Unprecedented: CNN goes inside North Korea's secretive Congress

Inside the North Korean Workers' Party Congress
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Story highlights

  • CNN crew given unprecedented access to North Korea Workers' Party Congress
  • Kim Jong Un elected chairman of the Workers' Party

Pyongyang, North Korea (CNN)Even by North Korean standards, this experience was surreal.

For days, a CNN crew in Pyongyang has pushed for access to the Workers' Party Congress -- a massive political event that hasn't happened in 36 years.

    Nobody does huge displays of devotion to the leader like #NorthKorea

    A photo posted by Will Ripley (@willripleycnn) on

    More than 100 journalists from around the world came to do the same thing. It's been a week of disappointment. The closest we came was shooting the building from across the street.
    That changed Monday, when government officials whisked away a small group of 30 journalists -- including myself and photojournalist Charlie Miller.
    We don't know why they chose us. They didn't tell us where we were going, but told us to get our suits and ties -- and bring our passports.

    Extreme security

    We boarded buses that eventually took us to the "April 25 House of Culture," an enormous convention center where 3,400 delegates had gathered for the Workers' Party Congress.
    They were waiting not just for us, of course, but for leader Kim Jong Un.
    Security, as you can imagine, was beyond strict. Authorities patted us down and took our cell phones away. We couldn't take our wireless microphones or even our spare batteries.

    Fake flowers & DPRK flags. Staples of mass celebrations in Pyongyang.

    A photo posted by Will Ripley (@willripleycnn) on

    The whole security process took 90 minutes. Finally, we were allowed inside the Workers' Party Congress -- the first time any Western journalists were allowed to do so.
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    A historic encounter

    The walk to the Congress' auditorium is lined with ornate marble columns and an extravagant escalator. We were warned not to bump our tripod on the immaculate escalator.
    As we entered the auditorium, we quickly realized we were not the only ones filming. North Korean state-run TV was also filming us, presumably to show how important the Congress was to the rest of the world.
    It's also possible they wanted citizens to feel less isolated and perhaps more connected to the rest of the world.

    A whole lotta balloons

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    As we walked inside the auditorium, 5,000 heads turned. Some looked bemused. Others, stone-faced.
    The silence was broken only by the familiar tune that plays every time the country's "supreme leader" is about to enter.
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    Suddenly, everyone clapped and shouted in perfect unison. They did so for several minutes.
    Then Kim -- wearing a suit, gray tie and glasses -- made his entrance.
    Our minders gave us 10 minutes to shoot whatever we wanted -- except for closeups of the delegates' notebooks.
    Then we were briskly ushered away.

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    We still saw no transparency on how the voting worked. What we do know is that the 3,400 delegates, who were joined by 1,500 or so alternates, always vote unanimously.
    And in this once-in-a-generation Congress, Kim was elected chairman of the Workers' Party. Somehow, he was given even more power than he already had.

    Challenges covering North Korea

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    This is my 10th reporting trip to North Korea, and I'm not afraid to report facts that are critical of the nation or its leader, even when I'm inside the country.
    But North Korean officials have strongly reprimanded me for my reporting.
    While I've never deleted video or allowed North Korean officials to view stories in advance, there are still restrictions.
    The government often directs when the camera can be used and where it can be pointed, hindering the ability to move freely about the country.
    But as the unanimous voting in support of Kim showed, this is not a government that appears to be crumbling anytime soon.