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Minders, a constant presence for international media in North Korea
[BEIJING] At least 130 foreign journalists traveled to Pyongyang to cover the first full congress of North Korea's ruling party in 36 years.
For the media, minders are a constant presence. They translate, tell journalists where they can and can't go, and impart the official line on everything from relations with the US to the proper way to refer to the regime's leaders. And they have a few pet peeves.
WHAT TO CALL THE COUNTRY
North Korea is not North Korea. Rather, it is the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, DPR Korea or DPRK. Completely out of bounds is "the hermit kingdom"; minders say the term is deeply insulting to them.
South Korea, with whom a war in the 1950s culminated in an uneasy truce, is known in print as "south Korea," with the south in lower case. Here's a sample sentence from a newspaper article about the Korean People's Army: "It is clear to everyone that the south Korean soldiers can never sleep deeply, always anxious about when the KPA would punish them with a shower of fire."
HOW TO ADDRESS LEADERS
North Korea has a government, but there are only three people who really matter - and two of them are dead.
Kim Il Sung, who founded the country and died in 1994, is often "eternal president," or "great general." His son Kim Jong Il is "chairman" or "dear leader." Kim Jong Un, who took power after his father passed away in late 2011, may be called "supreme leader" or "dear respected".
One journalist who failed to add a title was quickly scolded: "Please, remember the 'leader.' Always remember the 'leader.'"
THOSE KIM PINS
All North Koreans wear a pin over their left breast featuring the face of Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il - or both. The pins can't be bought by foreigners. The most common one is a shining red flag with the two men's portraits.
But don't call them pins. That word undermines their significance. As one minder said after consulting translation software on his phone, they are "badges."
THE UNITED STATES
Mentioning the US can result in a long lecture. There is no such thing as US relations, only "hostile US policy." Any hardship faced by North Korea is the fault of the US and its "puppet" South Korea.
Asked his thoughts on ties, Om Myong Chin, a 57-year-old who works at a battery factory, said: "If the US government stops its hostile policy against our country, with time relations might improve." The minders were quick to agree.
A minder's frequent answer to a question is: "That is a difficult question." Difficult questions include: "Why am I not allowed to go out of the hotel by myself?" Answer: "People's bad emotions about the US are running high and I might not be able to protect you."
Another difficult question is: "Why is the official exchange rate 100 won to the dollar and the market exchange rate 8,000 won to the dollar?" Answer: "I will get back to you tomorrow."
ESCAPING REGIME'S GRIP
Questions that might suggest criticism of the leaders are often not translated or acknowledged.
As much as they extol their country's policy of self- reliance and the quality of its homemade goods, some minders exhibit discerning tastes.
Told to bring cigarettes for minders as a gift, some reporters made the mistake of buying Marlboro Reds made in China. "These are Chinese duty free," a minder said, casting them aside. He'd only take Marlboros made in the US or Mexico, he said, pulling out a genuine cigarette from the luxury London brand Sobranie.
One morning a minder showed up wearing a snappy suit. When asked the make, he opened the right side of his jacket to reveal a tailor-made suit from China - with a "Polo" label.
WHEN A MINDER IS NOT A MINDER
"The minder's job is to hide the embarrassing inner side of North Korean society from the eyes of outsiders," said Ahn Chan Il, a North Korean defector who heads the Seoul-based World Institute for North Korea Studies.
"There's so much North Korea wants to hide. That's why these minders tag along ostensibly as guides and make sure foreigners only photograph what North Korea wants to be photographed."
Comments seemingly critical of North Korea can get any foreigner in trouble, including being detained, and South Korea's government has urged its nationals in the past to stay guarded and to avoid political topics even while drinking with minders.
Then again, the team who met reporters at the airport doesn't even want to be called minders. "I am not minding you," said one. "We are guiding you. Please call me your guide."