Tweets and Instagrams from North Korea Offer More Candid Peek from the Closed Country

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Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman. This is The World. North Korea is perhaps the most cut off place in the world, but in an unexpected move, the North Korean government has opened up its mobile network to foreigners, which means foreign journalists in North Korea can live tweet and post Instagram photos right from their cell phones and some are doing just that. Jean Lee is the Korean Bureau Chief for the Associated Press based in Seoul. She travels fairly regularly to North Korea. Now Jean is among the first journalists to tweet from inside North Korea. So, Jean, you and AP photographer, David Guttenfelder, were tweeting and Instagramming from Pyongyang for the past few days. Some of your images are simply remarkable. For me, I think a lot of that has to do with seeing the unknown. So, for you, it must feel like a kid in a candy shop.

Jean Lee: It was exciting. We have been tweeting and posting to Instagram for the past year. We've been working here for two years and opened the Bureau in January. But we've had to do that using an internet broadband connection and setting up our own wireless hotspot when we're back at our hotel. Now, Monday was the first time that we were able to tweet and upload to Instagram and send it out immediately. That is exciting. It means that we can get the news out faster. We can get images out in real-time.

Werman: When you were doing this, did you have government minders by your side all the time? Are they looking at your Smartphone screen to see what you're photographing?

Lee: No. We had our North Korean staff members in the office with us, but they were not looking over my shoulder. We operate fairly independently. We're able to shoot pictures as we wish. We were able to tweet as we wish. Nobody takes a look at that before it goes out. I can't say whether or not people are looking at it after it goes out. But we have quite a bit of freedom to take pictures as we like.

Werman: What's fascinating, Jean, in a lot of these pictures is just to see the banal daily life in Pyongyang, both in your and David Guttenfelder's pictures. What did you make of that daily life?

Lee: These are not images that we would necessarily send on the AP wire. I may not put some of these details in my story. They certainly inform my reporting. There are little tidbits that I see from our daily routine, working there and living there, that I think would be interesting to share with people outside the country. It's a country that most people do not get to visit. Very few western journalists are allowed to come into the country. It's an opportunity for us to just show what we're seeing on the street. Hopefully, it'll help flush out the narratives.

Werman: I mean, it certainly kind of flushed out the North Korea narrative for me, but maybe you can tell us about a few of the photographs you've taken that you wouldn't have written about.

Lee: The little things. For example, the other day when I went into this shop to buy postcards. Just coming across these very virulent anti-American postcards, it's just, 'Oh, that's really interesting.' It helps us understand a bit about their political bent, so I snapped a picture of that. You know, food is very interesting. I am based in South Korea and it's always interesting to me to see how Korean food differs in the North and in the South.

Werman: How does it differ in the North?

Lee: It's a country that's been so cut off from South Korea, so some of the names of the dishes are different. And so, it's always fascinating for South Koreans, in particular, to see how food is prepared and what they're called. It's interesting some of the responses I've gotten to a simple bowl of noodles because it's even spelled differently. It's the same dish with a slightly different spelling. I can share a little bit of that very simple day-to-day life with South Koreans who really have very little access to life on the other side of the DMZ.

Werman: One picture that I think David Guttenfelder took was of typical bar food in Pyongyang. I see this plate of fish head and some boiled peanuts, you know, comparing that to pistachios and chicken wings. I mean, it's just, 'Wow, there you go. Pretty much says it all.'

Lee: Exactly. It's a very popular snack, what they call anju. They just bring out these dried fish and they rip these things apart.

Werman: You eat that with beer?

Lee: It's a very common snack to have with beer. It is a little thing, but it's fun to see.

Werman: What's been the response from the regime to your pictures, if any? Do they look at a picture of fish heads and say, 'Wow, is that what the AP wanted to come here to shoot?'

Lee: Nobody has ever said anything to me about our Instagram and our Twitter feeds. I'll be very curious to see if they'll say something now that these feeds have gotten this much attention, but I think that the reason they allowed us to open a bureau is to put some of these images out there.

Werman: You've got this video posted of a group of kids laughing in front of the camera quite spontaneously. What has been the response of everyday North Koreans to your Instagramming out in the streets and getting these things uploaded quickly? Do they even know?

Lee: David, I think, has posted some photos on his Instagram feed of the same children. We were at Mansu Hill, which is where those two enormous statues of the late leaders are. I looked over and these kids were just mobbing him, wanting to get at his cameras. He usually carries two or three cameras and one of them had managed to pull one of the cameras off. I mean, they were very, very curious. I took the little video and played it back for them and that's perfectly fine.

Werman: Have most North Koreans in Pyongyang seen a Smartphone? Do they even know what it is?

Lee: It's hard to say. They certainly know about different types of cell phones. They've got several different varieties of cell phones they can choose from. I've definitely seen Smartphones in Pyongyang.

Werman: You landed in Pyongyang on this visit just in time to catch a bit of Dennis Rodman and the Harlem Globetrotters' trip there. Does anyone in North Korea know who Dennis Rodman is or who the Harlem Globetrotters are?

Lee: It seemed from the informal poll that I took that he isn't as well known as Michael Jordan.

Werman: Surprise Surprise…

Lee: Yeah, most people do know Michael Jordan. Last Friday, I went into the art studio, which is where they sell beautiful celadon pottery and just happened to see drawings of Michael Jordan.

Werman: Really?

Lee: So, there is an interest in the NBA.

Werman: I just want to ask you, finally, Jean, do you think this ability now to Instagram and tweet in North Korea -is this a sign of glasnost?

Lee: It's certainly exciting for foreigners, but it's still not accessible to the local people. The local people, for the most part, still can't access the internet. But in a certain sense, just the ability to go from a couple of years ago where you couldn't even take a picture without seeking permission, which was the case on my first trip, to the sense of alienation you feel as well when you have to leave your cell phone at the airport, to now being able to take your own iPhone in, stick a SIM card in, upload to Twitter, access things on the internet and send information out at a moment's notice. That is something significant. Hopefully, that will extend to the local population as well. We'll see.

Werman: Bit by bit, indeed. Jean Lee, Korean Bureau Chief for the Associated Press. She's been tweeting and sharing Instagram photos from North Korea. To see some of her images from North Korea, go to our website theworld.org. Jean Lee, thank you very much.

Lee: You're very welcome.

Werman: And speaking of Twitter and Instagram and all form of social media, you'll find The World in that universe too. I won't clutter your heads with all our handles. Just stop by and check us out at theworld.org. You'll discover our Twitter and Instagram feeds there. That's where you can find our videos and slideshows as well. It's also where you can subscribe to our daily and weekly podcasts. If you want to follow us right now on Twitter, you can go straight there. We tweet @pritheworld. As for me, I tweet and Instagram @MarcoWerman.