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  • Decades on, the topic of North Korea remains a touchy subject.

  • The world has passed judgment: the country is beyond repair.

  • Our preconceived ideas about

  • the Democratic People's Republic of North Korea remain firmly in place:

  • An erratic, Orwellian regime?

  • paranoid, schizophrenic, a place of modern-day gulags,

  • a red dynasty, long headed by a despotic film buff,

  • and now by his son, whose portly appearance is topped with a singular haircut.

  • And then there's the country's nuclear arsenal

  • a threat that makes the self-proclaimed 'innocent'

  • nations of the world tremble with fear.

  • When it comes to North Korea, why do we so often resort to clichés?

  • In light of the difficult and often tragic situation

  • the country's people find themselves in,

  • hyperbole seems rather inappropriate.

  • We're often told that foreigners are not permitted into the country.

  • That those who do manage to visit are not permitted to see much of anything.

  • And that those who do manage to see something should remember

  • it's probably fake.

  • Someone once insisted to us that there were no high-rises in Pyongyang.

  • A disorienting claim, given that one of us was living

  • on the 24th floor of a building on Kwangbok Street at the time.

  • This film was shot over a period of eight years by three people.

  • One of us is a translator of Korean.

  • Between us, we made more than forty trips to North Korea.

  • But the film does not show prison camps or rocket launch pads

  • that's forbidden.

  • As are images of soldiers, construction sites, shopping malls, gambling,

  • pictures of people who do not have enough to eat,

  • and pictures of people who are eating.

  • Avoiding these images is harder than it might seem.

  • Entering North Korea is still complicated.

  • But foreigners are permitted to travel and explore the country,

  • although they always have a localminder.”

  • Visitors are not required to proclaim their loyalty to the state.

  • Nor do they only see what the state permits them to see.

  • And it's a myth that you'll never hear laughter in North Korea.

  • As soon as we leave the city, the roads are riddled with cracks and potholes.

  • The bumpy journey is hard on drivers and vehicles.

  • That could explain why broken-down trucks and buses are a common sight.

  • Depending on the season,

  • the workers in the fields might be harvesting wheat, rice, or potatoes.

  • Although much of the country is mountainous,

  • the rest is primarily devoted to farming.

  • North Korea hopes to become economically self-sufficient someday.

  • Every square meter of available land is put to use, even on the steep hillsides.

  • But only barely 20 percent of the land is arable.

  • This factory was not filmed in 1920,

  • but in 2016 using a small camera while exploring the city of Hamhung.

  • As so often in North Korea, appearances are deceiving.

  • This is the country's largest fertilizer factory,

  • which Kim Il-sung honored with more than 30 visits.

  • It's recently been modernized

  • in a bid to increase the productivity of the country's cooperative farms.

  • Cooperative farms like this one,

  • with its familiar oxcarts,

  • geese and ducks, and the omnipresent red flags.

  • Another visit to a collective farm, a year later.

  • It's raining and everyone has gone to seek shelter.

  • The productivity chart proudly displays the farm's yields.

  • We take shelter in the living room of one of the farm workers.

  • She tells us about the bitter cold winters,

  • hot summers, and the backbreaking work in the rice fields.

  • Her son is fourteen

  • small for his age, she admits, but the family has been through hard times.

  • Her son was born just as the great famine was ending.

  • Behind her, one of the country's ubiquitous historical melodramas

  • is playing on TV.

  • Then she launches into an vivid description of her visits to Pyongyang:

  • In addition to the mausoleum of the Great Leaders,

  • I visited the museum of the Revolution,

  • the amusement park near the Leader's birthplace,

  • the Revolutionary Martyr's Cemetery,

  • the Science and Technology museum,

  • and the Grand People's Study House.

  • I went everywhere!

  • Anyone from the provinces who visits the capital comes here first:

  • the house where Kim Il Sung was born.

  • The birthplace of the Republic.

  • This is where it all started, they say.

  • The Great Leader's training as a revolutionary,

  • the resistance against the Japanese,

  • the struggle against the evil landowners and collaborators.

  • It's a story that's very familiar to people here.

  • And as Kim Il Sung was the son of an ordinary peasant,

  • he is also venerated as a role model.

  • This is a place of pilgrimage year-round.

  • In the winter, the buildings and grounds are decked in sober white.

  • During our visit in 2011, we first saw

  • local visitors wearing brightly colored winter coats, imported from China.

  • By 2015, the classes of schoolchildren are wearing name-brand sweatpants,

  • even though their sneakers don't quite yet make the grade.

  • September brings the color of autumn and a pumpkin on the thatched roof.

  • In Pyongyang, everything is bigger, more modern, more beautiful,”

  • we were told by the woman from the collective farm.

  • The city has more of everything:

  • more light, more shops, more food, more housing,

  • more work, more education, more culture.

  • Who wouldn't want to live here?

  • The capital is more than the epicenter of the state, it's an icon.

  • Our farmer would probably have been told that

  • these exemplary buildings are home to exemplary citizens

  • scientists, soldiers, civil servants.

  • Some of the most eminent live on the glossy new

  • Mirae or Future Scientists Street.

  • For a farmer from a village without so much as a paved road,

  • this would be an impressive sight.

  • And the people who live here seem to have plenty of time for leisure activities.

  • Our visitor from the collective farm couldn't help

  • but be dazzled by these high-rises,

  • the most famous of which looks like an atom when viewed from above.

  • And by the new districts springing up around the city,

  • built with the labor of the country's soldiers and workers.

  • But it would be very unlikely that our visitor

  • would ever set foot in one of these apartments,

  • reserved for the most worthy citizens.

  • It's perfectly neat and tidy

  • though the residents have fled the camera.

  • There's a computer, cell phone, books, and a sewing machine.

