By CNN correspondent Will Ripley
‘Secret State: Inside North Korea’ airs Saturday, September 16 at 1000 & 2000 HKT on CNN International
1. 5am sirens
Every morning begins the same way in Pyongyang, with sirens blaring at 5am. Loud speakers outside the central train station and in other areas blast a hypnotic tune for several minutes. It sounds almost sinister to western ears, but is familiar to North Koreans. It’s like a citywide alarm clock, a haunting melody to remind residents of the sacrifices of their late leaders. The sirens ring out nearly every hour on the hour until midnight.
2. US$4 daily income
North Korea is a nation of around 25 million people. About 3 million people are allowed to live in the relatively modern capital of Pyongyang, which boasts a growing skyline and public amenities that surpass the rest of the country. Much of North Korea is rural and relatively undeveloped, dotted with towns and villages where the basics, like electricity, clean water, and nutritious food are not always available. The average yearly income is estimated at about US$1-2 thousand dollars, or around US$4 per day.
While nearly all North Koreans can’t access the internet or social media like Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, they can connect to a state-controlled Intranet where everything is monitored and censored. They have their own search engines, similar to Google, but with only government-sanctioned content. They even have their own chat-rooms, similar to AOL in the 1990’s, covering everything from sports to politics to on-line dating. High definition TVs, tablets and smart phones are for sale, with the most popular designer brand cell phone retailing for US$350.
4. Air Koryo
Air Koryo is North Korea’s only airline. Planes are part of an aging Soviet fleet, with some flying for more than 50 years. International flights currently service Russia and China. Female flight attendants are known as stewardesses. They are usually attractive and young, aged between 18-25. Once they leave the airline they usually go to university or get married. A typical in-flight meal consists of a sandwich and drink, usually water or North Korean beer.
5. Mount Paektu
400 miles north of Pyongyang on the Chinese border is Mt. Paektu, the highest point on the Korean peninsula. It’s an active volcano and a sacred site, supposedly the birthplace of North Korea’s second leader, General Kim Jong II. North Koreans believe on the day the General was born, the strong winds stopped, the sun began shining through, everything was bright and a quiet, and calm took over. The flowers bloomed and in the sky was a particularly bright star. Most outside historians say Gen. Kim, father of the current leader Kim Jong Un, was actually born in Russia.