Yale Senior Enjoys Uncensored Day in N. Korea Despite North Korea's serious travel restrictions, a senior at Yale University was able to get a brief, unsupervised look inside the country. Jerry Guo says North Korea is not "all gulag and famine" — and says he saw glimmers of grassroots capitalism.
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Yale Senior Enjoys Uncensored Day in N. Korea

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Right now, time for the Opinion Page. Best known for its elaborate military parades and idiosyncratic dictator and arsenal of nuclear weapons and membership in the axis of evil, North Korea is cut off from the West's curiosity. Travel there is limited, and tourists are carefully watched by the state police.

But on a brief holiday, Tup Yang Yeng(ph), Yale University student Jerry Guo managed to slip away from his minders for an afternoon. To his surprise he found pockets of capitalism and regular people engaged in trivial things that reminded him of any town USA. He eventually ran into some trouble but managed to come back home to write "My Excellent North Korean Adventure" for Saturday's Washington Post.

If you visited North Korea or if you're curious about it, give us a call. Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email, talk@npr.org. And Jerry Guo joins us now from member station WNPR in New Haven, Connecticut. Nice to have you with us today. He's a senior at Yale University.

Mr. JERRY GUO (Senior Student, Yale University): Hi, Neal. I'm glad to be here.

CONAN: OK. Now you were in North Korea. I guess you left just at the beginning of this month. That was just before rumors surfaced about the health of the so-called Dear Leader Kim Jong-Il. And one of the things we're told constantly about North Korea is that there's a relentless cult of personality around both him and his father, North Korea's founder, Kim Il-sung.

Mr. GUO: Definitely. I - within five minutes of going into North Korea by train there were giant monuments to his father, actually. And I - it was just really bizarre to see green grasslands and then out of nowhere there would just be a giant, marble monument.

CONAN: You say took the train in. So you came in from China?

Mr. GUO: Yes.

CONAN: And so how was the tour arranged, how did you get in?

Mr. GUO: Believe it or not, this time my parents actually helped me along a bit. We - I just told them to find one of these Chinese travel agencies and they - actually, Chinese tourists go to North Korea all the time. To them this is really like what you would do over, you know, Labor Day Weekend, essentially.

CONAN: But did they know you are a student at Yale who studies North Korean economics?

Mr. GUO: They didn't, and they also did not know I was a reporter for the Washington Post.

CONAN: So how much of the country did you actually get to see?

Mr. GUO: I - the ride into Pyongyang was about 200 miles but that actually took six hours, so there is - I saw quite a bit just going in on the train. But again, you know, I'm sure the view, they weren't going to have us go through a gulag or they weren't going to have us see peasants starving. So again, what I saw was really restricted. And within Pyongyang I spend four days there and everything really was kind of organized to the T, but I one afternoon did try to really see what life was like for normal Koreans.

CONAN: And what you saw, you said - it said to you that this place is not quite the bizarro(ph) land that you'd been led to believe.

Mr. GUO: Exactly. I - like most Americans, I went in there with really wacky misconceptions and found out that - and again, Pyongyang is really a big exception here because it's where the country's elite live. But within Pyongyang there were - I walked onto streets and really it was like a shot from Main Street, USA. There were little kids flying kites, you know, mothers - there was one mother buying a soda for her daughter at a street vendor, and then there were old women walking around and so it was really like - I didn't see any of those missile launchers you see on the nightly news, you know, with the goose-stepping soldiers, and that was surprising.

CONAN: Those are big occasions, I think, like the 60th anniversary of the founding of the country which was last week where the Dear Leader didn't show up. That's when everybody got concerned about his health. Now, you did wander out on your own and found some pockets of capitalism, as well.

Mr. GUO: Yes. I - so I just took a walk into Pyongyang and, you know, now that I'm sitting safely in New Haven I can look back and laugh at it. But if that was the very experience of walking down the street because I was actually sequestered on this - what's the so-called "Alcatraz of Fun" but essentially this island with a five-star hotel.

CONAN: Alcatraz of Fun?

Mr. GUO: That's what one guidebook calls it, the only guidebook on Pyongyang. But so they sequestered me on this island and I literally walked off of it on this bridge, and that was just the longest 20 minutes of walking. And then I ended up stumbling into this what turned out to be the largest indoor essentially supermarket in the country. And I found a lot of things that you don't really hear in the news. For example, they were selling all sorts of meat and fruits and small electronics and blouses, and so.

CONAN: We're told that North Korea is on the verge of a massive famine on the scale of the one that killed a million people not so many years ago.

