Thursday, April 6, 2017

Frontline: “Secret State of North Korea” (Hardcash Productions, WGBH Educational Foundation, PBS, January 14, 2014, rerun April 4, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Two nights ago I watched a KPBS rerun of an old Frontline episode called “Secret State of North Korea,” which had originally aired on January 14, 2014 and was being trotted out now that North Korea is in the news again — Kim Jong Un’s government, which was only two years old when this show was made, has just tested a medium-range ballistic missile that could presumably carry a nuclear warhead to the U.S. and the Trump administration is responding with its usual disinterest (Rex Tillerson, Secretary of State, was cornered by one reporter asking about it, and said he’d already said enough about North Korea and was done talking about the subject!). “Secret State of North Korea” was an attempt to give us the “skinny” on North Korea in general and its current leader, Kim Jong Un (youngest son of his father and predecessor Kim Jong Il, who in turn had been the son of North Korea’s founder, Kim Il Sung), in particular. Much of the show consisted of footage shot secretly by North Koreans who are literally risking their lives by documenting life in their country and smuggling out the footage across the Korean-Chinese border to the show’s principal source, Japanese journalist Jiro Ishimaru, who’s running something called Asiapress that appears to be a video blog. Unfortunately, the North Korean footage, though created at great risk to its photographers, doesn’t tell us much we didn’t already know (or couldn’t have guessed) about North Korea: its citizens live at the thin edge of starvation and do a lot of desperate things to make ends meet — including selling to each other, a simple form of private enterprise the previous Kims prohibited but the current one tolerates, more or less, because without some form of trade within the country its entire economy, such as it is, would grind to a halt.

The film relies heavily on the video recordings smuggled to Ishimaru across the Korean-Chinese border and also on the dispatches of Open Radio for North Korea, an underground broadcasting operation run by people who’ve been able to escape the Kim regime and set up shop in South Korea. As one of them, Kang Sin Sam, explains on the program, “We tell the North Korean people how vicious their dictatorship is. If someone listens to these broadcasts and passes the story on to other people, and if the story is political, it becomes a very serious matter. In these cases, I understand that some even face public execution.” Of course, if only for contrast, writer-producer-director James Jones includes footage of North Korea from its official state-controlled media, with those giant military parades and mass gymnastics exercises that look like some demented dictator decided to celebrate himself and his regime with extravaganzae resembling every Super Bowl halftime show in history taking place at once. (Ironically, Rachel Maddow recently reported on her show that the incoming Trump administration requested permission to stage a similar military parade on the day of his inauguration — which she offered as evidence that Trump’s mentality and conception of his job are far more like Kim Jong Un’s or Vladimir Putin’s than anything we would expect from a lawfully elected republican[1] President.) The film is considerably more interesting in its last third, in which it attempts to pick apart the personality of Kim Jong Un and determine how he differs from his father and his grandfather in his approach to power. When Kim Jong Un threatened the U.S. with nuclear annihilation just months before this documentary was made, former CIA senior analyst Sue Mi Terry recalled thinking, “I thought, wow, even from North Korean standards, this is really over the top. They always do this cycle of provocation. It's just the intensity of the recent provocation was even greater.”

Even some of Kim’s officials whisper behind closed doors that they’re not sure how qualified he really is to run the country — one told the interviewers for this documentary, “He shouldn't be there. He can't do anything. He's too young, you know? No matter how hard he tries, even if it kills him, he's hopeless” — which once again makes me think North Korea under Kim is not all that different from what the U.S is devolving into under Donald Trump, though more likely with Trump as Kim’s father Kim Jong Il and the young, inexperienced, barely knowledgeable Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, being given huge responsibilities and obviously being groomed for the succession — and Trump himself being clearly far more comfortable around dictators like Putin and Egypt’s Muhammad al-Sisi (who gained power by overthrowing the first democratically elected president in Egypt’s history and was effusively greeted by Trump after being given the cold shoulder by Obama) than leaders like Germany’s Angela Merkel and Britain’s Theresa May who have actually to answer to electorates and govern within limits on their power! Of course, if you’re a dictator with the kind of absolute power Kim Jong Un has (and I suspect Trump covets), if someone gets out of line you can always have him killed. The documentary showed a group shot of North Korea’s military leadership at the time of Kim Jong Un’s accession in 2012 and announced that half of those people are already dead — and of course more recently Kim stunned the world by having his older half-brother killed in Malaysia. As Andrei Lankov, author of The Real North Korea, said on the program (and which is also an object lesson for people looking at Syria today, since the recent chemical-gas attack on Syria’s civilians proves that their dictator, Bashir al-Assad, is as eager and qualm-free about murdering as many people as he has to in order to stay in power as Kim or Putin is), “If a government is willing to kill as many people as necessary to stay in power, it usually stays in power for a very long time. There are many people who are not happy. There are many people who, in the privacy of their bedrooms, sometimes say something very, very subversive to their wives and most trusted friends. But no networks and no activities yet because the government is brutal.”

[1] — I’m deliberately using the word “republican” — small “r” — rather than “democratic,” small “d,” because the United States is not a democracy and was never intended to be. In fact, President Trump and the Republicans generally hold the power they have now largely because they shrewdly and skillfully exploited the anti-democratic features inserted into the Constitution of the United States by its authors — the Electoral College, the equal representation of every state in the U.S. Senate, and most importantly, the near-absolute authority state legislatures have to determine Congressional districts as well as to decide who can and cannot vote.