- By Catherine A. TraywickCatherine A. Traywick is a fellow at Foreign Policy.
When director James Jones set out to make a film about life inside North Korea, he decided early on that it would be pointless to go there himself. "I knew if we went to North Korea we’d get what you’ve seen 100 times: the official tour, the military parades, the ski resort," he told Foreign Policy.
Instead, he hoped to capture stirrings of dissent or, better yet, overt signs of rebellion from an isolated populace long oppressed by a dictatorial regime — the sorts of scenes "people are always desperate to see" but don’t expect to find, he said. For that, he turned to Jiro Ishimaru, a Japanese journalist who operates an underground network of hidden camera reporters inside North Korea — individuals who risk imprisonment and even execution to document life inside a country that has, for decades, been painstakingly hidden from view.
The resulting film, an hourlong Frontline documentary titled Secret State of North Korea, is a sweeping, disturbing peek into a misunderstood and rapidly changing society.
For those familiar (as much as one can be) with North Korea, much of the film will seem like a broad overview of what we already know about the heavily veiled country: Its citizens are rigidly controlled, its prison camps overflowing, and its government oppressive and volatile. But the undercover footage adds a deeper, sinister dimension to the usual narrative. We see, for example, the absurd extent of North Korea’s propaganda machine — in the form of a massive, fully stocked and staffed department store that seemingly only exists to be filmed by state media. When one of Ishimaru’s undercover reporters attempts to purchase a beverage and, later, apparel from the store, he is told by employees that nothing is for sale, and never will be.
Jones’s team follows several recent defectors who have emerged as "very quiet agents of social progress." More than 1,500 people defected from North Korea in 2013, bringing the number of defectors living in South Korea to 26,000. Some of these individuals, Jones reveals, are increasingly using popular culture to challenge the status quo across the border. There’s 22-year-old Chanyang, who appears on a weekly South Korean television show that has gained a following north of the border. On the show, she and other defectors — a uniformly young and attractive group — discuss current affairs in North Korea in between song-and-dance numbers. Then there’s Mr. Jeong, who smuggles foreign movies, television shows, and radios into the country because "the thing that changes people’s minds is popular culture," he tells Jones. "It probably has the most important role in bringing about democracy in North Korea."
The signs of protest that Jones had hoped to capture never quite materialize, but the rumblings of dissent — particularly against the young ruler Kim Jong Un, who has purged many of his father’s closest confidants — are everywhere, it seems. The footage reveals business leaders lamenting their lack of "basic rights," while a government official plainly states that Kim "can’t do anything.… No matter how hard he tries, even if it kills him, he’s hopeless." In the clip below, members of the military complain about being forced to build a railroad from the supreme leader’s birthplace to Pyongyang in the dead of winter, to mark his ascension to power.
There are also other signals of change. In one scene, a woman pushes back against authorities who accost her for violating the country’s dress code. In another, a woman running an illegal bus service hits a soldier who tries to cite her. Ordinary citizens listen to black market radios and watch illegal DVDs; even state officials, we are told, consume foreign media voraciously.
One overarching trend among the footage and interviews is that everyone, it seems, is skeptical of Kim’s ability to lead. Jones told FP that North Koreans’ lack of confidence in the young leader became particularly clear during an interview that wasn’t included in the final cut of the film. Jones interviewed a woman who had reluctantly defected to South Korea because her husband hoped to improve their economic situation. "She was still kind of a true believer and spoke very reverently of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il," Jones said. "But even she didn’t like Kim Jong Un. She called him a pumpkinhead."
Ultimately, the film portrays North Korea as a country approaching the brink of something monumental — a military dictatorship trying brutally, but not altogether effectively, to contend with the threats posed by new technology, the inevitable flow of information, and an increasingly discontent populace.