Matt Cooper’s North Korea visit will be judged by his reports when he returns
Published 08/01/2014 | 10:29
Matt Cooper has the strongest chance of any Irish citizen to meet North Korea’s Supreme Leader today since Mary Robinson’s failed attempt in 2011.
While the late Kim Jong Il snubbed Robinson’s group – The Elders – and caused the former U.S. President Jimmy Carter-led delegation to come home empty-handed, the circumstances of Cooper’s visit in 2014 are very different.
He joined former NBA basketball player Dennis Rodman for a basketball event between a team of former NBA all-stars and a senior national North Korean team which was watched in-person today by North Korea’s young leader, Kim Jong Un.
Kim was watching at the stadium because the event is being held specifically for his 31st birthday. And if last February’s basketball diplomacy in North Korea is precedent, then it’s likely that in a few hours Dennis Rodman and some of his guests – maybe even Matt Cooper – will be joining Kim at his palace for an after party until the early hours.
Is this appropriate, coming just one month after Kim Jong Un approved the execution of his own uncle? The answer to this, of course, depends on your politics.
But one thing is for sure, when Cooper got the chance of joining Rodman for this trip, he had a once in a life-time opportunity. And it’s hard to imagine any journalist turning that down.
So what will Cooper see in Pyongyang? As a friend of Dennis Rodman, it’s likely Matt Cooper will get front row seats to the North Korea – NBA game, but what else will he get to do?
Rodman’s delegation are staying at the Koryo Hotel in downtown Pyongyang, an international class hotel built in the mid 1980s with Japanese investment. It’s a nice hotel with a handful of luxury suites, but a little dated by today’s standards.
Beyond basketball and the potential for meeting with Kim Jong Un, it’s likely the delegation will spend the rest of their time visiting sites of sporting interest and some of the major sites in Pyongyang and its environs.
Crucially, the visit will almost certainly include a courtesy call to Mansudae Hill, where large bronze statues of founding leaders Kim Il Sung and his son, Kim Jong Il stand tall.
Here Rodman’s delegation will be expected to pay respects – usually by bowing and placing flowers at the feet of the two statues. But if Cooper has any sense, he will opt out of this event and watch from afar. After all, being filmed paying respect to these two men is something that will stick for years to come, as George Galloway knows well from his Saddam Hussein experience.
Cooper may also join the delegation on a visit to the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun – a lavish mausoleum where Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il’s bodies lie in state, at a rumoured cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. With a guestbook at the end that many foreigners end up signing, Cooper will have to watch what he writes here, for this text has a habit of later emerging in sometimes embarrassing circumstances.
Lunches, dinners and other high profile functions are sure to take place and state media outlet Korea Central TV can be expected to join the delegation at most of these events, keen to showcase the foreign visitors activities to the domestic audience.
How Cooper reports back to Ireland after coming home, however, depends on his priorities.
As Rodman’s friend, he can be sure of expecting special treatment and it will be interesting to hear of this from Cooper’s perspective. But as a journalist trying to make sense of life for North Korea’s 24 million citizens, it’s unlikely he’ll have much luck.
After all, Cooper won’t be able to leave his hotel unaccompanied, and if previous Rodman visits are anything to go with, his delegation will only see the most prestigious and recently built places of interest.
Toiling day-by day to feed their families, unable to travel abroad and forced to vote for just one party at every election, it’s the lives of the average North Korean that Cooper will find difficult to encounter.
Sure, he will meet many of North Korea’s rising middle class – real people it’s important to remember – but interaction with even this group will be fleeting and highly limited.
That's not to say this interaction isn't useful, though. Respected North Korea watcher Andrei Lankov says the trip should be welcomed for its potential to change views among this increasingly influential class, as it once did in his native Soviet Union.
But make no mistake, the visit's primary goal is to celebrate Kim Jong Un's 31st birthday in spectacular style. So when Cooper returns, just remember that any attempt he makes to show Ireland “glimpses" of the "real" North Korea – a now classic routine by journalists visiting for the first time – will be nothing more than pictures of things you can expect to see in Dublin this January: scruffy back-streets, men and women trying to keep warm in the cold, or perhaps a group of builders enjoying a break between shifts.
Far more interesting will be his encounters with North Korea's Supreme Leader – if indeed they happen at all.
Chad O'Carroll is the founder and editor of NK News.