Skip to main content

Pro wrestling, country clubs and theme parks: What North Korea wants world to see

By Will Ripley, CNN
updated 4:52 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • CNN attends pro-wrestling festival in North Korea in tightly-controlled trip
  • Behind public spectacle, is an attempt at sports diplomacy
  • Trip showcases country club, theme park, military might
  • Minders watch reporters' every move

Pyongyang, North Korea (CNN) -- The crowd cheers as the stars make their way to the ring for first pro-wrestling bout North Korea has seen in almost 20 years.

Back then, we're told the spectators thought the action was real.

Now, they're more savvy, and appreciative, clapping loudly as the former American stars execute their maneuvers during the two-day contest in Pyongyang.

"We're here to do something bigger and better," pro-wrestler Jon "Strongman" Anderson roars backstage.

He could also be alluding to the purpose of the trip, an attempt at "sports diplomacy" by Antonio Inoki, a Japanese former pro-wrestler turned politician.

He's organized the trip at a time of thawing relations between Japan and North Korea over the issue of abductions of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and '80s. Recent talks opened the door for further investigations by North Korea and a report is expected in the next few weeks.

The behind-the-scenes diplomacy is a long way from the public spectacles staged during this mixed martial arts festival.

The stars of the show -- including former NFL star Bob "The Beast" Sapp -- join arm-wrestling and tug-of-war competitions with the Pyongyang locals, some who seem more than a little bemused.

Tightly-controlled

International media has joined the tightly-controlled tour, which took us from the birthplace of the nation's founder, Kim Il Sung, to the pet projects of its current leader, Kim Jong Un.

A bus ride seemed to take us back in time as we passed fields where locals where working, tending the soil with their hands.

Our destination was a country club where, for the equivalent of $10 an hour, locals can ride horses in an indoor arena. It's a past time only for Pyongyang's elite. The country's per capita income is estimated to be around $1,000 to $2,000 a year, putting such pursuits out of reach of most people.

However, outside Pyongyang there's a place where anyone can see the country's most impressive monuments, without having to visit each one.

It's a theme park that displays North Korea's landmarks in miniature. Many of them could be found in Pyongyang. Indeed, visitors could even see the real-life Tower of Juche from the park.

The original, built on the shore of the River Taedong, is named after the political ideology formed by the country's Eternal President Kim Il Sung, that "man is the master of everything and decides everything."

CNN's Will Ripley is in Pyongyang. Here are his photos. A sight the DPRK wants to show the world: A massive sports village where North Korea athletes train. CNN's Will Ripley is in Pyongyang. Here are his photos. A sight the DPRK wants to show the world: A massive sports village where North Korea athletes train.
CNN's Will Ripley travels to North Korea
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
>
>>
Photos: CNN travels to North Korea Photos: CNN travels to North Korea
Reporting live from North Korea
American wrestlers travel to North Korea

Then there's the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum and more lessons in North Korean history.

We were shown a video that shared the country's perspective on the Korean War (1950-53). It was started by an attack from United States, the video declared. When I questioned this, the guide replied, "That's what you're taught. This is the truth."

North Korea's military might and successes were paraded in other displays. We were shown a U.S. Navy research ship -- the USS Pueblo -- that was seized in 1968 for allegedly spying on the DPRK.

Washington claims it never entered North Korean waters.

Photos showing planes and helicopters that had crashed in North Korean territory were also displayed, including a graphic image of a dead U.S. soldier.

Asked why it was necessary to display the photo, the guide replied: "Dead pilot? Because it shows that anybody who violates our sovereignty and intrudes on us to commit espionage must be killed like this."

Pet projects

Since taking power after his father's death in 2011, Kim Jong Un has sought to make his mark on the country and its population of some 25 million people.

He's launched a number of pet projects, spending millions on a new Children's Hospital and a slide-filled water park in Pyongyang, which we've seen firsthand during our trip.

However, outside Pyongyang it's unclear how far the spending has spread.

North Korea remains a secretive state, accused by a United Nations panel of widespread human rights abuses, charges that the country denies.

Minders have watched our every move, from the moment we landed in Pyongyang to the bus ride to our hotel, which sits on its own island. The tour has followed pre-approved routes; we're shown what they want us to see.

So far, that has been impressive infrastructure for a country that's struggling to feed its own people, and that has erected an almost unassailable boundary between it and the outside world.

Hilary Whiteman in Hong Kong contributed to this report.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 7:24 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As soon as word broke that "The Interview" will hit some theaters, celebrations erupted across social media -- including from the stars of the film.
updated 1:44 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Did a rogue hacker -- or the U.S. government -- cut the cord for the regime's Internet?
updated 3:22 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
The United States and North Korea have long been locked in a bitter cycle of tensions. But the current cyber conflict may be especially hard to predict.
updated 1:49 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
A defector from the North Korean government says the country's cyberwarfare is more dangerous than its nuclear weaponry.
updated 8:27 AM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
North Korea warns the United States that U.S. "citadels" will be attacked, dwarfing the hacking attack on Sony.
updated 10:43 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
North Korea's fury over "The Interview" appears to have taken the state's oversensitivity to new extremes.
updated 8:57 PM EST, Mon December 8, 2014
A retired Silicon Valley executive and Korean War veteran was hauled off his plane at Pyongyang in 2013. Here's what happened next.
updated 5:57 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
A recent defector from North Korea tells of the harrowing escape into China via Chinese 'snakehead' gangs.
updated 7:39 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
CNN's Amara Walker speaks to a former North Korean prison guard about the abuses he witnessed and was forced to enact on prisoners.
updated 12:59 AM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
The chief of the Commission of Inquiry into North Korea's human rights says the world can no longer plead ignorance to the regime's offenses.
updated 7:34 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Kim Jong Il's former bodyguard tells of the beatings and starvation he endured while imprisoned in the country's most notorious prison camp.
updated 1:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
Despite tense relations, China benefits from Kim Jong Un's rule in North Korea. David McKenzie explains.
updated 4:51 AM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
North Korea has "the world's most advantageous human rights system" and citizens have "priceless political integrity," the country declared.
ADVERTISEMENT