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.
After the disastrous famine of the mid-1990s, Kim Jong Il opened the border with China ever-so-slightly, turning a blind eye to the informal network of traders who brought in food and basic necessities. But the merchants started bringing in something more dangerous: Chinese transistor radios. State security, immediately seeing the existential threat that Chinese news reports or Radio Free Asia could post, imposed a sentence of 10 years hard labor for anyone caught listening, and began jamming the signals. It was another victory for the Hermit Kingdom, but keeping up with technology is getting much tougher. A few years ago, the traders began carrying video CDs (DVDs are too expensive) of South Korean soap operas and Hollywood films.
These pirated videos could pose more of a threat to the North Korean system than a half-dozen American presidents, and the Kim regime seems to know it. They portray an outside world of freedom and prosperity that, in a couple of short hours, undo a lifetime of studied propaganda and meticulously enforced isolation. Security forced have responded by routinely cutting power to entire apartment blocks, raiding every living room and bedroom to see what discs are stuck inside the players. Anyone caught with a contraband video CD is arrested. But it's a losing battle.
"We closed the drapes and turned the volume down low whenever we watched the James Bond videos," a 40-year-old North Korean housewife told Blaine Harden for his groundbreaking book on North Korea, Escape From Camp 14. "Those movies were how I started to learn what is going on in the world, how people learned the government of Kim Jong Il is not really for their own good." The movies inspired her to flee the country on a fishing boat with her husband and son, who said he fell in love with the idea of life in the U.S. by watching tapes of Charlie's Angels.
Kim Jong Un's regime still keeps the vast majority of North Koreans ignorant of the outside world, just as it keeps the outside world unable to see more than this rare glimpse past the country's walls. The country's near-total seclusion is one of the greatest feats of totalitarianism in modern history. But, as technology seeps across the country's borders, drawing North Korea slowly in to the ever-more-connected world, and as economic necessity makes it impossible for Kim to seal the country off entirely, how long can it really last?