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Tweets, pics give real-time peek into North Korea

Published on NewsOK Modified: February 27, 2013 at 10:54 pm •  Published: February 27, 2013
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Our North Korean colleagues watched with surprise as we showed them we could surf the Internet from our phones.

Koreans, North and South, love gadgets.

Not all North Koreans have local cellphones. Those who do use them to call colleagues to arrange work meetings, phone and text friends to set up dinner dates and ring home to check in on their babies. They snap photos with their phones and swap MP3s. They read North Korean books and the Workers' Party newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, on their phones.

But they cannot surf the "international" Internet, as they call it. The World Wide Web remains strictly off limits for most North Koreans. North Korean universities have their own fairly sophisticated Intranet system, though the material posted to it is closely vetted by authorities and hews to propaganda. Students say they can email one another, but they can't send emails outside the country.

Leader Kim Jong Un has pushed science and technology as major policy directives, and we're starting to see more laptops in North Korean offices. The new Samjiyon tablet computer, made in China for the North Korean market, was sold out when I last checked at a local computer shop.

Even during the days when no mobile data were available, Guttenfelder figured out a way to activate Wi-Fi sharing among his laptop, iPod touch and iPhone, and began posting geotagged pictures to Instagram. Using Loopcam, I began uploading small GIF videos that have the feel of an old-fashioned flipbook, giving movement and life to the scene on the street.

These are snapshots captured as we go about our daily life working in North Korea: a man getting a haircut at a barber shop, traffic cops lacing up ice skates, a villager hauling a bundle of firewood on her back as she trudges through a snowy field. Some are quirky, unexpected things that catch our attention: a blinking Christmas tree in February, the cartoon "Madagascar" showing on state TV, a basket of baguettes at the supermarket.

And some are politically telling: the empty highway from Pyongyang, people piling onto trucks for transportation, postcards showing soldiers attacking Americans, banners praising the scientists who sent a rocket into space. Despite the new construction, gadgets and consumer goods, North Korea is still grappling with grave economic hardship. It's a society governed by a web of strict rules and regulations, a nation wary of the outside world.

Often, they are images, videos and details that may not make it onto the AP's products but provide a behind-the-scenes glimpse of a country largely hidden from view even in our globalized, interconnected world. They help give a sense of the feel, smell and look of the place away from the pomp of the orchestrated events shown by the state media. It is a way for us to share what we see, large and small, during our long stays in a nation off limits to most Western journalists and still largely a mystery, even to us.

On Monday evening, while discussing how to cover the arrival of ex-NBA star Dennis Rodman and describing his array of tattoos and nose rings, we did what wasn't possible in the past: We Googled him from a local restaurant.

Twenty-four hours later, Rodman himself appeared to be online and tweeting from North Korea.

"I come in peace. I love the people of North Korea!" he wrote.

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Jean H. Lee is the AP's bureau chief for North Korea and South Korea, and has made more than 20 trips to North Korea since 2008. Follow (at)newsjean on Twitter, Loopcam and Instagram. Follow (at)dguttenfelder on Twitter and Instagram.