Global Politics

Undercover reporters reveal what life is really like inside secretive North Korea

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Credit: REUTERS/KCNA
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un visits the newly built ski resort in the Masik Pass region, in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency.

North Korea is a country we worry about, but hardly know. We can monitor its nuclear weapons, and its threats against the US and South Korea, but other information is hard to come by.

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For the most part, the country is sealed off from the outside world. Trips by foreign journalists, or friendly NBA stars like Dennis Rodman, are tightly controlled by the regime. We rarely get an honest look at what it's like to live inside North Korea.

Now, a new documentary from The World's partner program, Frontline, offers a rare glimpse into North Korea, using footage smuggled out by undercover reporters.

James Jones directed the film, "Secret State of North Korea, " and teamed up with the Japanese news agency Asia Press, which has a network of undercover reporters in North Korea. Jones wanted to get beyond the images North Korea provides to the world and its people — images of colorful military parades, basketball games with former NBA stars, and newly-minted ski resorts.

"Some of the footage is just extraordinary," says Jones. "You have ordinary North Koreans standing up to authorities. Certainly with me, it just took my breath away."

Jones says some of the most striking footage in the documentary shows women confronting a soldier. "To see these women standing up for themselves, beating the soldier and chasing him off down the street, I think there is a change in the mindset. And I hope that's one thing the film will achieve: all North Koreans are not brainwashed. This country is as complicated as any other country, and people think for themselves and people are cynical about their leaders."

He says the cynicism may be a sign the regime is losing its grip on the government's official narrative to its people that North Korea is a perfect place, a District 1. That narrative is being challenged as people smuggle thumb drives, loaded with foreign television shows, into the country. North Koreans are getting a glimpse of how the rest of the world lives.

Jones says those television shows, however benign in nature, are having an impact on North Koreans. But he says the harsh economic sanctions against the country — intended to make life difficult for the government — are not working.

"Kim Jong-un can keep the '1 percent' in Pyongyang happy by importing luxury goods from China," he says. "And [Jong-un] doesn’t care if the '99 percent' eat grass for a 100 years."

Frontline's "Secret State of North Korea" airs on Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014, on public television stations and will be available online.

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