In impoverished North Korea, perks still plentiful for elite

Well-connected North Koreans living in the capital, Pyongyang, are treated to luxuries like aquatics shows. (Source: CNN)

PYONGYANG, NORTH KOREA (CNN) – North Korea is seen from afar as an almost hopelessly impoverished and isolated nation.

The famine and forced work inflicted on the bulk of the population, living in the barren countryside, are most closely associated with the North in the West.

But, even in North Korea, wealth and privilege exist. For a few.

The North Koreans took CNN to an aquatics show in the capital, Pyongyang. But the audience stood out more than the dolphins.

They revealed the kind of unscripted emotion rarely seen in North Korea.

Government propaganda typically shows over-the-top adulation for the supreme leader, but these smiles, these belly laughs, were real. Especially when a CNN photojournalist was pulled on stage to hula-hoop.

The dolphin area was just one stop on a government-guided sight-seeing tour showing all the perks for Pyongyang’s elite. Their lives are drastically different from millions of North Koreans that Western journalists are not allowed to see, living in poor, rural areas, tending fields by hand.

Experts say as many as half of the population are hungry.

But when it wants to, North Korea and its young leader will spend millions on vanity projects, building extravagant amenities like a horse riding club.

There was no expense spared for a brand new orphanage. Kids get regular visits from Kim Jong Un, a man they call “father,” but the orphanage is half empty.

Most North Koreans in the capital live in drab housing blocks assigned by the government. But CNN was shown only the newest, best neighborhoods, like well-furnished apartments for elite North Korean scientists.

They even have their own vacation resort, with the government prepared to spend lavishly to reward key personnel.

There are special perks for those who train the elite, as well. Senior professors at Pyongyang’s most prestigious university get free luxury apartments.

How does it compare to friends’ and family members’ homes?

“This is much better,” one professor said.

But even the best homes need solar panels, providing backup power during regular outages.

There was also a visit to the supreme leader’s lavish new water park, a gift for his people. It features a life-size statue of his father, Kim Jong Il, which must be revered like a religious artifact.

Everybody who enters the water park first pays their respects to the late leader, who died in 2011.

Park goers have nothing but praise.

“I want more foreigners to come here because I want them to be captivated by the great personality of our supreme leader marshal, Kim Jong Un,” said one man.

These luxuries you’ll only find in the showpiece capital, home to the most trusted, loyal citizens, proudly displayed as symbols of national greatness.

Meanwhile, millions of people struggling are kept hidden from the world.

Copyright 2018 CNN. All rights reserved.

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