Just weeks after getting rare access to arguably the world’s most reclusive state, a CNN crew led by Will Ripley returned to Pyongyang, where they met several North Koreans intent on defending their country’s tarnished human rights record.

As is normal procedure, the team was given no advance notice about what or who they would be able to film before they arrived in the capital. On the first morning, they were led into the same meeting room at the Koryo Hotel — where most visiting foreigners stay — they entered back in May when they were greeted by a group of solemn young men and women.

That time, the group turned out to be the same youngsters who had been caught on the Laos-China border in 2013 as they attempted to head for South Korea. Returned to North Korea, the world feared for their safety at the hands of a state that is usually merciless when it comes to defectors they regard as traitors.

But instead of being punished, they told CNN they received special treatment, extra tuition to make up for three years of missed schooling while on the run, as well as places in the best educational establishments in the Pyongyang — poster children for the state’s “benevolence and forgiveness.”

‘Unfair attacks’

Barely two months on and in the same setting, another group of “ordinary” North Koreans waited patiently to tell their story — the government minders accompanying the crew said they all asked to be there to defend their country against what they called “unfair attacks” on the regime’s human rights record.

While there was no way to confirm they were volunteers or how they were chosen to speak, the highly secretive state seems keen to get its point of view across when it comes to its rights conduct — it vehemently rejected claims in a United Nations report that it “terrorizes” its own citizens.

The U.N. Commission of Inquiry issued its conclusions after listening to testimonies from more than 100 victims, witnesses and experts regarding North Korea. It also examined satellite imagery and listed a stunning catalog of torture and widespread abuse “that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.”

Pyongyang declined to participate in the inquiry, and instead published its own 53,000-word report that concluded North Korea has “the world’s most advantageous human rights system.” It added that human rights are an issue used as a ruse by the United States to interfere in its affairs.

Meanwhile, in a meeting that lasted more than five hours, with no apparent interference from government minders or other officials, the various members of the group stated their cases — some relating to high-profile stories CNN has previously reported on.

‘State-sponsored slavery’

One example was the story of Rim II, a carpenter who defected after working on a construction site in Kuwait in the 1990s — North Korea has encouraged many of its citizens to work abroad as a means of exploiting the valuable foreign currency they earn.

But the experience was described by Rim as “state-sponsored slavery,” so bad were the conditions, the working hours and the restrictions on movement in the locked compound he lived in with other North Korean workers.

However, three men — described as co-workers of Rim during his time in the Middle East — sat around the now familiar conference table at the Koryo and denounced their former countryman.

“He knows nothing about the reality on the ground, he stayed in Kuwait just a few months,” said Cho Myong Il, while his colleague, Ham Song Yong, questioned Rim’s work ethic and denied they were forced to work day and night. “By nature he was a bad worker — he was lazy.”

But when contacted by CNN, Rim said he stands by his story.

Undated photo of Mun Su Gyong (right) outside the restaurant in Phnom Penh.
Undated photo of Mun Su Gyong (right) outside the restaurant in Phnom Penh.


Others sitting around the table claimed to be the family of a young woman they say was kidnapped while working in a North Korean restaurant in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital. Getting very emotional, the father and mother of Mun Su Gyong said she was enticed outside one night by regular customers who had befriended her during her two years there. They believe the kidnappers were agents of South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS), who then took her across the border into Thailand before vanishing.

Another woman around the table, Kim Myong Ok, also claimed to have been kidnapped from a North Korean restaurant in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen. She said she was kept prisoner in a private house there for two months by “ethnic Koreans” working for South Korean intelligence.

CNN could not verify the claims, while the NIS described the accusations as “groundless.”

North Korea believes most defectors are kidnapped or “tricked” into fleeing the country by South Korean authorities, who want more and more North Koreans to denounce their country.

And so the session continued, each “volunteer” talking and answering questions, apparently unmolested by officials sitting nearby — though there was no way to tell how prepped they had been prior to the meeting.

As reported by CNN