(Copyright 2002 The Blacklisted Journalist)



Subject: FW: Axis of Evil World Tour 2002
Date: Sun, 14 Jul 2002 10:21:06 -0700
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From :,1419L-LATimes-Search-X!ArticleDetail-6515 5,00.html

Sunday, July 7, 2000 


Axis of Evil World Tour 2002

Last 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.

In 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.

In 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.

But 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.

But 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.

A 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 Korean.

Admittedly, 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.

Our 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.

Our 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.

Pyongyang 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.

The 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 windows.

While 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.

My 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.

In 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 parliament. There were plenty of great jogging routes from my hotel in northern Tehran past the notorious Evin prison. The only drawback was that modesty laws forced me to wear sweatpants even though it was more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and because women can't wear sweatpants, my female colleagues couldn't jog at all.

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.

According 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.

In 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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