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THE SITUATION ROOM
'Six Days In North Korea'; Wolf Blitzer Documents His Visit To North Korea One Year Ago
Aired December 23, 2011 - 17:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.
We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world to a special edition of THE SITUATION ROOM.
Instead of our regular program, we're going to bring you an extraordinary documentary this hour.
Exactly one year ago, I had a very rare opportunity to travel to North Korea during a time of grave crisis. Tensions on the Korean Peninsula were very high. And tensions are very high once again right now. That's because of the death of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il.
His youngest son, Kim Jong-un, is the apparent successor. But he's only in his late '20s and totally untested and inexperienced.
At this time of great uncertainty, leaders from the United States, South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and so much of the world are watching nervously. They fully appreciate that one miscalculation could trigger all-out war.
Since World War II, the Korean Peninsula has been one of the most dangerous spots on earth. Not many reporters get a chance to visit North Korea, the most closed society in the world.
Given the current stakes we thought it would be useful to show you what we experienced a year ago.
Here now my reporter's notebook, 'Six Days In North Korea.'
(voice over): This is a place few outsiders have ever seen. At first glance, it looks like any other major city. High-rise buildings, kids playing, couples strolling, people jamming into street trolleys, wide rows with traffic cops, male and female.
But this is no ordinary city. This is Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. And we're heading there during one of the most dangerous times in its history.
BILL RICHARDSON, FORMER GOVERNOR, NEW MEXICO: I was apprehensive. Yes, I felt maybe I'd be held hostage or -- or some of our delegation would be hurt.
TONY NAMKUNG, BILL RICHARDSON'S SENIOR ADVISOR: I was concerned about whether we would make it out of the country. That would have been a -- a very ironic situation, Richardson the rescuer having to be rescued.
GAY DILLINGHAM, BILL RICHARDSON'S ENERGY ADVISOR: I found myself trying to say I love you to everybody I knew as much as possible.
BLITZER (on camera): I called this official at the National Security Council and he said it was dangerous. He said there was no way the U.S. Government could help if anything happened, if I were taken hostage or anything like that.
(voice over): For months, the situation on the Korean Peninsula is getting worse.
March 2010, a South Korean warship is hit by a torpedo and sunk; 46 South Korean sailors killed.
HILLARY CLINTON, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: The evidence is overwhelming and condemning. The torpedo that sunk the Cheonan and took the lives of 46 South Korean sailors was fired by a North Korean submarine. And the United States strongly condemns this act of aggression.
BLITZER: North Korea denies it's responsible, but there's outrage around the world, and especially in Seoul.
November 2010, North Korea shells a South Korean island, Baengyeong, killing two South Korean marines and two civilians. North Korea says it's in response to South Korean ships firing into its waters.
There's panic in South Korea and fear that a new war is about to begin. Adding to the tension, word that the North Koreans have dramatically improved their ability to make nuclear bombs.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The size and the sophistication of the uranium enrichment program was, quite frankly, stunning.
BLITZER: Even the United States is getting ready for possible conflict. President Obama orders the USS George Washington aircraft carrier battle group to steam towards the Korean Peninsula.
STAN GRANT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: But what we are seeing here is a real display of the firepower that South Korea and the United States have at their disposal.
BLITZER: This is the environment Bill Richardson is entering. He asks me to go with him.
RICHARDSON: They invited me because they wanted to send, I believe, a message to the United States and to the world.
BLITZER: Richardson is wrapping up eight years as New Mexico's governor, having earlier served although U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and Energy secretary during the Clinton administration. He's been to North Korea on several occasions. RICHARDSON: Every time I've dealt with them, I -- I try to treat them with respect. I try to be honest with them. But we've had success in dealing with them. We got an American pilot out. We got an American prisoner out. We pushed some nuclear negotiations. I got the remains of some of our soldiers out. So every negotiation we've had has -- has worked. And somehow, whenever they have difficulty dealing with either the Bush administration, the Obama administration, they kind of call me. You know, there's a joke that ornery people like Bill Richardson.
BLITZER: Of course, he has to get permission from the Obama administration.
RICHARDSON: They were a little reluctant. They were a little -- you know, they -- they want their diplomacy to go through their channels. But they said, basically, go.
BLITZER: We land in Beijing on Wednesday, December 15th, and I interview Richardson live on CNN.
