Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Blitzer in North Korea: Writing from the Tinderbox

Far be it from me to critique a man who has more journalistic experience (and probably talent) in his left pinky fingernail than I in total. Far be it from me to take digs at a CNN journalist who just spent six days in North Korea. I don't have the  experience or credentials necessary to take a sarcastic look at the writings of one so well-traveled and seasoned. But it's never stopped me before, so why let it now?

I read an article of his today that actually made me laugh for lack of tears. Does this man not have editors? Does he even proofread himself? And how can one so well-spoken and clearly well-educated (poor performance on Jeopardy notwithstanding) write what I'm about to discuss? 

To follow is an examination of the article I ready this morning.

Pyongyang, North Korea (CNN) -- The Korean Peninsula is a tinderbox. One miscalculation can quickly lead to all-out war and hundreds of thousands of military and civilian casualties on both sides. Millions of North and South Koreans live very close to the DMZ.

True enough, if vague.

The North also has a million heavily armed troops on their side of the DMZ; the South nearly has many. There are also nearly 30,000 U.S. troops along the frontier with thousands of artillery pieces and missile launchers facing each other. The North is widely believed to be building a nuclear arsenal.

I believe this is the most dangerous spot on Earth right now.

Because Sudan, The Ivory Coast, Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan are so last year.

We certainly packed a lot into six days here.

This sentence reads like "What I Did On My Summer Vacation, by John Radley, Grade 5"

After receiving our visas at the North Korean Embassy in Beijing, we arrived on Thursday, December 16, on a regularly scheduled North Korean commercial flight from Beijing on Air Koryo flight 252.

Thank you for specifying.

It was a newish Russian-made Tupolev 204-300 aircraft and a very smooth 90-minute flight accompanied with patriotic music and a video showing the heroic struggle of the North Korean people. The attractive flight attendants wore red suit jackets and white gloves.

So much smoother than the less advanced Tupolev 203-299

We flew back to Beijing on Tuesday, December 22, a day after our original plan because of an incredibly thick fog. The flight back was on Air China flight 122, a Boeing 737. The flight attendants did not wear white gloves.

Again, thanks for being specific - but Tuesday was actually December 21st. I know, because it was yesterday. 

Pyongyang airport is very small. It has only two or three flights a day to only a handful of destinations. This is not a very busy airport.

Thank you for the added clarification.

CNN Beijing-based photographer Miguel Castro and I were covering the visit here of New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations experienced in Korean diplomacy. Sharon LaFraniere, a Beijing-based correspondent for The New York Times, was the only other journalist invited by Richardson and approved by North Korea to cover this trip.
Richardson was joined by his senior adviser, Tony Namkung, who's been to North Korea 40 times going back to 1990. He is very impressive with a wealth of knowledge about both Koreas, China and Japan. 

He is very impressive.

Also joining Richardson was Gilbert Gallegos, his deputy chief of staff; Gay Dillingham, chair of the New Mexico Environmental Improvement Board; and State Police officer Mo Arteaga.

Why were they there? And were they worth mentioning? 

The North Koreans took our passports, return flight tickets and cell phones upon arrival at the airport. They returned everything when we were about to board our flight back to Beijing.
I think it's fair to say we all had an eye-opening experience. It was a roller coaster of emotions -- ranging from real fear of war on the Korean Peninsula to relief that the North had stepped back from the brink and even accepted some of Richardson's proposals.
Maybe Richardson had played a positive role in calming down his hosts, including the chief nuclear negotiator, First Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan; the new Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs, Ri Yong Ho; the military officer in charge of the armistice and Demilitarized Zone, Major Gen. Pak Rim Su; and the country's Vice President, Kim Yong Dae.
We arrived convinced the Korean Peninsula was on the verge of a war, the worst crisis since the 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War.

I wouldn't call the armistice the crisis. I think the crisis was more to do with everything prior to the armistice. But that's just one man's opinion.

This was my first visit to North Korea, though I had been to South Korea, the DMZ and China. 

And you've been to Kuwait, Iraq, Canada, even perhaps North Dakota. It is no less your first time in North Korea.

