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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL
Special Report: Inside the Secret State of North Korea. Aired 8-9p ET
Aired December 22, 2017 - 20:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
[20:00:10] ANNOUNCER: The following is a CNN special report.
WILL RIPLEY, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: This is the North Korea you know. This is the North Korea you've never seen. Stories you've never heard.
Is that a legend or did that actually happen?
KIM UN SIM, TOUR GUIDE (through translator): Our general is really a person who heaven sent to us.
RIPLEY: Places you've never been. People with a common enemy.
Who do you want to fight?
UNIDENTIFIED BOY (through translator): To fight the sworn enemy, Americans.
RIPLEY: What if I told you, I'm an American? Do you want to shoot me too?
Unprecedented access. Hidden from the world until now.
Come with me to the "SECRET STATE: INSIDE NORTH KOREA".
North Korea, a nation holding its nuclear sword over the U.S. and its allies, threatening to strike at any time. A society in a constant state of readiness for war.
Life on the inside is a mystery to most of the world. I've reported from North Korea more than a dozen times over the last few years. Each time, we open the door a little more. And see this country and its people in unexpected ways.
Just like this. Yes, even in North Korea, kids love video games.
For these 14 and 15-year-olds, these are not just games. This is practice for real life. Most of these boys and a lot of the girls will spend their first years of adulthood serving in the Korean People's Army, just like their parents and grandparents before them.
What do you like about this game?
UNIDENTIFIED BOY (through translator): Killing the enemy.
RIPLEY: Killing the enemy. Who is the enemy?
UNIDENTIFIED BOY (through translator): Americans.
RIPLEY: This hatred of Americans stems from the Korean War. North Korea contradicts Western historians, saying that America started the war that killed millions of civilians and divided the Korean Peninsula.
Who do you want to fight?
UNIDENTIFIED BOY (through translator): To fight the sworn enemy, Americans.
RIPLEY: What do they teach you about Americans in school?
UNIDENTIFIED BOY (through translator): They forcibly invaded us, slaughtered our people, buried them. Buried them alive. Buried them alive and killed them.
RIPLEY: So they teach you that the Americans are the enemy and you need to shoot them, to fight them?
UNIDENTIFIED BOY (through translator): Yes.
RIPLEY: Here is where things get awkward.
So what if I'm told you I'm an American? Do you want to shoot me, too?
UNIDENTIFIED BOY (through translator): Yes. There are good people. We'll see if you're a good person or a bad person.
RIPLEY: I'm a good American, so don't shoot me.
UNIDENTIFIED BOY (through translator): No, I won't shoot.
RIPLEY: This is the paradox of North Korea. Smiling young people, friendly, polite, even as they tell me how much they hate the United States.
From their earliest years, these children are told American could attack at any time, told they must prepare for the next war.
In North Korea, government minders watch our every move and restrict what we can film, even if this is what we want to see -- high school students horsing around at the beach. I can't help but wonder, what do they actually know about America?
Are you an NBA fan? Are you an NBA fan?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): No. I just wear it to play sports.
RIPLEY: Have you ever heard of Portland?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Haven't heard of it. RIPLEY: Have you ever seen any American movies or heard any American
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): No.
RIPLEY: Ever heard of Facebook or Twitter or Instagram?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): No, not at all.
RIPLEY: These teens have been told Americans act and look scary.
What would you expect from an American? What would you expect an American to be like?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Big nose with a hairy chest.
RIPLEY: Big nose and hairy chest, huh?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes.
RIPLEY: Well, I don't have a hairy chest. So you tell me, do I have a big nose?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): With a nose like that, it is, sort of.
IPLEY: Have you guys ever met an American before?
They become visibly uncomfortable when they learn I'm an American. I'm the first one they've ever met.
Well, I won't interrupt your game any longer. Thank you very much.
[20:05:01] It was nice to meet you guys.
Next, our government minders want us to see this place, the Songdowon International Children's Camp in Wonsan, considered the best in North Korea.
Entire school classes compete for a chance to spend two weeks at camp. Many of these kids have never seen anything like it, but this is something they know well.
The first thing you see when you walk into this camp, the statue. Everything here, just like everywhere else in North Korea, centers around the leaders.
(SINGING IN FOREIGN LANGUAGE)
RIPLEY: These children have been taught a fierce loyalty to their nation's leaders, all members of the Kim family. Photos and statues are everywhere. Songs of praise are staples.