RICHARDSON: My main objective is to try to calm down the North Koreans, to get them to stop some of these aggressive actions.
BLITZER: Good luck, I say to myself.
There are more than a million North Korean soldiers just north of the demilitarized zone, armed with thousands of rockets, missile launchers and artillery and tanks. The South Koreans, just a few miles away on the other side of the DMZ, have almost as many trained on the North. Nearly 30,000 American troops back up the South.
RICHARDSON: Well, I do believe the Korean Peninsula is a tinderbox. It's probably the most dangerous spot on Earth right now.
BLITZER: One miscalculation could trigger all-out war.
NAMKUNG: In the first 90 days of all-out warfare we would see several hundred thousand casualties. Before it's all over, we would see two million or three million dead, including countless numbers of Americans.
BLITZER: And that assumes no nuclear weapons are used. I know the stakes are enormous.
On Thursday morning, December 16th, we go to the North Korean embassy in the Chinese capital and receive the visas. Within a few hours, we're on Air Koryo, the official North Korean airline to Pyongyang. We know we're going to have severe restrictions on where we could go and who we could talk with.
RICHARDSON: You're constantly watched. Your rooms are bugged. Your telephone is bugged. They -- they don't let you like leave the hotel. You have to ask your handlers.
BLITZER: Still, we have extraordinary access to a mysterious country that few outsiders have ever seen. What I don't immediately realize is that I'm about to embark on the strangest journey of my life.
ANNOUNCER: Coming up, inside Pyongyang.
RICHARDSON: It's like you're stepping into the '50s.
ANNOUNCER: The first meeting with North Korean officials.
BLITZER: Governor, how did it go?
ANNOUNCER: And a very strange tour of the capital city, when Wolf Blitzer's 'Six Days In North Korea' continues.
(END VIDEO TAPE)
BLITZER: We land in North Korea late in the afternoon on Thursday, December 16th. I have no idea this is going to be the strangest journey of my life.
The North Koreans take us into a room and confiscate our passports and cell phones. On the trip with me, Governor Bill Richardson and four aides, including Tony Namkung, his senior adviser on North Korean affairs, who's been to the communist country 40 times, going back to 1990.
NAMKUNG: I was born in China to Korean parents and I was raised in Japan, going to American schools. So I'm quadra-lingual, I guess.
BLITZER: Also on board, Richardson's energy advisor, Gay Dillingham. We head toward the city center in minivans and get our first glimpse of a huge but strangely empty city.
DILLINGHAM: It's a big city with very wide roads. We were one of the few cars on the road. We were there in the wintertime and it had just snowed the night we got there, so that actually made a beautiful landscape with all this fresh snow.
BLITZER: We see people, men and women, shoveling snow by hand, not just the sidewalks, but the streets as well.
RICHARDSON: Well, it's an eerie feeling. It's like you're stepping into the '50s, into a city with old cars, very cold. It's like Doctor Strangelove. You -- the buildings are not lit, because there's little electricity, a lot of military around, a lot of people marching.
BLITZER: But as depressing as that sounds, it used to be much worse.
NAMKUNG: Clearly, they don't have sufficient energy. But compared to, say, eight years ago when, in a typical day, you would experience four to five blackouts and sometimes you'd be sitting in the dark for two or three hours at a time, clearly, they've -- they've made some headway in recovering their energy supplies.
BLITZER: One of the first things you can't help but notice, the propaganda murals everywhere -- huge pictures of North Korea's founder, Kim Il-Sung, and his son, the current leader, Kim Jong-il -- all over the place, almost at every corner. But we don't see any pictures of the new heir apparent, Kim Jong-il's youngest son, Kim Jong-un.
As we drive into the capital, we see some impressive looking buildings, including the national sports stadium and ice skating rink. But it's already getting late in the day.
(on camera): The hotel was a nice hotel. It was very clean. It was not very occupied, I should say. The lobby was lovely. The restaurant was nice. The rooms were sort of plain, nothing too elaborate; maybe a 1960s or 1970s kind of Holiday Inn in the Midwest someplace.
RICHARDSON: My initial thoughts were, wow, this is another trip to North Korea. But, again, as usual, we don't know what we're getting into.
NAMKUNG: I sensed, not just from the North Koreans, but from the South Koreans and -- and -- and from the Chinese, as well, that something was very likely -- something possibly dangerous was -- was -- was going to happen.
