'Frontline: The Secret State of North Korea': Information in Motion

As much good as James Bond might do in a long run, the short run for most North Koreans remains hard.

Frontline: The Secret State of North Korea

Airtime: Tuesdays, 10pm ET
Cast: Jiro Ishimaru, Su Mi Terry, Jang Jin-Sung, Jeong Kwang-il, Victor Cha
Network: PBS
Director: James Jones
Air date: 2014-01-14

"Men love their action films," says Jeong Kwang-il. "Women enjoy soap operas and drama, they like that kind of film." Once a prisoner at Yodok, one of North Korea's most notorious labor camps, Jeong now lives in Seoul, where he collects movies and TV shows in order to send them North. "Now they're sharing thumb drives," he says. "North Korea is trying to hunt them down because the thing that changes people's mindsets is popular culture. That probably has the most important role in bringing about democracy in North Korea."

Speaking in Frontline: The Secret State of North Korea, Jeong appears first in an office, where he shows a couple of examples of the films he's been sending over the border (Skyfall was a recent favorite among male viewers). Some time later, he takes filmmaker James Jones along for a ride to the border, where he and his partner, also a defector and former prisoner, pretend to be mushroom importers; bribing a border guard, then waiting for nightfall, they make their way past other guards and barbed wire to the Tumen River; they film their own expedition, and the grainy night-vision footage of a sack full of thumb drives at once mundane and thrilling, mindsets about to be changed.

This point is key in The Secret State of North Korea (and Dennis Rodman, unmentioned here, is only one tiny, incoherent piece of it). As much good as James Bond might do in a long run, the short run for most North Koreans remains hard. Frontline insists that information must move both in and out of North Korea, and so it shows both processes, each weighted with risks. Making what happens inside is the mission of Jiro Ishimaru, founder and editor of Asiapress. Ishimaru provides cameras and means of smuggling for citizen journalists inside North Korea. Former prisoners have only occasionally survived to tell their stories (recall Shin Dong-Huyk's harrowing story of life inside Camp 14), but images of everyday oppression are also difficult to find, because, as the defectors here reveal, families and neighbors tend to inform on one another, so frightened is everyone of the regime's retaliations -- including horrifying stories of executions, like that of Kim Jong-un's uncle Jang Song-thaek.

The footage of everyday life counters the official narrative, that North Korea has recovered from the famine of the 1990s and now prospers. Ishimaru's network here provides shots of homeless adults and young children begging on streets. "My mom tried to look after me," says one eight-year-old, hunched into a jacket that seems hardly to keep her warm. "She said it was too hard, so I left. Now I live outside." The camera operator approaches a group of kids huddled near a fire in the snow. "Does anyone here work so you have food and a place to sleep?" asks the camera operator. "Do you know how to chop wood?" The jittery camera shows the kids' dirty pants legs and ragged boots, the crumpled papers they place into the fire, as one small voice offers, "I don't have an arm, so I can't." It was, the child explains, cut off by a train. From here the film turns to another sort of secret footage, also smuggled from North Korea by Jiro Ishimaru's network, this showing the state's displays of wealth, including a department store featured in government news shows, stores where none of the merchandise is for sale. Rows and rows of bottled water or women's jewelry remain inside cases, beautifully lit to exhibit the nation's achievement.

The effects of these images become acute when considered alongside the work of Jeong and other activists. For as Frontline narrates, it is the movement of information both in and out of North Korea that generates even the idea of possible change. As you see a couple of teenage girls -- again, shot in night-vision video -- watch a TV show they've received via a thumb drive, where South Koreans travel to "the Soviet Union or Europe," amid shops and cars and clean streets. You see the backs of the girls' heads, the camera tilting up occasionally to show official framed portraits of Kim Jong-un and his father, then back down to the girls, their voices hushed when they hear a noise: "Is that your father?"

In this moment, the risk feels simultaneously palpable and irresistible. It's an argument that The Secret State of North Korea presents in other forms, by anecdotal instances like this and also by experts' observations. "The concrete wall that has been there for 60 years or so is getting more porous," says Victor Cha, former Director for Asian Affairs in the White House's National Security Council. As Kim Jong-un faces the same dilemma that confronted his father, the irrepressible force of popular culture via advancing technologies, it's more difficult than in decades past to repress that force. Even if "opening up" the economy is necessary to keep the nation operational -- as in the state's fictional images of department stores -- that very process, Cha adds, "could lead to the collapse of the regime."

That process may be accelerated by cell phones. In yet another gamble to maintain the appearance of its success, North Korea has recently allowed cell phones inside. The idea, at first, was to control the use, to allow calls within the state but not out. Of course, this is impossible, and the hacking of systems has made access to phones and networks outside North Korea an almost instant reality. But even inside, cell phone users can find each other, they can form communities, make plans, and change mindsets.

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