CNN’s Will Ripley in North Korea: ‘Nothing Here Is Simple, Easy or Straightforward’

By Mark Joyella 

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CNN correspondent Will Ripley has been sharing stunning–and often bizarre– images from his current assignment, covering the first Worker’s party congress to be held in North Korea in nearly 40 years.

“North Korea is the most challenging story I’ve covered in 16 years of journalism,” Ripley told TVNewser Thursday from Pyongyang. “Nothing here is simple, easy or straightforward.”

When Ripley was sent to North Korea last month to cover the huge story of a failed missile launch, he and his CNN crew couldn’t find anyone who was aware of the story. “Most North Koreans will never know that it happened,” he said at the time.

Western journalists are tightly controlled by the North Korean regime, severely limiting what video can be shot, and who can be talked to. “I’m always mindful that we are being invited by the government with the intention of being used for propaganda purposes,” Ripley said. “We are only shown the best of the best. We are rarely allowed outside of Pyongyang, where accounts from the U.N., aid workers and defectors paint a grim picture of daily life. Our minders are under a tremendous amount of pressure to make sure we don’t embarrass the regime in any way, so there is this pervasive paranoia about everything we do.”

Those state-sponsored tours have produced one of the strangest collection of photos on Ripley’s Instagram page, including this “children’s palace” that Ripley posted with the hashtag “#trippy.”

The lobby of an after school activity complex called a 'children's palace' #trippy #Pyongyang #NorthKorea

A photo posted by Will Ripley (@willripleycnn) on

“I’m not afraid to say things in stories and live shots that are critical of North Korea, even when I’m inside the country,” Ripley said. “If I have the facts to back those statements up, the North Koreans generally won’t give me a hard time. Trouble arises when we try to imply things that we simply don’t know to be true (or false). Reporting in an honest, straightforward manner allows me to work here with relative confidence I won’t run into trouble. Also, of course I’m careful about what’s on my phone and laptop.”

Ripley’s pro tips for reporting from Pyongyang?

Being able to email and Instagram from inside North Korea is hugely valuable, but bring lots of cash. Credit cards don’t work here — and phone data, car service and hotel internet is very costly. Have backup communication plans, such as a landline nearby, because communications go down often. Bring your own music or a book for the quiet periods when you may be alone in your hotel room – unless you want to watch North Korean state TV or the handful of foreign channels available. And always assume someone may be listening when you’re on the phone, or even when having a conversation in your room, a hotel restaurant or conference room.

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