Reporting on the death of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il on Monday, CNN's American Morning re-visited a soft report from then-correspondent Alina Cho's heavily-guarded visit to the country in 2010.
Cho admitted that the state controlled where she went – but her reporting was fawning at times in what clearly was the state's effort to produce propaganda for outside nations. [Video below the break. Click here for audio.]
For instance, Cho began by gushing over her visit to an amusement park. "Your eyes are not deceiving you. This is communist North Korea. It's newest attraction, this Western style amusement park – and it's packed," she raved. "If North Korea is Stalin's last playground, this is its version of Disneyland."
Cho also noted that since her last visit "more average North Koreans speak English" – but contradicted herself later by admitting that she could only see the country's "best face." If she could not take an in-depth trip around the entire country, how would she know what "average" North Koreans speak, aside from residents of areas the state guided her through?
She also praised Pyongyang's subway system, noting that "today the trains appear to be running on time." Cho also interviewed a girl using a cell phone, who claimed that everyone in her family possesses one. "Most notably in a country closed off to the rest of the world, North Koreans are now talking on cell phones," she touted.
Cho did admit that the government guards just about all of the country from the eyes of the outside world, and that her visit only revealed "North Korea's best face." Nevertheless, her report still provided many sights the state would want to be seen by the outside world.
A transcript of the segment, which aired on December 19 at 7:37 a.m. EST, is as follows:
ALINA CHO: I was given the rare opportunity to report from inside North Korea last year when the nation put on a show of military might for his heir apparent. It was a stunning glimpse inside one of the most secretive nations in the world. Take a look.
CHO (voice-over): Your eyes are not deceiving you. This is communist North Korea. It's newest attraction, this Western style amusement park – and it's packed. There's a ride called "Power Surge." And take a look inside the food court. You'll find western fare. The An family comes here often to unwind.
CHO: (on camera) (Unintelligible)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Unintelligible)
CHO: He says "words cannot explain the excitement. After working so hard, General Kim Jong-il has given us this park to relax. We really love it."
If North Korea is Stalin's last playground, this is its version of Disneyland. Not far at this outdoor food market, they're serving up more traditional fare, like soybean pancakes.
And people are paying. Like their enemy neighbors in South Korea, North Korean currency is also called the won, but this money features a hammer and sickle. One hundred North Korean won equals one U.S. dollar.
That will get you two sweet potatoes, one ticket to the amusement park or a hot dog at the food court. In the two years since I last visited North Korea, I've noticed some changes. For one, more average North Koreans speak English.
(on camera) Do you like coming here?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yes, very much.
CHO (voice-over): For the first time there are traffic lights, installed this spring. Most notably in a country closed off to the rest of the world, North Koreans are now talking on cell phones.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Unintelligible)
CHO: This girl says everyone in her family has one, but international calls are forbidden – word is punishable by death.
In that way, and others, time stands still. We can only see what our government minders want us to see, and undeniably, it's North Korea's best face. Many North Koreans live in poverty. There are very few cars. In this city, there's no such thing as a traffic jam.
(On camera): This is Pyongyang's Puhung subway station, one of two main hubs, and one of the main forms of transportation for average North Koreans. Many don't own bikes let alone cars, so this is how they get from point A to point B – and today the trains appear to be running on time.
(voice-over): And many travel on foot. On the streets, there are no ads, just propaganda, and listen -- they not only see the message, they hear it, North Korean propaganda songs blaring across Pyongyang.
(on camera): So look what we happened upon here. We're in the middle of week-long celebrations here in North Korea commemorating the 65th anniversary of the Workers Party of North Korea. This is how people are celebrating. They're literally dancing in the streets.
(voice-over): It's possible they're also celebrating the choice of their next leader, Kim Jong-un, s Son of the ailing dictator Kim Jong-il.
For all the small changes we've seen, the larger question remains: will a change at the top affect the average citizen? For now, North Korea remains sealed.
(End Video Clip)
CHO: And you know that was October of 2010.
VELSHI: Just over a year ago.
CHO: That's right. And the big question still remains. Will it ever open up to the rest of the world?
VELSHI: But that looks so normal and fun. It's not everywhere.
CHO: Absolutely not. I mean, listen, you know, you cannot go anywhere without a government minder. They watch your every move. I think it's important. I think westerners have a really hard time grasping that, that North Korea is unlike any other place on earth. It is literally sealed off. There's no Internet access. Very few residents have a television sets.
You know, if you just look at what happened to us when we arrived. We land in Pyongyang. Immediately your passport is confiscated. Your Blackberry is confiscated, your cellphone is taken. You don't get back until you leave. Often the battery is drained from your phone. And there's no record that you were ever in the country.
VELSHI: But Alina, a lot of the people in North Korea do have relationships with people in South Korea. What happens to them, because a lot of people in South Korea came from North Korea.
CHO: That's right. Well, I mean, you know –
VELSHI: Do they know what life is like? Because South Korea is one of the most open, technologically-advanced industrial nations in the world.
CHO: It's interesting. When you look at North Korea and South Korea from above, you see all the lights on in South Korea. And North Korea looks pitch black. You know, I actually have relatives. My father's two uncles disappeared during the Korean war. We don't know what happened to them. Presumably if they're still alive they are in North Korea.
But it is -- I was talking to Wolf Blitzer over the weekend, and it really -- we were trying to explain what it is like to be inside that country. It almost defies definition.
VELSHI: That's why they call it the hermit nation. It's really the hermit kingdom.
CHO: That's right.