Reporting from a Reclusive North Korea

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Alex Chadwick talks with ABC News correspondent Bob Woodruff, just returned from a rare reporting trip to North Korea. Few journalists have been allowed to report from the reclusive Communist nation, and those who have must work with government minders watching over them.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

In the ongoing concern over North Korea and nuclear weapons, a senior US official says that if the Koreans do not start talking again about ending their nukes program, this country will start talking with allies about what are called other options. This was in a message to the UN's nuke monitoring body, the International Atomic Energy Agency. It's always hard to know what is really happening inside the highly secretive North Korea, but a five-person team from "ABC World News Tonight" managed to get in recently and has been reporting on what it found. I spoke earlier with correspondent Bob Woodruff from New York.

The big issue between the United States and North Korea, indeed between the world and North Korea at this point, is nuclear weapons. You have a conversation, an interview, with a senior North Korean official, and I'm amazed at how open he is on this subject.

Mr. BOB WOODRUFF (ABC News Correspondent): You're right, Alex. Normally, countries that are developing a nuclear weapons program don't reveal that program until after they've tested a nuclear weapon, and then they do solely because they can't hide it anymore. The North Koreans have taken a much different tack. In February, they said, `We have a nuclear weapon.' Kim Gye Gwan, who's the vice foreign minister and the lead negotiator for North Korea on the nuclear talks, which have been stalled since last June, looked right in our camera and says, `We have nuclear weapons.' And I said, `Are you building more?' And he says, `Yes, we are building more.' And I asked him many other questions about their long-term missile capabilities, and he was a little bit more vague on that. But the bottom line is the North Koreans want the world to believe that they have nuclear weapons, even though no Western scientists have seen one, and they haven't tested one. And they've actually grown quite frustrated at skeptics outside of North Korea who don't believe it.

CHADWICK: Well, there are strategic reasons for them to want the world to believe they have these weapons. whether they do or not.

Mr. WOODRUFF: Absolutely. And it was interesting, one thing that he told me, Kim Gye Gwan. He said one of the turning points for them was not simply the president's remarks identifying North Korea as the axis of evil, but it was when Bob Woodward's book came out, "Plan of Attack," and they read the segment in there where Donald Rumsfeld is considering Op-Plan 5027, which was the secret plan for the invasion of the North, and updating it and was demanding to know, `Does Korea have nuclear weapons or do they not have nuclear weapons?' intimating that that would make the difference between an invasion possibility and a non-possibility. The North Koreans looked at that, which--that book came out in April 2004, last year. They looked at that and they realized, `Well, we're going to have to have nuclear weapons, then, if we're going to deter the United States from attacking us.' Now whether they actually had to--have nuclear weapons or make the world believe they have nuclear weapons, to them that was a very crucial development.

CHADWICK: The North Koreans wanted you to focus on nuclear weapons, but you wanted to do other stories as well?

Mr. WOODRUFF: Absolutely. We wanted to go in, try to see as much of the country as we could, talk to as many North Koreans as we could. And it was a constant and ongoing negotiation once we hit the ground. And we were only allowed to be on the ground for five days. There's only two flights a week that go into North Korea from China on Tuesday and Saturday and we had that period from Tuesday to Saturday to report. After we got done with our nuclear interview with Kim Gye Gwan, then we said, `Listen, we need to get out and see some more things.'

So we talked our way into going out to the countryside. They took us out to the rice fields and we saw them singing like--almost like slave spirituals in the fields as they slogged through the rice paddies. These are engineers, teachers, executives to the extent that they've got them within the ministries, you know, not farmers. They're all out in the fields now, bent over, weeding and planting the rice crop. And once we were able to shoot that, then we moved on to other stories. And what was remarkable, which I didn't think we'd ever be able to do, was we were driving down the road and we asked our minders when we saw somebody on the side of the road or a farm on the side, `Can we pull over there and just talk to some people?' And they actually let us. So there was no time, no phones for them to call ahead and set anything up. I mean, they knew that this was certainly not going to be a horrific place, not in the far countryside, but they allowed us to talk to people when we asked to.

Now they were our translators, that's true, and they were frightening government minders asking regular North Koreans questions, so they weren't going to say a lot, but at least they allowed us to talk to people unannounced.

CHADWICK: Away from official sources, though, you can't ever actually leave. You always do have these minders there. But you do have a chance to talk to North Koreans about their impressions of America, and one is reminded how isolated the people of North Korea are. I mean, there are plenty of people around the world who don't like Americans anyway, but in North Korea, we're really regarded as demons.

Mr. WOODRUFF: A lot of it, Alex, as you know, goes back to the Korean War and one crucial view of history. As we know, we know more fully from Soviet documents discovered after the fall of the Soviet Union, is that Kim Il Sung, the North Korean leader at the time, went to Stalin and said, `We want to invade the South.' And finally after resisting for a while, they let the North invade the South. But North Koreans are taught that the Americans started that war, a war where half a million North Koreans died, almost half a million South Koreans died and 34 to 36,000 Americans died. So the issue of who started that war is absolutely essential to determining how you feel about the United States. They're taught that the US started it, but the people that we talked to, 11-year-old girls that we spoke to on a collective farm, the first thing they said when I asked about America was, `Well, they killed a lot of Koreans.'

CHADWICK: You've been many, many places, really, around the world for ABC. I wonder if you've ever been anyplace that felt as strange, if I may use that term?

Mr. WOODRUFF: No, I don't think so. I lived in China in the late 1980s when the Maoist era was certainly winding down under Deng Xiaoping, and I remember being, you know, somewhat shocked by these big character posters and some of the Maoist slogans still being on the walls there and the control over the population. But it doesn't hold a candle to North Korea. This is one of the most extreme personality cults I've ever seen in my life and probably objectively the most extreme one in world history. The--Kim Jong Il is the center of every tour that you're given. There are pictures of Kim Il Sung's father everywhere. Every adult male and female in this country--every man and woman has to wear a pin, a lapel pin, with the image of Kim Il Sung on it. There is a speaker in every house in Pyongyang and probably I believe in the countryside with state radio that is constantly being piped in. You can turn it down, but you can't turn it completely off. There's single source of information. In that sense, this is a unique system that no longer exists in this world. It's like going to a museum in many ways.

CHADWICK: Bob Woodruff is a correspondent for ABC News. He's the anchor of "ABC News World News Tonight" on Saturdays.

Bob Woodruff, thank you.

Mr. WOODRUFF: Thank you, Alex.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick. NPR's DAY TO DAY continues.

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