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I flew into pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, on June 3, just days after the rogue nation-state had set off a nuclear explosion, conducted missile tests, and declared its truce with South Korea null and void. During my travels, two American journalists were put on trial for infringing on North Korean territory; their conviction and sentence to 12 years imprisonment were announced just after I left.

As a journalist, I never believed the extremely insular Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) would let me in. For years, Dean Hirsch, president of World Vision International, wanted me to witness his organization's work there. I scoffed. "Do you know how long it takes on the Internet to find out what I do for a living?"

Despite international tensions, North Korea is cautiously open toward a handful of Christian humanitarian groups, including World Vision. A five-person delegation from the relief agency received visas at the North Korean embassy in Beijing and flew to Pyongyang the same day.

Inside the airport, we were required to surrender our cell phones until our departure. Two government minders escorted us to the capital. At our 40-story hotel in central Pyongyang, we saw only a handful of guests. Our first evening, we stood at the hotel door and asked to cross the street for a closer look at a fast food restaurant. Our request was denied.

When we went for a morning walk, minders told us which streets we could walk on and for how long. Photographs and conversations with pedestrians were off limits. We were allowed to visit World Vision projects to ask questions and take photographs.

Legacy of Suffering

At 5 a.m. each morning, loudspeakers throughout Pyongyang began broadcasting music. Two hours later an alarm would ...

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In the Magazine

August 2009

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