World·Q & A

What it's like reporting from the hermit kingdom

CBC correspondent Saša Petricic was in Pyongyang last week to cover North Korea’s biggest yearly celebration — the 105th anniversary of the birth of the country’s founding father, Kim Il-sung.

CBC correspondent Saša Petricic said a government minder was his constant 'shadow' in Pyongyang

North Koreans cheer during the opening ceremony for a newly built residential complex in central Pyongyang on April 13, 2017. The neighbourhood, on Ryomyong Street, was constructed in less than a year and meant to show that North Korea still has some economic strength despite heavy international sanctions. (Sasa Petricic/CBC)

CBC correspondent Saša Petricic was in Pyongyang last week, along with a slew of other international journalists, to cover the country's biggest yearly celebration — the 105th anniversary of the birth of the country's founding father, Kim Il-sung. He was invited to cover the event, a rare glimpse inside the closed country of North Korea. 

He spoke about his experience via a live chat on the CBC News Facebook page on Tuesday night.

Someone is constantly watching you.- Saša Petricic

Petricic answered a range of questions from the audience including what kind of reporting he was able to do, what kind of interactions he had with ordinary North Koreans and how serious is the threat of a nuclear attack.

Here are a few of Petricic's answers to your questions: 

What was it like reporting in the country?

He said that when he was invited, he wasn't told what hotel he'd be staying in or given any kind of itinerary detailing what he would be doing. He said he and all the other journalists who were invited simply had to arrive at the airport, where they were joined by a government minder, who was with them at all times.

"They're basically your shadow for the next however many days you're staying there," Petricic said.

A North Korean soldier looks out on the crowd as thousands visit a newly constructed residential complex on Ryomyong Street in Pyongyang on April 13, 2017. (Sasa Petricic/CBC)

It turned out to be useful to have the minder with him, he said, because he was often stopped by police or military personnel asking him what he was doing — and the minder could explain.

"But the downside is that someone is constantly watching you."

This extended to interviews with regular North Koreans. The minder wouldn't prevent him from speaking to anyone, but their presence could have been intimidating to the person being interviewed.

Petricic said he was not censored in any way, but said there was obviously a risk that if he said anything that made the government unhappy, he might not be allowed back in the country.

But he said the government wants foreign media in the country to report back to their audiences, serving a kind of de facto diplomatic role since many traditional diplomatic relations are blocked.

What is technology like there?

The country has had a reputation for spotty electricity. Petricic said he didn't experience any blackouts, but said there was no way of knowing whether rural areas of the country have the same kind of electricity access as the capital.

But some things were starkly different from the rest of the world.

He said it was strange to see people who were not glued to their phones — and mobile phones were a rare sight.

North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un is shown on stage during a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new residential complex in central Pyongyang on Thursday, April 13, 2017. (Sasa Petricic/CBC)

"I maybe saw a dozen people altogether doing something with their phones," he said.

As for internet access, his did not seem to be restricted, but North Koreans are only able to access internal internet, which means the government controls which websites they can view.

What do North Koreans think of Kim Jong-un's regime?

No one told Petricic they were unhappy with the regime, but it was difficult to know if he was getting honest answers from people he spoke to because of the government minder by his side.

He did say, however, that there must be at least some grumbling from citizens. The government constantly talked about making improvements to the economy — so much so that it seemed the words were aimed as much at him as they were at the local population.

How big is the nuclear threat from North Korea?

Petricic felt there is no immediate threat or risk, but he saw clear nuclear ambitions.

"They're convinced that if you're not a nuclear state and don't toe the line as far as Americans are concerned, you're at risk of being invaded by the U.S."

He said they see nuclear weapons as the only way to defend against that.

What do North Koreans think of Canadians?

"They kind of lump us in with Americans," he said.

Petricic points out that Canada was involved in the Korean War in the 1950s, alongside the Americans. But other than that, he said, they didn't seem to have much information about Canada.

Watch the full Q&A here:

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