NBC Reporter Goes to North Korean Amusement Park, Enjoys Bumper Cars

In a stunningly tone deaf report for NBC’s Today show on Wednesday, reporter Keir Simmons touted “a week inside North Korea” and gaining “rare access to the people there,” which included riding bumper cars at an amusement park in Pyongyang and sampling beer at a local bar. Less than a minute of the five-minute long segment focused on North Korea’s atrocious human rights abuses.

As he arrived in the authoritarian regime, Simmons observed: “First impressions: Clean, organized, and a lot of people in uniform.” Visiting a military museum in the capital, he declared: “A tour of weapons captured from American forces in the Korean War counts as a school outing here.” He asked two of the children visiting: “What are you learning here?” A girl replied: “We are learning about the great fighting spirit of our war heros.” A boy answered: “America gave unfathomable pain to our people.”

 

 

From that blatant display of government propaganda, it was time to travel to another: “Here, an amusement park in the capital, bumper cars.” Not only did Simmons take note of the ride, he decided to hop in one. Afterwards, he told viewers that his fellow bumper car drivers were “ruthless.” That word was only used once in the report, and not in reference to the communist regime.

As he enjoyed the amusement park attractions, the correspondent touted people taking pictures: “And cell phone cameras, though not connected to the worldwide web, they are small signs of a growing economy.”

Despite laughably taking up North Korea’s “growing economy,” Simmons did manage to offer a single sentence about the reality: “Sanctions are tightening, the average income still around a thousand to two thousand dollars a year.” Though even then he seemed to blame the sanctions instead of the dictatorship for the extreme poverty.

Simmons quickly added: “But everyone we met was quick to thank one person for, well, everything – the country’s supreme leader.” While still at the amusement park, he asked a group of people: “So you thank Kim Jong-un for this park?” Predictably, they all said yes.

After the amusement park, Simmons was treated to a few drinks: “At a beer hall, the usual bar chat, local brew, and snacks.” The reporter laughed and clinked glasses with the bar’s fellow patrons. When he asked them, “What do you think of America?,” one gentleman eagerly responded: “We are ready to fight until our last drop of blood.”

Finally, after seeing all the sights that government wanted him to see, Simmons took about 40 seconds to sum up North Korea’s horrendous human rights record:

In this tightly controlled country, you can never be sure what people are truly thinking. We are constantly accompanied by government officials, listening in and translating. Inevitably, we weren’t shown evidence of what Amnesty International calls “violations of most aspects of their human rights.”

This the country where American Otto Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years for attempted theft of a poster. In prison, the 21-year-old student mysteriously fell into a coma and never regained consciousness. On Friday, Otto Warmbier’s dad will attend the Olympic opening ceremony as a guest of Vice President Pence. The diplomatic tension spilling over into the sports arena.

However, rather than end on such a dour note, Simmons instead boosted North Korea’s Olympic team for the upcoming winter games in South Korea:

Among those who’ve qualified, two North Korean skaters. They’re Olympic dreams have flourished here, under the watchful eye of the country’s great leaders. When you’re from North Korea, the pressure is at another level. We meet their mentor, 75-year-old speed skating champion, Han Pil-hwa....She was the first Korean to meddle at a Winter Olympics, back in 1964. She has dreamt of the north and south competing as one.

After the taped report, Simmons briefly explained to co-hosts Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb how closely managed his visit was by government minders:

And a note on how our trip was organized. We asked for where we wanted to go, but of course, the government controlled where we went. So inevitably, the people that we spoke to were pro-government. What we didn’t see, Savanna and Hoda, was what many defectors have talked about, which are terrible conditions there.

“Right, when you go, you see what they want you to see,” Guthrie replied.

That’s certainly always a challenge for any reporter covering an authoritarian country, but that doesn’t mean they have to be such a willing participant in the propaganda.

Back in January, NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt drew significant scorn for a similarly softball segment on North Korea for the Today show. While reporting from a “very modern ski resort” in the brutal regime on January 22, Holt gushed: “We have been treated with respect here.”

