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PYONGYANG, North Korea — We all knew that Pyongyang would be odd. But the strangeness of the place hit hard while on a morning jog last week during a visit to the North Korean capital by a State Department delegation and journalists covering it — including me.
The Paek Hwa Won Guesthouse had the feel of a minor Middle Eastern palace: gold carpets, jumpy staff and scores of empty rooms. Outside, a small lake with a brick path around its perimeter provided a running path for a jet-lagged reporter at 4 a.m.
Along the lake’s edge stood uniformed soldiers every 25 meters, carrying rifles with fixed bayonets. Each stiffened to attention as I jogged by and made a show of looking away, although one or two glanced in my direction once I had passed.
On my second loop around, all but two of the soldiers had melted into the shrubbery and disappeared.
At one point, I headed for one of the compound’s exits. Two workers joined me, never looking my way, until we reached some sort of invisible line where one suddenly turned and gestured that I could go no farther.
The studious lack of attention was the oddest part of the American delegation’s 28 hours in North Korea. We were all but invisible.
“That was probably state-sponsored indoctrination,” said Sung-Yoon Lee of Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Medford, Mass. “And at the guesthouse, I’m sure it was government diktat.”
Our motorcade’s vehicles were almost the only ones on the road between the empty airport and central Pyongyang, but workers in fields and bicyclists and pedestrians on sidewalks did not seem to look toward us.
During a tour of Pyongyang, uniformly well-dressed residents went about their business as if we were not there. The lone exceptions were young children, who stared.
Veteran North Korean experts counseled against making too much of the disconnect. They said North Koreans go to restaurants, work in hospitals and struggle with the same issues humans everywhere do.
“It’s not that the people of North Korea are abnormal, it’s that their system is,” said Frank Jannuzi, the president of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation and a Korea scholar who has visited the North many times.
On the hourslong city tour, which was organized for reporters by the North Korean Foreign Ministry, we saw perhaps a few thousand people in the capital of a country with 25 million residents. Many wore white uniforms, and some clipped patches of grass with small shears.
At the foot of giant bronze statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, the country’s founding father and his son, at the Grand Monument on Mansu Hill, groups of citizens laid flowers and bowed in choreographed waves.
When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo travels abroad, his schedule is usually planned to the minute. But in the days leading up to the trip to North Korea, diplomats said they were uncertain how it would unfold, where we would stay, how we would communicate with the outside world and even what stamp we would need in our passports.
On the final leg of the flight into Pyongyang, the secretary’s security staff looked as edgy as they had the previous year during a visit to Kabul, Afghanistan, when rockets were raining down on the air base there.
One of the diplomats on the flight asked for the numbers for any cellphones we journalists planned to bring into Pyongyang. We were counseled to turn off our mobiles — or at least shut down their ability to communicate — because “sometimes phones can behave erratically” long after leaving North Korea, ostensibly from exposure to surveillance.
State Department officials were so convinced that their every move was being watched that, even when they walked outside the guesthouse, they covered their mouths when whispering to each other so no one could read their lips.
Kim Kwang-hak, our North Korean government minder, made clear he was all too aware of the world beyond Pyongyang’s bubble as he took careful note of the media organization for each of his charges.
“In this van, no fake news? No CNN or NBC?” he asked with a laugh.
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