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NORTH KOREA - Suspicious Minds, January 2003

Related Features THE STORY
Synopsis of "Suspicious Minds"

Short History: U.S.-North Korea Conflict

Versions of the Truth

Learn More about North Korea

Nuclear Weapons, Military History, Humanitarian Issues




Interview With Ben Anderson: Versions of the Truth
Ben Anderson smiles (image copyright BBC, 2003)
Perhaps it was his experience as an undercover reporter that prepared correspondent Ben Anderson so well for his behind-the-lines investigation of North Korea for the BBC and FRONTLINE/World. Maybe it was his other passion -- boxing. In any case, he's done hidden camera work in morgues and at funerals to expose how bereaved families are cheated, he's tracked organizers of a pedophile ring, exposed prison guards responsible for racist violence aimed at inmates, and told the story of a guerrilla army in Burma. For camera work in North Korea, he relied on BBC cinematographer and producer Will Daws. He was interviewed in January 2003 by Web editor Douglas Foster.

What was it was like to enter the DMZ, the so-called demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, which is, as you point out, among the most heavily armed places on the globe?

I didn't expect the two sides to be so close to one another. Technically, you know, they're still at war. I can't think of many situations where you can go into one trench, as it were, and then be in the trench on the opposite side five days later -- looking at the same guy that showed you around on the other side.

That was an extraordinary experience, as a viewer -- first being on the southern side looking at the North, then shortly afterward looking across that same line from the North.

Actually it confirmed straight away what I've applied to the news ever since: Everything that one side accuses their enemy of, you can be fairly certain they're doing themselves. For example, the American soldier took us to see some speakers on the northern side that blast propaganda about how great their leaders are southward all day long. Then in the North we got taken to a place, and they said: "Look, see those speakers? The Americans blast music out all day long to try and tempt North Koreans to run across the border into South Korea."

Had you ever been to any place like it before?

No, I've been in one or two hostile environments with just one side -- but you don't even really see the enemy, let alone get to go talk with the enemy.

This was when and where?

When I was with the Shan State Guerrilla Army, which is battling government forces in Burma. We were on the run from the Burmese Army, but every now and again you'd see a gun post or you'd hear gunfire -- you'd never actually see them and you'd certainly never speak to them.

Anderson's "Minders", Mr. Pak and Miss Pak (image copyright BBC, 2003)

As you were standing in the DMZ with South Korean and U.S. soldiers, did you have a sense that armed conflict could break out across that line at any time?

Oh, definitely. The American soldiers were very disciplined, but there are provocative incidents regularly. There was the well-known case of a defector who'd tried to run across the border from the North to the South and there was gunfire. I think five people were killed. That was a while ago. There had been some physical contact fairly recently, but our guide wouldn't tell us exactly what had happened.

At one point your American guide points to what he identifies as a jamming station to keep North Koreans from receiving broadcasts that originate in the South. Were you able to establish whether he was right about that allegation?

There are receivers further north which could receive South Korean radio. So if they're supposed to be jamming stations, they certainly don't work that well, because there are many households that can listen to South Korean radio.

So the North is not as hermetically sealed from information as we might suspect?

If anything could spark a dissident movement within North Korea, this is it. Even people crossing into China are coming back with money and food and information. In the past, once people were over that river they never came back. But now there are a few people who return. There's a guy with a camera who has crossed back and forth three or four times. He's filmed some of the things we didn't get to see -- like markets where they're selling what's supposed to be food aid on the black market for prices that most North Koreans can't afford. He's taken pictures of naked children running around in freezing cold mud, begging and picking out grains of rice from the mud.

This photographer has been secretly crossing the northern border?

Yes, there's a North Korean human rights group based in China, and they've sent his tapes out. He's public enemy No. 1 in North Korea. If anyone ever finds out who he is, he's dead.

Does that mean the Chinese are allowing this group to operate?

No, the Chinese have an agreement with North Korea wherein anybody they find fleeing the country they will return. But there's still a lot of information that comes into North Korea across that border. For example, there are supposed to be some satellite dishes that have been smuggled across the border as plant pots -- I think that's the most common method.

Excuse me -- satellite dishes are smuggled into North Korea disguised as potted plants?

They paint them and fill them with mud and put a few plants in and say it's a plant pot, it was gift or they made it themselves. We didn't find any, but we were told that satellite TV is available in parts of North Korea as well. Refugees we spoke to said that as soon as they crossed the river into China, all of a sudden they saw markets where there's food in every single store. Instantly they knew they'd been lied to their entire lives. They're told all their lives that the outside world suffers far worse conditions than does North Korea.

