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