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Reporter's Notebook: North Korea


Should you happen to be planning a trip to North Korea, you'll have a few logistical hurdles to clear. There is the fact that the State Department bans U.S. passport holders from traveling there.


There's the fact that Pyongyang and Washington don't have diplomatic relations, hence no embassy or consulates in the U.S., hence where the heck do you apply for a visa? Then there's the challenge of booking flights. Air Koryo, North Korea's state-owned national airline, does not accept credit cards or wire transfers from a U.S. bank. And then once you finally get there and you want to, you know, talk to North Koreans, good luck with that.

CORNISH: And you have a lot of advice about this, right, Mary Louise? I mean, you have been dealing with these obstacles the last couple of weeks.

KELLY: (Laughter) I have. I have.

CORNISH: Tell us more.

KELLY: I'm just back from reporting in North Korea, as you know, because my stories have been airing on the show, and all these people wrote in with questions about just the practicalities of getting there. So I thought I'd crack open my reporter's notebook and share a little bit of it.

CORNISH: That's a long list of obstacles we mentioned at the top. So how does one get started? Just saying, like, you know you want to go, what do you do next?

KELLY: Yeah. So obstacle No. 1 - how do you get a visa to North Korea? That road runs through New York and through the North Korean mission to the United Nations. They have an ambassador to the U.N. who I met for coffee in the lobby of this Manhattan hotel. He was with another senior North Korean diplomat. We talked about it, and months and many emails and phone calls later, they said we might be able to put you in business with a visa. Then - so that's the North Korean side. Then you have to deal with the American State Department, which will not let you travel on your regular passport. You have to apply for and get a second passport. As a journalist, you have to make the case that this would be in the national security interests of the United States, so we applied. And last month, we got this letter back on State Department letterhead saying permission granted.

CORNISH: So you have permission. You have two passports. Where do you get a plane ticket?

KELLY: Yeah. This is the challenge because Air Koryo, as we mentioned, the North Korean state-owned airline, does not take credit cards. They do not take wire transfers from a U.S. bank. So you can go on their website. They have an English-language version. You can see that they've got seats. You can see the flight, and you think, how the heck do I buy this? So we noodled around on that and ended up booking flights from Beijing, one of only three cities that you can fly to Pyongyang from. And my producer, Becky Sullivan, found a travel agency in Beijing that specializes in travel to North Korea, so we reached out to them, and they were able to help hook us up with tickets.

CORNISH: Once you land, we know North Korea is famously restrictive - right? - with visitors, especially journalists. How did you know - how much freedom did you have in deciding where you went and what kind of interviews you would do?

KELLY: Zero, zip, zilch - we had no freedom. And this is standard practice for any journalist going to North Korea, that you will be accompanied at all times by a government minder. We had at least one, some days two, at our side at all times. And they tell you where you're going to go. They tell you where you're going to stay. They actually stayed in the hotel, not in our rooms but, you know, in the same hotel so that they would be with us at all times. We did go see a lot of things - a farm, factories, concerts. We were invited for the 70th anniversary festivities celebrating the 70th anniversary of North Korea. And we saw all kinds of stuff. But bottom line is you see what they want you to see.

CORNISH: But they've given you a journalist visa - right? - and they have allowed you in. But then they basically say you can't talk to anyone.

KELLY: Yeah. That's basically how it works. I mean, they told us we're inviting you to cover the 70th anniversary, and we did. They took us to all kinds of - a parade, concerts, all these commemorations. So, you know, they - the North Korean government kept its end of the bargain. That was the invitation, and they made good on it. But yeah, we asked to see all kinds of other stuff. For example, the metro, the subway in Pyongyang, I really wanted to go ride the metro just to see what the daily commute is like. And I had been asking from before we left. I asked from the moment we landed. I asked after we landed. The very last morning, we were right across the street from a metro stop. I could see it, and we were told there's no time. I said, well, you know, I think there's time. Our minder said, I have no time. Then he told us the metro is closed today. Then another minder got involved and said, for your own safety, you might get lost. So I never got a straight answer why we couldn't go see the metro. I think it has to do, bottom line, with there's no upside to the North Korean government of Western reporters wandering around trying to talk to ordinary North Koreans. You know, what good could possibly come of that? And that's their perspective.

CORNISH: Finally, how did you weigh risk? I mean, fundamentally, did you feel safe traveling there?

KELLY: I did, yeah - I mean, certainly compared to war zones that I've reported from. For example, I never felt in physical danger in North Korea. You do weigh the risk, the cost versus benefit, of a reporting trip to an authoritarian state. And I think that cuts both ways. You also weigh the risk to the people you're speaking to because I have a U.S. passport. I can leave. I have two U.S. passports at this point. But the people I'm talking to have to stay and live with the consequences of anything they may say to me. And as mentioned, anything they say to me is going to be overheard by a North Korean government official and will be recorded on my tape recorder and shared with all the world. So you always have that in your head when you're asking people what do you really think about something? You're thinking about what could this mean for the person I'm talking to?

CORNISH: It's been fascinating hearing these stories. Thank you so much for taking us behind the scenes.

KELLY: It's been my pleasure. Thanks, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.