April 15 - A Reuters journalist joins an official tour of North Korea, and takes a guided but revealing look at the country's progress. Maxim Duncan reports.
And so, our rare reporting trip to North Korea goes on, with ever grander ceremonies ahead of the 100th birthday of eternal president Kim Il-sung. His grandson Kim Jong-un has cemented his leadership with top party and military positions. A huge statue of his father Kim Jong-il, who died in December, has been unveiled overlooking Pyongyang. It feels like the beginning of a new era, but it's anyone's guess, what kind of era that might be. Celebrations were dampened when the country's long-awaited rocket crashed into the seas soon after its launch. A rare acknowledgment of failure came from state media, but only four hours after the launch. Us journalists only knew about it through calls from our bureaus, and it was us breaking the news to our minders. (PIECE TO CAMERA) ( English) REUTERS JOURNALIST MAXIM DUNCAN SAYING: "It's ironic perhaps that we're the only media in North Korea yet we're the only people who had no information on this rocket launch for the last four hours, American and South Korean media reported almost instantly that the rocket had crashed into the sea just minutes after taking off. Yet only four hours after the launch did state media here acknowledge that there had been a launch and indeed it had been a failure. The question now, is how are they going to present it to the people." The answer, it seems, was to send a message of power and unity. This colonel, said failure was the mother of success, and will surely benefit the next attempt. (PIECE TO CAMERA) ( English) REUTERS JOURNALIST MAXIM DUNCAN SAYING: "Well the failure of the rocket is yesterday's news and best forgotten as far as authorities are concerned. Now we are on to a series of grandiose events to celebrate Kim's both past and present ahead of Kim Il-sung's centenary tomorrow." The days awaiting the launch were passed productively on a whirlwind propaganda tour of farms and factories. In this model silk mill, workers said they had already finished a year's worth of production to celebrate the centenary. A terrapin farm said an extra 10,000 had been bred for the people of Pyongyang to eat as they celebrate, by order of Kim Jong-il before he died. The country requests food aid to feed its people. But this manager saw no irony. Terrapins are good for you, he said, Kim Jong-il wanted his people to be healthy. At Kim Il-sung University, the country's most prestigious, students read the great leaders' works on an impressive-looking computer archive. This student told me she was marking the centenary by improving her English. (SOUNDBITE) (English) UNNAMED NORTH KOREA FEMALE STUDENT SAYING: "As possible as I can speak English with foreigners like you." (PIECE TO CAMERA) (English) REUTERS JOURNALIST MAX DUNCAN SAYING: "We've been to the model farm, we've been to the model factory, and now here we are at the model university in the model capital city of Pyongyang. Now our guides are pretending that everything we've seen is the norm as these things are understood as the best of the best. The challenge now is to decide for really what is representative, and what is not." This fun slide in the university swimming pool is surely not the norm. You can, however, see signs of real improvements in Pyongyang. Not least, the thousands of cars that now drive the streets. But with grinding poverty still widespread in the countryside, it does make you hope that young Kim Jong-un's reign will be guided by more pragmatism. Whether there is or not, only time will tell. (From Pyongyang, North Korea - Maxim Duncan, reporting for Reuters.)