A North Korea that's hard to get to know

Who's got the best pose? Premier Wen meets Kim Jung-il

Premier Wen Jiabao was recently in North Korea to broker deals about North Korea's nuclear weapons program.

Chinese media was there during the Premier's trip, and included in the entourage was Rose Luqiu Luwei (闾丘露薇), who is an executive news editor for Hong Kong's Phoenix Satellite Television.

Rose Luqiu Luwei's series of blog posts came up on the liberal blog aggregator that she set up,, and her own Phoenix TV blog.

Her first blog post on Pyongyang, Finally Arrived in Pyongyang, was published on October 3, expressing past desires to visit the place, flying on the Russian-designed plane Tu-154, women traffic conductors who are part of the attractions.

Followed by three posts, "Bits of Pyongyang," "Pyongyang Travel Diaries" and "A North Korea that I still don't know much about."

"Bits of Pyongyang" talks about seeing the meeting between Premier Wen Jiabao and Dear Leader Kim Jung-il when the Premier first landed. Rose Luqiu Luwei wrote:

When I discovered that Kim Jung-il had appeared it was due to the earth-shaking cries around me, at this time Premier Wen's plane had also just landed, and was on the lane far away. Although it was in Korean, I could hear that the slogan was, "Long Live Kim Jung-il." I turned my head and saw Kim Jung-il wearing a Kim Jung-il suit, he had already stepped out of the car.

Although he was skinny and his left leg looked a little stiff, it didn't look like too much effort to walk. Perhaps it was because he's used to the cries of the people, as he didn't react to his surroundings, and kept on walking. He didn't wave to the crowds, he didn't even look. When Premier Wen walked with Kim Yong-il past the Armed Forces, he stood behind them very casually, with his hands behind his back, with his right leg out. We could see that his hair had thinned under the explosive hairstyle, and he was a little bald. When Premier Wen walked past to shake hands with the people, he stood far away, walking and talking with Kim Yong Nam, waiting for Premier Wen to finish walking past the people.

The posts make up a good basis for Luqiu Luwei's experience in North Korea, but it's obvious that with the Chinese-speaking media officials chaperoning them throughout the trip restrictions on free reporting was ever-present.

Although Luqiu Luwei didn't comment or contrast these restrictions to reporting in mainland China (she's based in Hong Kong), it appeared that she felt the tension of the inwards-looking capital. At times, when standing at the Kim Il-Sung square for example, the TV crew did not pay attention to customs such as bowing before the Great Leader.

The last post on the subject was written after her return and posted on October 11. It reflects on her observations made between the two countries, surprises and some philosophical pondering towards the end. It's translated below.

A North Korea that I still don't know much about

by Rose Luqiu Luwei / my1510

It's been a few days since my return from Pyongyang, but in most conversations I'm having with friends and colleagues, we're talking about North Korea. Some things that happened there were to be expected, but others weren't. For example, everyone knew that you couldn’t freely take pictures, but as for how the media officials didn't censor our articles, and how we became surprised at the lack of limitations on using the Internet or satellite signals for live broadcasts. We also didn’t expect to see new models of the Mercedes-Benz and BMWs on the streets of Pyongyang, and groups of people - many people who had been to North Korea said when they got back, with a sigh, that you can’t see anyone on the streets.

Of course, we still don’t understand much about North Korea, the main reason being that there weren’t many opportunities to come into contact with North Koreans. The officials who were with us, as well as the tour guides at the tourist spots, naturally had a set of professional guidelines and requirements: we couldn't speak to locals and the impression that Pyongyang gave to us was only superficial.

Of course, you can observe the expressions on local people’s faces, or observe other details. In the subway, almost everyone’s expression was slightly stupefied, but thinking about it, in any city the expressions on the subway are mostly like this, and it would be unreal if there was suddenly a face with an exuberant smile. In the park, the faces of women must be a little alive; they are always in groups, but the men sitting or squatting have expressions that can be found on the migrant workers on the streets of China’s big cities.

