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With Some Confusion, N. Korea Welcomes Reporters

Fireworks over Pyongyang. Korean Central News Agency/AP

hide captionIn this photo released Friday by the Korean Central News Agency, fireworks explode in the night sky over Pyongyang to mark the 65th anniversary of the Workers Party.

Korean Central News Agency via Korea News Service

NPR's Beijing correspondent Louisa Lim is among a small group of foreign journalists who have been allowed to visit North Korea this week. She's filed this report about the rush to get there and their initial reception. We're expecting to hear more from her in coming days:

Pyongyang had never seen anything like this. "Your visit here is unprecedented," said a harassed-looking official at the airport, addressing a group of foreign correspondents, as he nervously fingered a sheet of paper bearing their names.  "We did not know you were coming."

The occasion is the 65th anniversary of the founding of the Workers Party, which falls on Sunday. If the South Korean press is to be believed, it will be marked by the mother of all parades, consisting of 16,000 troops, and 100,000 civilians. This may well also be the coming-out party of Kim Jong Un, the third son and 20-something successor to Kim Jong Il.

NPR's Louisa Lim has reported from North Korea before. In October 2009, she filed this story for All Things Considered:

Facade Of Perfection Slips Occasionally In N. Korea

For reporters in Beijing, the rumor that North Korea was giving out journalist visas only began to circulate on Friday. A casual observer outside the North Korean embassy late Friday afternoon would have seen the extraordinary sight of dozens of disheveled, unfit journalists sprinting and huffing into the building, waving passports in hand. They dashed into the musty grey foyer trying to apply for a visa before closing time and all but ignoring the large portrait of leader Kim Jong Il and his father Kim Il Sung posing before a glorious sunset.

The instructions given were to collect the visas at 9 a.m. the next morning, and to be on a plane at 1 p.m. that day. Nobody could quite believe that this was really going to happen, that North Korea — the "Hermit Kingdom"  — was really throwing open its doors for foreign journalists.

But that is what happened.

Visas were duly issued, even to some journalists who had in the past been blacklisted for writing articles deemed to be offensive. Another plane was even brought in to carry all the reporters. On the Air Koryo flight, videos of jaunty electronic music played: men in shiny white suits plucking at violins as kettle drums bounced happily in the background.

Reading material was distributed. A typical article in the Korea Times was titled "For the Good of Ladies" and described Kim Jong Il's visit to a maternity hospital in 1979. There, he was told that officials would lay the first three floors with marble, and the rest with cheaper material. "After a while of deep thought" Kim Jong Il demurred, the magazine said. "He proposed making a decorative floor of jewels, which are much better than marble." Thanks to this sage advice, the maternity hospital's visitors apparently enjoy a floor "studded with rubies, sapphires, topazes and other precious jewels."

On our arrival in Pyongyang, it was clear that the minders sent to meet the journalists were overwhelmed with the numbers. Normally on visits to North Korea, an escort is assigned to police each group, staying in the same hotel and monitoring the reporters' every movement. In this case, correspondents from the larger networks such as CBS, ABC and the BBC were assigned officials and whisked off to the Arirang mass games, where leader Kim Jong Il, possibly even accompanied heir-apparent Kim Jong Un, made an appearance to wild applause from the crowds.

Meanwhile, dozens of journalists were left without escorts, waiting at the airport for two hours while transport was arranged to the Koryo Hotel in the middle of town. In North Korea, where every tour is carefully choreographed, such levels of disorganization are most unusual.

Banners celebrating the Workers Party anniversary are hanging around town. In the Koryo Hotel, men in dark suits crowd into lifts, their faces looking like they're flushed with alcohol. Women in traditional Korean dress, medals of honor pinned to their chests, attend a special buffet; they're labor heroes who have traveled from the provinces to attend tomorrow's big rally.

Outside it's a different story. People scurry through the dark streets, and most of the streetlamps are off, even though the minders say more lights are on than usual to mark the anniversary and the arrival of the foreign correspondents.

Inside the Koryo Hotel, a makeshift press center was set up for us journalists, more or less under our noses. Internet access is spotty, but works for some people some of the time. Those who can get online can even post on Facebook and tweet live from Pyongyang, a novelty for those of us based in China. The schedule appears to be being distributed on a need-to-know basis, with no one admitting to knowing anything about what will happen after the rally tomorrow.

It's clear that the numbers of journalists allowed into the country have caught many people off-guard here in Pyongyang. The big, unanswered question is why North Korea has opened its doors to the world's press at this point in time, and exactly what it wants us to see.

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