Did you feel a little schizophrenic, traveling from South Korea to the North? I imagine it was a little like stepping through the Looking Glass.

Obviously, I couldn't say that I'd spoken to refugees in South Korea. But I did tell people I met in the North that I'd been to South Korea and that it's a bustling modern country, the roads are full of cars, the shops are full of food. Even when you put it that way, some people will not budge one inch. For example, on the famine, I gave a few people the most modest estimates for how many had died in the Great Famine in the late 1990s, about a million. That was passed off as U.S. imperialist propaganda.

Anderson walks away with his camera gear (image copyright BBC, 2003

What was it like to meet North Korean refugees who'd managed to escape to Seoul?

We spoke to probably 10 in total, including one soldier who had tried to organize a coup in 1995. He had distributed leaflets to encourage the revolt, but for various reasons the soldiers who were supposed to attack the Great Leader's convoy were found out for some ridiculous reason -- that they were in a car with a faulty light or something like that.

How would this soldier have managed to escape from North Korea if he had been part of a conspiracy against the Great Leader?

Nobody knew about his role. There were four or five people who were supposed to dish out thousands of leaflets on a particular day, at a particular time, saying what was about to happen. He was involved with the group that was supposed to actually attack the Great Leader's convey. He had time to escape -- which he did.

Do you have any inkling of how serious this attempt was?

Even he admitted that he was part of a fairly small group. That's the difference you feel when you're in North Korea. In Cuba and Libya, for example, you'll hear sarcastic jokes about Castro or Khadafi. In North Korea you don't get a sense of that at all. You don't see graffiti anywhere. Every single monument is looked after and cleaned every day by the locals. You don't get even a hint anywhere of that little bit of sarcasm.

Why did you go to North Korea on tourist visas rather than as a journalist?

We couldn't wait forever so we just went in on tourist visas. We weren't trying to make a film, you know, where you go and meet the relevant government official, put the allegations to him, and then he denies them in the way you've seen a 100 times before. We were trying to get a different angle on the country.

Can you imagine a situation like this, whereby the restrictions would be so severe that, as a journalist, it would be unethical for you to go on, that you would just have to stop filming and get out because to go along on a managed tour would be kind of a sham?

It was kind of like that in North Korea. But it was still interesting what they didn't say or what they didn't show you -- especially if you'd done your homework beforehand. They can't shield you from everything. So even with North Korea when, for example, we drove three hours to see this perfect cooperative farm: That was an absolute scam. Even then, we knew what the reality was and so it was still interesting.

A scam in what way?

It was clear that it was a put-up job. If every cooperative farm looked like that and worked like that, then why didn't they take to us one of the many around Pyongyang? Why did they drive us three hours to see this one? The answer is because it's got that nice little farmer's house with the nice little girl who sings the songs about the Great Leader. It was designed for us to see.

Did you see any sign of the economic reforms instituted by the North Korean government last summer?

We did try to cover that as part of our story. The only thing we saw, though, were these little stalls on the street where people are selling little cakes or little cups of tea. But I thought even that was a pretty incredible step for Kim Jong-il, to introduce a few free market reforms. Possibly that's as a result of the information which is finally starting to circulate through the country about conditions in the rest of the world.

Your official minders, Mr. Pak and Miss Pak, seemed very intent on getting the party line across.

You can't underestimate how much they think their version of events is (a) the truth and (b) proves how much better their system is than any other country's system. So they really do think that if they explain things to you, if you're open to it and you really listen to them properly, you'll think "Oh, I see what you're saying. So the Great Leader single-handedly defeated the Japanese in 1945 and freed North Korea from Japanese occupation!" They actually think you're going to be convinced of that and that you're suddenly going to forget everything you've read about that little incident called World War II.

When did you feel the minders begin to soften toward you?

Within a couple of days. We had a conversation with Miss Pak about her little boy and her liking the American singer she likes who she remembers has a name that begins with "E" --Elvis. That conversation took place within three or four days of our arriving there. So they were never really tough with us, and we had fun with them at a few points.

What did you end up thinking about Miss Pak? She's obviously a bright, nice person, someone who's read Jane Eyre. But she also mouths the most misleading kind of propaganda.

You have to remember that Miss Pak and Mr. Pak are certainly from a more privileged background than most North Koreans. I don't think either of them had had it that tough. I very much doubt that anyone in Miss Pak's family would have ever suffered as a result of the famine.

Miss Pak dismissed the question about the number of people estimated to have starved in North Korea's propaganda. Do you imagine that she actually doesn't know that millions of people have starved in her country?

