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'LA Times' Journalist Was Granted Rare Access To Pyongyang Celebration

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Tense moments this morning for Jonathan Kaiman of the LA Times and other Western journalists. They had been invited to North Korea to watch a parade honoring the country's founder. We reached Jonathan on Skype just as he was trying to get out of the country.

JONATHAN KAIMAN: I'm with a large group of journalists, tourists and diplomats. We arrived at the Pyongyang International Airport at about 7 o'clock this morning for an 8:30 a.m. flight back to Beijing. And we have been here ever since. It's been about eight hours now. There are a few dozen of us hanging out by the gate. We have no word about what's happening. The departures board just went dark. We just don't know whether this is political. We know that China has been putting pressure on North Korea to dial down its rhetoric after a series of missile tests. We know that American Vice President Pence is in South Korea right now.

GREENE: Yeah. And Pence in...

KAIMAN: But...

GREENE: ...Seoul earlier made these comments about North Korea not testing America's resolve. I mean, could that have something to do with you - them not letting you out yet?

KAIMAN: Absolutely, absolutely. Tensions are very high right now, and there's a very good chance that this has something to do with the political situation. That being said, this is North Korea. It's a poor country, and there's a good chance that Air Koryo's mechanical situation isn't up to par - there was a computer failure or a radar failure, and the only guy who can fix it hasn't been in touch. So we just don't know.

GREENE: This is an extraordinary moment for you to be there and trying to come home as Vice President Mike Pence is, you know, is sending a pretty tough message from right across the border in the demilitarized zone, suggesting that North Korea should not test America's resolve here.

KAIMAN: Absolutely, absolutely. And the U.S. has been sending extraordinarily tough messages for the past week or two. And we've seen signs here that it has rattled the North Korean leadership. I've heard from several government minders, who have been assigned to us here in Pyongyang, that the Syria strike in particular has been very unnerving for the North Korean leadership.

They fear a preemptive strike on North Korea, and they've ratcheted up their rhetoric about how they are willing to respond. So it has been a very tense time. That being said, North Korea has been involved in tense standoffs with South Korea and the U.S. intermittently for the past several decades. So...

GREENE: This is an important point, though. I mean, it sounds like you are describing a government that is almost on a war footing and is taking these warnings from the United States very seriously.

KAIMAN: It certainly seems that way. North Korea has threatened to attack the U.S. in the case of a preemptive strike, and that is very clear. The only real channel through which we're getting any sense of how the North Korean government is thinking about this is that Trump is the wild card. They don't know what he'll do.

GREENE: What was this parade like, Jonathan?

KAIMAN: I think it was probably more - far more intense in person than any image or any video would really let on. We were standing right next to the columns of tanks and the goose-stepping soldiers. And you could smell the diesel coming from these tanks. Every time these soldiers boots hit the ground, you would feel the ground reverberate. It was a very intense experience.

The military parade, also, was followed by a more civilian parade. Large crowds of Pyongyang residents were gathered around these floats with their eyes gazed up at the rostrum where Kim Jong Un, their supreme leader, was standing, tears running down their faces, shouting long live.

GREENE: You are suggesting - I mean, there is true loyal devotion among many North Koreans for this man.

KAIMAN: Absolutely. And, you know, the thing about being here that makes it so frustrating - it's impossible to drive a wedge between what's real and what's fabricated or what's forced and what's genuine. I mean, of course they live under tremendous fear that if they step out of line, the consequences are just unspeakable. I mean, these labor camps up in the north of the country have been very well-documented.

And it's not only dissent that could get you sent to one of these camps - it's even disillusionment. It's these - what we would consider the smallest offenses. So there absolutely is an element of fear. But if you realize that these people also grew up under a system which has presented the leader of the country as a godlike figure and they're presented with images of this figure from when they're small children. And that registers.

GREENE: Then we have this failed missile launch. I mean, did North Korean officials who you've dealt with, your minders, acknowledge that as, you know, as a disappointment?

KAIMAN: No. I think the dwelling on the failure of the missile launch is a bit of a red herring. One, they didn't even know that the missile failed. Even when missile launches are successful, North Korean state media won't run news about them for a day after the launch. When they fail, state media doesn't report them at all. So among the North Koreans I've spoken with, almost all of them have, one, not known that a missile launch occurred and, two, refused to believe that it did fail. And when I pressed them on it, they said that even if it did fail, that failure is essentially just a stepping stone to success.

GREENE: I know you cover this story from your post in China. Do you remember a moment of tension this high?

KAIMAN: No. I think there were moments in 2010 when there was an artillery volley between North and South across the border. Tensions were very high. In 2015, when there was another round of tensions and Kim Jong Un put his military on wartime footing, tensions were high. But that was usually a North-South thing, and the U.S. was sort of in the background.

This time, I think because of Trump's unpredictability, because of Kim Jong-Un's unpredictability - he's fairly new to the role. He's only been the top leader for a few years - and because of all of these other variables with China, with this new leadership coming in the South - they have elections coming up very shortly - there's so many unpredictable factors. And I've never seen anything like this.

GREENE: And you - just so we know, I mean, you and a number of other journalists are just hanging out there now. I mean, can you find something...

KAIMAN: Yeah.

GREENE: ...To read?

KAIMAN: Well, the bookstore doesn't sell much beyond, you know, "The Collective Works Of Kim Jong Il" and "The Collective Works Of Kim Il Sung." So both those get old quick. But we have food. There is snacks. The Pyongyang International Airport is fairly modern. I think China helped them build it a couple years ago. There's coffee. We just opened a bottle of champagne to pass the time. So morale is still high even if anxiety is mounting.

GREENE: Jonathan Kaiman, Beijing bureau chief for the LA Times. He and a group of journalists were being held at the airport in North Korea. They weren't sure why. We can safely report now their flight has now departed. Jonathan is on his way home to China. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.