane D’Amaro

North Korean sentiment toward the U.S. has hardly changed since the Korean War, which ended in 1953 — Americans are sadistic “imperialists,” intent on dividing the Korean peninsula and making North Koreans suffer. The propaganda is intense and ubiquitous. We visited a North Korean orphanage, where wall posters depicted a famous North Korean fable about a tiger and a hedgehog. The aggressive, predatory tiger — a not-so-subtle metaphor for the U.S. — is thwarted by the hedgehog, a much smaller animal with an impressive ability to defend itself (read: North Korea, with its nuclear weapons).

Beyond that, ordinary North Koreans don’t seem to know much about the U.S. North Korean media portrays America as a monolithic entity — it does not mention separation of powers, internal divisions, or freedom of the press. I tried asking a few North Koreans what they thought about President Trump versus Obama, and the question drew blank stares.

Americans, I should add, don’t seem to like North Korea too much, either.

Here’s a shot of a children’s performance featuring missiles (North Korea often frames its weapons program as a defense against the U.S.).

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North Korea poverty index: shirtless masses

In all the pictures I see of North Korea, even the ones supposedly smuggled out, the people look thin but not starving. How do we know what the current state of the people are? What access do we have that could allow you to answer the question about the poverty there? – Adira Benklifa

As I mentioned earlier, in Pyongyang, people seem to be generally healthy and well-fed. On the last day of my trip, our government minders took us to an indoor water park, giving us an uncensored view of Pyongyang’s shirtless masses. Some people were noticeably thin; the rest were a diverse bunch, from chubby teenagers to enviably fit middle-aged men. Some had obvious farmer’s tans, suggesting that they didn’t belong to the country’s top elite.

We attended one event, a major street opening, with several thousand North Korean soldiers. I noticed that while high-ranking officers were pretty hearty, low-ranking recruits were strikingly small, probably from malnutrition. Their weight seemed to correlate with the number of medals pinned to their uniforms — a stark reminder of the country’s poverty and inequality.

Here’s a shot from the water park.

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High fashion in Pyongyang

In what ways do the people express their individuality? – Tyler Kellogg

People in Pyongyang are surprisingly fashionable. Women wear posh cinched jackets, high heels and makeup; men wear sneakers and sometimes bold striped ties. They buy their clothing — most, if not all of it imported from China — at underground markets. North Korea doesn’t have subcultures, as far as I know — I didn’t see any hippies or punks — but it offers limited room for individual expression, at least for those who have the cash.

Here’s a shot of some sartorial diversity on the Pyongyang metro.

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Nobody's talking about forced labor camps

Is it even possible to broach the subject of the forced labor camps (er, I mean, re-education camps) or is that too volatile a question to ask a minder while in DPRK? — Kevin Tripp

Several of us asked our minders about the labor camps, but none of us got far. North Korea doesn’t acknowledge the existence of the camps, and so our minders didn’t either. To them, the camps simply don’t exist.

Here’s a shot of North Korean army men at Mangyongdae, the birthplace of the country’s founder-president, Kim Il Sung.

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ALSO:

Welcome to North Korea, the post-truth capital of the world

North Korea on a bun: What the legendary Koryo Burger tells us about North Korea, and ourselves

Why a North Korean leader called a gleaming new neighborhood 'more powerful than 100 nuclear warheads'

jonathan.kaiman@latimes.com

For more news from Asia, follow @JRKaiman on Twitter


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