What it’s like to visit Pyongyang

Visiting Pyongyang as an outsider is a bit like entering a parallel reality. Official escorts stuck to visitors like Velcro. The rules were clear: No interviews without permission. No exploring beyond the hotel parking lot.

Everyone was closely watched, with tactics reminiscent of a bad cold war spy movie. Opposite a journalist’s spacious room at the mostly empty Potonggang Hotel, men with briefcases left keys dangling in doors and appeared to rotate shifts. Other guests warned that dining room tables were bugged and that a dark, out-of-place wall panel was in fact a two-way mirror. Calls from the United States were blocked. Outgoing overseas calls cost $8.27 a minute.

Some events seemed obviously staged. On a dazzlingly sunny Saturday, a crowd packed the auditorium of Pyongyang’s ornate central library for a lecture on the life of Kim Jong-il’s mother. Nearly every seat in the reading room was also taken. When one reader nodded off, a watchful monitor quickly poked him…

State stores were off limits, either because barren shelves hinted at economic difficulties or because only lucky government-coupon holders could take advantage of their artificially low prices. Window-shopping only, journalists were warned.