BLITZER (on camera): I was having trouble sleeping that first night. And I wound up waking up at 4:00 a.m. and turned on the TV. No picture, just some fuzz up on the screen. And I said, oh, it looks like we're going to war. They've cut off communications with the outside world.
I went in the lobby to see what was going on. I see a guy and I said, "No TV."
He takes me outside and he shows me this big satellite dish. And there was snow coming down -- a lot of snow coming down. And the snow was filling up the satellite dish. And he said that's why there was no TV. And I -- I was really relieved. You know, I said, what a false alarm that is.
(voice-over): We head to the foreign ministry.
RICHARDSON: This will be our first meeting where we try to ease tensions.
BLITZER (on camera): Ease tensions?
Easier said than done.
(voice over): That morning, Richardson has his first meeting with North Korean officials, this one with Rhee Yung Ho ), the new vice minister, who is their expert on the United States.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The building of our ministry of foreign affairs must be comparatively small compared to the United States' State Department, but its location is much better than the United States' State Department.
BLITZER: They're very proud of everything they show us. CNN is allowed in at the start of the meeting, but then asked to leave.
We go outside to get a flavor of Pyongyang.
(on camera): Here we are. This is Kim Il-Sung Square. As you can see, it's really huge. It's magnificent. And they often have events here, which is totally understandable. These are all government buildings over here. And this is a magnificent palace right in front of me over here, if you want to just flip over. You can see the foreign ministry. And then you see this marvelous structure over here.
This is a brisk, cold day on this Friday, here in Pyongyang. But it's nice. There's not a whole lot of traffic here. It's icy. The streets are icy. It's snowy. You see a lot of people shoveling. And there you see the hammer and sickle of this communist government. You see Lenin, you see Marx, manifestations of the Communist philosophy.
(voice over): Inside, the talk is tough in the first of several meetings for Governor Richardson.
RICHARDSON: We're ready for either dialogue or war. I mean, that was their standard pitch.
BLITZER (on-camera): Governor, how did it go?
RICHARDSON: Well, it was a decent start. Both sides are feeling each other out. I express our deep concern, and they obviously express concern with U.S. policy, the escalating situation on the peninsula.
BLITZER (voice-over): But this journey is nothing if not surreal. In the morning, meetings that could make the difference between war and peace. In the afternoon, our North Korean handlers, all of whom are very polite and speak English well, take us sightseeing. On this afternoon, we're taken to Kim Il-Sung University, the largest in the country.
The smartest, most talented students are here, all dress smartly. The men with blazers and ties, the women with proper dresses.
RICHARDSON: How do you get in to the university here?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We select high level of students in the secondary school. And then, they have the nationwide test, examination.
BLITZER: We then go to the stone tower, the tallest in the world.
(on-camera) We're on top of the world's tallest stone tower here overlooking Pyongyang. It really is majestic to see what's going on. You see the river. You see the bitter cold, freezing snow, but the buildings are really impressive and they've built this tower to really highlight what they've accomplished over the years.
They make the point of pointing out this is taller than the Washington monument. And they constantly point out it's the tallest in the world.
(voice-over) And then there's the North Korean's version of the Arc de Triomphe, larger than the one in Paris. They're very proud of everything they show us, but we have no way of knowing whether what they say is true.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When President Kim has made a speech (ph).
GAY DILLINGHAM, BILL RICHARDSON'S ENERGY ADVISOR: Pyongyang was very surreal. It's a city without much going on, because the economic -- the international trade is just not there. And it's a bit of a -- a sad, yet beautiful place. Bittersweet.
BLITZER: At stores, I see lots of books slamming the United States, including this one. The United States imperialists started the Korean War. Our first full day in Pyonyang, but the next day will be critical. Richardson will be meeting with North Korea's chief nuclear negotiator, the man who invited him to visit this country, just as tensions on the Korean Peninsula are mounting.
(on-camera) The whole world is watching right now. One miscalculation could cause a full scale war.
ANNOUNCER: Still ahead, tough talk in the meeting with the North Koreans.
RICHARDSON: We're ready for either dialogue or war.
ANNOUNCER: The pressure's on to negotiate and --
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I make my hands warm in front of the fire.
ANNOUNCER: The glimpse at life in Pyongyang. Why students wear their coats inside the classroom when Wolf Blitzer's 'Six Days In North Korea' continues.