When Richardson called me and asked me if I wanted to go with him, I immediately accepted and am glad I did. I have known him for 20 years going back to his days in Congress -- long before he became U.N. ambassador and energy secretary during the Clinton administration.

Because this is relevant.

I was apprehensive going in, worried about whether I would actually get out. I was concerned that they would shut the airport if war erupted, and I would be stuck inside North Korea. I even began wondering about the prospects of driving across the North Korea-China border if necessary. Was that even doable?

Driving from where, your jail cell?

Every time I heard some martial music on North Korean television and radio, I wondered whether the regime was preparing the country for war. I've covered wars and other dangerous situations over the years and usually go through a before, during and after cycle -- nervous before I leave about all the worst case scenarios; not all that worried while on assignment because my adrenaline is pumping and I'm in the midst of a big story; but wondering after the trip whether I should do it again.

And yet here we are.

Covering this story brought back memories of my early overseas assignments in the Middle East in the '70s and '80s: no internet, no cell phone, no Blackberry.

Because cell phones and Blackberrys were huge in the '70s and '80s. HUGE.

I had a hard-line phone in my Pyongyang hotel room and could make outgoing calls to the United States at about $10 a minute. (No credit cards accepted; only cash and only crisp bills.) I could not receive incoming calls from the United States.

Well duh.

They would not let us broadcast live via satellite but we took hundreds of still pictures and shot about eight hours of video which we are now going through. Get ready to see the best on CNN and
I did get CNN International in my hotel room -- Zain Verjee, Anjali Rao and Richard Quest never looked better -- but no newspapers.

They appreciate the plug.

Still, six days isolated without e-mail or a cell phone; it was quite a transition for me, but I sort of got used to it and even liked it. I had 983 e-mails waiting for me when I eventually got back to Beijing.

Wolf Blitzer says: "I'm important."

The hotel and elite restaurant food was very good, especially if you like Korean food. 

This is a foregone conclusion. I don't suppose they have many Irish pubs.

I stuck with scrambled eggs and toast for breakfast; chicken soup and white rice and steamed veggies for lunch; and usually some grilled Korean chicken or fish for dinner.

I'll take note.

We had North Korean officials with us all the time -- and I mean all the time. They spoke English well and were very intelligent, polite and even nice. 

Polite AND nice.

I never felt threatened. They had a job to do, and we understood. Let's not forget this is a communist, totalitarian regime.
We were restricted as to where we could go, what we could film and to whom we could talk. They want to showcase the best and keep us way from the worst. We constantly pressed for more access and they sometimes relented. Sharon from The New York Times was especially persistent and her efforts occasionally paid off.
Still, we saw a lot of the North Korean capital and even managed to get into the countryside to see a huge apple and fruit-tree orchard where thousands of farmers work what the orchard director said were some 2.2 million trees. That number seemed exaggerated but whatever it was, it was impressive.
Once you get outside Pyongyang, you see very few cars on the roads. People are walking along the sides of the roads; some are riding bikes. It's eerie being in the only car on the road. This is a very poor country. 
Even as we feared there could be a war, we were taken to a silk thread factory where 2,000 women work diligently. We rode the jam-packed subway system from Prosperity Station to Glory Station. We went shopping -- again cash only and only crisp U.S. dollar bills. They really don't like the old, wrinkled bills.

Shopping in "the most dangerous spot on Earth" should be a story in and of itself, don't you think?

We spent one afternoon with well-dressed students at Kim Il Sung University and later at a foreign language high school where very bright 16-year-olds were learning English complete with American slang. I heard one student say: "That's very cool." He wasn't referring to the weather. 

So that's what "cool" means in slang. Thanks again for clarifying.

We saw the computers at their national library. They were decent but not state of the art.

Ya' think?

There's a huge music room at the library where people can simply listen to CDs of great artists. When I was there, they played a Kenny Rogers song for me. He apparently is very popular here.
They also took us sightseeing. We saw their Arc de Triumphe (supposedly bigger than the one in Paris); their huge stone tower (apparently taller than the Washington Monument); and their sports complex complete with indoor and outdoor stadiums and ice skating rink.
I saw the North Korean girls' ice hockey team jogging one afternoon and briefly caught up with them. They laughed as I ran with them -- probably thinking who is this crazy foreign person carrying a little hand-held camera.

