Slideshow: Scenes from a heavily curated bus tour of North Korea

by @nicoleasalazar January 19, 2015 6:00PM ET

Fault Lines producer offers a glimpse of her government-guided visit inside North Korea

North Korea

In "Hidden State: Inside North Korea," Fault Lines gains rare access into North Korea and examines the impact of U.S. policies on the secretive nation. The film airs Monday, January 19, at 9 pm Eastern time/6 pm Pacific on Al Jazeera America. | Click here to find Al Jazeera in your area.


“What happens in Korea will be a reflection of your honesty.” Those words were spoken to us before we boarded a plane from Beijing to Pyongyang. They were said by Alejandro Cao de Benos, a Spaniard, an avowed supporter of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, the country’s formal name) and perhaps the only westerner the country employs. “Secret filming, espionage” would land us on a train back to China. In the worst-case scenario, Alejandro told us, “you’d have to stay 10 years working on the Korean farms, eight hours a day, without receiving a salary.”

We spent one week in North Korea, primarily in Pyongyang. It was a curated window into an enigmatic place. Three government officials were with us at all times. They were kind and welcoming, but often weary of our requests to see more than what they intended to show us. We were always aware that they could cut off our access if we pushed them too far.

The unscripted view of the city was what we saw out of a bus window. From that vantage, North Korea appears clean and quiet. Many of the adults on the streets wore beige military uniforms or gray suits, with a red lapel pin showing the portraits of the former leaders, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. There was very little of the visual cacophony that we are accustomed to seeing in cities—digital displays, billboards, lights and even traffic.

What was everywhere were reminders of the state—whether we were at a new water park, a new children’s hospital, a model farm or sitting in our hotel rooms. A good example of its omnipresence was the scene from our hotel window one morning: Loud-speakers on a parked van blared Workers’ Party speeches and songs to commuters: (One snippet translates to “The path that stretches out before us will be filled only with victory and glory.”) Meanwhile, the former leaders smiled from above: their larger-than-life portraits adorned the building across the street.

By the end of the week, we were filming the morning light unattended from the far edge of the hotel parking lot. It felt like a margin of freedom on this tightly controlled reporting trip. We did not walk around the block or cross the street. That might have been pushing it too far.