The leader is strong. The party is strong. And the masses are happy.
That was the core message that North Korea’s government wanted everyone to focus on, including more than 100 foreign journalists allowed into the capital Pyongyang to cover the first ruling party congress held in 36 years, which wrapped up on Monday.
But the regime wasn’t going to take any chances. Foreign reporters were allowed almost no access to the main event itself. Three reporters on a separate assignment there were even kicked out.
The last big political meeting of the Korean Workers’ Party was 1980, before the current leader Kim Jong-un was even born. He’s 33 years old.
As the proceedings got underway late last week, “I was able to see the outside of the building, which was as close as we got,” says Anna Fifield of the Washington Post.
“We were taken to a street corner about 500 yards away from the building,” Fifield says. During the next four days of party meetings, visiting reporters were treated to tours of different sites, including an electric cable factory, a farm and a silk mill.
“It’s very frustrating to be here … covering this once-in-a-generation event in North Korea, and we’ve been reduced to watching it on the TV screen,” she adds.
At the same time, Fifield says it’s still worth making the effort to report from inside North Korea, despite all the restrictions. “We do manage to have a glimpse into what is taking place in the capital city,” she says.
Fifield says the most striking thing during this visit, which is her seventh trip to North Korea since 2005, is how much better life in Pyongyang appears to be for its residents.
“This city actually looks quite good these days,” she adds. “This is just the elite, maybe the top 5 to 10 percent of North Korea who get to live here. But their quality of life has improved a lot. We now see fancy restaurants, people with disposable income, even a little bit of conspicuous consumption.”
Scenes outside of Pyongyang are very different, Fifield says, where it’s not uncommon to see people plowing their fields with oxen, or even cutting the grass by hand with shears.
North Korean officials go to great lengths to present a sanitized version of reality for foreign journalists.
“This is sort of the ultimate ‘Truman Show,’ where everything is staged for your benefit,” says Barbara Demick, a veteran Asia correspondent with the LA Times and the author of “Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea.”
“Journalists are reporting seeing the same people over again in the subway. But the fact that they’re reporting that makes it worthwhile.”
The BBC’s Rupert Wingfield-Hayes said he was relieved to be out of North Korea on Monday. He was detained along with two colleagues on their way to the airport on Friday. They were detained and questioned for eight hours by authorities, and then they were deported.
A government spokesman said the Tokyo-based Wingfield-Hayes signed an apology after he “spoke ill of the [DPRK] system.” O Ryong-il, secretary-general of the North's National Peace Committee, said the journalist's news coverage distorted facts and that he would never be allowed back into North Korea again to report.
It is not clear what exactly offended North Korean officials in Wingfield-Hayes’ reporting. He was traveling with a delegation of Nobel laureates visiting the country, not the party congress in Pyongyang. But at one point, Wingfield-Hayes described on camera how his government minders took issue with him after he tried to film a stand-up in front of a statue of the late leader and founder of North Korea, Kim Il-sung.