It’s not just the North Koreans that we had contact with who talked carefully, but foreigners doing business there, despite being on a plane to Beijing. They are also concealing things from the media, not telling us what kind of work they were doing there. The students were similarly very careful, when interviewed, they considered their use of language carefully. It’s easy to understand, after all they still had a few years left of their education, and didn’t want to get into any trouble. And the diplomats who were with us, whose Chinese was fluent, we don’t know if it was because they had lived and worked in China for so long that we treated them like Chinese, they were also the kind who were very clever, using Cantonese it was as if they were a little bit “gangster” (古惑).

When we were in North Korea we saw a show put on by both the Chinese and the North Koreans. Afterward we asked what our Hong Kong colleagues thought. Most of our male colleagues fell asleep during the interval, and the female colleagues enjoyed the first half of the performance when the North Korea troupe performed, although their performance was perhaps overly direct, it was still better than the second half: the performance of the Chinese made it hard for us to know exactly what to say.

The performance by the North Koreas were, for me, like a memory from middle school or university. Especially the big choir at the end, wearing neat black and white clothes with an orchestra, a conductor, and a singer who was leading the choir: this used to the classic stage style of China. Of course, China has changed now, what’s demanded is a combination of Chinese and Western, Ballet to Erquan Yinyue (a song for the two-stringed fiddle; the erhu), and also enchantingly dressed female dancers with a splendidly colored masterpiece as a backdrop, the only thing you could say is that it really is very suitable to contemporary China; it comes in a variety of colors and forms. Of course, if coming from an angle of criticism, it would be: boastful and exaggerated.

After seeing Arirang (阿里朗 the mass gymnastic games *see comment section) my main thought was a suspicion that the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony used this as an example, there wasn’t actually an essential difference, the only thing was that one of the performances was grander in scale.

Filming in the Kim Il-Sung Square, the first thing you had to do was bow and salute to the statue, when they saw that they didn’t get a reaction out of anyone, in the end they also canceled the buying and offering of flowers. Later we thought that perhaps it wasn’t very considerate; under the circumstances that each work unit had to reap income, all we were doing was filming but didn’t bring any profit to the managing work units. Media officials were different, who were enthusiastic in taking us to the souvenir stalls after we finished visiting, but for all the areas we visited, including riding on the subway, we had to pay according to the amount set for foreign travelers. When we spontaneously asked to film a hamburger shop, they again reminded us that we should spend some money, otherwise we would be disturbing their business, which wouldn’t be too good. This was good too, at least it showed that the North Koreans have the desire for money, and have a respect for financial reward earned through work.

The average income in North Korea in the ‘70s and ‘80s was more than 2,000 dollars, and were way ahead of Korea in terms of the scale of their economy. It’s because of this that public architecture in Pyongyang was invested in during that era, and is was in the Soviet style, therefore it was large and steady, and because of this, it is now a foundation for the city. The railway station’s architecture is from the time of the Japanese occupation and so the official that was with us didn’t want to talk too much about it. The collapse of the economy in North Korea began at the end of the '80s when Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union separated, and they lost the biggest source of financial aid. The first instance of a growth rate was produced in 2003: 1.8%.

I bought many copies of Chinese language books, including ones explaining the main ideologies, the armies of North Korea and also the question of rule in North Korea. No matter what, getting to know a place, trying to listen to the standpoint of the opposite side is an essential step. Of course it’s not about an overall acceptance, then it would become a successful brainwashing.

No matter if it is a left or a right government, there are examples of success and failure. Therefore, the most important thing is how much power the people of that country has. In terms of the North Koreans, the government has the power, and they don’t have the right to know about the outside world, and have lost the right and opportunities to make comparisons. Of course, this is a part of the main ideology, which is to transform the people. The problem is, this is passive rather than active, or it is passive active. Amusing oneself is the choice of the people, or the choice of an individual?

