Much of the world sees North Koreans as brainwashed and subservient, bowing down to Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un. The Frontline documentary “Secret State of North Korea” from public broadcaster PBS shows that for many people in North Korea, just the opposite is true.
“We teamed up with a Japanese journalist, Jiro Ishimaru, who has this incredible network of ordinary North Koreans across the country,” FRONTLINE director James Jones said. “They film secretly using hidden cameras, and then smuggle that footage out across the China border where Jiro waits for them.”
One of the most dramatic pieces of footage is of a woman, who has set up a private bus service using a pickup truck. “This soldier comes and tells her to stop running this private bus service, which is illegal,” Jones said. “And rather than, as you would expect, saying, ‘I’m so sorry,’ and apologizing, she stands up for it – I mean, literally chases him off down the street, smacking him on the back, calling him every name under the sun.”
Victor Cha, who as the former Director of Asian Affairs for the U.S. National Security Council is an expert on North Korea, said that it is often women like her who are starting to open up North Korea. “I love that; that was one of my favorite parts of the documentary,” he told CNN. “The irony is that those markets didn’t grow out of economic reform. They grew out of the failure of the North Korean economy to provide for its people.”
The documentary also shows cracks in the regime’s information barrier, depicting a complicated and daring system whereby DVDs, laptops, and thumb drives are sneaked into the country across the border with China.
A young woman, who grew up in North Korea but defected to South Korea, says that her exposure to free media was critical. “The more I’ve listened to the radio, the more I’ve thought, ‘What we’ve learned isn’t true,’ I’ve been fooled. It has made me want to become free.”
It breaks the “spell of the regime’s propaganda,” Jones said.
“They’re just cracks right now, just small ones,” Cha said. “But like a dam, once you start getting one crack they start to filter out and you start seeing many, many more.”