(SINGING IN FOREIGN LANGUAGE)
RIPLEY: Even at this birthday party, students sing about the leaders. UNIDENTIFIED BOY (through translator): He gives us more love than
even our parents can give.
RIPLEY: Why do you consider your leader, Kim Jong-un, like your father?
UNIDENTIFIED BOY (through translator): He's affectionate and more caring than my own parents. He gives us more love than even our parents could give.
RIPLEY: Chae Jin-song (ph), who just turned 14, says his own parents can't afford to give him a meal like this. Many of North Korea's 5 million children come from towns and villages where the basics -- electricity, clean water, nutritious food -- are not always available.
UNIDENTIFIED BOY (through translator): I declare I will become a true member of the children's union who studies better in order to repay the love of respected leader Kim Jong-un.
RIPLEY: These young people are the future of North Korea, an entire generation brought up to worship their supreme leader. No skepticism, no dissent, no questions, only loyalty for life.
[20:10:52] RIPLEY: Our government minders are taking us from North Korea's capital, Pyongyang, to the coastal city of Wonsan. Our 125- mile journey on this bumpy road takes almost five hours.
We've been driving for a couple of hours through the countryside, and we've just gotten stopped at a checkpoint. Already several minutes now, our minders are speaking with the police officer. Not sure what's happening, but he doesn't seem to want to let us pass.
Travel here is restricted and getting stopped can be nerve-racking, but we're finally allowed to pass. It turns out the concern this time is only about our big van disturbing the roadwork ahead. Driving on, we see men and women laboring in dark tunnels.
Much of the North Korean countryside is undeveloped with very little infrastructure, but that also means the landscape is relatively untouched. And I must say, the scenery is striking -- majestic mountains, thick forests.
And this seaside city.
We made it here to Wonsan, a mid-sized industrial city, the fifth largest in North Korea on the east coast. Popular for tourists, known for great seafood, fishing. And something else.
Wonsan is one of North Korea's main missile launch sites. And they've been launching missiles at an unprecedented pace. North Korea even has intercontinental ballistic missiles, potentially nuclear capable and within striking range of the U.S. for the first time ever.
In the 1980s, North Korea's founder, President Kim Il-sung launched the country's first missile. But since Marshal Kim Jong-un came to power in 2011, he's advanced North Korea's missile and nuclear programs faster than anyone ever predicted.
Why do they keep doing this?
(SPEAKING IN FOREIGN LANGUAGE)
RIPLEY: For one, propaganda. Each launch helps North Korea's leaders project power. But also missiles are like an insurance policy for the regime, protecting North Korea from the U.S. and its allies.
So I have to tell you, your city is very well known around the world because of all the missiles that keep being launched from here. Have you ever heard the missiles?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Of course, we have. We see it going up.
RIPLEY: Kim Eun-tak (ph) has lived here in Wonsan his whole life.
As a North Korean, when you see these missiles in the sky, what message does that send to you?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): It gives me great pride.
RIPLEY: So did this massive military drill along the beach, personally supervised by Kim Jong-un. Many North Koreans don't even understand why the U.S. and the world feel threatened.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Why is the Trump administration constantly imposing sanctions and stuff when we are doing these missile launches and all for our own defense capability? We're defending ourselves.
RIPLEY: Is there any criticism, anything you'd like to see your leader or your government do differently?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Nothing at all. I'm so satisfied.
RIPLEY: Keep in mind, during all my trips, I've never heard anyone criticize the authoritarian government. North Korea has zero tolerance for dissent of any kind.
What happens to people who break the rules? The United Nations says, hidden in the hills, the country has a network of prison camps where torture and executions are common.
[20:15:06] North Korean officials deny the allegations. They do say criminals are punished appropriately.
Aside from missiles, one of Wonsan's proudest achievements is a new hydroelectric power plant. We're told the lights in the city stay on for 24 hours a day, a rarity in North Korea.
In fact, when we stopped for dinner at a teahouse miles away from Wonsan, the lights go out within minutes. Nobody seems fazed by it. We dine on wild pheasant by flashlight. North Korea may have mastered launching missiles, but generating electricity is an ongoing struggle.
RIPLEY: We traveled to parts of North Korea that few foreigners have ever seen. In Panmunjom, the Cold War never ended.
The quiet countryside surrounding this area is riddled with landmines.
[20:20:01] No filming is allowed on the roads here.
Now, our government minders are letting us do a little souvenir shopping. I've never seen a gift shop like this.
