While it might be called the “Hermit Kingdom,” North Korea is seeing a lot of change.
Some of those changes were evident in the recent Frontline documentary, “Secret State of North Korea.”
Like many throughout the world, I’m fascinated with North Korea ever since I got to lay eyes on it (from a very safe distance) when I lived in South Korea. I try to keep in touch with the news from the Korean peninsula since my time there about a decade ago.
News from North Korea is sparse. It has always been that way in order to control its people with a cult of personality around their leaders, Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-Il and now, Kim Jong-Un.
What is interesting about “Secret State of North Korea,” was it is one of the first documentaries produced since Kim Jong-Eun took power two years ago. The youngest Kim has created, like his father and grandfather, an even-tighter grip on the population. An attempt to solidify power in what experts believe to be a tricky transition.
What was so interesting about director James Jones’ documentary was the use of hidden video from North Korea. The video, shot by North Koreans at great risk to themselves and their families, is smuggled from North Korea via thumb drives and DVDs to AsiaPress, a Japan-based group committed to telling North Korean stories.
The footage shown in Jones’ film did not show the regular North Korean footage of famine, military might and really intricate choreography. One of the videos was of a black market in North Korean city, where goods smuggled in from the Chinese border are bought and sold, in plain view of the state. Capitalism was at work in the “Socialist Worker’s Paradise.”
Another video was one of a woman, owning a bus business, telling a soldier off. Okay, the bus was really a truck with people riding in the back of it, but the image of a female in authority and one using that authority is stunning, especially considering the Confucian heritage of both Koreas.
In return on those smuggled thumb drives and DVDs are programs North Koreans want to see --- South Korean TV. One last video worth mentioning saw two teenage girls, filmed while huddling in a dark room, watching a South Korean drama on DVD. They were as quiet as can be and paused in horror when they heard a knock on the door.
That is how dangerous watching TV can be in North Korea. Ironically, the most popular TV show smuggled in North Korea is a reality show featuring defectors from their homeland living in South Korea.
It was a fascinating documentary that is showing a change happening in North Korea. One that in a a few years, the ruling party in Pyongyang will have trouble containing. While watching it, I was posting some of my observations and opinions on Twitter. My tweets caught the attention of Jones, who started retweeting them with others following him and he started following me. I got the chance to ask him the following: “Do you hope your documentary is on a thumb drive in North Korea?”
Jones said, “I hope so.”
For the future of the “Hermit Kingdom,” I hope so too.
Note: The documentary is online for free at pbs.org/frontline.
Nate Smith can be found online most of the time on Twitter at NateSmithWTH. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org