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The North Korea I wasn't meant to see

By Paula Hancocks, CNN
updated 10:36 AM EDT, Tue August 6, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • CNN's Paula Hancocks experienced a rare trip through North Korea's interior
  • Countryside seemed to be well-farmed, despite reports of severe malnourishment
  • Hancocks witnessed significant damage from flooding

(CNN) -- My military minder tells me to turn my camera off, and it soon becomes clear why.

The poverty I see through the bus window is not the view of North Korea the regime wants to be seen. We are traveling from Hyangsan, three hours north of Pyongyang, back to the capital, but the main road and the sanctioned route has been flooded. This is the only way back.

Buildings are in disrepair; some barely look inhabitable.

Residents of this small town walk or sit by the side of the road, many seeming to have little to do. A number of official-looking men dressed in brown Mao suits stand silently on street corners. It is impossible to know who they are or which element of the party or military they might work for, but they clearly seem to be observing.

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Despite the driver traveling as quickly as possible through these inhabited areas, you could still sense the local community being monitored.

Dozens of men are working on the outskirts of town, building a stone wall between their crops and the swollen river.

Boulders and stones are carried by hand and stacked without adhesive. This intensive labor force is seen repeatedly in the North Korean countryside, but I see no heavy equipment to help building or farming.

One man trims hedges with a rusty scythe; other men repair part of the pavement with small hand-held pickaxes.

Cars are rare; most people either walk or cycle.

Surviving the streets of North Korea

Back in the countryside, I am surprised by how much land has been farmed. The United Nations says a quarter of the country's children are severely malnourished, and yet as far as the eye can see are fields of maize, rice, wheat and corn. In the midst of the Korean rainy season, the landscape is lush, and it raises the question of how this food, once harvested, is distributed.

While driving to Hyangsan, an area the regime wants to see tourists flock to, we're stopped at a number of military checkpoints.

Each time, we are told we cannot go on as the roads are flooded, but each time, our minders talk us through until it becomes clear there has been significant damage. One side of a dual carriageway has completely collapsed 20 feet into the river below. Two soldiers sit on their bikes and look on helplessly. This is considered one of the main roads in North Korea, but the damage caused could take months to fix, according to a military official accompanying us.

A North Korean man washes in a river in Hyangsan.
A North Korean man washes in a river in Hyangsan.

The town of Hyangsan is filled with bunting and posters for the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Korean War, a day North Korea calls "Victory Day."

Women crouch by the side of the road clearing the grass of weeds; others sweep the streets with a tree branch. Celebrations clearly extend far beyond the capital city.

The landscape itself is stunning.

A North Korean family crouches by the river in Hyangsan, three hours from Pyongyang.
A North Korean family crouches by the river in Hyangsan, three hours from Pyongyang.

Lush mountains rise from the fog covered river, a river that feeds the local community.

One small boy fishes using a crudely made net, walking backward through the shallows, dragging the small net attached to a piece of wood in the hope of catching something.

Nearby, a family washes their clothes in the river, suggesting running water is a luxury in this region.

The hotel we are staying in has an intermittent supply. Farther downstream, a man has brought soap to the water's edge to wash his hair and his clothing. A security official appears from nowhere to stop me filming.

I see two different North Koreas on this trip: the sanctioned tourist view of the beautifully groomed gardens of the Pohyon Buddhist temple, with their perfectly preserved shrines.

And the poorer view I see flashing by the bus window.

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