Saturday, January 11, 2014

Frontline Takes an Unvarnished Look Inside the Secret State of North Korea

Has Kim Jong-un lost the mandate of North Korea’s secular Marxist Heaven?  Some speculate this might be the case, but everyone agrees the young Communist tyrant will not hesitate to kill as many people as it takes to maintain his grip on absolute power.  A portrait of widespread misery mixed with a little hope emerges in writer-director-producer James Jones’ Secret State of North Korea (promo here), which airs on most PBS stations this Tuesday as part of the current season of Frontline.

According to satellite images, the total area devoted North Korea’s political prison camp system has measurably increased under Kim Jong-un.  To put things in perspective, former CIA analyst Sue Mi Terry explains some camps are actually larger than the city of Washington, DC.  When it is estimated one out every one hundred North Koreans is a political prisoner, it is hard to find grounds for optimism.

Yet, Jones introduces viewers to a brave group of activists, who it seems are growing in number.  Through his network of contacts, Asia Media’s Jiro Ishimaru smuggles out unvarnished video footage of the shocking day-to-day conditions endured by North Koreans.  Jones draws extensively from his underground journalism throughout his expose.  While there are encouraging episodes of defiance, the images of emaciated street orphans are heartbreaking in the extreme.

Jones also profiles North Korean defectors who try to infiltrate the truth back into the DPRK, either as contraband DVDs and flash drives or as radio and television broadcasts originating in the South but intended for Northern audiences (like the teen-centric On My Way to Meet You).  In fact, the simple proliferation of cell phones represents a significant challenge to the royal heir’s authority.  Yet, any hopefulness Jones’ talking heads might have is tempered by the ruthless and erratic behavior Kim has demonstrated thus far.

Secret State will also not inspire much confidence in the CIA’s information gathering, but that is an old story by now.  Frankly, for foreign policy decision makers, time spent watching Jones’ report would probably be reasonably productive.  It is inspiring when documenting the heroic work done by defectors, but rather scary when analyzing Kim’s mental state. Clearly, nobody interviewed on-camera blithely dismisses his provocations as mere “saber-rattling.”  One of the best installments of Frontline in years, Secret State of North Korea is recommended for all viewers concerned about human rights and potential nuclear aggression.  It premieres on most PBS outlets this coming Tuesday (1/14).