  • The balcony offers a view across a city in the midst of a real estate boom.

  • There's an abundance of color

  • quite the contrast to the grey that dominated here just 20 years ago.

  • This real estate boom has given rise to a black market

  • in Pyongyang and other large cities.

  • When the state awards a faithful follower with a new apartment,

  • they pass on the old one to the highest bidder.

  • For a choice location, prices can easily top 100,000 dollars.

  • And only a fraction of that is tax that ends up in state coffers.

  • Karl Marx might have called this the 'primitive accumulation of capital.'

  • A visitor's tour might end with a trip to an amusement park or a water park.

  • One of Kim Jong-un's priorities is building 'playgrounds for the people.'

  • The entrance fee? equivalent of two euros?

  • isn't cheap by local standards.

  • But everyone mingles and enjoys themselves.

  • Even the adults get into the swing of things.

  • I came with my group, but I don't know where my coworkers are.

  • Now, I'm looking for them.

  • I work at a large coal mine, an hour away from Pyongyang.

  • I can't come often because of my work.

  • Today we visited the Great Leaders' mausoleum, so I stopped by here.

  • I like to come to Pyongyang to relax.

  • After having fun like this, work comes more easily.

  • What are you looking at? Go play!

  • We've never been abroad. But now we have lots of water parks.

  • Even at home, in our province north of Pyongyang.

  • We will become the best in the world.

  • Without anyone's help, just by our own hands.

  • Any more questions? We're the best!

  • Some of the rural visitors seem a bit lost in the crowd.

  • But since many people don't know how to swim, no one really notices.

  • But on state television nowadays,

  • people can even tune in to swimming lessons.

  • The sun is beginning to set.

  • A good time to visit the city's main amusement park,

  • beyond Pyongyang's Arch of Triumph.

  • Like everywhere in North Korea,

  • filming anything to do with the military is banned,

  • but hard to avoid, because soldiers are everywhere.

  • Some might call this nothing but 'bread and circuses.'

  • But it's far more than that.

  • There's hardly a North Korean who doesn't dream of living in Pyongyang.

  • And every resident of Pyongyang is terrified of

  • being expelled from the city for some foolish mistake

  • forcing them and their family to live in exile,

  • for a few years or for the rest of their lives,

  • in a place where they will have less of everything.

  • With its lights and sights Pyongyang inspires loyalty.

  • People flock to the parks and swimming pools to enjoy

  • what is the most attractive city in the country.

  • And even the world

  • for the people who live here at least,

  • since their world ends at the North Korean border.

  • We've never witnessed a birth in North Korea,

  • but we have seen plenty of weddings.

  • Or wedding 'preparations,' to be more precise.

  • Like this professional photo-shoot,

  • where the happy couple is posing in front of Pyongyang's most iconic locations.

  • It's monsoon season, which means 38 degrees Celsius and very humid.

  • The bride and groom first went to statues of the Great Leaders.

  • Then we came the flower park you see here, near the water fountains.

  • Soldiers usually like to pose in front of military monuments,

  • like the Monument to the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War.

  • What the wedding video doesn't show are

  • the many people who helped make this happy event possible.

  • In North Korea, most marriages are arranged through matchmakers.

  • It's their job to find the ideal marriage partner who

  • will also be suitable to the families.

  • Although marrying for love is just starting to trend,

  • arranged marriages are still the norm.

  • One result is that people usually marry within their own social class.

  • For many decades,

  • the country's elite was dominated by the revolutionary comrades of Kim Il-sung,

  • and their descendants.

  • At the bottom of the social order were the families of people who

  • had collaborated with Japan,

  • and their descendants.

  • In between were some forty sub-classes,

  • who were not permitted to marry outside their rank.

  • The end of Kim Il-Sung's regime, the famine under Kim Jong-Il,

  • and the partial disintegration of both state and party that followed

  • not only shook the country, but also its traditional social hierarchy.

  • This helped loosen the stringent marriage rules.

  • Today the most desirable professions for a husband are

  • scientist, diplomat, the military,

  • and, of course, business professionals.

  • For years, women traffic police were highly sought after on the marriage market.

  • But they're seen less often now, with the installation of traffic lights.

  • Young couples are expected to have children.

  • And their education will be put in the hands of the state at an early age.

  • The country boasts a reported literacy rate of 100 percent

  • a success that is attributed to the revolution.

  • The most important school subjects are math, physics, music and singing,

  • Korean, and the lives of the Great Leaders.

  • From kindergarten on, children are subjected to a rigorous selection process.

  • The best students spend their holidays taking part in

  • sports at the young pioneer camps.

  • When we arrive at the stadium, the competition is underway.

  • Each side is cheering on its team.

  • The young charges aren't wearing the standard lapel pins

  • bearing images of the Great Leaders.

  • They're on holiday, and children under 16 aren't obliged to wear them.

  • Then it's time for the tug-of-war.

  • The evil American soldier in the middle is tough.

  • He's already made it through several tournaments.

  • Finding a good husband, having a successful career

  • these topics are far more interesting to most North Koreans than

  • the endless propaganda they're exposed to.

  • Getting married is important, and it's also the focus of

  • the sitcoms that are broadcast on a giant screen near the central railway station.

  • Locals stand here to watch them in the middle of December,

  • even in a chilly minus 15 degrees Celsius.

  • There's also an ad for automaker Pyeonghwa, which meanspeacein Korean.

  • The company was founded by Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church,

  • but has been fully owned by the state since 2013.

  • The sitcoms portray a politically correct world.

  • The individual matters only as part of the collective,

  • where being a good worker is what counts.

  • In the winter, everyone is responsible for a stretch of road.

  • No matter how much snow has fallen, it has to be cleared.

  • That's why scenes of people scraping snow and ice off their patch of road