EMAIL PAGE NINE
COLUMN SEVENTY-FIVE, SEPTEMBER 1, 2002
(Copyright © 2002 The Blacklisted Journalist)
BY MITCHELL KOSS
TOURING THE AXIS-OF-EVIL
FW: Axis of Evil World Tour 2002
Date: Sun, 14 Jul 2002 10:21:06 -0700
From: "venire" <email@example.com>
July 7, 2000
of Evil World Tour 2002
By MITCHELL KOSS
month, I did a few laps in Pyongyang---literally---to correct a deficiency in
American punditry. That is, to paraphrase Mark Twain, everybody talks about the
axis of evil, but few have bothered to check out its lines.
1996, I went to Iraq to report on life after the Gulf War. I've reported from
Iran several times over the last decade. But it wasn't until last month that I
completed the third leg of my Axis of Evil World Tour with a trip to the
Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
many ways, it's hard to figure what President Bush was thinking when he linked
the three countries. Iran is a theocracy. Iraq is a strongman state. And North
Korea is a museum piece, our last living relic of totalitarianism. Now that I've
spent time in all three places, I have some ideas about how they're connected,
although I'm not sure they're the links the president had in mind.
first, let me explain the circumstances of my North Korea visit. If you follow
news of the Hermit Kingdom, you're probably aware that the brass there were not
pleased about South Korea's triumphant moment in the world spotlight as co-host
with Japan of soccer's World Cup. In fact, it galled the North Koreans so much
that the world's most closed-off country decided to stage a mass exhibition by
thousands of gymnasts, an event it named the Arirang festival, after the most
popular traditional folk song in both Koreas.
there was a catch. In order for the Arirang festival to draw attention away from
the World Cup, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, which admits almost
nothing from the outside world---no TV, movies, books, newspapers, Internet or
even visitors without high-level invitations---would have to let in at least a
few tourists. So in May, two colleagues and I went to a Koreatown travel agent,
paid $1,350-plus air fare each and filled out applications to travel to North
Korea. Foreign journalists weren't being invited, so my colleagues and I went
simply as interested U.S. citizens.
month later, 29 of us from various parts of the U.S.---along with our three
police escorts---were on a bus heading from the airport to Pyongyang. We made an
obligatory stop to place flowers and bow in front of a gigantic bronze statue of
Kim Il Sung, the DPRK's "eternal president," despite having died in
1994. And so our tour began---five days and four nights in a country rarely seen
by outsiders. We had two home video cameras and the desperate hope that we could
pass as tourists even though everyone on the tour was Korean American except for
me and one of my colleagues, and our tour guides/police escorts spoke only
the best journalism on North Korea is done from the outside, by interviewing
defectors in Seoul or seeking out the tens of thousands of refugees from famine
who are hiding in northern China. That's because North Korea isn't the kind of
place where it's easy to see anything the government doesn't want you to
see---which is not the case in Iraq and overwhelmingly not the case in Iran.
first night in Pyongyang, our police escorts took us on a walking tour of the
city. Leaving our hotel, we turned left, went down to the corner, crossed the
street via a pedestrian underpass and that was it. Halfway to the corner, one of
our escorts told me that I'd shot enough video and could stop now. As we were
walking back to the hotel, I mentioned that I wanted to go jogging in the
morning. Our escorts told me that this would not be possible. I persisted: I
live in L.A. We jog. Beyond that, I'd jogged in Iran, I'd jogged in Iraq, and if
I were to truly research this axis business, I needed to jog in North Korea.
Finally, our escorts said they would meet me in the lobby at 6 a.m. They did.
While they stood in front of the hotel smoking, I was allowed to run back and
forth between two light poles---an obsessive-compulsive sort of exercise I've
witnessed while doing stories in the yards of California's state prisons. It
seemed somehow normal, as I felt imprisoned myself.
lives were completely controlled. The radios in the hotel rooms, for example,
had buttons, not dials, to prevent anyone from dialing in a South Korean
station. Only one button worked. My Korean American colleague said she listened
one night to an announcer warning people that foreigners were in town for the
festival and not to talk to them.
is desperately poor, and the signs of that poverty are everywhere. The city's
streets have almost no cars and---startlingly compared with China---very few
bicycles. People walk. At night, large parts of the city go dark as the
electricity is simply cut off.
Korean American man who sat next to me on the bus and who has relatives in North
Korea told me that most people were still eating one meal a day, despite an
increase in last year's harvest and a slight easing of the famine that had
killed an estimated 2 million North Koreans since 1995. In the countryside,
farmers plow with oxen and build roads and bridges by hand, carrying rocks on
pallets. People drink out of ditches and harvest wild vegetation to supplement
their food supplies. None of this we were allowed to videotape, except on the
afternoon of the last day when, having had too much beer and sun at lunch, all
three police escorts fell asleep on the bus, leaving us free to shoot out of the
I wasn't able to see much of what I would have found most interesting in North
Korea, I did see a lot more of Kim Il Sung, including his birthplace and a
life-size wax statue set in the kind of nature diorama that the L.A. Museum of
Natural History uses for displaying taxidermic animals. I saw the exhibition by
tens of thousands of massed gymnasts, which I must concede is a truly impressive
feat on the part of the DPRK, even allowing the probability that there were no
wage costs involved. I also ate dog meat and bonded with our police escorts to
the extent of conceding that it's not extraordinarily evil to seek employment as
an oppressor if you live in a police state. When we flew back to Beijing, my
first thought was relief at being back in a "free" country.
second thought was that the North Korean government can't possibly last. And
that brings up the first thing that the nations of the axis seem to have in
common. With or without the wrath of George W., it's difficult to imagine that
any of these regimes will be around a whole lot longer. In South Korea, the
question seems to be not whether reunion with the North will happen but how to
manage it so that the South's now-stellar economy doesn't take too big a hit.
Iran, the ruling ayatollahs have been on the defensive for years. Many brave
people are fighting the guardians of the Islamic Republic to increase
democracy---everyone from journalists and intellectuals to middle-class kids who
love U.S. culture to poor people who can no longer stand the stifling lack of
social and economic opportunity. In recent years, they've been joined in their
struggle by the elected president, Mohammad Khatami, and the elected majority in
Iraq, less free than Iran has become, but also less ideological, the regime
seems to require nothing of people other than that they not challenge
it---hardly the stance of a long-lived entity. In Iraq, joggers can wear
anything, and both sexes can participate, but a lack of sidewalks and general
congestion make the streets of Baghdad unpleasant.
to those kinds of sources who won't be named, North Korea earns hard currency by
exporting ballistic-missile technology to countries like Iran and Iraq. Which
brings us to another commonality. All three countries are nonfriendly nations
with the capability of hitting the U.S. or one of its allies with a missile. The
president doesn't seem to worry so much about countries with missiles---even if
they aren't our allies---as long as we have strong commercial ties with them, as
we now do with nuclear-armed China. But if they're openly opposed to us, have
weapons and don't have trade ties, it's another story.
the end, that lack of trade ties served us well in the DPRK. Because people
there have no experience with the outside world, our escorts never developed the
sort of suspicions they should have had about us, and we were able to complete
our tour without being expelled. But that isolation will also prevent anyone in
Pyongyang from reading this article. There are no Internet links in the entire
country. Otherwise, I'd end by thanking the North Koreans for allowing me a
glimpse of their country, however restricted.
Mitchell Koss is a producer for Channel One News. His
work has appeared on Public Television's "Nova" and "The Newshour
With Jim Lehrer" and on ABC and MTV.
Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Times
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