Truth Or Propaganda? Finding Real Stories In North Korea Some stories from the isolated nation are stranger than government-sponsored fiction. AP Asia correspondent Tim Sullivan brings us unexpected tales, like the North Korean love affair with Gone with the Wind.
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Truth Or Propaganda? Finding Real Stories In North Korea

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Truth Or Propaganda? Finding Real Stories In North Korea

Truth Or Propaganda? Finding Real Stories In North Korea

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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From NPR West, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Arun Rath.

Coming up, we'll tell you who the real Moneyball team is. But first, a look inside North Korea.

Tim Sullivan is Asia correspondent for the Associated Press, and he has spent much of the last year reporting on the secretive totalitarian regime, including many weeks reporting from inside the country. His most recent trip had some unexpected moments. Tim, welcome to the program.

TIM SULLIVAN: Thanks very much for having me.

RATH: As you've been to North Korea over the last year, you've got to know some of the - well, we'd call them social hotspots. I don't know if that's the right word for them in Pyongyang. But can you describe the scene at the Gold Lane bowling alley?

SULLIVAN: It's one of my favorite places in the city. Picture a large 1970s bowling alley. It's a big place for soldiers now. You go there bowling, and the soldiers take off their shirts. They love to bowl in their sleeveless white T-shirts, showing off their muscles. Their girlfriends are parading around in their short skirts and high heels. And everybody plays with bowling balls that all say made in America on them, although they're all - they look like at least 30 years old, they're so badly pitted.

It's a good place to see, though. I mean, it was basically illegal to wear a short skirt in North Korea until somewhere around a year ago. They now do have sort of a consumer ideal, which didn't exist there before.

RATH: And something else they have access to now, which is one of the weirder parts in many weird scenes you describe in this piece. They have access to a translation of "Gone with the Wind." Can you talk about how that book has taken - has captured the North Korean imagination?

SULLIVAN: To me, it's one of the most shocking things that I stumbled across there. Every person I came across in Pyongyang, every single person had read it. And it was interesting. I'd never read "Gone with the Wind" before, and I read it while I was there. I mean, the story is - a lot of it is about suffering. It's about the Yankees treating people terribly. The North Koreans are really proud of how they've suffered, and they're really proud of how they've stood up to the Yankees.

There are times you read that book, and you could change the names, and it could be a North Korean talking when they're saying, you know, I might starve, but I'm standing up to those Yankees. The kind of things that Scarlett O'Hara says really echo strongly the things that you can easily hear in Pyongyang.

RATH: Have they seen the movie? Is that available?

SULLIVAN: There are some people who have seen it. They actually use it for language training, which I find rather odd. I don't know if they'd come out with, you know, rather stilted language.

RATH: It'd be odd if we have a generation of North Koreans speaking English sounding like, you know, Scarlett O'Hara.


VIVIEN LEIGH: (as Scarlett O'Hara) I'm going to live through this, and when it's all over, I'll never be hungry again. No, nor any of my folk.

SULLIVAN: Exactly. I mean, that's all - I mean, when he told me it was - he'd seen part of it in his language institute, I just thought it was the strangest thing. But you get used to a lot of strange things in North Korea.

RATH: So everywhere you go in North Korea, you're accompanied by your government minder. Could you talk about your relationship with him?

SULLIVAN: It's a - I actually almost always have two minders. Mr. Ho is our main minder. He's with me all the time. I could probably count the number of times I'd gone anywhere without him. He's a very proper man. He's always very carefully dressed. With someone like Mr. Ho, it would be easy for me to sort of see him as this caricature of a World War II Nazi or something like that. But he's not. He's a guy. He's got a kid that he worries about. He's got a wife, and he's got a job that he's got to do.

And so I try not to see myself as a crusader there. I try to view him as a person, even though, admittedly, there are days where we butt heads pretty, you know, pretty regularly.

RATH: You said that, you know, for people that you're interviewing in North Korea, how they answer these questions can be life or death issues for them. So how do - doesn't that sort of paralyze you for being able to ask anything? How do you function?

SULLIVAN: Yeah. It is - it can be really challenging. Every once in a while, people do open up to you. I've had people say some shockingly personal things. Often, I don't even use the quotes because, certainly, if they're critical in the least, these people would go to jail. It's not normal reporting in the least. It's not like I go to North Korea and I emerge with the kind of story I could do anywhere else in the world.

I might come out with 30 percent of the story, but I almost never get the whole story there because I know that these people are so constrained, and I know that even if they want to tell me something honest, they probably can't.

RATH: That's Tim Sullivan. You can read about his time in North Korea in the latest issue of National Geographic. And we have a slideshow of some incredible photos taken by the photographer who traveled with Tim. That's at our website

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