Jim Dolan blogs from North Korea

Jim Dolan is in N. Korea with the New York Philharmonic
February 27, 2008 4:51:30 PM PST
Eyewitness News' Jim Dolan shares his thoughts about his trip to North Korea.I'm trying to understand North Korea

This is going to be about the difficulties of 'covering' North Korea, but it'll take me a second to get there. I've been up for sixty hours, and I ramble when I'm tired. Maybe you?ve seen my live shots.

Depending on how you count them, I have reported from around forty five countries for Eyewitness News. Its not as simple as you might think to count countries. Is Kosova one? Well, they say they are, but Serbia has other ideas. How about Palestine? Kurdistan? I've been to all of them. And to show that consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds (Mark Twain? I forget, and I'm too tired to look it up. Did I mention that I've been up for sixty hours? I should have mentioned that at the top.) when I count, I do not include Kurdistan and do include Palestine. I have no explanation for this. And it has nothing to do with this piece, but I tend to ramble when I'm tired. Wait, it does have something to do with this piece: it shows I've been to a lot of places and had to report about the people in those places. That's what this piece is about.

There is only way to get to know people, whether in a foreign country or here at home. You have to see them away from their jobs, away from the TV camera and in an environment they feel comfortable in. On my first trip to Iran, I was covering the anti-American protests at the main mosque in Tehran. The faithful were chanting all the usual stuff. Death to America, America is the great satan, all that and they seemed righteous enough, convincing enough. When my photographer (This was BJ: Before Joe, the photographer I have traveled with for the last decade. He's been up for sixty hours, too, by the way, but he's not whining about it nearly as much as me.) put down the camera, the chanting stopped and three people at the mosque invited the photographer and me to dinner. So much for the Great Satan.

That was how I learned that many people in Iran have enormous regard for the freedoms that America has and many of them hope to provide those freedoms for the people of their own country some day. I know this goes against much of what you've heard about Iran, but its true, and young people especially feel a great kinship to Americans. I saw it again and again on that trip and last year when Joe and I went. But I'd never have learned it if I hadn't seen these people in their homes and asked about their own hopes for their children and grandchildren.

The problem in North Korea is that you can cover events and you can cover propaganda, and you can cover concrete (they love it when you report about concrete: buildings, statues, roads, the place is crazy with concrete. ). But the government will not let you meet regular, off the script and off the party line people. It won't allow you to talk with anyone they haven't trained and programed. So you end up with no idea if regular people really buy in to the leader for life, Kim Jung il or whether they're just trained to say they do. In their homes, they would open up in time and you could learn how they look at this government that has bankrupted its people and uses prison and torture and execution to limit debate.

The entire time you are in North Korea as a reporter, you are shadowed by a 'guide.' He is not a censor, but he does monitor everything you write or say in your reports, and his main job is to make sure you never meet a North Korean other than him. And he's good at it.

My 'guide' during my three days in the DPRK was Mr. Kim and he told me that North Koreans hate Americans. But I have to take his word for that, because he wouldn't let me get to know anyone. He didn't seem to hate Americans: we exchanged pictures of our children, talked about family and work, and he expressed curiosity about football and television. (He thought I was lying when I told him there are 500 channels on my television. In North Korea there are three.) But he never broke bread with Joe and me, he never invited us to his home and he prevented us from meeting anyone on the streets who might. There would be no meaningful interaction between the people of the DPRK and journalists from the west. It is so closed that when I asked Mr. Kim if I could buy some North Korean currency, which I knew to be illegal, he calmly explained the law and declined. This was after we had spent three days together.

This is frustrating on two levels. First, it prevents me from doing my job. After three days in North Korea, I cannot say that I know anything more about that country than I did before I arrived. (Okay, this: I have never been anyplace that has fewer cars or less traffic. I've reported from poor countries, but they don't lack traffic. There are no stop lights in Seoul, because there isn't enough traffic to warrant them. You can't understand this or be confronted with the economic ramifications of it until you see it in person. How much commerce can you create when you can't afford a car?)

