Skip to main content

North Korea: A sneak peek through the keyhole

By Ivan Watson, CNN
August 1, 2013 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
CNN and other journalism organizations were given rare access to North Korea as part of the country's commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the conclusion of the Korean War. CNN's <a href='http://instagram.com/ivancnn' target='_blank'>Ivan Watson</a> and <a href='http://instagram.com/tjschwarz' target='_blank'>Tim Schwarz</a> were part of the group visiting the isolated nation and captured some of the sights using Instagram. Occasionally, the mask slipped to show a more poignant, human face of North Korea. Here a <a href='http://instagram.com/p/cVrGDhiDX5/' target='_blank'>young mother and her child pose</a> for Watson while walking in Pyongyang. "[It was a] fascinating, frustrating visit," Watson said. "Sadly, I didn't have a single 'real' conversation with a North Korean due to immense government paranoia." CNN and other journalism organizations were given rare access to North Korea as part of the country's commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the conclusion of the Korean War. CNN's Ivan Watson and Tim Schwarz were part of the group visiting the isolated nation and captured some of the sights using Instagram. Occasionally, the mask slipped to show a more poignant, human face of North Korea. Here a young mother and her child pose for Watson while walking in Pyongyang. "[It was a] fascinating, frustrating visit," Watson said. "Sadly, I didn't have a single 'real' conversation with a North Korean due to immense government paranoia."
HIDE CAPTION
Instagrams from North Korea
Instagrams from North Korea
Instagrams from North Korea
Instagrams from North Korea
Instagrams from North Korea
Instagrams from North Korea
Instagrams from North Korea
Instagrams from North Korea
Instagrams from North Korea
Instagrams from North Korea
Instagrams from North Korea
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • CNN's Ivan Watson took a five-day trip to North Korea's capital, Pyongyang
  • Media were invited to see 60th anniversary celebrations marking Korean War armistice
  • Watson says the visit was "the most strictly controlled foreign assignment" of his career
  • It was like "peering through a keyhole, left to guess at the hidden world on the other side," he writes

Pyongyang, North Korea (CNN) -- On North Korea's national airline the sound system blares patriotic music at passengers from the moment they get on the plane until the moment they step off the aircraft. The volume is so loud that earphones fail to drown out the socialist anthems. Even in the tiny bathroom, there is no escape. Next to the sink, a speaker continues to blast occupants with paeans to the people's paradise.

The inescapable soundtrack aboard the Air Koryo plane is a fitting metaphor for my recent five-day trip to Pyongyang. It was a tightly-restricted, carefully stage-managed tour rich with propaganda and political theater and little else: It offered virtually no insight into what life is like for ordinary citizens who live in this rigid dictatorship.

For a foreign journalist it was like trying to peer through a keyhole -- and being left to guess at the hidden world on the other side of the door.

Behind the veil: A rare look at life in North Korea

Nurses with guns goose-step through Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang, North Korea, during a mass military parade on Saturday, July 27. The parade was part of elaborate celebrations for the 60th anniversary of the end of the Korean War-- known in the country as "Victory Day." CNN's Ivan Watson was part of a Western media contingent allowed into North Korea to cover the occasion. Nurses with guns goose-step through Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang, North Korea, during a mass military parade on Saturday, July 27. The parade was part of elaborate celebrations for the 60th anniversary of the end of the Korean War-- known in the country as "Victory Day." CNN's Ivan Watson was part of a Western media contingent allowed into North Korea to cover the occasion.
North Korea celebrates war 'victory'
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
>
>>
North Korea celebrates war \'victory\' North Korea celebrates war 'victory'
Watson: Kim Jong Un walked toward me
Shopping for electronics in North Korea
Inside North Korea: Living in the past

The North Korean regime invited more than a dozen television crews from around the world to see its lavish celebration of the 60th anniversary of the signing of the armistice that brought an end to the fighting for the Korean War.

In a characteristic burst of revisionist history, Pyongyang refers to this as its "grand victory against US imperialists in the Fatherland Liberation War."

This was the image the North Korean leadership wanted to present to the outside world: endless parades of goose-stepping soldiers and military hardware, accompanied by huge demonstrations of popular support for Kim Jong Un, the twenty-something leader who inherited the dynastic throne when his father died in 2011.

North Korea's Kim Jong Un honors country's war veterans

The relatively inexperienced grandson has a striking -- some say deliberate -- resemblance to his grandfather Kim Il Sung, the long-dead founder of communist North Korea.

"They're trying to connect Kim Il Sung to Kim Jong Un," said Han Park, a professor of International Relations at the University of Georgia. Park spoke to CNN after the grandson inaugurated an enormous new Korean War museum, dominated by giant portraits and statues of a youthful Kim Il Sung.

