Jet lag: the bane of every traveler. Sure, most of us only have to deal with it once in a while, but for CNN foreign correspondent Will Ripley it’s a frequent foe.
“Blackout curtains and melatonin” are a must according to Ripley. “I take a lot of vitamins. You’re staying in different hotels, you’re eating different foods; you want to make sure that you stay healthy and have stamina for working around the clock.”
Since becoming the American cable news network’s Tokyo correspondent in March 2014, the 35-year-old Connecticut native has been sent to the Middle East twice, China around a dozen times and North Korea seven times. In total he has visited around 20 countries on assignment — and it’s his first time living abroad.
Ripley’s vitamin-popping, exercise-taking persona may be at odds with the romantic notion of hard-drinking journalists of yore, but it helps to be healthy considering some of the dangerous situations the reporter has found himself in, including being faced with an angry mob in China, reporting on drug cartels on the Texas-Mexico border and being dropped amid fighting in the West Bank. Given his resume, you’d be forgiven for thinking Ripley is drawn to risky situations. But he sees it a different way.
To go into such places, he says, “I feel like it’s a responsibility we have as journalists, and I’m willing to do it.”
One such destination is North Korea, and Ripley says he has worked hard to try and figure the reclusive nation out. He had seen reporters before him get confrontational with local authorities during their time there, and get frustrated in the process.
“I took the same approach there that I take in Japan and China, which is I go in with an open mind,” he says. “I just want to learn. And I made that clear.”
The approach worked. On his first day in Pyongyang, expecting only to cover a wrestling tournament, Ripley made a formal request to speak with an American detainee. The response? “That’s impossible.”
A few days later, however, Ripley was suddenly and discreetly pulled aside by North Korean officials and told to get in a van. He got somewhat nervous as he realized he was being driven down an empty road, but he wound up at a hotel where not one but three Americans were being detained.
“We walk in and there’s Jeffrey Fowle,” says Ripley, recalling the moment he came face to face with the Ohioan who left a bible in a North Korean nightclub. “And then, in the next room, there’s (Californian) Matthew Miller, and then we go to the next room and there’s Kenneth Bae,” the Korean-American missionary who was convicted of trying to overthrow the North Korean government.
“The rooms were full of North Korean officials. They were videotaping us, they were listening to what we were saying, they were timing it.”
Suddenly a fluff trip to North Korea ended up providing CNN with a ground-breaking scoop. All three detainees were released near the end of 2014.
North Korea, he insists, is “a country that’s misunderstood,” Ripley says. “It’s a country that feels very much like it’s against almost the entire world, and so any opportunity that we can get as journalists to gain a little bit more perspective, I think, is newsworthy and valuable.”
The reporter’s next project with CNN is a much lighter affair, but no less interesting. Ripley will host a program titled “Made in Japan,” which will cover an array of domestic topics. It allowed him to visit places such as the Henn-na Hotel in Nagasaki, which is staffed entirely by robots, and a mascot factory called Go Go Production in Musashino, Tokyo, to learn about the country’s “mascot boom.” Since he’s been traveling abroad a lot in the two years he’s lived in Tokyo, it has been a chance to learn more about his new home.
“I’ve been to a lot of places that people haven’t visited,” Ripley says. “I go there with a desire to learn and share what I’m learning with other people. So I hope that I can kind of take people along that journey with me.”
“Made in Japan” airs on CNN International on March 30 (6:30 p.m.) and March 31 (12:30 p.m., 1:30 a.m.). There will be repeat broadcasts throughout April. Follow Will Ripley on Twitter and Instagram at @willripleyCNN.