After returning from North Korea, the feeling that we all have is that if it were open, then it wouldn’t be as it is now, and that’s why whether North Korea will open up is not a positive issue. Just like Cuba, the government refuses huge amounts of external aid because the government doesn't have confidence in their own managerial ability after it is opened up. But the result of being closed and inwards-looking is to stop at a certain era, or maybe even regress.

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There are currently 16 Comments for A North Korea that's hard to get to know.

Comments on A North Korea that's hard to get to know

great stuff, thanks for the translation~!!!

One small quibble in an otherwise excellent post: "A Li Lang" almost certainly refers to the Arirang mass gymnastics display, not a pop group.

I didn't think the stuff was great.

I wish Alice Xin Liu had gone to Pyongyang instead of Rose Luqiu Luwei. Alice knows what Danwei's intelligent readers want to read about North Korea and would make a diligent effort to provide more detailed analysis and anecdotes.

Although Rose works for Phoenix, she still generally writes about Pyongyang as if she is a reporter for 人民日报 (People's Daily).

Scientists claim that the main reason China's media is always underreporting on North Korea is a peculiar journalistic condition called "equus asinus overosculation". Chinese reporters literally have too many asses to kiss when they're in Pyongyang.

It's not enough for them to tiptoe around North Korean minders; Chinese reporters also have to be mindful of their own country's media restrictions, further suffocating any chance of something interesting being written about in an article or blog. This is the Chinese 多谢和谐 way of forcing media to cooperate with Beijing's directives regarding reports on North Korea, as evidenced by the recent censorship of a Shanghai Media Group documentary on North Korea back in July.

I want somebody who will comment on the amusing scene of Kim Jong-il waving to the crowds as he stood next to Uncle Wen. This was something we have never seen Kim Jong-il do before, and he was blatantly copying Wen Jia-bao's motions as if studying Chinese tai chi movements.

I want somebody who will break away and engage the local Pyongyang population. I want somebody who will boldly extract more information from Chinese sources inside Pyongyang rather than kowtowing to some lame latent fear of getting in trouble. I want somebody who will tell us about the real North Korea and not waste paragraphs on the stupid musical performance.

When you find a Chinese reporter who will do all of the above, somebody like Alice Xin Liu or Oiwan Lam, then do us all a big favor and send her or him on a news junket to Pyongyang instead.


Dear Andrew, you're absolutely right. Thanks for catching me on that, and glad you liked the post. Changes made!

I volunteer Spelunker to go!

I want him to fight away his minders and boldly interview North Koreans.

I want him give us the truth without any bias.

I want him to show true bravery rather then laud it in front of a keyboard.

I want him to sneak across the NK/China border and not kowtow to those pesky North Korean border guards.

Finally, I hope he gets shot so he can lead by example and show us through action what true bravery really means.


闾丘露薇 is an apologist idiot, even Hong Kong people who agree with her knows it

Besides, why exactly do we need to talk good about North Korea? What are they gonna do? We're the only friend they have. Everyone knows it's messed up there, even rural Chinese people knows it.


In 2002 and 2005 I interviewed North Koreans in the city of Dandong, approaching their trucks at the queue to cross the Friendship Bridge and also mingling with them at the wholesale markets.

You want true bravery? I have crossed the China/North Korea border 3 times and never got caught or shot. My infiltrations include penetration of more than 80 meters inside North Korean territory at one location south of Dandong. I actually befriended a North Korean border sentry who was deceived by my clever disguise as a Chinese soldier, delivering South Korean provisions and American baseball cards and showing him how to throw a frisbee.

I am the legendary Spelunker, agent of intelligence and master of espionage.
I did volunteer to visit Pyongyang with Koryo Tours, but Nick Bonner nicked my application because he questioned my motives. It would have been so amusing to go as a tourist, but I suppose we'll have to wait for the regime to collapse before I can gallivant in Pyongyang.


I dont see how the reporter could have written about Kim Jong Il waving to the crowds, mainly because as they stated, he ignored them. The sanme way he ignores the non core elite into starvation.