The sight of the corpulent Kim Jong Un touring the gilded new museum contrasted sharply with appalling statistics recently released by the United Nations. Last month, the U.N.'s World Food Program called for donated foreign food aid to be distributed to 2.4 million North Korean women and children for "the prevention and cure of moderate acute malnutrition among children (6 months -- 4 years old) and their mothers." Those 2.4 million people amount to roughly 10% of the Korean population. Up to a million North Koreans are believed to have died in a famine when this country's state-controlled economy all but collapsed in the 1990s.

The visit to Pyongyang marked the most strictly controlled foreign assignment of my journalistic career. North Korea was more restrictive than previous reporting trips to Iran and even Moammar Gadhafi's Libya at a time when his regime was trying -- and ultimately failing -- to survive a NATO bombing campaign.

We were not allowed to leave the confines of the Yanggakdo International Hotel unless we were riding a government bus. During my five days in North Korea, the authorities did not even allow me to see what the country's currency looks like.

Cosmetic change, but no real reform, in North Korea

Two unfailingly polite government minders -- one junior, one senior -- were assigned to remain at the side of our three-man television crew at all times. Aside from arrival and departure from the airport, I estimate our buses remained within a roughly five square-mile perimeter in the center of Pyongyang for five days.

CNN Inside North Korea
CNN gets rare look inside North Korea
Arirang Festival a reminder of division

This bubble of cityscape consisted of gleaming monuments to the Kim dynasty, Soviet-style apartment buildings, tidy streets largely empty of vehicular traffic and manicured lawns. On several occasions, I saw kneeling North Korean laborers trimming the lawns by hand.

At night, the city was eerily dark. Electricity appeared to be in short supply. On the pitch-black night-time drive from the airport to the hotel, our bus briefly illuminated pedestrians walking in the darkness on the shoulder of the highway. They didn't even have flashlights.

The authorities made no pretense of allowing us to film freely. The elder of the two government guides routinely instructed us to stop taking pictures. At one point, when I asked why I couldn't shoot photos of pedestrians from the window of our moving bus, our senior minder told me: "We don't want journalists spreading vicious propaganda about our country."

"When you search on the internet, it is full of photos of North Koreans wearing rags," our senior minder explained, revealing that he was one of the elite few allowed access to what was said about North Korea in the outside world.

The North Korea we rarely see

For five days we were taken to a series of government ceremonies: the opening of a new veterans' cemetery, the mass Arirang Games -- a truly mind-boggling performance boasting a choreographed cast of thousands -- and the most surreal event of all: the Kimjongilia and Kimilsungia Flower Festival.

The celebration focused on a red blossom and a purple orchid which were named after the two former rulers of the country. Organizers had erected floral pavilions, interlacing flowers with images of the two leaders and pictures of missiles, tanks, and other North Korean war machines.

"When you look at these flowers we feel great yearning for our leaders," said Ri Su Jong, a 21-year old woman who worked as an official guide at the festival. She said there were more than 20,000 flowerpots at the exhibit. When I asked her which flower she preferred, Ri immediately answered: "I love both."

Sadly, I believe I failed to have a sincere, open conversation with a single North Korean during my time there. The discipline and control exhibited by the government in Pyongyang was almost complete. It was a sharp contrast to my experience in the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, when foreign visitors had easy access to black market traders greedy for Western cigarettes, chewing gum and blue jeans outside government hotels.

In Pyongyang, interviews with veterans and parade-goers quickly turned into fervid denunciations of U.S. imperialism, before we were whisked away by our minders.

Veteran POWs recall misery of North Korean captivity

I did learn from a group of schoolchildren, who had been brought to bow before the final resting place of former leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, that they liked swimming in the ocean and roller-blading.

But when I asked a 12-year old boy about his favorite TV shows, he answered: "Cartoons and documentaries about Kim Il Sung."

It is possible that all of the school children in North Korea love and adore the founding father of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

But one exchange with our junior minder suggested that some North Koreans had an appetite for more than biographies about their leaders. "Which movie stars do you like?" the 21-year old asked me over a tasty Korean lunch of locally-brewed beer and cold buckwheat noodles. Our junior minder liked Brad Pitt. He went on to tell me that he had been allowed to watch several Hollywood movies in his university English class. With the exception of the thriller "Se7en" and the comedy "Big Daddy," they were mostly historical period pieces: "Troy," "Gladiator," and "The Sound of Music." He asked: "Do you know the song 'Eidelweiss'?"

