US President Donald Trump had already flown to China by the time ordinary North Koreans heard he’d addressed South Korea’s National Assembly.
In a damning speech on Wednesday, Trump called the isolated communist country “a hell that no person deserves.”
The rebuttal from North Koreans was equally harsh.
One woman CNN spoke to on the streets of Pyongyang called Trump’s assertion “foolish,” “absurd” and another word CNN cannot print.
“The reality here is very different. We’re leading a happy life,” Ri Yong Hui, a house wife in Pyongyang, told CNN.
North Korean state media reported that Trump had spoken on Thursday, but did not include concrete details of his speech, in which the President slammed Pyongyang’s human rights abuses.
The North Korean state newspaper Rodong Sinmun characterized Trump’s words as “garbage spewing like gunpowder out of Trump’s snout like garbage that reeks of gun powder to ignite war.”
Coverage on state television and in newspapers focused on a small number of protesters outside the National Assembly, despite the fact that they were outnumbered by those rallying in support of the US President.
CNN’s government minders allowed us to reveal the actual contents of what Trump said to citizens on the streets of Pyongyang, agreeing to take us down to a busy street corner and interview citizens.
We approached several people. Most were unwilling to speak to us, but not Ri.
“Trump has no right to talk about human rights,” Ri said, as the government minders translated for her. “He’s a simple war maniac.”
The phrase “maniac” is one that North Korean state media often uses to describe Trump, and that’s no coincidence.
Most people in Pyongyang are effectively sealed off from the outside world. They’re only able to access government-approved propaganda, as the North Korean leadership blocks foreign media and levies harsh punishments to those who smuggle or view content they deem inappropriate.
Ri Won Gil, an editor at a publishing company (unrelated and unacquainted to Ri Yong Hui), also called Trump a maniac.
Ri told CNN Trump was “a fool, a maniac and the only response to what he is saying is to give him a good beating with a stick.”
“(Trump) knows nothing at all about North Korea and in general about the Korean nation,” Ri said. “He has no common sense or knowledge about what we are. He may have said some things, but we don’t really care. We have our own national economy which was carved out and developed by the previous leaders and is being continuously built by the current leader.”
It’s impossible to know if those opinions are legitimately held or if both Ris are touting the party line because it is expected of them.
CNN’s government minders, who travel with and watch foreign journalists on all trips to the hermit nation, let us talk to whomever we wanted to on the street, but that doesn’t mean they were free to speak their minds.
The presence of our official escorts meant that even if anyone we spoke held differing views, they would likely only reiterate the same talking points as North Korea’s leaders out of fear of punishment.
Defectors often paint a much darker picture of life inside North Korea, one in which dissent is harshly punished.
Pyongyang is considered by many North Korea watchers to be the country’s showpiece – North Korea’s government selects its best and brightest to live in the capital, and rarely grants foreign journalists access to the more impoverished countryside.
Trump is currently in Beijing as part of a nearly two-week long tour of Asia, and North Korea’s nuclear and weapons program have been a top priority he’s discussed with his Japanese, South Korean and Chinese counterparts.
“All responsible nations must join together to stop arming and financing and even trading with the murderous North Korean regime,” Trump said Thursday in an appearance alongside Chinese President Xi Jinping. “Together we have in our power to finally liberate this region and the world from this very serious nuclear menace, but it will require collective action, collective strength, and collective devotion to winning the peace.”
North Korean officials said they’d be watching the trip closely. But shortly before Trump’s Wednesday speech to the South Korean National Assembly, CNN was told by North Korean officials that they’ve “already heard enough” – it’s America’s actions that matter.
CNN’s Joshua Berlinger contributed to this report