BLITZER (voice-over): It's Saturday morning in the North Korean capital. We drive back to the foreign ministry for a meeting with Kim Kye Gwan, North Korea's chief nuclear negotiator, the man who invited Richardson here.
(on-camera) Thank you very much. Thank you for letting me come here with Governor Richardson to North Korea. KIM KYE GWAN, NORTH KOREA'S CHIEF NUCLEAR NEGOTIATOR (through translator): First, I'm very happy to be able to meet you, Mr. Wolf. I presume, had the same power as the American president.
BLITZER: Thank you very much for that compliment, but I don't think it's true. But it was very nice to hear from you. We hope that CNN will have an opportunity to come visit North Korea on many occasions.
GWAN (through translator): I think you're the only one who has THE SITUATION ROOM except President Obama.
BLITZER: Thank you very much, and thank you very much in the hotel where we're staying. We can watch CNN International, which is very nice to be able to see what's happening here in Pyongyang watching CNN.
GWAN (through translator): This time you're here with Governor Richardson and next time, I'm inviting you to come to Pyongyang again.
BLITZER: Thank you very much. And I hope either this time or the next time, you and I could sit down for a CNN interview. Our viewers in the United States and around the world would be grateful.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE)
GWAN (through translator): Why not?
BLITZER: Thank you. Thank you.
(voice-over) Still, after the cameras are gone, the meeting itself is very intense.
RICHARDSON: He started out fairly hard lined, basically, saying there's an artillery drill that is being performed by the South Koreans. United States won't talk to us. We're ready for either dialogue or war. I mean, that was their standard pitch. But then, when I said to them, look, don't respond militarily. Be statesmen.
Give me some arms control concessions such as allowing inspectors to come into the nuclear facility such as selling your fresh fuel rods to South Korea to arms control measure, maybe a hotline between the militaries. Give me something. Give me a signal. He said, well I'm going to study these.
BLITZER: Gay Dillingham sees Richardson's diplomatic style.
DILLINGHAM: He had an interesting blend of being able to be stern with them and serious while being respectful and giving them avenues to find a way through this crisis with some dignity.
BLITZER: On this day, we, again, go from serious talks to sightseeing. This time, a visit to the national library, what's called the Grand People's Study House. I learn that talking with average folks in North Korea, even if you speak Korean as Tony Namkung does, is not easy.
NAMKUNG: Because the people refuse to deal with you. They know that you are not friendly to them, and so, they will, maybe, steal a glance, but they won't engage you. That's eerie, because you might go up to somebody with a friendly face and try to strike up a conversation, and they simply won't respond.
BLITZER: At the entrance to the building, a huge statue of North Korea's founder, Kim Il-Sung, sort of reminds me of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. We go to the music room where we see lots of old-school boom boxes, people listening to music on headphones.
(on-camera) We're here at a library in North Korea, in Pyongyang, and we're listening to this big box over here to Kenny Rogers. It's a crazy world we're living in.
(voice-over) Next, a visit to the elite foreign language high school.
(on-camera) We're here at the Pyongyang foreign language school. It was really impressive to see these young kids. They're learning English. A lot of them are learning English. I was very impressed to see how advanced they are, not only the formal English, but the colloquial English as well.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I warm my hands in front of the fire. It means I make my hands warm in front of the fire.
BLITZER (voice-over): And because of the shortage of electricity, they're learning in the cold.
DILLINGHAM: Children just wore their coats. They could see their breath it was so cold, but they were diligent. They do their work.
BLITZER: What would you like to study?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I want to study more about language.
BLITZER: Which language?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Of course, English and Chinese.
BLITZER: English and Chinese. Do you study Chinese out here (ph)?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes.
BLITZER: Which do you speak better, English or Chinese?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: English a little more.
BLITZER: A lit bit better than Chinese. What languages do you study besides English?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Besides English, Chinese, too.
BLITZER: Chinese, too? But you're English is better?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, a little.
BLITZER: Would you like to visit the United States some day?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, I will try. After learning English a lot, I would go.
BLITZER: Richardson remembers one encounter with a young student.
RICHARDSON: When we were at the school, the Foreign Language School, and they were singing. And it was a young man who asked me to come in and be photographed with the kids that were singing. And He smiled at me, and they sang in English. That was something that drives me the most, in other words, friendly towards America. He knew I was an American.
BLITZER: But beyond the welcome, the saber rattling is getting worse. The South Koreans are preparing for a live fire exercise. One that might provoke a North Korean military response.
SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN ANCHOR: There's real fear that a military exercise this weekend could spiral into all-out war. Our own Wolf Blitzer is in North Korea with an exclusive assignment.
BLITZER: Richardson needs a good night's sleep. He'll be meeting with the top North Korean general in the morning, the officer in charge of the DMZ. If there's war, he'll lead a million man North Korean army into battle. We're beginning to think of contingencies to get out of the country fast if we need to.
NAMKUNG: At one point, you know, I was determined to try to find some alternate means of transportation for us out of the country. I thought it was that dangerous. Rent a van or rent an SUV or truck or something to take us to the China border.
BLITZER: With the U.N. Security Council about to meet on the crisis, Sunday will be a critical day.
ANNOUNCER: Coming up, two Koreas on the brink of war.
RICHARDSON: The situation is extremely tense.
ANNOUNCER: The most critical day yet, meeting with the military, when Wolf Blitzer's 'Six Days In North Korea' continues.
BLITZER (voice-over): Sunday morning, December 19th. As the two Koreas stand on the brink of war, the United Nations Security Council is getting ready to meet in an emergency session in New York.
(on camera): Those nights in North Korea, I wasn't sleeping well, and especially that Sunday morning when I woke up. I did not have a good night's sleep. I was restless because I was really worried. I really feared that this crisis could escalate into an all-out war.
(voice-over): But even in the depth of crisis, there are lighthearted moments.
(on camera): My name is Wolf.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Wolf?
(voice-over): When I see the North Korean girls' ice hockey team jogging outside the national ice rink, I can't help but join them with my handheld camera shooting away.
For Governor Richardson, the much more serious business of meeting with Major General Pak Rim-su, the commander of the North Korean Forces at the DMZ. His job is to ensure the arms in place since 1953 holds.
General Pak seems too warm to Richardson. Other North Korean brass join the meeting, their caps neatly on the table behind them. We're politely asked to wait outside. We know the meeting will go on for a while, so we walk down to the Patong River.
(on camera): It's a serene, quiet morning here along the bank of the Patong River right in the heart of Pyongyang. Some kids are playing, some couples are walking by, families are having a good time, but it's sort of misleading because it's anything but quiet on the Korean Peninsula right now.
It's a very tense moment. Inside that building up there Richardson is meeting with North Korean military officers. This may be the most important meeting he's had since arriving here at the North Korean capital. We're watching it every step of the way. The stakes clearly are enormous.
(voice-over): The meeting breaks up. The general is not backing down. He warns that if the South Koreans go ahead with their exercise, the North will retaliate.
RICHARDSON: It was a tough, sobering meeting. The situation is extremely tense.
DILLINGHAM: They consistently said, we need the world to know that we're not the provokers, and we will respond if this goes on.
BLITZER: But the general is not closing the door on dialogue, as Richardson tells me a short while later.
RICHARDSON: He reacted openly to a couple of proposals that I made. One, a hotline between the two countries, North and South, to diffuse crises like this. And secondly, a military commission, United States, North Korea, South Korea, to monitor the disputed areas on the West Sea to find ways to prevent crises like this.
He was open to them. He didn't accept them.
BLITZER: At this point I'm getting very anxious, worried we'll be stranded in North Korea. But even an international crisis of this magnitude is not enough to change the North Koreans' program of sightseeing for us.
Today's trip takes us into the countryside. Once again, we're the only car on the road.
(on camera): We're in the vehicle, and we've just left Pyongyang. We're on the road to an apple orchard. Not exactly sure what we're about to see, but supposedly it's a pretty impressive sight that they're taking us to.
(voice-over): With electricity scarce, there are no lights in the tunnels except for our car's headlights. It's pitch-black inside.
(on camera): We drove out to the countryside, and we're here overlooking all of these fruit trees. It's like row after row after row after row. Obviously, it's snowy out there, and you can't see any fruit. But eventually, I guess, once the time is right, you'll see a lot of apples and other fruit growing right behind me.
(voice-over): The visit is well choreographed. Our guides take us to a little cottage where we meet an elderly woman and her grandson. Inside, a picture of the great and dear leaders, whom we're told, had visited this farm. Unlike so many homes in North Korea, this one has electricity.
