Int'l Press Gets Glimpse of N.Korea's Daily Grind

      October 12, 2009 09:47

      A W35 million price tag for the Internet connection to transmit a five-minute piece of footage is only one of the endless list of inconveniences that make up daily life in North Korea (US$1=W1,163).

      Kristine Kwok, a reporter for Hong Kong's South China Morning Post who accompanied Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao on his visit to North Korea on Oct. 4 to 6, recounts them in a story titled "Life in the Hermit Kingdom."

      "Accessing the Internet is a distant dream for North Korean citizens and an expensive luxury for visiting foreigners," Kwok wrote. "Filing a news report of Wen shaking hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il would cost a TV station the equivalent of HK$233,472. The North Korean Foreign Ministry eventually decided to pay all the Internet fees for the reporters --much to their relief."

      The report said North Korea's 24 million people are barred from the Internet, with connections available only in some hotels, where sending a picture costs around W68,000 and a single e-mail W3,400. North Korea has set up road blocks along the information super highway and is committing "robbery," Kwok added.

      Foreign journalists had their mobile phones confiscated the moment they arrived in Pyongyang and were given rental phones instead. They had to go through an operator each time they made international calls. They "were either holed up inside buses prepared by the North Koreans or faced restrictions in reporting by North Korean minders," Kwok said.

      Photographers were advised to take pictures of only "positive" aspects of North Korea. When one photographer was caught secretly taking pictures, his camera was confiscated by minders and his film was deleted, Kwok recalls.

      Staff pose in the kitchen of North Korea's first fast food restaurant called Samtaesong or Three Big Stars in Pyongyang . /AFP-Yonhap

      A hamburger restaurant Kwok discovered on the second floor of a building near Kim Il Sung University had no signs in English or Korean. The only hint was a small backlit photo of hamburgers and French fries in a box at the first-floor entrance.

      And while the interior was much like that of any fast food restaurant anywhere in the world, only North Korean names were used on the menu because North Koreans believe anything Western to be corrupt. All the female staff wore badges with the image of former North Korean leader Kim Il-sung.

      Kwok said time appeared to have stopped in Pyongyang, making the city look like a Chinese town in the 1980s, except for the badges people wore and the old Mercedes Benz sedans used for official business during Wen's visit.

      The fast food restaurant also caught the attention of AFP. "The Samtaesong restaurant opened in the capital Pyongyang last month in cooperation with a Singaporean firm," the agency reported. The most expensive item on the menu is "crispy chicken," which costs 3 euros, while a hamburger costs between 1.2 to 1.7 euros. That is high given the fact that North Korea's per-capita GDP was US$1,000 last year, but AFP said Samtaeseong sells 300 burgers each day.

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