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CNN's Will Ripley and team head inside secretive North Korea for second time in a year

Last time around Ripley interviewed three Americans detained by Pyongyang regime -- they were later released

Pyongyang, North Korea CNN  — 

Last September, I made my first visit to North Korea, granted a rare glimpse of what goes on beyond the demilitarized zone, in one of the most mysterious places on Earth.

Now, eight months on, the regime has invited me to return to the reclusive nation where foreign visitors – especially journalists – are seldom welcomed.

Last time around I learned to get used to the government minders who stuck by our side, ensuring we only saw what the government wanted us to see.

I know they’ll be there again this time, waiting for us when we land in Pyongyang.

But what I don’t know is what they have in store for us – or why they asked us to come back. We don’t even know how long we’ll be staying.

The media, like most aspects of life in North Korea, is very tightly controlled, and it’s likely we won’t know exactly what we’re there to cover until it’s actually happening.

Last time, we asked to interview Kenneth Bae, Matthew Todd Miller and Jeffrey Edward Fowle, three Americans detained by the Pyongyang regime. Each of them had admitted to breaking the strict laws of North Korea. Two were awaiting trial and one, Bae, was serving 15 years of hard labor for “hostile acts to bring down its government.”

Mysterious leader

At the beginning of the trip, our minders told us granting access to the detained Americans would be nearly impossible – but as I soon learned, the unexpected can still happen in North Korea.

On the penultimate day of our week-long visit full of government-controlled sightseeing outings, we were put in a van, driven to a nondescript building, and told we had five minutes with each of the men; what we were allowed to discuss with them was closely regulated.

Our minders warned us that if we broke the rules, we might not make our flight out of Pyongyang the next morning.

I’ll never forget the surreal series of interviews that followed: Bae, Miller and Fowle were in separate rooms just feet apart, but had no contact with each other. Our camera kept rolling as we walked from one room to the next.

A group of government officials watched, took notes, and made their own recordings of our interviews with each man. We kept to our deal, stayed on point, and within a few hours the interviews were being broadcast around the world.

North Korea subsequently released the Americans, but the country remains off-limits to most, its Supreme Leader, Kim Jong Un, a mysterious and rarely-seen figure – even his exact age is unknown.

There was international speculation he would travel to Moscow next weekend for Russia’s Victory Day celebration, though Pyongyang never confirmed the visit, where Kim would have stood alongside other heads of state including China’s Xi Jinping.

We suspected our visit might be timed to coincide with the historic event, until Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson said Thursday Kim would not be traveling to Russia, due to “internal issues.”

Propaganda weapon

Kim inherited power from his father, Kim Jong Il, who died in 2011. Kim’s grandfather, North Korea’s founder and “eternal president” Kim Il Sung led the country for 46 years until his death in 1994.

Under Kim Jong Un, North Korea is believed to have greatly expanded its arsenal of nuclear weapons. A report leaked to the Wall Street Journal claims Chinese nuclear experts warned the United States that Pyongyang now has 20 nuclear devices and is expected to soon double that number.

North Korea has also launched a series of projectiles, an apparent effort to expand its missile capabilities. The nation’s Songun, or “military first” ideology, justifies massive military spending as the only way to protect the nation’s sovereignty. The Korean People’s Army, or KPA, is among the largest standing militaries in the world.

North and South Korea have remained technically at war since the 1950s and propaganda is one of the key weapons used aggressively by both sides.

Last week, South Korea’s spy agency accused Kim of ordering the executions of 15 senior officials in the first four months of this year - and of killing 41 in 2014. Of course, there’s no way to verify these claims. Intelligence from North Korea is notoriously unreliable and is often based on the testimony of defectors.

The friction between those who who’ve fled the nation and the elite North Koreans chosen to represent Pyongyang was evident at a United Nations human rights meeting on Thursday.

North Korea’s diplomats insisted on reading out a statement of protest while being heckled by defectors, who the North Koreans referred to as “human scum” before storming out of the room.

A scathing United Nations report last year, based in large part on testimony from hundreds of defectors, portrayed North Korea as a brutal state “that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.”

‘Hermit Kingdom’

North Korea has strongly denied the allegations of murder, torture, sexual violence, slavery, and mass starvation. The country has vowed to defend itself against those calling for the prosecution of its supreme leader for crimes against humanity.

Kim’s alleged crimes were parodied in the now-infamous Sony Pictures comedy “The Interview.” North Korea, which considers its leaders divine, was infuriated by the film – which mocks Kim and shows his graphic assassination.

Activists have attempted to smuggle thousands of copies of the film into North Korea. Pyongyang restricts most citizens from having any access to the outside world and considers viewing the movie an act of treason.

A devastating cyber hack on Sony Pictures was launched ahead of the release of “The Interview.” The United States blames North Korea for the hack – despite skepticism from many cyber security experts and denials from Pyongyang.

During our visit to North Korea, we hope to learn as many details as possible about all of the major stories that have occurred in the eight months since we last visited the country.

But we also want to tell the stories of regular North Koreans. We know remarkably little about their daily lives, their hopes and dreams, and what it’s like living in what is often described as the Hermit Kingdom.

We don’t know where we’ll go, who we’ll meet, or what we’ll see in these coming days, but whatever does, we’ll take you along on our journey.