“You ask too many questions,” Mr. Jang told me. “It’s a little hard to work with you.”
My North Korean minder — Jang Su Ung, one of two provided by the state to monitor (or “care for,” in their words) three Washington Post journalists on our visit to Pyongyang — was clearly exasperated.
We’d been brought to the Pyongyang maternity hospital, a regular stop on a state-organized media tour in North Korea.
I’d been here once before, on my first trip to North Korea, in 2005. The same guy, Moon Chang Won, was in charge of receiving foreign visitors, and I reminded him of my previous visit. On that occasion, he’d asked me whether I had any children and, on hearing my answer in the negative, had invited me to give birth at this hospital when the time came.
So I broke the news to him that I’d had a baby since our last meeting but that I’d delivered at Sibley Memorial in Washington instead. He took the news in stride.
After all, he had work to do. About 60 foreign journalists had descended on his hospital. Cameramen were jockeying for a shot unmarred by photographers, reporters were listening to statistics about the number of times leaders called Kim had visited the hospital, and minders were trying not to lose their charges in the scrum.
Reporting from North Korea is still a relatively rare experience, even if journalists are taken to the same historical monuments, electrical-cable factories and maternity wards — none of which are especially known for their news value — each time.
But every step of the way, a journalist is left asking herself: Where does reality end and artifice begin? How much is staged and how much is spontaneous?
Reporters were permitted to do vox pops (that is, gather quotes from ordinary citizens) on a street corner on Friday morning, stopping people as they apparently made their way to or from the Chunoo subway station.
But one reporter spotted the same couple walk by twice, then another swore she saw a woman she’d interviewed that day walk through her hotel lobby that night. It’s enough to make you question whether the sunlight is real or a giant lamp has been installed in the sky.
The hospital tour started in exactly the same way as my trip 11 years before. Dressed in white doctor’s coats and with plastic covers over our shoes, we filed into the NICU.
Through the windows, we saw days-old premature babies lying in decades-old incubators, older babies bundled in blankets tied with string. Every single one of them asleep, which I thought was an impressive feat. It made me look carefully at their tiny faces, and I was relieved to see one’s eyelids flicker.
Then we went through to the lab area. That’s when things started to go awry, because I had the temerity to ask questions. Too many questions.
Have international sanctions limited your ability to get the technology you need to do your work? I put this question to the doctor running the lab, Yoon Chol Ho, glancing over his shoulder at equipment that looked as if it belonged in a museum exhibit of scientific instruments through the decades (in the 1970s, possibly 1980s, section).
Yoon gave a perfect North Korean answer. “We are suffering under U.N. and U.S. sanctions, and that’s why we learned how to make this equipment,” he said. “The Great Leader Marshal Kim Jong Un taught us to learn about technology and science so we have the ability to develop by ourselves.” This equipment may look old-fashioned on the outside, but inside the casing was cutting-edge technology built by North Korean doctors, Yoon told me with a straight face. Riiiiight.
As a scientist, are you able to get on the Internet for research? I asked this of Yoon because all but a handful of North Koreans are prohibited from accessing outside information. Of course, responded Yoon.
I felt the five or so hospital staffers and my guides forming a tighter circle around me, hands on my back trying to move me along to avoid missing out on other parts of the tour. I protested: “You brought me here to learn about your hospital — let me learn about your hospital.”
Yoon said he went to a building across the street three or four times a week to go online. So this past week you’ve been online three or four times? No, no times this week, came his response.
That was it. The hand on my back became more forceful, and I was shuffled out the door and into a bright new wing of the hospital, dedicated to women’s health in general.
Testing rooms were stocked with state-of-the-art Siemens equipment, with all of it, and even the air-conditioning units, bearing red and yellow signs declaring it to be a gift from the Respected Leader Kim Jong Un.
Moon, the director, had previously answered my questions about sanctions by saying that North Korea adapted by building seven of its own X-ray machines, including a portable one.
When we got to the X-ray room though, a Siemens X-ray machine imported from China stood before me. I wanted to see a domestically produced one, I told Moon. Oh, those? Those were in a different hospital, he responded.
Next door, in a room looking into the CT scanner, I asked the medical staff if they could turn the computer on for me and show me how the equipment worked. “Why? Do you have a serious health problem?” Jang, my minder, asked. I told him I was just interested to see whether the software was in English.
After much whispering and efforts to get me out the door, someone turned on the power and we waited for what seemed like five minutes for the Microsoft Windows-based computer to boot up. Then it needed a password, and none of the six or so staffers in the room knew it.
Someone eventually arrived and entered it, and the English-language software started whirring, the scanner inside the circular frame started rotating.
Happy now? The unspoken question hung in the air, as the hospital staff seemed eager to get rid of me. Jang was not happy. In North Korea, reporters take dictation. This kind of insistent questioning, this unwillingness to automatically believe what I was told, was not welcome. Come on, Jang told me, hurry up or you’ll miss the next part of the program.
We walked up a marble staircase into a ward where a television crew was gathered around a hospital bed, talking to a nicely made-up woman sitting on the bed in pink pajamas. But there were no personal effects on the bedside table or in the connecting bathroom, there was no medical chart on the end of the bed or even a glass of water on her bedside table.
Was she really ill? Was she really a patient? We will never know. Suddenly, it was time to go and our minders were herding us back onto the bus.