These postcards are some of the most popular items. This one reads: we will crush the U.S. attempts for a nuclear war.
This one: to the U.S. hard line, we will counter with the ultra-hard line. And you can buy them right here.
If you think the postcards are intense, wait until you see the posters.
You don't need to read Korean to know what this means here. The U.S. Capitol there. Symbolism says it all.
Yes, that's the Capitol. And that's a giant fist crushing the U.S. Did you see the American being annihilated by his own missile?
I'm sensing a theme here.
What makes all of this even more surreal is where we are -- the Korean Demilitarized Zone or DMZ, a place unlike any other in the world.
To understand the DMZ, we need to go back to the end of World War II. The Soviets and Americans divided Korea, just like they did Germany. And the Korean War set the two super powers against each other with Koreans caught in the middle. Three million of them died.
Technically, the war never ended. An armistice agreement left North and South Korea facing each other down across the 38th parallel, the DMZ.
My tour guide is North Korean Lieutenant Colonel Hwang Yung-jin (ph).
When you actually live here, does it feel tense? Do you feel like you're on the brink of a war?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): I think it's not an exaggeration to say we are living at the brink of war, given that we are constantly receiving threats of war.
RIPLEY: South Korean and American soldiers are staring down North Korean soldiers and vice versa. They call this the demilitarized zone, but it's the exact opposite. Both sides have masses of soldiers up and down this heavily fortified
border pointing weapons at each other. It's considered one of the most dangerous flash points in the world.
And it's getting worse.
A lot has changed since I came here back in 2015. More nuclear tests, dozens of missile launches. Does it feel more tense now?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Yes. We can say the state of affairs is more tense, but it's rather the United States' continued hostile policy against North Korea reaching its peak.
RIPLEY: If you got the order right now, what would the military do?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): As soon as we receive the order from our supreme commander, we will liberate South Korea, and we will turn the U.S. mainland into a sea of fire.
RIPLEY: Maybe it's time to change the subject. The lieutenant colonel and I are both the same age, 36, but our lives couldn't be more different. Still, we must have some common ground.
What's your favorite kind of music?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): My favorite song is our eternal revolutionary song, the song praising our general, Kim Jong- un.
(SINGING IN FOREIGN LANGUAGE)
RIPLEY: I really like classic rock. Have you ever heard any classic rock?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): I think I've heard of it before, but I'm not sure.
RIPLEY: What's your favorite sport?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): I like basketball.
RIPLEY: You like basketball? Oh, I'm terrible at basketball.
OK. So we don't have much in common, but I think he's warming up to me. We say goodbye as friends.
Thank you very much. Annyeong hashimnikka. It's good to see you. And I'm glad we're meeting like this and not on the battlefield.
Next stop, Kaesong, the North Korean city closest to the DMZ.
What's it like to be so close to South Korea but you're not able to go?
KIM RYONG MUN (through translator): It hurts. And you've been asking about South Korea a lot. It's a place I want to go. RIPLEY: We are so close to Seoul, South Korea. Thriving economy,
modern skyline. Do you ever ask yourself why you don't have that here?
KIM RYONG MUN (through translator): We have Pyongyang. It's been built with our own power, our own technology, our own independent economy. How can Seoul compete with that?
RIPLEY: I can't help but wonder, what would his life be like if his family ended up just a few miles south after the Korean War? Driving back to Pyongyang, I have no idea we're about to experience one of the strangest days I've ever had in North Korea.
It begins like every other morning in Pyongyang.
[20:25:01] This music is the city's alarm clock, played every day beginning at 5:00 a.m. to commemorate the sacrifices of North Korea's leaders.
We head to the Pyongyang International Airport for the arrival of a VIP. Dennis Rodman has been invited back for another round of so- called basketball diplomacy.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
RIPLEY: Dennis, are you bringing a message from President Trump to North Korea's Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un?
DENNIS RODMAN, AMERICAN BASKETBALL PLAYER: I'm just here to come see some friends and have a good time.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
RIPLEY: Distracted by the Rodman circus, we have no idea a secret handover is happening at the Pyongyang Airport. American college student Otto Warmbier is quietly put on a U.S. government plane, a final sad chapter in a story that began a year and a half ago.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
OTTO WARMBIER, AMERICAN COLLEGE STUDENT IMPRISONED IN NORTH KOREA: I'm begging you, the people and government of the DPR of Korea, for your forgiveness.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
RIPLEY: Warmbier came here on a private sightseeing tour. After a night out on the town to celebrate New Year's Eve, the University of Virginia student was accused of trying to steal a propaganda banner from the wall of his hotel.