Second, the best part of my job by far is meeting people and getting to know them. That is true in Baghdad and Brooklyn. It is true in Northern Ireland and Newark. I would love to have had that opportunity in The Democratic People's Republic of Korea, and to have given them the chance to size up at least one American. If Mr. Kim is right and they do hate Americans, it is an opinion they've reached having never actually met one. And that may well be the truest definition of bigotry. It is much harder to hate someone once you've met their child, or broken bread, or discussed how many stations they have on their televisions or agrued about whether soccer is better than football. (They apparently play neither one in DPRK. Mr. Kim did not know how many players were on a soccer field at one time.) And this lack of interaction serves only to allow discord to flourish because neither side really knows the other.

Okay, sixty hours has turned to 61. Someday I will blog on the hazards of reporting from a time zone 14 hours ahead. But In the morning I'm on a plane back to my own son and the nation I appreciate greater every time I visit another. I have missed both.

Inside North Korea...(Jim Dolan)

My "guide" from the government here told me today that North Koreans don't like Americans. He explained that it had to do with that whole "axis of evil" thing and America's isolationist policy that damages the economy here. I'm a guest, so I didn't mention the nuclear blackmail his bosses were waging against the west. Well, that and I have deadlines that don't get met if I'm in a North Korean prison.

Revolution comes, not neatly, in packages small and large. You can change the world by using paper instead of plastic, just not very much. Until your neighbor does it too. And his. Then you have a movement.

The New York Philharmonic is here in North Korea to perform music. It's what they do. Gloriously, magnificently they give life to music and in the process enrich the soul. Every night at 8:00. But context is all. By doing what they do here in North Korea, they are, too, engaging in a happy little bit of revolution, setting spirits free in a place where they are, by and design, tethered brutally to the ground. And they are doing it against the counsel of their own government and quite probably some of their own patrons.

The maestro, Lorin Maazel, said this week that it is neither his job nor his intention to add legitimacy to any government. His position, though he didn't say it in these words, is that he conducts musicians, not foreign policy. But he conducts musicians precisely because they lift spirits and whatever his feelings about the North Korean government, it is not their lives he came to enrich.

The New York Philharmonic played tonight in what could turn out to be the first dramatic movement in a symphony of change. Maybe it will lead to greater openness, and maybe that will lead to better conditions here. And maybe the North Koreans my "guide" talked about will meet some Americans for the first time and decide we are not so bad after all. That's a start, right? Revolutions come in packages small and large but give the Philharmonic credit: Their revolution is not only bloodless, it is downright rapturous.

Heading to the Gulag...(Jim Dolan)

The stories will give you chills. There is no contact with people outside, even family members. Cell phones are illegal and possession is punishable by execution. People caught escaping are never heard from again. Family members who had nothing to do with the escape are rounded up and tortured, imprisoned and sometimes they are never heard from. Food is scarce. Heat in the dead of winter is reserved for a precious few.

It could be a South American prison or a Soviet era Gulag. But it is modern day North Korea, the most closed and oppressive nation on earth and Eyewitness News photographer Joe Tesauro and I are going there in the morning. It promises to be some adventure.

Cell phones and satellite dishes are illegal, contact with the outside world is impossible and punishable by imprisonment and torture. They can't see out and we can't see in. Reporters are allowed in only rarely, and are rigidly monitored when they are. It is the third nation in President Bush's Axis of Evil and is still in a high stakes stand-off with the rest of the world in which it is threatening to develop nuclear weapons unless it is given yes given...heating oil and food.

It is fair to ask why North Korea (it is officially The Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or DPRK) is spending its money developing an expensive nuclear program instead of BUYING food and energy for its people, or developing trade partners to grow its feeble economy. But no one would answer because, well, as we said, it is the most closed nation on earth and the government is not in the habit of answering questions.

Along with about every reporter on earth, I've been trying to get in to North Korea for well, I think I had hair the first time I wrote a letter requesting a visa. They didn't say no. They didn't even respond. They didn't respond the second time either. I no longer have much hair, but I kept asking.

There has been a bit of a thaw recently recently in North Korea's relations with the outside, with a deal between the DPRK on one side and the U.S., China, South Korea, Japan and Russia on the other. Glasnost it is not, but it is something. They get fuel and food in exchange for a shutdown of their nuclear program at the Yongbyon facility, where they had developed enough nuclear fuel for perhaps a dozen nuclear weapons. That is scary for everyone, but especially Japan which is, in missile terms, a stones throw from North Korea.

