We’ve been in North Korea for fewer than 30 minutes, and the regime already has me bending over uncomfortably at the waist, my head rapidly approaching the hard ground.
A year of negotiating to get into the world’s most repressive state and somehow a crack TV current affairs team misses the fact that the day we arrive in the border town of Sinuiju is the birthday of North Korea’s founder and eternal president, Great Leader Comrade Kim Il-Sung. A big deal.
Our minders very quickly usher us out of the train station, place flowers in our hands and direct us toward two towering bronze statues of the Great Leader and his son and successor, Dear Leader Comrade Kim Jong-Il. We are advised to bow.
Looking back at the footage, I can see my fellow travellers’ heads gently tilt. I just keep going, past the shoulders, past the waist and well on my way towards my feet before I realise the others had finished and walked away.
North Korea can do that to you, and it’s not as if the country doesn’t have serious form. Human rights abuses, famines, executions, nuclear threats – it’s consistently rated as one of the world’s most repressive regimes.
At the same time we were negotiating access, young American Otto Warmbier was sent home in a deathly coma after serving time for stealing a propaganda poster in Pyongyang. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs advised us against going.
“What can you do for us if something goes wrong?” I asked Foreign Minister Winston Peters. “Very little,” was his reply.
New Zealand has no diplomatic ties with North Korea. We last sent a diplomat there in 2014. The highest-level contact is a group from the Pukorokoro Miranda Naturalists’ Trust, led by a West Auckland builder, who go to highly militarised border regions to count shorebirds. And we are going with them.
As Adrian Riegen, the group leader, puts it: “These birds recognise no borders, they don’t recognise any of those political structures we put up … They go where there’s food in the mud flats. They don’t care which country it’s in.”
Shorebirds, including the bar-tailed godwit or kuaka, are in serious trouble. The godwit has the longest migration of any bird, all the way from New Zealand to the Arctic every year with a stopover in the vast mudflats of the Yellow Sea for a month to refuel. Every year, more and more of that habitat is being gobbled up by China and South Korea’s rampant economic growth.
Since the early 2000s, Miranda bird conservationists have witnessed first-hand the dramatically declining numbers of shorebirds arriving in China and South Korea. Looking through binoculars across the Yellow Sea, they wondered if the birds were finding shelter in North Korea.
Getting in was beyond their wildest dreams, but it was likely that development strangled by sanctions, famines and a ruthless command economy had an upside for the natural environment. Keith Woodley, the manager of the Miranda Shorebirds Centre on the Firth of Thames thought: “This could be the safety valve. This could be the place where these birds may find a refuge on their migrations.”
The Miranda group made their first visit into North Korea in 2009 and have been six times since. Riegen has led every visit. This year he takes Keith Woodley and David Melville, a world-renowned shorebird ecologist now semi-retired in Nelson. And, somehow, also us. Myself, producer Louisa Cleave and cameraman Martin Anderson. Riegen brokered the deal on our behalf.
“I approached them about it, thinking the answer would be immediately ‘there’s no chance’, but they were very excited and said this would be a good idea.”
We’re here at the invitation of the Nature Conservation Union of Korea. The NCUK says it is a non-government organisation, but it’s funded by the Government Ministry of Land and the Environment. Acting director Ri Song Il is tasked with looking after us.
Mr Ri is a youthful 48, born and bred in Pyongyang, a passionate supporter of the capital’s football team, Chollima, and the father of two boys. He’s wearing the kind of khaki zip-up safari suit made famous by Kim Jong Il. A lapel badge of the Great Leader and Dear Leader is pinned next to his heart.
“In our country,” he says, “we consider the Great Leaders as our own father of the family. Even though the Great Leaders are passed away, we consider that they will always be with us and we are implementing their instructions.”
One of those instructions is to care for the environment, but the cult of the ruling Kim family is all-encompassing. Giant statues and huge mosaics are the most obvious, but every home is required to display their portraits. Disrespecting them in any way is a serious offence.
I take a quick snap of a heavily image-adjusted portrait of the leaders in the lobby of our Pyongyang hotel, and 15 minutes later I am confronted by our minders, who’d been told by the hotel staff that my photo may be offensive.
Restrictions over what we can film are also strict. No soldiers, no cropped or wonky shots of the leaders, no villages or the people who live in them. Essentially nothing that doesn’t match the image North Korea wants the world to see, but a worker’s paradise it is not. The reality is that much of the North Korea we saw was very poor. The infrastructure is basic, bumpy dirt roads, intermittent power, and horrific famines, have taken their toll.
We don’t see starving people, but North Koreans are not big. Totalitarianism is also clean and tidy. I’ve seen far worse poverty in India and Africa.
The closest parallel is George Orwell’s 1984. Loudspeakers in the morning broadcast propaganda messages urging people to work hard. People identically dressed in Mao suits, mostly on bikes or foot, making their way to offices or fields under the constant gaze of the leaders (Big Brother) looking down from on high. Television is a constant stream of news about the leadership narrated with breathless excitement.
We travel with an entourage, young scientists, NCUK staff, a North Korean TV crew and assorted local officials and soldiers. About half of them, we reckon, are who they say they are. It’s a given that we’re being watched and probably listened to. The journalist from North Korean TV spends more time taking photos of us than the birds.
We’re kept in our hotels when we’re not looking for shorebirds and can’t leave without supervision. Once inside there is no contact with the outside world. You accept all that as a condition of entry to the hermit kingdom, but after 10 days you feel claustrophobic and paranoid.
For Riegen, it’s a price worth paying to conserve and protect the shorebirds.
“Yes, things can be a bit tough, but they work extremely hard to make things happen. They’re great people to work with because they’re dogged, they’re determined, but they don’t get angry or anything, they just work through the process.”
A nosy TV crew complicates that process, but somehow Mr Ri has managed to negotiate entry to highly sensitive militarised regions close to the Chinese border. This is unprecedented in a country that feels it is under siege from the outside world and we’re able to film in places no foreigners have ever been. It’s access that can only be granted at the highest government level.
What we find is astonishing, the bird utopia the Miranda birders had been hoping to find. A beautiful pristine habitat for tens of thousands of hungry godwits that the rest of the world knew nothing about.
There’s an even bigger picture of greater significance as North Korea stands on the brink of opening up to the rest of the world.
The work of the Miranda team has shown the North Koreans that they can trust foreigners.
The most secretive country in the world has just signed up to join the International Ramsar Convention on Wetlands and been accepted into the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership.
It’s the last country on the bird migration route to do so. It’s a significant step and one the North Koreans are proud of as they escort us through sensitive parts of their country. They talk of eco-tourism ventures around the bird life.
As we travel around, there’s a sense this is a country on the brink of momentous change.
We ask Mr Ri at some stage, “do you trust us?”
He smiles, and says “let’s wait until we see what you tell the world about us”.