DILLINGHAM: At the most, people have these briquettes that are made out of coal that they can bring to their homes and put in their little furnaces, and those are the lucky ones. And the grandson was quite curious about all our cameras, so I gave him my camera so he could start taking pictures, which he really liked.
BLITZER: Back in the city I had another scare.
(on camera): At one point I go out into the lobby and I see a TV up on the screen, and I'm with my handler. And it looked like they just broke away from some opera, you know, some heroic opera they were showing, and they go into some marshal music, militaristic kind of music. And I say, oh, I've been to totalitarian regimes. I know that. When they go into that kind of marshal music, that usually is a signal to their people, get ready, it's a bad situation and we're about to go to war.
(voice-over): What if they closed the airport? We'll be stuck in North Korea.
That night we have dinner with the vice foreign minister. It's off the record, but we're getting a better sense of how the decision- makers in North Korea think. NAMKUNG: I think it's a good sign that they are putting people up who are able to engage the world. I was very much impressed with him.
BLITZER: The next day, Richardson will meet with North Korea's vice president. He'll again make his case for restraint, but time is moving slowly.
On that Sunday night, we're afraid his efforts will be too late. The clock is ticking toward the start of the South Korean live-fire exercise.
MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Ahead, countdown to a standoff.
BLITZER (on camera): By that point, I was ready to get out of dodge.
SAVIDGE: The world focuses on North Korea as the group gets trapped in Pyongyang.
Wolf Blitzer's 'Six Days In North Korea' continues in a moment.
BLITZER: Thousands of miles from Pyongyang, the United Nations Security Council is meeting in New York on the Korean crisis. It's late Sunday, December 19th.
DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: South Korea has promised to begin military drills at any time, and North Korea has warned it will retaliate if they do. The U.N. Security Council today seemed powerless to stop it.
BLITZER: Six hours of talks in New York end without action.
RICHARD ROTH, CNN SR. UNITED NATIONS CORRESPONDENT: Unable to agree on a Security Council statement regarding hostilities on the Korean Peninsula --
BLITZER: At the Pentagon, a state of high alert. Any hostilities between North and South Korea could quickly involve the 28,000 U.S. military personnel stationed in the South.
BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: The Pentagon is maintaining around-the-clock communications with South Korea, trying to stay on top of the situation and ready to weigh in, in the hopefully unlikely event hostilities break out. But that effort is really aimed at trying to keep South Korea and indeed both sides from escalating any action to keep any military hostilities from occurring. Several U.S. military analysts say the problem is it's just so hard to read North Korea's intentions at this point.
BLITZER: The Defense Department so worried, that Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs Of Staff, spends Sunday evening in the secure National Military Command Center deep inside the Pentagon monitoring the explosive situation.
In Pyongyang, 14 hours ahead of the East Coast, it's already Monday morning. As the South Koreans prepare for their military exercise, Bill Richardson prepares to meet with Vice President Kim Yong Dae at the People's Assembly. We are with him.
(on camera): It's really a majestic, huge structure. I get the feeling that the only people inside, though, were the people who were participating in the meeting with Governor Richardson and those of us who were covering the meeting. Not many people in the People's Assembly.
Look at this parking lot, pretty empty. Just a few official cars were brought here.
One thing that was impressive, at least inside, while we were waiting in the halls, it was warm. They were heating some of those halls, which is unusual, because a lot of times in these huge structures, in these huge buildings here in Pyongyang, it's freezing cold inside. They don't really have a lot of electricity, and they use it sparingly. As a result, it gets pretty cold inside, but at least this time it was warm.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm very happy to meet my old friend.
BLITZER (voice-over): The meeting is in a huge room. Richardson brings gifts from New Mexico, five films made there. The "Dear Leader" likes movies. The talks last 90 minutes. And very soon afterwards, I'm on live with CNN's Don Lemon.
LEMON: Wolf, what are you seeing and hearing there?
BLITZER (on camera): Well, the governor just wrapped up a very important meeting with the vice president of North Korea. It was over at the People's Assembly. I was there, and I watched him go in. And it was a large North Korean delegation.
He followed that up with a private meeting with the vice minister in charge of foreign affairs for the United States. I don't know what the North Koreans are saying, but he seemed to suggest that he got some at least initially positive responses to some of the proposals he's been making to ease this crisis.
He's been working here for four or five days now to try to get this thing under control. It's, as he said, a tinderbox, as you know, Don, and it's a very sensitive situation.