Mr. GUO: Exactly. The World Food Program actually put that out a couple of weeks ago. And I have no doubt that that's true, but the - what I saw in Pyongyang was sort of an exception to that. And I think the important implication of that is a lot of Americans think, you know, once Kim Jong-il dies then perhaps the collapse will change - the regime will collapse or there will be some sort of regime change. But because what I saw and you know, Pyongyang is doing really well and the regime could go on for a long time just off the back of these peasants.

CONAN: We're talking with Jerry Guo, a student at Yale University who got into North Korea last month and spent a few days in Pyongyang. 800-989-8255, if you'd like to ask him about his experiences. 800-989-8255, or email us, talk@npr.org. Sam is on the line. Sam is calling from Tucson, Arizona.

SAM (Caller): Hi, there. Can you hear me?

CONAN: Yes. You're on the air, Sam, go ahead.

SAM: Hey, I am just - I'm fascinated in these forbidden country like North Korea and Cuba, Libya. And my question is how does Joe average American citizen get to North Korea?

CONAN: Libya not quite so forbidden these days. But, anyway, go ahead, Jerry Guo.

SAM: It's not anymore. It was more exciting when it was forbidden, but what about - how do you get to North Korea?

Mr. GUO: Well, actually, it's not as hard as, you know, for American to get into Cuba. You have to go and route through Mexico. But for American - until a couple of years ago the country was sealed off, but if you go in August or September it's not that hard as you would imagine. There's a couple of travel agencies, one in Beijing-Koreo Tours(ph), actually, did a few BBC documentaries in North Korea so they have really good contacts. But it's definitely not as hard as you imagine to get into the country, however as American you're guarded a lot more than Chinese tourists. And so, for example, you would normally have to fly into Pyongyang through the dreaded Air Korea, which is, you know, this plane that's literally made out of bamboo or sticks.

CONAN: And you were lucky then to take the train in and out?

Mr. GUO: Yes. I mean, that was pretty fun.

CONAN: OK. Sam, are you going to book a trip?

SAM: I am, right now. I'm fascinated.

CONAN: All right. Sam, have a good time. And tell us, Jerry Guo, a little more about your experiences on the afternoon you got out and you found this open-air market and they were selling - or indoor market, I guess - they were selling all these kinds of things. And I understand you decided to have your camera at that.

Mr. GUO: Right. As I explained to my friends, taking out a camera is almost as bad as - it's literally like punching a baby in the face if you're in North Korea, you know. To these people, to the government, taking pictures is very illegal. And so I stopped a couple of shots. They were pretty fidgety. I just took out my handheld and out of nowhere these women in pink dresses appeared and they were actually quite mean and, you know, they seemed not very intimidating. But they grabbed me and wrestled me to a second-floor office and I was actually interrogated by the Public Security Bureau for the next six hours, which is their sort of secret police.

CONAN: Which couldn't have been fun either?

Mr. GUO: It was a terrible experience as a normal human being but pretty great as a reporter, you know. It was a story to tell.

CONAN: And I take it no - no bamboo shoots were slipped underneath your fingernails?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MR. GUO: No. They did keep asking me if I was hungry and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Did they - what was the upshot?

Mr. GUO: Of the?

CONAN: Of the interrogation.

Mr. GUO: Oh, well, they actually made me sign a - what the Soviets used to do and what's called a self-criticism, where they just made me write an outlandish letter about how - I think they described me as an American student, an incompetent troublemaker and a genuine lover of the Korean people.

CONAN: I think your parents might agree with that middle one.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. Let's go to Peter, Peter with us from Cambridge in Massachusetts.

PETER (Caller): Yeah, hi.

CONAN: Hi, Peter. Go ahead, please.

PETER: Hi. So, I was in North Korea in 1972, which was a very unusual time to visit. I was 15 years old and part of a family tour cultural exchange thing. It was the most paranoid and strange place you could ever imagine, and I went in with a camera that had been provided by CBS News because they couldn't get any footage. And they basically said, you know, anything you can get we'll buy, and when we came - wanted to leave, the North Koreans first confiscated the film and wanted to develop it and make sure it was all sort of safe images. But the CBS had given us the kind of film that apparently there were only two labs in the entire world that could develop it. So eventually the North Koreans realized that they were going to ruin it and also ruin public relations.

The biggest revelation there at the time was that America was actually not enemy number one. Japan was. Although we were there during Anti-American Month and there was a big...

CONAN: They have an Anti-American Month?

PETER: They did, and right in the middle of Pyongyang there was a giant poster showing Uncle Sam down on his hands and knees and surrounded by soldiers with bayonets and whatnot. And the drivers - because they'd had some adverse publicity from journalists who'd been there a couple of months before us - they wouldn't take us to the American Atrocities Museum and whatnot or show us overtly anti-American stuff. But they showed us all the anti-Japanese stuff. Anyway, we discovered that really it's the Japanese were really enemy number one and we were disappointingly only number two.