Ya' think?

Later, when it looked like the North Koreans would retaliate for South Korea's live-fire military exercise, I thought of these girls and all the young people I had seen in North Korea. They seemed so vulnerable, and I worried about their fate if there were a war. I'm not embarrassed to say I got sentimental and emotional worrying about them and their counterparts in South Korea.
Huge pictures of the late Great Leader, Kim Il Sung, and his son, the Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il, were all over the place. I didn't see pictures of the next generation's expected leader, Kim Jong Un.
Electricity is a huge problem in North Korea. It was bitter cold outside. Indoor heat is at a premium. The students were in the classrooms wearing their warm overcoats. The rooms were not well-lit.
There were no lights in the tunnels on the roads outside the North Korean capital.
Outsiders have been predicting its demise for 60 years, but I didn't get the impression this country was on the verge of crumbling.

And yet - it's the most dangerous place on Earth.

We were not taken to the Yongbyon nuclear facility or their side of the DMZ even though we and Richardson repeatedly asked. The North Koreans pointed out this was an especially tense time. They said I could come back on another occasion and perhaps visit these places.

Yes, "come see our Nuclear Arsenal at a more convenient date." You take them up on that Wolf. 

By the way, 2012 is going to be a huge year for North Korea. That's the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung. The North Koreans are preparing major events. Since they invited me back, I might go back then; maybe even sooner though I hope it won't be to cover a war. See above.

Did I mention that I'm worried about the children?   

Among other things, yes.

I don't mean to downplay the serious undertones of this article. Yes, we should all be worried about the children. But can we do them some justice by learning to edit a little?

Not that I'm not guilty of any of the above crimes. But then - I'm not writing for CNN either.

Stick to the anchor desk Wolf, it's what you're good at. 

Friday, December 17, 2010

Remote Control Meltdown

Every November I sit down and make a Christmas list. This list comprises of three tiers:

1) Immediate family (those with whom I am in frequent contact).

2) Close friends

3) Coworkers and Other Peripherals (Yes, this is what it's called on my list. I've never told anyone that until now. And, if you are reading this and you are a coworker, please be advised that you probably fall into tier 2. This is a blanket statement.)

Tier 1 is where I will begin the focus of this post. 

Every member of Tier 1 usually has a set list of five items that include (without being specific) "book," "movie," "snow globe," "appliance," etc... Naturally, my mother falls into Tier 1. And for some reason, every year I have a strange compulsion to buy her electronics. I seem to make it my personal mission to buy the woman who has little interest in state-of-the-art gadgets - the latest state-of-the-art gadgets. 

Whereas others in Tier 1 normally have items on their list that include "new Bill Bryson" or "Polly Pockets," Mom's list usually comprises of items such as "upgraded shielded HDMI cables," "touch-screen iPod," and "wireless router." 

This year, I decided to upgrade Mom to wireless TV. I plan to do this in stages, and I thought I would start simple. Stage one was to be a BluRay player with WiFi so she could watch her Netflix instantly without purchasing OnDemand movies or dealing with discs. I had a mission. I chose to accept. 

During my annual Amazon Christmas buy-a-thon, (in which 85% of my Christmas list is purchased in a coffee-fueled frenzy on my bed in my pajamas - it happens every year) I ran across a net-ready BluRay player. It was a reputable brand and was well-reviewed. I added it to my cart. I might also mention that I tiqued the little "gift" box that means it will arrive in a cheap Christmas wrap-designed cardboard box with a ribbon painted onto it. The wrapping sucks - but at least the recipient, if delivered to their house, does not know what's in the box.

It did not come in said Christmas cardboard. It arrived in its manufacturer's box, and after work one day I found it on Mom's breakfast table in the kitchen. She had seen it, so I just asked her to close her eyes while I handed it to her again with a cheap bow on top. And while I was not at ALL interested in playing with it myself, I offered to hook it up to her on the spot. 

