When the driver veered off the planned route, he gave the world a rare glimpse into North Korean daily life and took a small chip out of the country's amazing -- and maybe unsustainable -- seclusion.
There are only about 20,000 cars in North Korea, though it is the size of Pennsylvania and the population of Texas (which have 5.8 million and 8.8 million cars, respectively), and on Thursday one of them got lost. It happened to be what is probably the sole operating tour bus in Pyongyang. It also happened to carry Western journalists, who are allowed into the country only once every year or so, and even then are told nothing and shown only the North Korean capital's cluster of immaculately maintained (and totally empty) hotels and government offices. The real Pyongyang -- sprawling a thousand-plus square miles beyond this tiny downtown showcase -- has been largely sealed off from the world since the Korean war entered its six-decade ceasefire in 1953.
On Thursday, when the journalists' press bus took a wrong turn off of the usual propaganda tour, the world and North Korea made a rare, brief moment of contact. Photographers leaned over their seats and clicked away as the North Korean officials, apparently paralyzed by fear of what would come from their mistake, did nothing to intervene. "Perhaps this is an incorrect road?" one of the tour's official government minders "mumbled" when the bus got lost, according to an Associated Press reporter who was riding along.
The photos, reproduced above, offer one of the world's few glimpses ever into the stark, Stalinist emptiness of Pyongyang daily life. But they are also a reminder of the totality of North Korea's isolation that its tiny leadership could, save this small and momentary lapse, seal off 25 million people and 45 thousand square miles from a world that is more connected and transparent than ever.
Even neighboring China, one of the most restrictive countries in the world, has 300 million people exchanging rumors and photos on social media services that are freely accessible to outsiders. Iran's many citizen bloggers regularly report out to the world; its small contingent of Western journalists, though tightly regulated, still produce a steady stream of photos and reports of Iranian daily life. Only North Korea is so closed off that the world has little more than satellite photos, regime propaganda, and the rare defector testimony to understand the inner workings of this nation-sized penal colony.
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The self-imposed isolation of Kim Jong Un's regime isn't just about blocking North Korea from the world, it's about blocking the world from North Korea. Internal propaganda portrays the outside as dangerously violent and desperately poor; North Koreans' belief that they live in the freest and most prosperous nation on Earth is a pillar of the country's improbably stability. The slightest hint of the truth, the regime apparently fears, could spread like a germ through a population that has largely succumbed. But North Korea's total seclusion is getting harder to maintain, and Thursday's unintentional bus tour of a Pyongyang neighborhood was just the beginning.