inside north korea
Diary from inside North Korea
03:55 - Source: CNN

Inside Pyongyang: How North Korea is changing

inside north korea
Diary from inside North Korea
03:55 - Source: CNN
Pyongyang, North Korea CNN  — 

I’ve just returned from my tenth reporting trip to North Korea.

While the country remains closed to most of the outside world, during this trip we gained an unprecedented level of access to the lives of ordinary people.

These men and women were chosen by us – although our government guides often had to work hard to convince people to speak to a US network.

We asked them about their views on North Korea’s isolation and economic hardship, and their views on the new US President Donald Trump.

And while they often said similar things – tightly controlled state media is their only source of information – we are slowly cracking open the door into their lives.

This would hardly be worthy of comment in most countries, but in North Korea it is remarkable. Never before have we had this much latitude while reporting inside North Korea, which is one of the most restrictive nations in the world when it comes to the press.

Inside North Korea: Day by day

Yu Gwang Chol, who works as a research in North Korea, says no one in the country talks about Donald Trump's tweets
North Koreans on Trump's policy
02:43 - Source: CNN


This latest trip was full of milestones. We did CNN’s first Facebook live from the streets of the capital Pyongyang, which lasted for more than 20 minutes.

How reporting in North Korea works

  • We were accompanied at all times by government officials.
  • They don’t like being called minders as they often act more like tour guides – although they are ultimately held responsible for what we report and how we behave while inside the country.
  • They don’t look at our video or scripts ahead of time, but they are with us at all times while we shoot and they often must take extensive steps to secure filming permission at locations we visit.
  • We spent a considerable amount of time in some of Pyongyang’s busiest neighborhoods – places where filming has always been prohibited in the past. We could select random people on the street to interview.

    For the first time, I was able to answer questions from CNN’s social media followers live while inside the country. We were allowed to shoot many locations with our Virtual Reality camera, including Kim Il Sung Square, the Kimjongilia flower show, a secondary school for orphans, and a new eye hospital.

    These VR pieces will be released in the coming weeks and will allow CNN viewers to experience what it’s like to be in these places.

    I also had total freedom to post photos and videos on social media, including Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. This was truly extraordinary – by North Korean standards.

    Perhaps the most enlightening interview of the trip was my conversation with North Korean economist, Professor Ri Gi Song.

    We spoke about North Korea’s trade relationship with China, the underground marketplace that supplements what the state distribution system can’t provide, and even the highest paying jobs in North Korea – coal miners and other manual laborers.

    Ri says physically demanding jobs tend to pay twice as much as office jobs, though he couldn’t disclose actual salaries. Nobody earns much by western standards, given that the nation’s GDP per capita is barely over $1,000 annually – placing North Korea among the poorest in the world.

    A North Korean female soldier stands guard. While military service for women has long been voluntary, it was reportedly made mandatory in a bid to bolster the armed forces.
    China cuts coal imports from North Korea
    01:45 - Source: CNN

    Gucci in Pyongyang

    It was surreal when we visited a North Korean department store selling clothing and accessories from designers like Hermes, Versace, Gucci and others. We went to a coffee shop that had $8 café mochas.

    Atop another multi-level department store stocked with high-end electronics and appliances, there was an even a food court on the top floor selling everything from Korean food (very popular with the locals) to Western-style burgers and fries (not popular at all).

    I was surprised to see hundreds of people with food piled high on their plates – not the image of a “starving” North Korea so engrained in many peoples’ minds given the reports of famine just two years ago.

    Of course, you cannot extrapolate from life in Pyongyang what conditions are like in the rest of the country. The capital is clearly a showcase city and gets the lion’s share of resources.

    Only the most trusted are allowed live and work in the capital. We are usually not allowed to see for ourselves how people live outside of North Korea’s most prosperous city, where the United Nations, aid workers and defectors paint a grim picture of daily life, although we request that kind of access each time we visit.

    Portraits of the late North Korean leaders in Kim II Sung Square.
    Facebook Live with Will Ripley out of N. Korea
    23:21 - Source: CNN

    School for orphans

    As in previous trips, we are still taken on government-arranged “sightseeing trips” to places North Korea wants to show off to the world, an attempt to prove what they believe is the superiority of their socialist system.

    We don’t ask to go to these places but, nonetheless, we are expected to cover them during our time in North Korea. We often try to weave these experiences into a larger narrative about the country, always putting in context that these shiny new projects do not represent the full reality of life there.

    On one trip we visited a brand new Pyongyang secondary school for orphans, many of whom had lost their parents working in coalmines, factories, and other state-owned enterprises.

    About 70 students put on a music performance for us, during which I felt a wave of sadness knowing they had all lost their parents. Some were shy and quiet but others flashed big smiles and seemed genuinely interested in the strange foreigners visiting their school. Students are required to learn English and some were even brave enough to speak a few words.

    It was clear the students’ living conditions were far better than most North Koreans. The nation’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un reportedly designed and inspected the school himself, which has a swimming pool, computer labs, and even its own generator to ensure consistent electricity and heat.

    We were told Kim ordered the school to be supplied with plenty of food and supplies for the more than 500 children. I was told they all consider Kim their father. They are being raised as loyal servants to the government. The vocational skills they are learning such as driving, computer science, and cooking could be their jobs for life.

    I’m always mindful that the government is inviting us in with the intention of using us for propaganda purposes. We are only shown the best of the best.

    North Korea is the most challenging story I’ve covered in 17 years of journalism. Nothing in the country is simple, easy, or straightforward.

    You must always be skeptical of what you see and experience.

    Pyongyang skyline
    Economic impact of sanctions on North Korea
    02:34 - Source: CNN

    No Internet, no international calls

    02 North Korea missile launch
    North Korea improves missile program
    02:16 - Source: CNN

    I arrived in Pyongyang two days after Kim Jong Un tested a new kind of mid-range ballistic missile.

    As we checked into the Yanggakdo hotel, which sits on an island in the middle of Pyongyang to prevent tourists and visitors from wandering around the city, footage of the missile launch was playing on state TV.

    The launch, one of dozens Kim has ordered over the last three years, made international headlines mostly because it was the first to occur during the Trump administration.

    The rest of the world learned of the missile launch within hours. But North Koreans were not aware until an official announcement aired on state media the next day.

    Pyongyang plane journey_00010403.jpg
    Flying into Pyongyang
    02:13 - Source: CNN

    Everything citizens see and hear is carefully screened and approved before being broadcast to the nation’s 24 million citizens (or at least those with electricity who are able to watch TV or listen to the radio).

    Regular people don’t have the Internet. They can’t make international calls. State media is their only (very small) window to the outside world.

    From a young age, North Koreans are told they live under the constant threat of invasion by the US and therefore their government’s allocation of scarce resources to nuclear and missile development is justified.

    For decades, that simple, effective propaganda message has helped three generations of Kim family rulers justify their nation’s militarization and tight grip on their citizens.

    They have perfected how to keep order and control better than perhaps any other regime on earth. They do it by keeping out the rest of the world. North Korea is slowing opening up, but only on its own terms.