That was when I discovered it required a WiFi receiver. Otherwise, I would need to drag an ethernet cable through the living room, down the hall, and to her router. This would not fly with Mom. 

So a few days later I ventured into the mass hysteria that is Wal-Mart during Christmas season and bought her a wireless receiver. When I came home, I plugged it in. It didn't work. So I plugged it into my laptop, downloaded the necessary items, put in Mom's WiFi password, unplugged it, plugged it back into the BluRay - and it was online! 

That was when I discovered that Netflix was not built in. Apparently, these things have to be built in. Sure, I could view Picasa - but why? Does anyone use that anymore? And AccuWeather - yes, I could turn on the BluRay player just to check the weather, because it's just so convenient. But - oh no - while in the cities list I could find Savannah, Columbia, or the other Charleston, there was no Charleston, South Carolina. And therefore no Summerville. Might I also mention there was a NORTH AUGUSTA? Oh - and there was YouTube. Yes, there could be hours of entertainment looking at videos of dogs riding skateboards - which can be done anyway on one of many items in this house. But no Netflix. Damn it all, I was determined to do this one thing for Mom for Christmas. If she would have little else from me, she would be able to watch movies on her TV at a moment's notice. 

So I decided I would regift this BluRay to yours truly, and go out to find one that was Netflix ready. Today, I found such BluRay player. It was Netflix ready. In theory, it was also wireless-capable. (On later investigation, I discovered that the Best Buy associate who told me this was either lying or misinformed). But no worries - I still had the wireless receiver. Finally - Mom could watch her movies. My Christmas present idea would finally come to fruition. 

So I hooked the thing up, and all was well with the world. Until the remote control didn't work. It didn't even work a little. No problem, I thought. It appeared to be a universal remote. Codes are easy to find. Well, not only could I not find the BluRay codes, I couldn't even find clear instructions on programming that remote. 

So I called Geek Squad, as I purchased two years' protection. I was told to either take it back, or buy a universal remote. Feeling the need to purchase another cable anyway, I headed back out to Wal-Mart. On Friday night. A week before Christmas. I muddled through the mayhem and came home with a mackdaddy state-of-the-art universal remote. The thing can actually learn from other remotes. 

I plugged it into my laptop via USB, and discovered that the website didn't like Safari. So I switched to Firefox. It didn't care for that either. So I opened up the slow, user-unfriendly, dusty Internet Explorer. I said "no" to all of its personalization demands, repeatedly told Yahoo that I didn't want its toolbar, navigated through the personal settings, and finally got to the right page. I finally got to the place where I needed to be. I entered the model number of the BluRay player, and it seemed to be fine. It was all too easy. I unplugged the remote, and could hear drumrolls in my head. 

Guess what? 

It didn't work. 

It can power the BluRay player on and off, can even switch between main menu and Netflix - but that's where the functionality ends. I can't even use the "enter" key. So I called Sharp support. Apparently, non-computer-related issues need to wait until Monday through Friday, 9am to 5pm Pacific time for human help.

Determined to watch Mom scroll through Netflix items at her leisure, I was not giving up yet. Last attempt - I decided to try to program the TimeWarner Cable universal remote's Auxiliary button. After not finding any BluRay codes for Sharp - anywhere - I downloaded the remote's schematic. It appears it was designed before Sharp had BluRay players.

Dismayed, I decided I would take the remote back to Best Buy on Sunday. Wish me luck. 

After all this - maybe an hour ago - I sat down in the living room, defeated, scrolling through my friends' Facebook statuses. And one of them caught my attention. It was an update from an old friend who is a funeral director. This woman has perhaps the whip-quick sharpest sense of humor of anyone I know. She has always adeptly used this humor to express herself, and so when I saw the following, my frantic Amazon carting, frenzied Wal-Mart trips, remote control meltdowns and Best Buy excursions were put into perspective.

"Recipe for the weepies: funeral of a friend + hearse with Bing Crosby on the radio + apparently not enough dosage of antidepressants = verklempt Bethy...".

Nearly two years ago my Dad died. I plan to write a post for him soon, when I get up the nerve. So now I can only ask myself - how did I forget?

Merry Christmas everyone. The remote control is not that important.