MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Imagine you've just arrived in a new country. You're not allowed to talk to the locals, use local currency or leave the hotel by yourself. Welcome to North Korea. That was the experience of NPR's Louisa Lim during a five-day trip.
LOUISA LIM: Visiting North Korea is like stepping back in time. The capital, Pyongyang, feels as if the clock had been turned back half a century. There are few private cars on the roads, mostly ancient street cars and electric buses. People actually walk from place to place. The city is very green, very clean, very orderly, and there's no pollution. After all, how can there be pollution when industry has pretty much ground to a halt? While we were there, our moves were severely restricted. We weren't allowed to talk to normal people. Our guides were more like minders, primed to stop us straying from the path.
This is the department store?
Unidentified Man #1: Number one. The number one.
LIM: Can we go there?
Unidentified Man #2: Can I have a look in the department store?
Unidentified Man #1: No. I don't know why.
LIM: Towering over Pyongyang is the Ryugong Hotel, a hulking 1,000-foot-high pyramid. Of course, we weren't allowed to visit it. But we could see its peak finally being clad in metal panels; this after a lack of funding caused a 16-year hiatus in construction. It's perhaps unfortunate that the building is pretty much identical in design to the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell's "1984," down to its 3,000 rooms. And Orwell surely would have enjoyed monuments like the Tower of Immortality, built for Eternal President Kim Il Sung after his death. No less bizarre is the fabled on-the-spot guidance given by leaders. In the Grand People's Study Hall, which cost $100 million to build, guide Kang Il Sung gave an example.
Ms. KANG IL SUNG (Tour Guide): Before the inauguration, all the desks were long and flat ones. The president, Kim Il Sung, told us that it is not convenient for reading books, so he told the officials to remake those desks to be single and more convenient.
(Soundbite of film, "A Traffic Controller on Cross Roads")
Unidentified Woman #1: (Foreign language spoken)
LIM: Other beneficiaries of this micromanagement are Pyongyang's iconic traffic ladies, an army of smartly dressed, baton-wielding beauties who are basically human traffic lights. They're heard here in a North Korea film called "A Traffic Controller on Cross Roads" that I bought as a memento. They were recently said to be moved to tears after leader Kim Jong-Il made sure they were provided with umbrellas, sunglasses and cosmetics. Such is the daily news diet in North Korea. It's telling that although Kim disappeared from the international stage last year due to a suspected stroke, he was never absent from the North Korean media or people's minds. Those we met were true believers, genuinely proud of their country, like artist, Kim Sung Hee.
Ms. KIM SUNG HEE (Artist): (Through Translator) Although our country is very small, no country can ever defeat or attack us. The reason is because we have a very great leader. Even the U.S. former leader Bill Clinton came here to see him. Our dear leader, Kim Jong-Il, sits here in North Korea, but he can control politics everywhere in the world.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Man #3: (Singing in foreign language)
LIM: "Kim Jong-Il is our father," sang this young boy. This was during a performance at the Mangyongdae Children's Palace. Here, we saw room after room of children with practiced winsome smiles and astonishing musical and acrobatic skills. For me, the epitome of these child performers was the 70 kindergartners taking part in the Arirang mass games. Some as young as 5 years old, these kids not only ride unicycles - get this - they jump rope on unicycles. That's just one breathtaking, shocking display of the control and indoctrination exercised in the name of the nation.
(Soundbite of applause)
Unidentified Man #4: Created at the personal initiative of leader Kim Jong-Il, Arirang was prepared and made perfect under his guidance.
LIM: Yet the countryside is anything but perfect. At one point, a broken bridge sent us on a 10-minute detour from a manicured highway, which was curtained off from the landscape by well-ordered trees. Suddenly, we were plunged into a Brueghel painting - emaciated cows pulling handmade ploughs, women in headscarves wielding scythes. There are fears of a poor harvest this year. Well-informed sources estimate a shortfall of 700,000 tons, this in a country where a third of the women and children are already malnourished. But our minders repeatedly assured us the harvest is very good this year, they said.
That perfect facade is all-important. It only dropped on a few occasions: the pinched, exhausted face of a bicyclist whose drab clothes ballooned around his skeletal frame; a sudden electricity blackout; a passing mention of John Grisham's novels; a chance sighting of a North Korean with a Rolex watch; and then there was the karaoke.
(Soundbite of song, "My Heart Will Go On")
LIM: And what else but the strains of "My Heart Will Go On" rang out. Celine Dion is apparently big in North Korea, where Western cultural influences are deemed subversive. What's more, the video had been re-cut with political monuments. Pyongyang's Arch of Triumph flashed onto the screen, followed by the Tower of Juche Idea. Maybe someone out there has a sneaky sense of humor; maybe the ideological controls are relaxing; or maybe, just maybe, Celine Dion is breaking down barriers.
Louisa Lim, NPR News, Pyongyang.