(voice-over): Everything we've heard from the North Korean side points towards a quick response if the South Korean drills go ahead. The North Korean state news agency has promised, "brutal consequences beyond imagination."
NAMKUNG: In our meetings with both the civilian and military leadership, they promise massive, swift retaliation on a huge scale. There can be no forgiveness for these exercises, according to the general. The language was very, very tough, and so much tougher than I have ever seen from the North Koreans. And so I was scared, yes.
BLITZER: It's certainly not a good time to be in Pyongyang, but the show must go on. And our hosts want to show us the subway system.
The escalators are so long, you can't see the bottom from the top, but the choice of this sightseeing destination might not be so random. The subway system doubles as a bomb shelter.
(on camera): We're here at the Prosperity Subway Station. It's deep underground. You saw how long it takes to get through that -- those escalators. We're really, really deep underground, and patriotic pictures all over the place.
Do people pay for these?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, 5 yuan per ride.
BLITZER: How much is that in U.S.?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's very little, about 100 yuan to a dollar now, so five cents.
BLITZER: So it's a nickel.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But most people use six-month passes which they buy for about 100 yuan.
BLITZER: So that's a dollar.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Just a dollar. Very cheap.
BLITZER: Yes. So a dollar, they can basically ride for six months.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's right, as much as they want.
BLITZER: That's a pretty good deal.
We're moving now. It's pretty smooth. Everybody is well-behaved. Everybody is very cool.
(voice-over): After lunch, we go to a factory where they make silk thread. Some 2,000 women work there, only women, no men. After that we're looking forward to finally leaving North Korea.
(on camera): We were supposed to leave on that Monday. By that point I was ready to get out of dodge. I wanted to get out of dodge because I was afraid if we didn't leave then, who knew what would happen the next day? Because the tension was really ratcheting up.
NAMKUNG: Yes, I thought that they would cancel the few flights that they operate there every day.
BLITZER (voice-over): But it isn't the threat of war that closes the airport. It's the weather. Thick banks of fog roll in on Monday evening and send us back to the hotel once again. There's nothing else to do but sing the night away in the hotel's karaoke bar. Though in the back of all of our minds, fear.
NAMKUNG: We would probably have had to find somebody and pay through the nose to find somebody to drive us the six or seven, eight hours to the China border.
RICHARDSON: I thought another way would be to go to the demilitarized zone, to the DMZ, which is about, from Pyongyang, a couple hours away, and seeing if we could leave by vehicle, cross the DMZ, and into South Korea. But that is a very -- for the North Koreans, that is a very unusual way to let individuals leave, especially foreigners, especially Americans.
BLITZER: What would happen next? How would we get out of North Korea?
SAVIDGE: Next, the most frightening day yet.
BLITZER (on camera): All of a sudden boom, boom, boom.
SAVIDGE: The shelling begins and the world waits to see what North Korea will do next.
BLITZER (voice-over): The entire world is watching the Korean Peninsula as the South Koreans begin their promised live-fire military drills on Yongbyon island involving ships, fighter bombers, and shelling in the disputed waters. The shelling continues for 94 minutes. To our horror, we can actually hear some of those explosions in Pyongyang.
(on camera): It wasn't that far away from that island where we were. And all of a sudden, boom, boom, boom. We start hearing some actual -- in the distance, you know, not loud -- some shells. And I looked at Tony Namkung, who was the North Korean adviser to Governor Richardson, he looked at me, and we knew what was going on.
NAMKUNG: When we heard these booms in the distance, four or five of them, and thought at one point that maybe that was the very shelling that had started, that was the most frightening moment.
BLITZER (voice-over): In the South, they're bracing for retaliation.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The government issued a take-cover order for five border islands affecting some 8,000 civilians on those islands, telling them to get into bunkers, bunkers that could withstand any sort of missile attack from the North.
BLITZER (on camera): What was going through my mind were all the kids, the North Korean children, the South Korean children, the civilians. I really feared that tens of thousands of people were potentially going to be killed.
(voice-over): We're sure the North is about to respond to South Korea's military drills with firing of its own.
(on camera): And I was horrified by that notion. At the same time, even though I suspected if there was an escalation and a war, it would be a good place to be in Pyongyang to report on it, but I also immediately suspected, A, I wouldn't be able to get out, and B, they wouldn't let me make any phone calls. So I'd have the worst of all situations -- a horrible war and not be able to report on CNN what was going on because they would keep me silent.
