North Korea

Documentary: Secret State of North Korea

By Jane Chong
Wednesday, January 22, 2014, 6:35 PM

Last week PBS 'Frontline' released a short documentary on life under the Kim Jong Un regime (trailer below). Using illegal footage provided by an undercover network of journalists and North Koreans as a backdrop, Secret State of North Korea weaves together commentary from experts and testimonials from a handful of the 20,000 defectors living in South Korea to tell a particular story of North Korea: it is a nation fighting flux, on two fronts. One with respect to an increasingly porous border, as the North Korean people are increasingly exposed to illegal foreign media. The other battle is being fought in the heart of Pyongyang, where, in the wake of Kim Jong Il’s succession by a boy still wet behind the ears, factions have developed within a government once defined by single-minded loyalty to the regime.

The good in all this: hope for a democratic future. The bad: Kim Jong Un’s response to loss of control with a reign of terror.

Much of the documentary rehashes well-known details about the Hermit Kingdom, albeit with a personal twist. Jang Jin-Sung, a former senior propagandist who defected and escaped to the South, describes the regime as imposing an “emotional dictatorship” as well as a physical one. The people are told that the leader is like the sun: "If you go too close you burn. If you go too far you freeze to death." The said sun reportedly executed as many as 80 people last November, some for simply watching foreign television. The border between North Korea and China has been tightened under Kim Jung Un, and the political labor camps have grown. An estimated 1 in 100 North Koreans is now a political prisoner---though that figure is deceptive, the conditions of the "free" in that country being in may respects like those of political prisoners just about anywhere else. As a 56-minute snapshot of life under the third Kim dictatorship, the documentary is effective, and predictably sad. It begins with shots of orphans trying to survive on the street in freezing temperatures. One orphan is missing an arm—it was cut off by a train, he explains. The tragedies are interspersed with the expected oddities. Pyongyang's Department Store #1, often featured on state TV as a testament to the country’s prosperity, is packed with items for display only. Warnings of the American imperialist threat blasts in public squares. Once a week villagers gather to glorify the Great Leader. This is a familiar account. But the story does not end there. Kim has perceived, correctly, that his power is largely predicated on his country’s continued isolation, and that is a status quo that a number of brave souls are doing their utmost to break down. Take Jeong Kwang-Il. Jeong is a defector who regularly smuggles Western entertainment into North Korea on thumb drives and DVDs for sale on the black market—action movies for men, dramas for women. Nothing changes mindsets like popular culture, says Jeong, who claims it plays the single most important role in bringing democracy to North Korea. The documentary notes that almost half of all defectors were exposed to foreign media prior to defecting. While in North Korea, Jeong smuggled, too, and was caught, accused of being a spy and shipped to Yoduk, a notorious political prison camp. He was beaten and tortured for nine months. After three years at the prison camp, authorities determined he was not a spy. He defected a year after his release and began smuggling again, this time directing his efforts against the regime. Says Jiro Ishimaru, an editor for Asia Press who has contacts working to covertly film inside the country, "People around the world have this image of North Koreans being brainwashed. But that's very mistaken. Often now when North Koreans are challenged for infringing a certain law, as long as the offense is not political, they don't hesitate to protest if they believe the law irrational." Indeed, the documentary is most interesting where it provides evidence of this resistance. Footage includes a woman who yells and pushes at a soldier who attempts to fine her for wearing pants. And it appears that behind closed doors, expressions of discontent extend to the political realm. Friends voice forbidden doubts about the regime, airing complaints about the lack of basic rights and how government ruthlessness undermines any attempt at an uprising. One declares, “In China they've got freedom of speech, you know. They went through the Cultural Revolution.” The documentary's central theme is the link between the country's decreasing isolation and the people's growing restlessness. Black market goods are only part of the equation. More than a million North Koreans listen to illegal foreign radio. Cell phones---which can make and take only in-country calls, unless illegally modified---arrived in North Korea five years ago. Victor Cha, who served on the National Security Council from 2004-07, notes in the documentary that North Korea went from zero to one million cell phone registrations in three years . . . and one to two million in one year. Says Cha: "Kim Jong Un faces the dictator's dilemma, which is, they need to open up to survive but the process of opening up could lead to the collapse of the regime---not the state, but of the regime." (For more from Cha, check out the full transcript of the interview). Kim lacks the veneration his father and grandfather enjoyed, which complicates his particular dilemma. He came into power thronged by his father's generals; he has since purged almost half of the top brass, culminating with the forcible removal of his own uncle Jang Song Thaek from a party meeting in December and his execution a week later. His uncle was considered an advocate of reform and had served at the top of the government for thirty years. The documentary only briefly addresses the North Korean nuclear threat. Cha: "I think the basic question that rose to the surface to many decision makers was, does this guy know where the red line is? Does he know when the bluster should stop, or is he really going to do something stupid?" Ishimaru closes the documentary with words of hope. "It's not easy to predict when a regime will fall. However the foundations of change in North Korea are being laid. North Koreans have undergone a huge shift in their collective mindset. I think change will come."