North Korea remains one of the most closed places in the world. And that makes Tim Sullivan kind of a rarity: As the Asia correspondent for the Associated Press, he's spent about six weeks in the country over the course of two trips.
It's a different kind of reporting trip, he tells All Things Considered host Arun Rath.
"A lot of my time is spent ... gauging what is real, what is fake," he says. "If something is fake, in what way is it fake? Do they really do this job and they're simply acting for me? Or do they not do this at all, and it's complete Potemkin?"
But for some reason, he says, he forgot that temporarily during his most recent trip, when he visited a Buddhist monastery.
"All I could think of was that I was dealing with monks, that these people could be genuine believers and if they saw me as an opportunity to criticize the regime and they were heard — which they would be because my minders are with me always — they would go to prison," he says. "Their families would go to prison. People could die."
So he avoided the one topic he wanted to discuss, freedom of religion.
It was an uneventful visit. Sullivan says he asked banal questions, chit-chatted with the monks, then left.
Then something happened on his way out: Suddenly, the senior monk and Sullivan's minder were waiting, looking at him.
"The monk said to me, we know what you want to ask, and he was right," he says.
So Sullivan asked about freedom of religion. There is absolute freedom of religion in North Korea, the monk told him, and it's your responsibility to tell that to the world.
But of course, Sullivan says, religion has been crushed in the last 60 years. While there are a handful of churches and Buddhist temples, he says, they're basically there to show foreigners.
Short Skirts And Muscle Shirts
Not every story Sullivan is told has been scripted. One of his favorite places in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang is a bowling alley called Gold Lane.
The 1970s-style bowling alley — a big showcase during the regime of Kim Il Sung — is a popular gathering place for soldiers now.
"The soldiers take off their shirts, they love to bowl in their sleeveless white t-shirts, showing off their muscles," he says.
The scene, Sullivan says, tells you a lot about recent changes in the country.
"By simply being in the army and living in the capital, that makes them a part of an elite, even if they're not high elite. They're somebody. And they're there with their girlfriends, who can dress in a way that was never seen before," he says.
Their girlfriends parade around in short skirts and high heels. Sullivan says it was basically illegal to wear a short skirt until about a year ago. North Koreans are more plugged in than they used to be — hence they realize how out of date they are, Sullivan says.
There is more money flowing into the country, from mineral and timber sales to China. Sullivan says the tiny but growing middle class wants the same things the Chinese middle class wants.
"They want to wear nice clothing and high heels and have iPods," Sullivan says. "They now do have a consumer ideal, which didn't exist there before."
A Country That Identifies With Scarlett O'Hara
Sullivan stumbled across some unlikely American influences in North Korea. One was the book Gone With the Wind, which came to North Korea in the 1990s, one of the worst times in the country's history. North Koreans suffered through several bad droughts, and then the Soviet Union collapsed. Suddenly there was no wheat from Moscow. People starved by the tens of thousands.
"A lot of [Gone With the Wind] is about suffering — about the Yankees treating people terribly," Sullivan says. "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."
Few North Koreans have seen the movie; the English language institute, open only to government officials, uses the film for language training. It was also a favorite movie of Kim Jong Il, the father of current ruler Kim Jong Un, Sullivan says.
"You can completely see how [the book] could be resonant in a place like North Korea where they have so little literature that's not full of propaganda," he says. "Here's a book that's basically a soap opera, bodice-ripper. But, it's got no propaganda in it. And I think they like that. It's just a pure, simple soap opera."
Accompanied By A Believer
The main minder for Sullivan's reporting trips is a proud North Korean named Ho Yong Il. He's a proper sort of man, carefully dressed.
"It's his job to ensure that I see the picture of North Korea that the North Korean government wants me to see," Sullivan says, "which means we are often bumping heads."
Ho truly believes in the regime, Sullivan says. "I have this constant voice in the background who's telling me what is, in my mind, propaganda, but in his mind is the reality," he says.
Like other North Koreans, Ho could seem a mere stereotype of the communist party faithful. But Sullivan says he's more than that. He has a wife and child — and a job to do.
"There are people who see North Korea as this complete caricature of Stalinist drudgery and robotic people — there is definitely some truth in that," Sullivan says. But this, too, isn't the real story.
One man, a smuggler who fled North Korea, wanted Sullivan to understand that.
"'You gotta remember, we're normal,' " he told Sullivan. "'We're normal people, we're like you. We're like everybody else. Our hearts break, we have fights at the office, we fight with our wives; we're just like anybody else.' "