Inside North Korea: 5 Days in Pyongyang – ABC News

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We’ve been here in Pyongyang less than a week. But it feels like a lot longer.

They want us to see their version of North Korea: strong, happy, growing, united…did I mention happy?

The silk factory was a really happy place.

We were taken there today by our “minders” — officials of the North Korean state who control our movements, accompany us everywhere outside our hotels, and translate for us whenever we speak with an ordinary North Korean.

ABC News has two minders. They are our ever-present, ever-courteous “hosts.”

So this morning the 100-plus foreign journalists here packed into our vans and buses–along with our minders–and headed for the Kim Jong Suk Silk Mill, named after the wife of North Korea founder Kim Il Sung.

It’s a showcase of what North Korea’s authorities want the world to imagine every North Korean factory is like.

They’ve been taking visiting dignitaries, politicians and foreign reporters here for decades.

The entrance hall — like the entrance halls of other factories, museums and medical facilities we’ve seen — is a spotless memorial to those times over the years when the “Great Leader,” Kim Il Sung, or his son, the “Dear Leader,” Kim Jong Il, paid a visit.

Massive mosaic portraits of the men flank the doors. Huge framed photographs and paintings line the walls. Each shows the leader bestowing encouragement and direction to the appreciative laborers.

I’m mesmerized by these tableaux.

All this leader-worship may seem weird to us westerners. But for North Koreans — at least those who work for the government — it’s deadly serious.

We have been firmly instructed by our minders that if you take a picture and crop out any smidgen of the bodies of Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il — feet, hands, hair, anything — factory guides will sharply rebuke you, take your phone, and demand that the offending image be deleted.

That happened to one of our colleagues from the BBC.

“These are our leaders!” a factory guide, who was all smiles seconds earlier, barked as she took the reporter’s phone away.

Beyond the memorial hall: the factory floor.

Here is where hundreds of workers — almost all women — sort and soften the silkworm cocoons, and tend the machines that separate, spin, and dry the silk filaments.

The noise in here is ear-splitting. And it’s not just the machines.

Gigantic speakers blare North Korean patriotic music across the factory floor, blending with the mechanical roar in a maddening fortissimo.

Pulling an eight-hour shift here would be an ordeal for most people.

We talk to one woman reeling the silk about her work. She is happy, she tells us. Very happy.

Then we ask her how much she is paid. And she gets almost angry — telling us that’s not a proper question.

In another building, we are shown the fringe benefits workers in North Korean factories supposedly get: rooms of desktop computers (Hewlett-Packard running Microsoft Windows) are available to surf the North Korean “internet” (which is tightly sealed from the outside world — the real Internet).

In another room, workers are bent over the computers (Acer running Windows here), taking classes through distance learning at local universities.

And there’s a booth with still more computers (HP/Windows) where workers relax by listening to music–North Korean patriotic music, of course.

Outside, there’s a playground, part of a kindergarten filled with happy, happy children wearing immaculate clothes, riding shiny bicycles, playing in toy cars.

It all seems too perfect. Too happy.

This is a country, according to the UN, where 84 percent of the people had “borderline” or “poor” levels of food consumption in 2013. Food shortages are a part of life.

It is a land of economic devastation, where one study estimated that half the population, 12 million people, lives in “extreme poverty.”

And when we ask to see this North Korea — to go anywhere else of our own choosing — a factory outside of Pyongyang, or a typical school that hasn’t been designed as a showcase for foreigners — we get blank stares and vague answers from our ever-courteous minders.

This morning I opened the window of my hotel in Pyongyang. It was just after dawn, the city was barely stirring.

But already, blaring away and breaking the peace of the morning, there was music echoing down the still empty streets: North Korean patriotic songs.

Inside North Korea: 5 Days in Pyongyang – ABC News