December 20th, 2011
11:09 AM ET

The day North Korea revealed its 'hidden prince'

Editor's Note: CNN producer Adam Reiss traveled to North Korea with Alina Cho in October 2010 for an elaborate celebration for North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il and what would become the official introduction of his son, Kim Jong-Un. Reiss looks back at their rare trip inside the country.

We had been pushing hard for years to gain access to North Korea to report on life inside the secretive country when we finally got the call in October 2010 that we would be able to visit. We had less than 24 hours to get the proper visas and credentials for what was being billed as several of the largest military parades and mass games in North Korean history.

Alina Cho first visited the county in 2008 with the New York Philharmonic, which had been invited to play an historic concert there. Thrilled by the rare access, she was determined to go again. As a producer with CNN, I was looking forward to what would be an unforgettable trip to this hermit nation.

Our government minders were on hand as we arrived at Pyongyang airport, and they followed us everywhere we went. They told us who we could and could not talk to, and where we were allowed to shoot. One of the minders was the same one Alina had on her previous trip, and the rapport and familiarity certainly were beneficial.

We were whisked to Pyongyang’s largest stadium for a magnificent display of color and pageantry, as thousands of North Korean performers staged a show for the benefit of their "dear leader" Kim Jong-Il and his heir apparent Kim Jong-Un. It was an unofficial and elaborate coming out party for the hidden prince, the first glimpse of him in action after being named a four-star general.

It truly was a sight to behold as they danced and moved to synchronized music and lights. Security for each event was extremely tight, with every single item in our possession thoroughly searched. We noticed even foreign dignitaries were having their cigarette packs searched.

Archive: North Korea's leader, presumptive heir attend huge parade

When we reached the city, Alina said she was struck by the traffic lights on the streets which she had not seen on her last visit. There were even traffic attendants directing what few cars were on the roads. In addition, more North Koreans were speaking into cell phones. Only domestic calls are allowed, but nevertheless it was amazing to see.

“It was simply jaw-dropping to see this, common in western society," she remembers. "But here it was a huge leap forward."

We stayed at the Koryo hotel, which is the second largest hotel in Pyongyang with 500 rooms filled with business people mostly from China, Africa and the Middle East. Our rooms were standard fare with two single beds and an old-fashioned radio in between. Leaving the hotel for sightseeing was not an option and strictly forbidden by our minders.

We visited an amusement park that opened recently and saw North Koreans enjoying rides and eating fast food. This was not something we expected to see, and families there told us they were thoroughly enjoying themselves thanks to their dear leader. In the parking lot men and women danced to music seemingly without cares.

The military parade and the mass games in Kim Il-Sung Square were the most fascinating part of the trip. The sound of the soldiers goose-stepping was mesmerizing and reminded me of newsreels from Nazi Germany. The sheer scale of the soldiers and weaponry on display and the dazzling precision of the dancers and performers in the games were something neither of us will soon forget. Alina was the only reporter in the world allowed to cover the games live on air.

CNN's Alina Cho reports from Kim Il-Sung Square in Pyongyang, North Korea.

As it turned out, the games included a rare appearance by North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il, as well as the first public appearance of his son and heir apparent, Kim Jong-Un. We were able to see the reclusive leader and his son on three occasions. It was Kim Jong-Un's official introduction to the North Korean people and the world.

After the parades the crowds were cheering not for the performers, but for their dear leader.

Sobbing, they paid their respects.

Though the trip was any journalist's dream, it had special meaning for Alina. Two of her relatives disappeared during the Korean War.

"Presumably, if they are still alive, they are still in North Korea," she said. "If things had been just a little bit different, I could be living in North Korea."

This reality, she said, forced her to look more closely at the ordinary families she saw in the country, and to think about her relationship to them.

"These are people who look somewhat like me... [and yet] they can't leave the country," she said. "But the heartening part was that I saw a lot of laughter and happiness. I saw families enjoying themselves, and I really thought to myself that what these North Korean families want for their children is what I want for my friends and family. We all want the same things."

soundoff (8 Responses)
  1. banasy©

    All right, now I *am* starting to wonder why CNN is so enthralled with North Korea.
    Is it because there is much secrecy surrounding NK?
    I ask, because this story could have been posted before Kim Jong's death.
    So why wasn't it?
    And why is it now?

    I am losing interest fast, CNN.
    So are other posters.

    December 20, 2011 at 12:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • THINK

      Its relevant now because Kim Jong Il is dead. No one cared before KJI was dead.

      December 22, 2011 at 9:38 am | Report abuse |
  2. Bullwinkle

    Let's see, great leader, dear leader....maybe the new guy can be called fearless leader.

    December 20, 2011 at 1:17 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Natasha

    Too bad Kim Jong Un's name isn't Boris Badenov.

    December 20, 2011 at 1:57 pm | Report abuse |
  4. RUFFNUTT (pit bull trainer)

    i watched the news clip.. he looked like he was real stoned or maybe retarded...

    December 20, 2011 at 5:31 pm | Report abuse |
  5. BOMBO

    The only thing about this story that interests me is Alina Cho. The producer said they were not able to leave the hotel for sightseeing.. Locked in a hotel with Alina Cho for days. Hmmmmm.

    December 20, 2011 at 6:30 pm | Report abuse |
  6. RUFFNUTT (pit bull trainer)

    that would be awesome... you could just strip down and swing the old salami around and they would have guards outside to keep her inside..and watch the show..

    December 20, 2011 at 6:52 pm | Report abuse |
  7. fiskenmann

    Looks like Pyongyang's version of Mardi Gras!

    December 21, 2011 at 2:10 pm | Report abuse |