"Although Rose works for Phoenix, she still generally writes about Pyongyang as if she is a reporter for 人民日报 (People's Daily)."

I've yet to be convinced that Phoenix is not a sister paper to the PD. Don't they ultimately serve the same master?

It's not rare that people have certain assumptions of DPRK nowadays.Nor is it a rarity that people like Spelunke seek to see what "approves" their assumptions and disapprove any confronting obeservations.

BUT there is also a Western 多谢和谐 way of forcing media to cooperate with Western's directives regarding reports on Tibet, Xinjiang, etc. (thanks to Spelunker)

I hope someone (if from Danwei) can translate the following interview (between Zhu Weiqun, the vice minister of the Department of United Front of China and German magazine FOCUS) on the topic of the Dalailama/Tibet autonomous region.

What's interesting is the interview was held on the pre condition that FOCUS will publish the major viewpoints of the interview. When agreed, the interview was carried out, but in the end the report by FOCUS was merely a 400-Han-character-equivalent short piece.

Isn't this a bloody example of "Western 多谢和谐 way"!

See below the original chinese version, with the first a few paragraphs pasted below:





For those of you who can read Chinese, please follow the above link. For the "Western" version, I couldn't even find anything on google. Maybe it was 400 char in Deutsch! how pathetic.

Finally, There is my personal hope that could hold a more open and neutral standing on reporting MAJOR political news regarding China. After all, you guys are based in Beijing and most of you are fluent in both languages. (just don't be too CNN, even when website has a link to ;) )

I don't see anything in that interview that's worthy of a full-transcript publication - the "major viewpoints" could easily have been covered in a short piece. For the most part, Zhu merely repeats the government's standard talking points. And then there's this:


For example, the legislature of a particular country gave US$16.75 million worth of financial support to the Dalai Clique this year.
Reporter: Which country?
Zhu: Because this is a conversation between the two of us, a Chinese and a German, I don't want to mention the name of a third country.

Well, I don't think the people in the West are so familiar with the Chinese government's standpoints on Tibet that the entire interview (most likely proposed by FOCUS magazine) deserves a brutal cut-down to a 400 char piece that can not even be found on the internet. The details, the tone of conversation, the frankness, the logic of Q&A are not worthy of reporting? How can people in the West see these from a 400-char-piece?

In fact, I think this might be the most recent sign of action from the Chinese government on the issue of Tibet. Maybe the entire thing is familiar to you - the journalists, but what happened next is exactly what my point was: You simply dismissed this dialogue with a puff, and would not even bother to channel it to your western audiences in a slightly positive manner.

BTW, Mr. Zhu may not want to mention the name of the 3rd country because he represents the government's voice, so it is understandable that he did not want to speak out loudly the name as if he would accuse that country at this occasion, which obviously was NOT necessary.

If Zhu represents the government's voice to the extent that he would refrain from mentioning the name of a particular country in what is supposed to be a candid interview, I doubt that the average reader would gain anything from a full transcript that they would be unable to obtain on China Tibet News and other government sites.

For those that are interested, Xinhua has posted an English translation of the transcript.

I think the editors of Focus were generous in giving 400 words to the woffle spouted by Zhu. Chinese party leaders come from an environment where they take for granted that the media will faithfully rehash their comments, regardless of whether they are true, relevant or interesting. A good reporter will separate the wheat from the chaff, and that's what the Focus editors have done here. Zhu's remarks are the usual politician's anodyne repetition of blatant falsehoods. Take his comment on Tibet's autonomy being "earnestly implemented in practice". I would fault the Focus journalist for not challenging him on that point, and his claim that the constitution guarantees rule by local people, when Tibet is ruled by a Han Chinese, Zhang Qingli from Shangdong. You could distil his word down to about twenty: we control Tibet whether you like it or not, and it's all hunky dory.

It will be interesting to see if and how North Korea opens up its doors to the rest of the world. Thank you for sharing this. Asia Chronicle has been giving some good insight on the situation in North Korea. Worth a read I think.

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