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The View From North Korea As The Country Celebrates 70 Years


From the White House today, word that President Trump has received a letter from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The letter requests another meeting between the two heads of state. That's the news from here in the U.S. It's much rarer to hear from inside North Korea.


Well, our co-host Mary Louise Kelly is in Pyongyang. This is the first time an NPR team has been on the ground there since 2010. And we've invited her to join us to share a few pages from her reporter's notebook. Hi, Mary Louise.


Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Let's start at the very beginning of this trip. You fly into Pyongyang, North Korea. And what's the first thing that strikes you? What does it look like?

KELLY: I think one image that will stay with me from the drive in is lots and lots of workers everywhere. They are sweeping. They're filling potholes on the road. We saw women cutting grass beside the road with scissors. I don't mean, like, gardening shears. I mean scissors. They're cutting the grass blade by blade.


KELLY: One other thing that has struck me that makes complete sense but I just hadn't thought about is there are no ads here. There are no billboards because officially there's no private industry here. So it looks very, very different from a typical street landscape in the U.S.

SHAPIRO: What about the reverence for the ruling family, the Kim family, that we hear so much about? Where have you seen that in your reporting over the last few days?

KELLY: We visited a cosmetics factory where they keep a chair and a bench that Kim Jong Un sat on during a visit to the factory. They keep it under glass, like, literally inside a glass cube. Let me play a little bit of this moment. This is a woman named Chol Hyung Sim. She was our guide at Pyongyang Cosmetics Factory. And here's what she said.


CHOL HYUNG SIM: (Through interpreter) Those chair and - this armchair and bench are not a simple armchair and bench because that shows the endless effort and endeavor of the supreme leader, comrade Kim Jong Un.

KELLY: So that is one of several chairs, Ari, that we have seen already on this trip. And they're marked by brass plaques, again, commemorating visits paid by Kim Jong Un.

SHAPIRO: How free are you to move around and report?

KELLY: We are not. We are not free to move around. We are visiting on the government's terms. We came in along with news organizations from all over the world on this very tightly controlled media tour to cover the 70th anniversary of North Korea. So every morning, it's been the same drill. They load us on to buses. They drive us to various sites. I'm going to actually play you a little bit of what that sounds like. This is morning roll call on the bus.






KELLY: OK. So that's a taste of it. And that's just the American bus, Ari. When we checked into our hotel, we were issued a 10-page document, and the title was "Regulations For The Activities Of Foreign Journalists." This document spells out that we are banned from - and I'll quote - "distorting the realities in the DPRK," or, quote, "violating the interests of the DPRK and its citizens." And it lays out the very stiff penalties for doing so - reform through labor for no less than five years, for example, if a journalist were to commit acts of propaganda.

SHAPIRO: So listeners should keep that in mind as we listen to your reports. That sounds very intense.

KELLY: It is intense. It is sobering. But, you know, then you also have these very human moments. For lunch today, our government guides - who are with us every moment here - they took us to a pizzeria. And over lunch, our guides wanted - what they wanted to talk about was how does dating work in the U.S. They were asking, you know, if you're single in America, how do you meet people? Which is (laughter) about as succinct a portrait that I can paint for you of that it is complicated. It is very complicated to report here in this country.

SHAPIRO: That's our ALL THINGS CONSIDERED co-host Mary Louise Kelly reporting from Pyongyang, North Korea, with more stories to come in the days ahead. Thanks, Mary Louise.

KELLY: You are very welcome, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROKEN SOCIAL SCENE'S "SOL LUNA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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