I don't know how she would know. I'm sure she knows that some people have starved, and that because of the flood and the drought, it was very tough for a few years. But the daily newspaper is only eight pages long and the front page is always: "Today the Dear Leader visited a goat farm and said the goat farms are good because they provide protein for the people." And that's the news! It's one of the few things which is probably true that's put in the newspaper! That reminds me: The North Korean football team in 1966, before they went to the tournament, went to see the Great Leader. It was because of his advice, supposedly, that they did so well in the tournament. Which makes you think: "Oh, he must have known a lot about football and given them some great advice." His advice was: "Kick the ball accurately and run fast."

You've got to admit that he was on to something there.

It's exactly the same in Iraq, where you see these pictures of the leader everywhere and in every possible guise. You see pictures of Saddam as soldier, philosopher, farmer, photographer, writer, everything. In the north [of Iraq], you see Saddam mostly as an intellectual or a judge or a photographer. In the south, you see Saddam with the traditional peasant headdress on and as a farmer. Well, in North Korea, the Great Leader knows more about farming than all the farmers put together and more about football than all the football players put together. The difference is that in North Korea people seem to accept that idea without question.

That must have been one of the hardest things to wrap your mind around.

It's also one of the hardest things about doing these films as a tourist. There are some things which you just can't get to the bottom of when you're pretending to be a tourist. In Iraq, you really get the difference between the Iraqi people and Saddam Hussein. When you talk about the leader of this evil regime who has used gas against his own people, and so on, you're talking about one man and a relatively few people around him.

Ben looks down at the city (image copyright BBC, 2003)

Are you saying that there's something fundamentally different about obedience to Kim Jong-il in North Korea, that fidelity to the leader as almost a deity runs deeper in North Korean culture?

Possibly, because in Iraq you feel absolutely certain that Saddam has almost zero support in his own country. In North Korea, though, you think: Well, maybe most of the population really does feel this kind of pride. Certainly you come away from a trip to the demilitarized zone on the northern side feeling absolutely positive that if a conflict between South Korea and the U.S. troops in South Korea breaks out, these guys will gladly stand and fight to the death.

What has it been like to put your piece together as revelations about North Korean's nuclear weapons program broke into the headlines?

It's a real shame we didn't have time to go into more details about the 1994 agreement [between the United States and North Korea] because the buildup to that deal was exactly the same as what's going on now. If you look at the U.S. officials who are giving press conferences now, then at the ones who were in the job in the early 1990s, (the latter are) almost rolling their eyes in boredom because they've seen it a thousand times before. I think it was Chalmers Johnson, who wrote a fantastic book called Blow Back, who said that North Korea is the textbook example of how to get a great deal from a very weak hand. It's incredible when you think of such a small and weak country getting so much attention and so much power in some ways.

There's a remarkable moment in your piece when somebody on the street comes up to accuse you of being an American and then shouts, "You bloody, imperialist bastard!" Then he laughs. How do you think this trip might have been different if you were American?

Lots of people did think we were American. There were a lot of times when we tried to film kids playing or families sitting at a table eating or something, and people would run away. We asked, "Why do they keep on running away?" Miss Pak told us: "Because they think you're American."

It wasn't that they were afraid of getting in trouble for talking to you?

No, no, they were afraid that we were American. We asked, "What do they think we're going to do? Do they think we're going to beat them up or abduct them or something because we're American? She said, "No, it's just that in all our movies, the bad guys are always American."

Did you have any exposure in South Korea to the kind of anti-American sentiment that seems to be sweeping the South too?

Oh, yes, that was in footage that didn't make it into the film. We went to an anti-U.S. demonstration in South Korea, staged outside the Embassy, and there were 5,000 people. The demonstration was led by Christian pastors. Basically, they think that the American military presence in the South is halting reunification. For that reason they object to the U.S. military presence. But they also object, of course, to some of the things that happened as a result of the U.S. presence. There have been fights, there have been a few rapes and when we were there, two girls had just been run over by a U.S. tank.

The soldiers were cleared in a military tribunal.

Yes, and the day they were cleared they had another demonstration at the Embassy -- and there were 12,000 people, I think.

That may be the hardest reality for some American viewers to understand -- because, wait a minute, the U.S. troops are there to protect South Koreans from the North, so how could we be hated?

You can only understand it if you see how people in both North and South Korea really do live for reunification. They thought they were getting closer and closer to it until recently. You see that on the news and in the newspapers literally every single day. South Koreans fervently supported the Sunshine Policy of former South Korean president Kim Dae-jung. It was enormously popular everywhere on the peninsula. The only person not genuinely interested in reunification, I think, has to be the Dear Leader. He's traveled the world, and he must realize that if there ever was reunification and an open border, people would realize that he's been lying -- and his days would be numbered.

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