For that, he got a 15-year sentence. Soon after, mysteriously, he ended up with a brain injury.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: In North Korea, Otto Warmbier has been released. Let's go straight to our Will Ripley.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
RIPLEY: This was one of the hardest reports I've ever had to give. I'd spoken just weeks earlier with Warmbier's parents. At the time, they had no idea about their son's condition.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
RIPLEY: But this reunion is not the happy reunion that his family had been hoping as recently as a week ago because that is when they learned, according to a family statement, that Otto Warmbier has been in a coma since March of 2016.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
RIPLEY: In June of 2017, he returned to his hometown near Cincinnati, Ohio in a vegetative state.
Otto Warmbier died six days later. He was 22.
As I'm writing this, at least three other Americans remain in North Korean custody. The State Department has since banned most U.S. citizens from traveling here. The stakes have never been higher.
[20:31:05] RIPLEY: We're heading 40 miles south of Pyongyang to north Hwanghae Province, a place where people are definitely not used to seeing foreigners. Hello. Even getting permission to come here is complicated.
There is a lot of discussions that are happening, making sure that we're going to the right place, speaking to the right people. But we're not headed for a sensitive military site or a secret prison camp. What we want to see is a farm. Farming is a sensitive subject in North Korea. The nation still struggles to feed its own people. Limited farmland and a significant drought could put millions at risk.
The United Nations World Food Program estimates 70% of the population, nearly 18 million North Koreans, don't have a sufficiently diverse diet. They survive on basic staples, rice, porridge, fermented cabbage called kimchi. Beef, chicken, and pork are often too expensive. This handful of farmers seems to be putting on a demonstration for our benefit. After they finish, I try to ask them some questions. Most of the group is camera shy.
RIPLEY: But Yung Yon-gum has plenty to say.
YUNG YON-GUM, RESIDENT, NORTH HWANGHAE PROVINCE (through translator):The thing I am fond of is, for us farmers, is the land. Just taking care of the land.
RIPLEY: How long have you been doing this? YUNG (through translator): It's been about 10 years since I came here.
RIPLEY: What's the farthest that you've ever traveled from home?
YUNG (through translator): Not that far.
RIPLEY: If you could go, if you could leave North Korea and go to any other place in the world, where would you like to visit?
YUNG (through translator): I want to visit the U.S.
RIPLEY: Her answer surprises me. No North Korean has ever told me they want to visit the United States.
YUNG (through translator): I want to see what on earth the U.S. looks like to be harassing Korean people so much. It's so hard for us right now because of it. I really curse the Americans. I want to destroy their land.
RIPLEY: Now, I understand her answer.
It's very nice to meet you. I wish you the best.
So now, we're being taken to a family's home. This is a family that has been selected for us.
Like most families in this farming coop, they grow their own crops in the front yard.
RIPLEY: Offering to share some of their food with us, they tell me this is a typical lunch.
Oh, it's got a kick to it. It's strong. Duck eggs, bean paste, and rice, wrapped in lettuce with garlic and spices. Simple, healthy, delicious.
A lot of people in the outside world think that people in North Korea still are starving. How is the food supply now?
I ask about a time most North Koreans didn't have enough to eat. The North Korean famine of the late 1990s. Hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of North Koreans died of starvation.
KIM GYO-SUN (PH), RESIDENT, NORTH HWANGHAE PROVINCE (through translator): We ate tree bark after going up to the mountain for food and wondered just how long we'll have to do this. But it's not a problem now compared to that. This is all homegrown.
[20:35:06] After farming for a year, we get rice and money to live off of, which is great. This house, I got it for free.
RIPLEY: Kim Gyo-sun (ph) gives me a tour. Like every North Korean living room, there are portraits of the late leaders. KIM GYO-SUN (PH) (through translator): This is a photo of our family and the General when he came to visit.
RIPLEY: You have a DVD player here. What kind of DVDs do you like to watch?
KIM GYO-SUN (PH) (through translator): Cooking and lifestyle, new songs, movies. I watch a lot of them.
RIPLEY: Have you ever seen any western movies?
KIM GYO-SUN (PH) (through translator): No, we don't watch them. We wouldn't even if we could.
RIPLEY: He does watch state T.V., and he listens to propaganda broadcasts on the radio. But his favorite ritual, like many of his generation, reading the newspaper.
