PYONGYANG — "What are you here for? Are you a tourist?"
The man at the immigration counter was looking at me, but smiling, as I hesitated.
"Are you a news collector?"
"Yes, that's exactly what I am, I'm a news collector," I responded.
And with that, he stamped my passport and I was back in North Korea.
North Korea is gearing up for a once-in-a-generation Workers' Party congress starting this Friday, and as a result, this most reclusive country has let in a bunch of journalists, including three of us from The Washington Post.
Photojournalist Linda Davidson, video journalist Jason Aldag and I, a pen-and-paper journalist, will be reporting from here over the next week, covering the preparations for the party congress and hopefully the congress itself.
This is my seventh reporting trip to North Korea and, as always, our itinerary over the next week will be tightly choreographed so we only see what the regime wants us to see, and we have been assigned two minders, Mr. Pak and Mr. Jang, to accompany us everywhere.
An Air Koryo flight attendant makes final preparations for takeoff in Beijing taking foreigners and media to the main airport in Pyongyang, North Korea on May 3, 2016. (Photo by Linda Davidson / The Washington Post) - Spherical Image - RICOH THETA
Right now, we have no idea what our plan will be for tomorrow, although there's talk of going to a farm and a school. We don't know what will happen Friday — will we be allowed into the congress venue? — or even how long the congress will last.
Still, some things have started out well. We journalists have been given a big round conference room — think the U.N. — with surprisingly fast Internet (something that's denied to all but a handful of elites in this country), which will enable us to file quickly.
We're under no illusions that we will be seeing the "real North Korea" this week. That North Korea is the country where ordinary people, starved of information and food, struggle to get by. In this showcase capital, life has improved sharply since Kim Jong Un came to power almost five years ago, so the North Korea we will be seeing is the North Korea of the elite who control the country.
Still, we know so little about North Korea that every sliver of information adds to our collective understanding of the place.
Reporting from here can often be a surreal experience. Take an instance tonight, a few hours after our arrival.
Mr. Ri, the chief minder, walked into the restaurant where we were having dinner, beating his back with a dried Alaska pollack. He then sat down with us and drank beer, ate the eyes out of his fish/backscratcher, then picked it up and went on his way.
Because in North Korea, backscratchers can also be snacks. Because things here are often not what they seem.