Hula hoop diplomacy: My time in the North Korean limelight

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CNN video journalist hula hoops in North Korea
01:01 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

CNN video journalist Bradley Olson was part of three-person team on a reporting trip to North Korea

At a shoot at a dophinarium, he was unexpectedly called on to be part of the performance

Pyongyang CNN  — 

So there I was, on stage, swinging three hula-hoops in front of a big crowd of wildly cheering North Koreans. It’s not what I went there to do and I had not anticipated that this sort of thing might happen.

I don’t like to be the center of attention. As a cameraman, I usually like to hang back a little, and try not to be noticed. It’s easier to get candid shots of people when they are not paying attention to you.

We were filming at the Pyongyang Dolphinarium – built on the orders of Kim Jong Il for the benefit of the people, we were told.

It was hard to keep a low profile. A big westerner with a big TV camera is a rare sight in North Korea and I felt as many eyes were on me as were on the show. I tried to play it cool and not do anything conspicuous.

I was surprised there was a dolphinarium in Pyongyang, but the crowd was having a good time. Mostly they looked like workers, and there were a lot of school kids, out for a field trip. For me it was very interesting to film.

It was the first time I had been among North Korean people in an informal setting.

During our week-long trip, we were accompanied by government chaperones at all times and every shoot was arranged for us.

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Ordinary people?

Most looked like average citizens, like the ones I had seen all over Pyongyang and in the rural areas around the city – although this is where the country’s elite live. Everyone was well groomed, well dressed and had a good pair of shoes.

They took pride in their appearance and generally dressed much better and more formally than we typically do in the west, even on their day off.

I was really interested in getting shots of the regular people of North Korea because before this trip I had only seen them on TV, in settings like military parades and state events.

There were no stern faces marching by in this setting, among family and friends, people were relaxed.

The first part of the show featured gray spotted dolphins, which, according to our guide, are native to the waters around North Korea.

The guide said they were difficult to train but because of the sanctions that had been imposed on North Korea, it was no longer possible to import bottlenose dolphins, which are used in most dolphin shows around the world.

“We are a sovereign state,” he explained. “We do not bow to external pressure.”

A couple of random citizens were drawn from the crowd and went up to meet the dolphins and have tricks played on them.

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All eyes on me

Then the female host came out into the audience.

First, she chose a woman to go onstage.

Then she came towards where I was sitting with CNN correspondent Will Ripley and producer Tim Schwarz.

I stuck my face firmly in my viewfinder and tried to look busy. She stood right in front of me. I couldn’t ignore her. She asked me to come on stage.

I pointed to the guy beside me and she pointed at me. I pointed to Will and said: “Ask him.”

But she insisted.

The room was quiet. All eyes were on me.

I felt it would be a insult to everyone in the room if I refused and I thought they would just get me to feed a fish to a dolphin. So I stood up, turned the camera over to Will and Tim and followed her up onto the stage.

Once there she gave the other woman and myself a hula hoop.

I hadn’t been anywhere near a hula hoop since grade school.

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False start

After a false start I managed to get the thing swinging long enough to get the crowd cheering and as a reward for my effort, and it was quite an effort, was given a second hula hoop. Dang.

I couldn’t stop then, even though my heart was pounding with the effort of swinging one hoop. Somehow I managed to get both going and could hear the crowd cheering and so was presented a third hoop.

I was getting the hang of it now and got the three hoops going. I could hear the crowd go wild.

I kept them going for a decent amount of time, longer than the dolphins who were also spinning hoops – or at least that was what I was told. As a reward for my effort I was given two balloons and a huge round of applause.

I made my way back to my seat with as much dignity as I could muster and hid behind my beloved camera.

The show ended soon after and as we left the dolphinarium our guide said to me:

“That was really great. You really made the people happy.”

At the door we were greeted by the manager of the dolphinarium, who had come out to say goodbye.

She offered me a job. I think she was only half joking.