The young minder was at his happiest when he borrowed my iPhone. Some North Koreans now have access to cell phones. But the government prohibits ordinary North Koreans from using Internet, e-mail or even making international telephone calls. However, he knew how to navigate my cell phone and quickly immersed himself in several iPhone games. "Do you have Bluetooth?" he asked, since I could not e-mail him a photo I had taken of him.

In Pyongyang, the government mask briefly slipped on the day of the military parade celebrating the war's anniversary. It was scorching hot and humid in the North Korean capital on July 27. Octogenarian veterans wearing uniforms bristling with shiny medals packed bleachers overlooking the parade grounds.

They waited for hours under the hot sun until Kim Jong Un made his appearance in a shaded grandstand overlooking the square named after his grandfather. Soldiers and citizens then spent the next several hours, goose-stepping and cheering in the summer heat to the music of a military marching band.

Finally, sometime around noon, the Respected Leader waved goodbye. The moment he left, both parade participants and spectators crumpled to the ground. Many were clearly victims of heat stroke and exhaustion.

I saw a soldier, wearing the full dress uniform of his marching band, nearly unconscious in the tiny spot of shade made by his stand of cymbals. An elderly veteran sat gasping on the sidewalk in another spot of shade, visibly distraught.

CNN's cameraman David Hawley ran to a civilian woman who lay heaving on a curb, handing her our last bottle of water. She took the bottle as two of her friends helped carry her away.

There was no other apparent source of water or hydration for the masses of people who had been performing in the square. The organizers of this spectacle of North Korean military might did not appear to have taken into account the inevitable dehydration of their citizens.

That night, the government summoned foreign dignitaries and its most elite supporters for yet another show of patriotism. After making the crowd wait for hours, Kim Jong Un occupied a throne at one end of a park next to his guest of honor, the vice president of China. They watched as a spectacular fireworks display erupted above the newly-inaugurated "Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum."

I looked at the crowd of North Koreans. In nearly every row, it seemed there was at least one exhausted spectator fast asleep, oblivious to the victory fireworks exploding in front of their faces.

North Korea: Our global fear and fascination

CNN's Tim Schwarz and David Hawley contributed to this report

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
April 2, 2014 -- Updated 1127 GMT (1927 HKT)
Experts warn that under Kim Jong Un's rule, Pyongyang has shown an even greater willingness to raise the stakes than before.
March 18, 2014 -- Updated 1314 GMT (2114 HKT)
China and North Korea criticize a U.N. report that found crimes against humanity committed in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
March 17, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
Megumi Yokota was only 13 when she was abducted by a North Korean agent in the 1970s. What happened after that?
March 12, 2014 -- Updated 0430 GMT (1230 HKT)
Report: North Korea uses multiple techniques to defy sanctions, and shows no signs of abandoning its nuclear missile programs.
February 21, 2014 -- Updated 0817 GMT (1617 HKT)
Families torn apart for more than 60 years -- separated by the Korean War -- began to reunite at a mountain resort in North Korea Thursday.
February 18, 2014 -- Updated 1150 GMT (1950 HKT)
A stunning catalog of torture and the widespread abuse of even the weakest of North Koreans reveal a portrait of a brutal state, the UN reported.
February 18, 2014 -- Updated 0431 GMT (1231 HKT)
Former prisoners in North Korea describe horrific stories of being tortured by authorities.
February 14, 2014 -- Updated 1527 GMT (2327 HKT)
Skiing is not the first thing that springs to mind when thinking about the isolated nation, but North Korea's ski resort is world class.
February 8, 2014 -- Updated 0315 GMT (1115 HKT)
American Kenneth Bae, who is being held in North Korea, has been moved from a hospital to a labor camp.
January 8, 2014 -- Updated 0213 GMT (1013 HKT)
Why is he being held by North Korea in a prison camp? These are the questions for many since his arrest in the isolated country in 2012.
January 27, 2014 -- Updated 0818 GMT (1618 HKT)
The first time the South Korean factory owner watched his North Korean employees nibble on a Choco Pie, they appeared shocked.
January 8, 2014 -- Updated 0126 GMT (0926 HKT)
Dennis Rodman's "Big Bang in Pyongyang" may be in a league of its own, but other stars too have mixed with repressive regimes before.
December 19, 2013 -- Updated 1800 GMT (0200 HKT)
Former NBA star Dennis Rodman arrives in North Korea to train basketball players, state-run media reports.
December 18, 2013 -- Updated 0250 GMT (1050 HKT)
The nation held a memorial in the honor of former North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il on the second anniversary of his death.
December 13, 2013 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
Days after he was removed from his powerful military post, Jang Song Thaek was called a traitor and executed.
ADVERTISEMENT