North Korea – life inside the secret state, the women who fight back and getting the outside world in
North Korea is the most totalitarian regime still in existence, yet knowledge of the outside world is slowly but relentlessly filtering in, in the form of USB sticks and wind-up radios. Channel 4’s Dispatches followed North Korean defector Mr Chung and Japanese journalist Jiro Ishimaru, who smuggle information and video footage in and out of North Korea.
On 12 November the resulting documentary North Korea – Life Inside the Secret State was previewed at the Frontline Club followed by a discussion with director James Jones, Dr John Swenson-Wright, senior lecturer in Modern Japanese Politics and International Relations at the University of Cambridge, and Rajiv Narayan, researcher for East Asia Team at Amnesty International.
Jones started off by saying how he wanted to show the side of North Korea that’s not commonly seen in the outside world:
“Our objective starting out was to go beyond the media caricature of North Korea – which 90% of the stuff you see is about mad tubby little leaders with bad haircuts threatening the world with nuclear war. That’s not really what affects North Korean’s lives.”
“We didn’t really know what we were going to get until we saw the footage; some of the stuff I suppose is familiar – the poverty, lack of food…. But what really surprised us were the signs of cracks in the regime of control. People standing up to authority.”
Narayan said that cracks started to appear during the 1990’s food crisis:
“The food crisis has resulted in more than a million people dying and…the world food program still estimates that something like two thirds of the population just eat two meals a day… This is over the last twenty years, so it’s a very undernourished population.”
One of the most unexpected aspects of the documentary is the footage of North Korean women standing up to officials – one for the right to wear trousers, and one to run her private bus service. Narayan said the catalyst for this was the appearance of the black markets:
“In this footage…Jiro and the documentary shows so vividly that markets have come to place. The government has tried very hard to stop it.”
“They tried some quirky ways which only you’d think of in countries like North Korea…under Kim Jong-il they tried to stop men from working in the markets – so they allowed only women about age 49 for some reason. So women have got now economic power and you can see they’re challenging authority.”
Jones said of the women standing up to authority:
“I was genuinely struck by those women…it’s so satisfying to see these individuals [having the] self confidence to stand up to authority. . . . Women for the first time ever are the people who are going to the market and earning a living, so they’ve become the people pushing the boundaries of these changes.”
Narayan added that these markets are often key in spreading information among the people:
“The role of the markets is very crucial, because [they] allow channels of information. That’s the USBs, DVDs, food etc. People are no longer dependant on the North Korean authorities.”
“Access to information at the end is key; at the end it may not be the weaponry… it’s soft power that will eventually bring down the fort.”
Swenson-Wright said that jobs and economic development would be key to North Korea’s success, the freedom of its people and a soft transition devoid of conflict and military intervention:
“There’s an appetite now for them seeing economic prosperity as an opportunity for individuals. It’s a movement that’s not actually very political. It’s not about formally challenging authority. It’s simply the logic of a market world. Persuading people that North Korea is an international business is going to be the basis for their ability to survive this regime.”
Jones says that is hard to gauge the level of active opposition within North Korea:
“The sad truth about North Korea is that no none really knows. We spoke to a woman from the CIA and even they know nothing. She said that when Kim Jong-un came to power all they knew about him was an article they’d read in the New York Times six months earlier.”
“People just don’t know. We don’t have informers, we have defectors who can feed information but … it’s very hard to verify what a defector tells you. So you hear stories about people putting posters up saying ‘down with Kim Jong-un’… I take those kind of stories with a big pinch of salt … people just don’t take the risk.”
“In 2009 when the currency was re-valued – basically they chopped off two zeros – people were so pissed off that they actually took to the streets. It’s that kind of thing that gives you some hope that these latent feelings of cynicism about their rulers could one day translate into some kind of action.”
North Korea – Life Inside the Secret State will air on Thursday 14 November at 11.05 PM on Channel 4.