CONAN: Maybe one-A, maybe one-A. Peter, did you ever see your film on CBS TV? Did they ever use it as B-Roll(ph)?

PETER: I don't know what they did. We had a sort of a first rights of refusal type of arrangement and they said, you know, we'll buy the whole things for 1,500 bucks and I never saw it again after I gave it to them. But for 1,500 bucks in 1972, that was a great deal for a 15-year-old kid.

CONAN: Congratulations, Peter.

PETER: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. We're talking with Yale student, Jerry Guo, about his experience on his visit to North Korea, which he wrote about for the Washington Post, and you're listening to the Opinion Page on Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

Email from Sarah in Davis Carith(ph), California. "My name is Sarah Lee. My husband is South Korean and we have great deal of interest in the conditions in North Korea. My question is about the mega-supermarket. Can your guest please comment on the availability of money that the average of North Korean might have to purchase the items available?"

Mr. GUO: So my guide told me and, again, you have to keep in mind there's so much propaganda plastered everywhere. What he told me was he makes about 5,000 Won, W-O-N, this is the North Korean money. But if you look at the actual black market exchange rate, which is how really things are bought and sold in the country, that comes down to approximately a dollar a month. So there is some disconnect there. I...

CONAN: So the privileged elite that live in Pyongyang can buy these things, but presumably the regular people can't?

MR. GUO: Right. But my guide who - well, you have to keep in mind, anyone who lives in Pyongyang's considered one of the elites. So obviously there's really under the table dealings going on here. At the market, I saw blouses for 1,500 Won, which is approximately four dollars. So that's a pretty good deal.

CONAN: If you've got it. And again, the situation in the countryside other than the trip on the train, you didn't get a good look at that.

Mr. GUO: Definitely. A lot of the - well, all of the reports that come out from these gulags and from really these poor villages are from defectors who luckily can make it across the (unintelligible) River into China and then ultimately perhaps South Korea. So that's - so absolutely no reporters are able to get into those kind of places.

CONAN: Now let's talk with Jeff, Jeff with us from Boise in Idaho.

JEFF (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

JEFFREY: I was wondering if your guest was worried at all about his minders getting in trouble after he...

CONAN: Stepped away from them, yes.

Mr. GUO: That could be very well be. The second day they actually assigned a third handler pretty much just to keep an eye on me. That would be pretty unfortunate, but I felt like by going out and really trying to make an effort to see everyday life in North Korea that the ultimate, you know, it would come out on the plus side.

JEFF: OK. Thanks.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Jeff. Let's see if we can go now to George, and George is in Syracuse, New York.

GEORGE (Caller): Yes. Hello. Hi. I'm calling - I was in Pyongyang last month for about five days and it's interesting that your caller and also your speaker talked about both poverty and the issue of the minder because we were advised not to wander away from either the hotel or our group. And we were concerned that that could get the minder into trouble.

And the second point I want to bring up is poverty. I was shocked at the level of poverty in both Pyongyang, but not just in Pyongyang but in a large city just south of Pyongyang called Kayson. The building structures, the infrastructures was just amazingly poorly kept up, and I wonder if your guest witnessed any of that in Pyongyang himself, because he said even though it is a city dedicated for the elite, but yet obviously it's still an extremely poor city itself.

CONAN: Jerry Guo?

Mr. GUO: I actually went to both the Pyongyang and Kayson. I totally agree that Kayson is what probably most Americans imagine North Korean cities to be like. Pyongyang was - again, I'm not saying it's anything like New York or Paris, but it was a lot better than I had imagined. There were definitely a lot of apartments that looked like they were built in the '60s, you know, by the Soviets. But overall I would say there were wide boulevards, shops, and these are really not the things you normally hear in the news about Korea. ..TEXT: As far as the minders, again, I hope they didn't really, you know, I hope they weren't sent for reeducation. But they - I think they were a lot more paranoid about me going to the market rather than me just walking the streets. And I think this is really because I'm Chinese rather than American.

CONAN: George, thanks very much for the call.

GEORGE: Thank you.

CONAN: And Jerry Guo, thanks very much for your time today and good luck with your studies.

Mr. GUO: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Jerry Guo, a senior at Yale University who wrote a piece in Sunday's Washington Post about his trip to North Korea, "My Excellent North Korean Adventure." And he joined us today from member station WNPR. Tomorrow we'll talk with several women with different perspectives on what the Sarah Palin candidacy means to them, so join us again tomorrow. This is Talk of The Nation from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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