This is the abridged recent history of North Korea, abridged because I'm leaving in the morning for Pyong Yang, the capitol of the most closed nation on earth. In an historic overture, the DPRK reached out to the New York Philharmonic some months ago and invited them to play a concert there. (Sorry. The Rolling Stones play. The Philharmonic performs. My bad.) To its eternal credit, the Philharmonic accepted, on the condition that a few reporters be allowed to attend as well. North Korea agreed and I so I'm on my way.

I am not altogether sure what exactly Joe and I will see tomorrow and what, by extension you will be able to see thru Joe's camera. But I guarantee this: before its over, we will experience some things we haven't before. I have never had a nation confiscate my cell phone, but North Korea will. They've already told us we have to hand over all phones on the way in. Conversations will be monitored, access will be controlled. The government will watch our every step. I can't wait.

One last thing before we pack for the journey. Don't bother to DVR any of the other local stations in town in order to get their take on the trip. They're not going. My daughter watches some show that has a theme that goes something like "we go there." With apologies to whoever came up with that slogan, Eyewitness News: we go there.If all goes well, we'll be on the air Tuesday night.

Touching Down in China

It's 4:40 in the morning in Beijing and I'm hungry. My photographer Joe Tesauro and I had two excellent meals here today, but my limited ability with chopsticks prevented me from enjoying as much of either meal as I could have. Picking up a thinly sliced steamed cucumber or any kind of eel at all is no easy feat for a boy raised on midwest beef and a razor sharp steak knife.

And, of course, the billion or so people here are unmoved by the clear superiority of a fork as an eating utensil. They seemed to enjoy it when I twice dropped the same shrimp onto the white tablecloth at dinner. Who can blame them? Even Joe laughed.

China is a nation with the fourth largest economy in the world and it is growing at a double digit rate and has been now for more than a decade. Today we visited a toy factory (remember the problems last year where they were using lead paint and other potentially dangerous materials on children's toys? We'll be reporting on that when we get back in a week or so.) where several hundred young women from the provinces work about ten hours, six days per week making toys for export to the U.S. and Australia and Canada. They are girls from what had been agrarian families who now see a chance to make some serious money for their families in a short period of time.

They make about two hundred dollars per month, roughly the price of a pretty nice tie at Barney's, but also enough to feed their entire family for eight or ten weeks. When they are finished working at the factory, they may find even better work in Beijing and someone else from their village will take their place. It is an inexaustable supply of cheap labor because there are literally millions of people still to be raised out of poverty here. While we might raise questions about paying two hundred dollars for 240hours of work at a sewing machine, it is feeding her family and, on a larger scale it is building this economy. And, of course, we're buying the toys.

A woman I met while working today, lives with her husband and one child. She is only allowed one child by law, and the only way she can have another is if she divorces her husband and marries a man who doesn't have a child. Well, this is outrageous...right? China is a nation overflowing with people.

Housing them, feeding them, and keeping them in work is the overwhelming challenge of this government. They have not solved this problem as we might in the United States. In fact, they haven't really solved it, since people in rural areas simply ignore the law and continue to have large families. But they've made progress. My new friend admits she'd like to have three or four children, but her husband would lose his job with the government and then she doesn't know what they'd do. A hobson's choice, presented by unbearable circumstances.

All of this leads... where? The more you travel, the more you learn that American ways of addressing problems are just that. They work for us, not necessarily everyone else. I once attended a meeting between some Iraqi Sheiks and a U.S. Colonel, who was explaining to the sheiks how an election in Iraq was going to be run. You will come to the polling place, he said, and each person will go to an individual voting booth and cast his own ballot. It all seemed pretty normal to me, and the colonel, but I noticed the sheiks were grumbling to one another and one even laughed. The Colonel didn't pick up on it, so after the meeting, I asked the sheik who was laughing what was so funny. "Am I to allow my wife to fill out her own Ballot? Do you do that in America? Your daughters can vote for whoever they want? That is a disgrace,"he said, seeming to chastise me for being so weak.

In that election and at that precinct, just one man voted. He was not a sheik. Nor a sheiks daughter. But by the time the next election came around, forty eight people voted there. I never learned if any of them were sheik's daughters. But I hope so. We cherish the freedoms we have in America, and with good reason.

They are the fullest, the most inspirational the world has ever known. Trying to export those freedoms and the values that are their underpinning, though may not always work. And they are utterly impossible to impose on a people unconvinced of their superiority.

They seem, in China perfectly content with chopsticks, my own frustration notwithstanding. And how do you argue with a billion people and double digit growth.