How important is the state media to getting information about what's happening?
KIM GYO-SUN (PH) (through translator): It's very important. It gets broadcast right away to everyone through television and newspapers on that day. The reaction is amazing.
RIPLEY: So what do you know about President Trump? What have you heard about him?
KIM GYO-SUN (PH) (through translator): In my opinion from reading the newspaper, I think President Trump is an impulsive person. I think he's impulsive and not calm, and so he's losing the trust of the American people.
RIPLEY: Trust, something so few Americans have in politicians and the media. But what about here in North Korea?
Here, the message is tightly controlled. The leader is almost always the lead story, and there's only one source of information. The government.
So you believe everything you read in the paper?
KIM GYO-SUN (PH) (through translator): Yes, we believe it, 100%.
RIPLEY: Ask anyone, and they'll give you the same answer. No fake news in North Korea.
[20:41:16] RIPLEY: This is the North Korea you've seen on the news. The North Korea they want you to see. Hoof stepping, chest puffing displays of national unity and military might. Perfectly executed by tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people. What you don't see, countless hours of mandatory practice before work, after school, on Sundays, in the rain and the cold.
RIPLEY: North Korea knows how to put on one hell of a show.
This is a much more modest version. Bright and early each morning, these women are out waving flags to motivate fellow citizens to work harder. Discipline, dedication, revolutionary fervor, it's all expected if you're one of around three million North Koreans allowed to live in Pyongyang.
We get a rare view from above, flying over the city in a Soviet era helicopter. Pyongyang has a surprisingly colorful, modern skyline.
Sure, it's full of grandiose monuments idolizing the late supreme leaders, the ruling Workers Party of Korea, the Juche ideology of self-reliance. But recent years have seen a slew of new construction projects, futuristic buildings, skyscrapers, all pet projects of their Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un. He ordered North Korean soldiers to build this entire street of residential high rises in one year. Top party officials give all the credit to their leader for his tireless worth.
It's here we find North Korea's version of the Apple store. The brand, Arirang, named for the iconic Korean folk song. The store manager says, out of three North Korean cell phone brands, this is by far the top seller.
What are the main differences between the three brands? Like why pick Arirang versus the other two?
RO SUN HUI, STORE MANAGER (through translator): The Arirang brand is well- known to our people. It is known as a designer label.
RIPLEY: I notice the price over there. $350 for a phone is a lot of money for anyone, anywhere. How do people afford these phones?
RO (through translator): It just means our peoples' living standard went up that much.
RIPLEY: We never do get a clear answer as to how people can actually afford all this. North Korea's average income is around $4 a day. Here, people are buying smartphones, tablets, high-fi speakers, HDTVs. This customer says she loves listening to music and playing games on her new phone, including one that looks an awful lot like Angry Birds.
RIPLEY: Do you like sharing photos with your friends?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): Yes.
RIPLEY: Yes? Yes. What do you -- do you like taking selfies?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): Yes.
RIPLEY: That's good. I kind of like -- I like yours better.
[20:45:00] North Koreans can send text messages, read the news, check the latest scores. One thing most cannot do, connect to the internet. They can only access a state-controlled intranet, completely monitored and censored.
Do you have anything like Google here in North Korea?
RI KEUM IL, PYONGYANG RESIDENT (through translator): Yes, we do. We have our own data search system, our version of Google. It's a search engine.
RIPLEY: The search results, only government sanctioned content.
What about social media? Do you have anything here like Facebook or Instagram or Twitter but the North Korean version?
RI (through translator): Yes, we have it. It's currently only being used on computers, but we're still working on developing it in our own way for cellphones.
RIPLEY: Next, we visit a North Korean department store where filming is usually strictly forbidden. We see people buying groceries, mostly North Korean products like Taedonggang beer. Also, plenty of brands you might recognize, usually Chinese imports.
China continues to trade heavily with North Korea despite international sanctions. You can find designer fashions, high-end appliances.
And on the top floor, there's a huge food court. We see people piling their plates with all kinds of Korean food.
Yes, I did try the fish head. I also tried the American style fast food, complete with pretty familiar packaging.
It doesn't get more American than French fries and milk shakes. Even the color scheme. Sure, I'll try. It's actually good.
After lunch, more shopping. All the art in North Korea is state sanctioned, which means a lot of landscapes and plenty of Siberian tigers, considered an unofficial national symbol. Pyongyang has a growing consumer class. And for them, living standards are improving under Kim Jong-un. The North Korean economy grew by almost 4% in 2016, according to South Korean central bank estimates.
