North Korea has opened its borders to a flood of outsiders this week, eager to demonstrate its achievements to visiting business travellers, tourists, more than 130 overseas journalists and the actor Gérard Depardieu.
But an unusually large gathering in Pyongyang this week before a major national anniversary celebration was prefaced by a threat to foreign reporters, who were told that angering or insulting the regime could land them in five to 10 years of "reform through labour."
Sept. 9 is the 70th anniversary of the founding of North Korea. The holiday has taken on unusual importance this year as supreme leader Kim Jong-un seeks to capitalize on his technological and diplomatic achievements after a year in which he claimed success in North Korea's nuclear weapons program and held summits with the leaders of South Korea, China and the United States.
Authorities are keen to put forward a new face for a country best known for its isolation, rights abuses and defiance in pursuit of nuclear armaments. Anniversary events are expected to include a military parade and, in the weeks that follow, an enormous choreographed artistic performance called the Mass Games.
The weekend guest list is so large that Air Koryo, North Korea’s national carrier, added special flights.
The press delegation alone took eight coaches and a handful of minibuses to ferry across Pyongyang on Friday. Local officials could not recall a larger media guest list in the country's history. Across the city, people painted sidewalk lines by hand and resealed asphalt with mops to buff the capital’s appearance.
But even as hotel lobbies grew loud with dozens of languages – and at the Yanggakdo Hotel, the sight of Mr. Depardieu angrily waving away people taking pictures of his unexpected entrance – officials issued an unusually clear warning to those who have come to witness the events.
Those unwilling to abide by the regime's terms, journalists were told, risk severe consequences.
Moments after passing through customs at Pyongyang International Airport, The Globe and Mail was presented with a 10-page document that includes regulations for foreign journalists and excerpts of the country's criminal law.
Printed in English, the rules expressly outlaw "distorting the realities in the DPRK" or making "a false report out of hostile intention." (North Korea calls itself the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.) Also forbidden are "violating stability and common interests of society in the DPRK," and "violating the interests of the DPRK and its citizens and defaming the latter."
Transgressing those prohibitions, the rules make clear, is considered a criminal act, punishable by five to 10 years in “reform through labour."
Journalists, the North Korean regulations say, should be makers of harmony, not peddlers of discord. They "shall promote the development of relations of friendship and co-operation between the DPRK and other countries."
North Korea's own state-run press routinely directs bombast and insults abroad – state media memorably published Mr. Kim's characterization of U.S. President Donald Trump as a "mentally deranged dotard."
But Pyongyang takes a dim view of foreigners making unflattering observations of the country, or Mr. Kim. In 2009, two U.S. journalists were detained after crossing into the country without a visa. They were sentenced to 12 years of hard labour, but released after five months.
In 2016, BBC journalist Rupert Wingfield-Hayes was detained and interrogated for 10 hours in North Korea after he was accused of "speaking very ill of the system, the leadership of the country." Mr. Wingfield-Hayes had questioned the authenticity of a hospital.
"For the North Koreans, media coverage should always be positive – that is, propaganda – and negative coverage could be seen as ‘hostile,’ " said Jean H. Lee, who was the first bureau chief for the Associated Press in Pyongyang and is now with the Wilson Center.
That is particularly true during important events such as Sunday's 70th anniversary celebrations, Ms. Lee said.
"Their main objective in bringing in so many foreign media outlets is to have them transmit pretty pictures and images of North Korea at its best."
The message in the journalists' regulations, which are not typically given to visiting media, is “Welcome to North Korea! Be very careful," she said.
At the same time, North Korean authorities have taken some unusual steps to soften the edges of a regime whose rhetoric toward outsiders is often hostile. Visitors have historically been subjected to rigorous airport searches.
This week, customs officials conducted only cursory x-ray scans. Immigration clerks greeted arrivals with a smile. Journalists have been given visas for 17 days – far longer than most expect to stay.
And the country's diplomats have arranged a parade of guests. Ethnic Koreans living abroad, including in Canada, have been allowed in for family reunions. Mr. Depardieu, although he is a controversial figure who has been friendly with Russia's Vladimir Putin, brought a measure of Hollywood. Foreign business delegations have arrived, too, although not all with a clear idea of why.
"It was not my intention to come here," said Mehmet Isiklar, general manager of Szutest, a certification company based in Istanbul. He was invited, and hoped to make a business contact or two.
It is "part of PR," he said. “So I don't have big expectations.”
Visiting journalists were brought to a teachers college and a silk mill on Friday. Educators showed off virtual reality goggles, a purported artificial intelligence teaching simulation and a robotics lab. At the Kim Jong-suk Silk Factory, workers expressed confidence in their future.
"Our country is becoming famous in the world for our politics and our military," Oh Shin-deok said as she twisted together bolts of silk. “If we become an economic powerhouse, too, we'll be the wealthiest and happiest country in the world."
Yet, there were limits to the inquiry North Korean minders would allow. The Globe sought to ask another factory worker whether she supported North Korea relinquishing its nuclear weapons. A minder declined to translate the question, replying: "She is not an expert.”