(voice-over): The North Koreans are crafting their next move, and it's a stunning surprise. Late that evening, the supreme command of the North Korean People's Army issued this statement: "We felt it was not worth reacting one by one to military provocations," it says, dismissing the South Korean drills as "childish play by fire."
RICHARDSON: And I said, "My God, this is great. This is good news. Maybe we had an impact. Something's happening there."
KYUNG LAH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: At the end of the day, a region that today was poised at a possible miscalculation. Tipping this country into a war and the region with it, it did not happen. South Korea's president saying that the drills were justified, fair and successful.
BLITZER (on camera): We were just so excited. We were high-fiving each other. We were really delighted that it looked like, you know what? This crisis was easing.
(voice-over): With the crisis over, we're finally able to head home.
SAVIDGE: Coming up, the ripple effect from the tense showdown and what's next for the Korean Peninsula when Wolf Blitzer's 'Six Days In North Korea' continues.
BLITZER (voice-over): In six days, we just skimmed the surface of North Korea. There was so much we were not allowed to see, especially in rural areas much poorer than Pyongyang.
I'd like to think that Richardson's visit had a positive impact. So would he.
RICHARDSON: I'm not going to take credit for stopping a war, but I will say that we were at the right place at the right time, with the right message: don't react militarily, find ways that you can reengage, make some gestures, here are some that I suggest.
And they did it. And ever since our trip, the North Korean statements have been towards negotiation, towards engagement. And I believe the United States and South Korea are now hopefully going to consider that.
NAMKUNG: The way to think of that is that the North Koreans used our trip and our standing invitation to visit North Korea to have somebody on the scene and then turned it around once the tensions began to escalate and it looked like they were going to go out of control, to use our presence to try to make a point. That point being a message to the U.S. that they wanted to talk, they wanted to get back to the table and sit down with the U.S.
BLITZER: It seems the North Koreans had a strategy from the beginning, using the threat of all-out war to reopen the door to negotiations.
That's the view of Jim Walsh, a Korea expert at MIT.
JIM WALSH, MASSACHUSETTS INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY: I think one of the clues here was the fact that the North Koreans did invite Governor Richardson and yourself to come to North Korea. And I think that made it less likely that they were going to do something in the middle of that visit. And more importantly, as I understand it, Governor Richardson got some important pledges from the North Korean government, not the least of which would be to allow international atomic inspectors back into North Korea.
BLITZER: The Obama administration fully debriefed Richardson upon his return. Tony Namkung met with U.S. officials, but he also briefed officials from South Korea, China and Japan.
NAMKUNG: My job in our division of labor has been to debrief the other governments.
BLITZER: Richardson's bottom line is that North Koreans need and deserve to be brought into the world community.
RICHARDSON: They're poor, and many, they say, in rural areas are starving. And so, I think for the sake of humanity, these are people that are not political. They're like the average human being that I think deserves from their government better treatment and deserves from the international community an ability to help, to be fed, to be clothed, to be educated.
BLITZER: There's no doubt that life there is harsh. The State Department says human rights abuses include arbitrary and lengthy imprisonment, as well as torture.
But Tony Namkung, who's been there 40 times going back to 1990, says things are changing.
NAMKUNG: I would say that the biggest myth out there is that the North Koreans are desperate, hungry, extortionists in trying to get energy and food all the time and will never change. This is patently absurd. North Korea has changed enormously in the 20 years I've been traveling there. Not nearly enough. We need to prod it to make further changes.
BLITZER: We certainly did not have unrestricted access, but we did get a glance into a country that is largely unknown to the outside world.
(on camera): I think we only touched the surface in North Korea. We got a glance. We didn't get really deep inside because we couldn't.
We saw Pyongyang. We saw a little bit of the countryside. We met with the top leadership. We got a flavor of what's going on during those six days.
I don't want to over-exaggerate our access or anything like that. We got a taste of North Korea.
(voice-over): As I'm leaving the country, I'm told the North Korean leadership likes Marlboro, Camel and Parliament cigarettes. Good to know, I'm told, if I ever get to come back.
BLITZER: That was exactly one year ago. Now the whole world is watching North Korea once again.
I can't tell you what happens next, but I can assure you that we at CNN will bring you all the latest developments as they happen.
Thanks very much for joining us. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.
The news continues next on CNN.