Ironically, earlier on Wednesday’s broadcast, the NBC morning show fretted that President Trump’s call for a military paraded in Washington D.C. would make the U.S. look like North Korea. If only the network’s coverage of North Korea itself were that harsh.

Here is a full transcript of the February 7 report from Simmons:

7:41 AM ET

HODA KOTB: Welcome back, the Winter Olympics begin in South Korea tomorrow, and that has its neighbor to the north very much in the spotlight.

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE: It is. So how are people in North Korea feeling about the start of the games and the recent escalating tension with the U.S.? NBC’s Kier Simmons traveled to North Korea to find out. He joins us now from Pyeongchang. Keir, good morning.

KEIR SIMMONS: Savannah, good morning. Tomorrow, North Korea will hold a military parade, just a day ahead of the opening ceremony here. Where South Korean athletes will compete alongside North Koreans. The U.S. accusing North Korea of using the Olympics for propaganda. We spent a week inside North Korea and gained rare access to the people there.

[ON-SCREEN HEADLINE: Inside North Korea; Rare Look at Rogue Nation’s People & Places]

The flight into North Korea crosses mountainous terrain, southeast to the capital, Pyongyang. We drove at dusk from the airport.

First impressions: Clean, organized, and a lot of people in uniform.

A tour of weapons captured from American forces in the Korean War counts as a school outing here.

What are you learning here?

“We are learning about the great fighting spirit of our war heros,” this child tells me.

“America gave unfathomable pain to our people,” he says.

Here, an amusement park in the capital, bumper cars. They are ruthless, these guys.

And cell phone cameras, though not connected to the worldwide web, they are small signs of a growing economy.

Sanctions are tightening, the average income still around a thousand to two thousand dollars a year. But everyone we met was quick to thank one person for, well, everything – the country’s supreme leader.

So you thank Kim Jong-un for this park?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yes.

At a beer hall, the usual bar chat, local brew, and snacks.

Smokey, vinegary, chewy. You definitely need beer with it.

The conversation becomes more animated, as bar talk often does.

SIMMONS: What do you think of America?

“We are ready to fight,” this man says, “until our last drop of blood.” But another says, “Truthfully, we don’t want to become America’s enemy. As fathers, we all want peace.”

In this tightly controlled country, you can never be sure what people are truly thinking. We are constantly accompanied by government officials, listening in and translating. Inevitably, we weren’t shown evidence of what Amnesty International calls “violations of most aspects of their human rights.”

This the country where American Otto Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years for attempted theft of a poster. In prison, the 21-year-old student mysteriously fell into a coma and never regained consciousness. On Friday, Otto Warmbier’s dad will attend the Olympic opening ceremony as a guest of Vice President Pence. The diplomatic tension spilling over into the sports arena.

Among those who’ve qualified, two North Korean skaters. They’re Olympic dreams have flourished here, under the watchful eye of the country’s great leaders. When you’re from North Korea, the pressure is at another level.

We meet their mentor, 75-year-old speed skating champion, Han Pil-hwa.

Would you like to win an Olympic medal?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN [SKATERS]: Yes!

She was the first Korean to meddle at a Winter Olympics, back in 1964. She has dreamt of the north and south competing as one. Her brother, she explains, lived in the south. “I last spoke to him back in 1990,” she says. “Four years ago, he died of cancer.”

For decades, families have been divided, lives devastated by a conflict that here, they say, never ended. In an education center with its own replica missile, young people learn music and sports. But these boys must soon start ten years military service.

Would you rather fight for your country or play sport for your country?

“We would rather protect our country,” one says. “For our nation, I can sacrifice my happiness and life,” says another.

Even today, North Korea’s people know little of the outside world beside what they’re told. And most of us know little of them.

And a note on how our trip was organized. We asked for where we wanted to go, but of course, the government controlled where we went. So inevitably, the people that we spoke to were pro-government. What we didn’t see, Savanna and Hoda, was what many defectors have talked about, which are terrible conditions there.

GUTHRIE: Right, when you go, you see what they want you to see.

SIMMONS: That’s right.

GUTHRIE: But Keir, fascinating nonetheless. Thank you.

NB Daily North Korea Communists NBC Today Video Keir Simmons

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