British Diplomat Rides Roller Coaster with North Korea's Kim Jong-un

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Audio Transcript:

Aaron Schachter: Moving east now from Beijing to Pyongyang. A photo out of the North Korean capital has gone viral. It's an unusual shot of the country's young leader, Kim Jong-un. He's got a childish grin on his face as he flies through the air on a roller coaster. He's surrounded by his entourage, as you might expect. They're all looking pretty darn happy, which is unusual in a photo sent from Pyongyang. But there's something else no one seemed to expect. Just in front of Dear Leader Jr is a young white guy. James West, a reporter with Mother Jones, was curious about who the mysterious foreigner was. So James, what did you find out?

James West: Well this photo really grabbed my attention, like a lot of people that spend time watching the Far Eastern politics there. This guy is a junior diplomat from the British Embassy in the capital of North Korea. His name is Barnaby Jones, and this was confirmed to me by a few sources in Beijing, and also the Foreign Office in London. They didn't make him available to me to have him interviewed but I did learn that he had a fun time on this roller coaster with…

Schachter: Well he's smiling. He looks like he's having fun.

West: He's grinning from ear to ear as he gets, you know, hurled around inside the North Korea propaganda machine. I was curious because it's very rare that a foreigner, a white guy, gets seen with anybody in North Korea, let alone right next to Kim Jong-un, the new leader of North Korea, in a very delicate phase of him establishing power in North Korea. Usually when you think of photos of the Dear Leader, they're really staged and flat-footed, and a bit stilted. Here he's being flung around some amusement park in the capital, seemingly without any care. Some of the other photos are fascinating too, of the Dear Leader watching synchronized diving and…

Schachter: James West first of all will have that picture on our website for people to see for themselves. Now when you say "Dear Leader" you're talking about the son, right, Kim Jong-un?

West: Right. Now in the transition this guy has been amassing power. He's wanting to shed off the cloak I guess of Kim Jong-il, his dad, by looking a bit more like his grandfather. His grandfather was known to be a bit more of a people's kind of guy, you know, backslapping the workers out in the field. I think Kim Jong-un is trying on a bit more of the charismatic people's leader approach.

Schachter: I wonder if this could backfire though, James. If people inside North Korea see the difference between these amusement parks, which are well-lit during the evening, and so on, and their regular lives. It seems to me that it could really get people angry.

West: I think you're onto something there, Aaron, definitely. Outside of the capital, the country is derelict, it's decrepit, there's no money. The capital is generally used by the regime as a showcase city that foreigners can come to and look at the amazing achievements of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, and help them celebrate it.

Schachter: And yet, after this photo went viral, the official North Korean state website took it down.

West: Right, they seemed to have taken it down. And certainly the response from the British government was lukewarm- they didn't make Barnaby Jones available for interview. And one of my favorite parts of the British government response seemingly preempted the obvious question, "what the hell was one of your young diplomats doing with Kim Jong-un, the new leader of North Korea?" by saying, "Britain needs to engage actively in the cultural pursuits of North Korea," or some such. So I like how they were getting ahead of that obvious question and letting everybody people know that it's not just water-parks and games in North Korea for their young diplomats.

Schachter: James West is a reporter with Mother Jones magazine. He spoke to us from New York. James, thanks.

West: My pleasure.