Inside Pyongyang: How North Korea is changing
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.