North Korea: A sneak peek through the keyhole
Pyongyang, North Korea (CNN) -- On North Korea's national airline the sound system blares patriotic music at passengers from the moment they get on the plane until the moment they step off the aircraft. The volume is so loud that earphones fail to drown out the socialist anthems. Even in the tiny bathroom, there is no escape. Next to the sink, a speaker continues to blast occupants with paeans to the people's paradise.
The inescapable soundtrack aboard the Air Koryo plane is a fitting metaphor for my recent five-day trip to Pyongyang. It was a tightly-restricted, carefully stage-managed tour rich with propaganda and political theater and little else: It offered virtually no insight into what life is like for ordinary citizens who live in this rigid dictatorship.
For a foreign journalist it was like trying to peer through a keyhole -- and being left to guess at the hidden world on the other side of the door.
The North Korean regime invited more than a dozen television crews from around the world to see its lavish celebration of the 60th anniversary of the signing of the armistice that brought an end to the fighting for the Korean War.
In a characteristic burst of revisionist history, Pyongyang refers to this as its "grand victory against US imperialists in the Fatherland Liberation War."
This was the image the North Korean leadership wanted to present to the outside world: endless parades of goose-stepping soldiers and military hardware, accompanied by huge demonstrations of popular support for Kim Jong Un, the twenty-something leader who inherited the dynastic throne when his father died in 2011.
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The relatively inexperienced grandson has a striking -- some say deliberate -- resemblance to his grandfather Kim Il Sung, the long-dead founder of communist North Korea.
"They're trying to connect Kim Il Sung to Kim Jong Un," said Han Park, a professor of International Relations at the University of Georgia. Park spoke to CNN after the grandson inaugurated an enormous new Korean War museum, dominated by giant portraits and statues of a youthful Kim Il Sung.
The sight of the corpulent Kim Jong Un touring the gilded new museum contrasted sharply with appalling statistics recently released by the United Nations. Last month, the U.N.'s World Food Program called for donated foreign food aid to be distributed to 2.4 million North Korean women and children for "the prevention and cure of moderate acute malnutrition among children (6 months -- 4 years old) and their mothers." Those 2.4 million people amount to roughly 10% of the Korean population. Up to a million North Koreans are believed to have died in a famine when this country's state-controlled economy all but collapsed in the 1990s.
The visit to Pyongyang marked the most strictly controlled foreign assignment of my journalistic career. North Korea was more restrictive than previous reporting trips to Iran and even Moammar Gadhafi's Libya at a time when his regime was trying -- and ultimately failing -- to survive a NATO bombing campaign.
We were not allowed to leave the confines of the Yanggakdo International Hotel unless we were riding a government bus. During my five days in North Korea, the authorities did not even allow me to see what the country's currency looks like.
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Two unfailingly polite government minders -- one junior, one senior -- were assigned to remain at the side of our three-man television crew at all times. Aside from arrival and departure from the airport, I estimate our buses remained within a roughly five square-mile perimeter in the center of Pyongyang for five days.