RIPLEY: Which means, people have more ways to enjoy their rare time off, like this group of factory workers having a picnic and singing karaoke.
They're happy to share their meal with us and seem even happier to let loose. We expect North Koreans to work hard. This, we don't expect.
[20:51:41] RIPLEY: CNN has been reporting from North Korea for more than 25 years. The aircraft we're boarding today has been flying for 50.
This Antonov AN-24 is part of an aging fleet of Soviet planes operated by Air Koryo, North Korea's only airline, still flying despite sanctions with regular international flights to Russia and China.
Our flight takes us 400 miles north of Pyongyang to a place CNN has never been allowed before. As a western journalist, even setting foot here is extraordinary.
Samjiyon County right along the Chinese border is a mountainous region. North Korea's nuclear test site is in the very next province.
We're not here for nuclear tests. We're here for Mount Paektu, the highest point on the Korean Peninsula. Also an active volcano.
State propaganda glorifies the Kim family for their Mount Paektu bloodline. North Korean society prides its racial purity. The Paektu bloodline is considered a noble, heroic lineage tied to the ancestral rulers, ancient legendary kings of the Korean Peninsula.
Their tombs are national landmarks, visited by droves of North Korean citizens. But the ultimate journey is to the mountain itself. Still hours away on bumpy dirt roads. We've never been this far inside rural North Korea.
Can we take pictures? No?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No.
We catch only fleeting glances of the groups marching by. Quick peeks at the living conditions in these deep rural areas.
We're allowed to stop just for a few minutes in a tiny farming village. The children on their way home from school are amused. It's quite possible they've never seen anyone who looks like me.
We're looking at them, but they're looking at us as well. Every time I try to take a picture of those girls, they run away.
[20:55:04] We eventually make it to this sleepy town. The town's centerpiece, yet another monument to the late President Kim Il-sung.
We're shown a bullet riddled building where he led a surprise attack against the Japanese.
This is a typical North Korean village. China is about five miles that way up over that hill. And this is a simple life out here. You don't see shiny buildings. You don't see a whole lot of new construction. You see people living a slow, simple life.
Down another windy road, another site North Koreans consider sacred, a cabin near Mount Paektu, North Korea claims is the birthplace of General Kim Jong-il. Outside historians say he was actually born in Russia. But here, our guide tells the story of his supposedly mystical birth.
KIM UN SIM (through translator): So it was really cold and the weather was not normal. But somehow, the day the General was born, the strong winds stopped all of a sudden. The sun began shining through.
Everything was bright and a quiet calm took over. The flowers bloomed, and in the sky was a particularly bright star.
RIPLEY: Is that a legend or did that actually happen?
KIM UN SIM (through translator): Yes, it actually happened. It's not a legend. Our General is really a person who heaven sent to us. So he changed the weather too. It's a true story.
RIPLEY: People from the outside hear these stories and they wonder how any of this could possibly be true.
KIM UN SIM (through translator): It's hard to explain in one word. But our General is so great, we can't say it's only a legend. Nature actually transformed itself to announce the birth of our General to the whole world, blessing it. That's how it happened.
RIPLEY: I realize, for North Koreans, this is their faith. Just like the Bible, Koran, or Torah. When they come to Mount Paektu, they're making a pilgrimage.
RIPLEY: Why is this place so special and meaningful for you?
JON RYONG-U, SAMJIYON COUNTY RESIDENT (through translator): Mount Paektu is the soul of Korea's revolution, the spirit of our people and our pride. We are members of the great country of Paektu.
RIPLEY: You know, in a lot of ways, this mountain is the way that North Koreans view their lives. One big, tough climb.
As we reach the top, one of the most breathtaking views I've ever seen. Now, I understand why North Koreans are visibly emotional when they come here. Mount Paektu symbolizes their achievements.
Yes. Nice to meet you.
After more than a dozen trips to North Korea, I can't help but believe, at heart, we share the same hopes, the same struggles. For food and shelter. For safety and security. To learn and to live.
But I wonder, is it all at the risk? On September 3rd, North Korea tested its most powerful nuclear weapon ever.
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: North Korea will be met with fire and fury.
RIPLEY: American officials responded with words of war.
NIKKI HALEY, UNITED STATES AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED NATIONS: He is begging for war.
RIPLEY: And shows of force. Now, the world waits and watches, uncertain of our common future.