By Howard Cohen
CNN Senior International Correspondent Ivan Watson was granted rare access to North Korea last month to attend the 60th anniversary of the end of the Korean War. GPS intern Howard Cohen spoke with Watson about what he saw.
What kinds of restrictions were placed on journalists during your five day visit to North Korea?
The restrictions were onerous. We weren’t allowed to leave our hotel unless we were on a government organized bus trip. Our three-man crew was assigned two very polite minders who accompanied us everywhere outside of the hotel and made no secret about the fact that they had veto rights if we were to take pictures of something that they didn’t approve of. So they would basically tell us what we could and could not take pictures of.
Was there anything that you saw that really surprised you?
I was surprised by the size and choreography of the military parades and government organized spectacles that we saw. I was also blown away by the scale of the cult of personality of the dynasty that have ruled North Korea for 60 years, the size of the monuments dedicated to the grandfather and the father that ruled the country, and the amount of iconography that was everywhere that we visited. I was also amazed by the spectacles of devotion for the current leader, the grandson of the founder of the country, Kim Jong Un. Just the explosions of cheers at the moment he steps out into the public arena – the devotion that comes from the crowd – I’ve not quite seen anything on that scale before. Then again, I’ve never visited the Korean Peninsula.
What was your impression of Kim Jong Un?
He made a number of public appearances at the ceremonies for the anniversaries of the end of the Korean War. I was actually quite close to him. He walked through a gaggle of foreign journalists in the new museum that he inaugurated which was a real surprise because, to the best of my knowledge, neither his father when he was ruler nor his grandfather ever got that close to foreign journalists in an uncontrolled setting like that before. Nobody really heard his voice, which was surprising. He was just this president who would come out and wave to the crowd. A military marching band would play the same theme every time he appeared. Sometimes his departure or his arrival was accompanied by fireworks and balloons.
And he was a bit of cipher to me. I don’t know personally what to make of him. I don’t know how to put this politely, but he is rounder and better-fed than any of the other people I saw in North Korea – a country to which the United Nations World Food Program has made an appeal to try to feed the more than 2 million women and children who risk suffering from acute malnutrition. And this is a rather well-fed man who is ruling the country and is only in his 20’s.
Was there strong anti-Western sentiment?
Definitely. North Koreans, in almost any interview that I had, were very quick to denounce what they described as U.S. imperialism and unchecked U.S. aggression against their country over the last 60 years. It was the anniversary of the Korean War, which was principally fought between the North Koreans, backed by the Soviets and hundreds of thousands of Chinese, against South Koreans and the U.S. military. What was very clear was that 60 years after that war, North Koreans are taught that their principal enemy, to this very day, is the U.S.
Did the North Korean nuclear program or relations with South Korea ever come up?
Absolutely. The celebrations included references to the nuclear program. Soldiers wore military packs that had atom signs on them. During the Arirang games there were graphics in the stadium of missiles taking off.
The desire to reunify the divided Korean people is very much a part of the ideology of the regime. That’s very much a utopian dream that is frequently repeated by the government. And I believe, from what little I saw, that many Koreans want that as well. They just don’t know how to get there.
Did the North Koreans ever explain why they are allowing reporters in with cell phones?
There wasn’t a clear explanation of why the rules had changed to allow cell phones this time. My guess is that they wanted the images of these carefully choreographed government celebrations to get out to the rest of the world. I think it’s very important to note that ordinary North Koreans aren’t given access to the World Wide Web, to internet, and to e-mails, for that matter. Ordinary North Koreans can’t even make international phone calls.
Kim Jong Un recently built a new amusement park. Did the North Koreans take you there?
We were very much on a tour that was focused on, for want of a better word, this kind of cult of the North Korean regime. For example, we were taken to a palace where the bodies of the grandfather and father – Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong Il – now lie in state. One of my minders described it as a holy place and he wanted me to bow to it when we were brought there. So we weren’t taken to places of frivolity and fun.
How did this trip compare to your past visits to Iran, Libya and the Soviet Union?
This was far more restrictive than trips to Iran and even to Moammar Gadhafi’s Libya in the last days of his rule when it was facing a NATO bombing campaign.
As a child, I went with my parents to the Soviet Union in the 80’s. By then, you definitely saw that the very strictly controlled mask of the Soviet Union had started to slip. Outside the government run hotels that foreigners were taken to, there were kids and black market traders who were eager to rush out to foreigners to trade things for Levi’s jeans, Marlboro cigarettes and Wrigley's chewing gum. The authorities basically looked the other way. There was no example of that kind of lack of discipline in the People’s Paradise – this communist state that is North Korea today.