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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




The Story
Miss Pak smiles and waves, Political ralley in a stadium, Ben Anderson (images copyright BBC, 2003)

As tensions build between the United States and North Korea, FRONTLINE/World crosses the DMZ to take a glimpse at life in one of the world's most sealed-off countries. Traveling as tourists and using a small camera, BBC reporter Ben Anderson and producer Will Daws are guided by two government "minders" who parrot the official government line about politics and history. The journalists encounter the highly militarized, extremely regimented society one might expect, but they also develop a friendly, bantering relationship with their guides and experience unexpected moments of openness and humor.

Their journey begins on a rainy day in South Korea at "the absurdly named demilitarized zone, one of the most heavily armed places on earth," according to reporter Ben Anderson. An American soldier takes Anderson and Daws on a tour of the border that has divided the Korean peninsula since the end of World War II -- and that is a last vestige of the Cold War. The soldier points out North Korean "jammers," which block foreign radio and television broadcasts. "So they have no idea of what actually goes on in the outside world," says the soldier. "They think that a BMW is manufactured by North Korea."

Before leaving for North Korea, Anderson meets in Seoul with a group of North Korean refugees who had fled from famine and political repression. "The moment a child utters a word they start him on ideological training," one refugee says. "So they can't think for themselves."

As soon as they land in North Korea, Anderson and his producer are greeted by their official "minders," Mr. Pak and Miss Pak (no relation). Anderson's first impression is of the streets outside the hotel, how quiet and empty they are. "North Korea is desperate to engage with the outside world," he notes. But the regime takes a heavy-handed approach to public relations. North Korea is infamous for the "cult of personality" surrounding the late dictator Kim Il-sung, who ruled from 1948 until his death in 1994. Anderson's obligatory first stop is an enormous statue of the "Great Leader," where he is told to place flowers and bow. The dictator's son, Kim Jong-il, now presides over North Korea, "creating communism's first-ever dynasty."

Anderson next visits a war museum, where he is lectured by a red-lipsticked woman in military uniform. She ducks all his questions by saying, "I will explain later." He is then taken to North Korea's greatest war trophy, the USS Pueblo, which is moored in the nation's capital. The Pueblo is the only U.S. naval vessel in captivity. The ship was seized in 1968, and the crewmembers, accused of spying, were held captive. The crew was released only after a U.S. military commander wrote a groveling apology. A veteran officer who took part in the capture tells Anderson that if American "spies" return they "will be crushed mercilessly under our feet." Asked his opinion of President Bush, the North Korean officer replies, "He is a war fanatic and a warmonger."

After a heavy dose of communist propaganda, Anderson is surprised to learn from the young Miss Pak that she likes Elvis Presley. She begins to tell him about her family and to smile shyly. In an aside to the camera, Anderson says that he had come to North Korea prepared to ridicule the sham presentation of life there, but that his guides are "breaking my heart." He continues to challenge Miss Pak when she takes him to a model farm and denies widespread reports of famine and starvation in North Korea.

"Everywhere you go in North Korea you see evidence of a country constantly prepared for war," reports Anderson. In a revealing exchange with Mr. Pak, Anderson asks about a passing truck carrying soldiers and weapons. Mr. Pak insists, smiling through this exchange, that the truck was loaded with beef. Anderson explains that "beef" can also mean "trouble" in English. Mr. Pak replies, in turn, that the United States and North Korea have a "nuclear beef" and he bursts into laughter.

Just a week after visiting the DMZ from the South Korean side, Anderson sees it from the North. "This place is very volatile," warns a North Korean officer. "In other places you need a big incident to start a war. But here even the smallest mistake made by a soldier can lead to a war." The North Koreans proudly display an axe -- which they had used to kill two American soldiers in a confrontation in 1976 -- in a trophy case. As Anderson drives off, the North Korean soldiers smile and wave goodbye.

In another unexpected moment, Anderson enjoys an afternoon at the beach with his increasingly friendly guides. He discovers an electric fence cordoning off the beach, however. Mr. Pak explains that the fence is designed to keep out American infiltrators. Because President Bush has characterized North Korea as part of "an axis of evil," along with Iraq and Iran, Pak tells Anderson, North Koreans fear that the United States will attack unless they arm themselves and stay prepared.

As they walk through a public square, Miss Pak tells Anderson that North Koreans will resist a U.S. attack, but "if they want to talk peacefully, then we also want." She warns Anderson and his cameraman that some people are suspicious because they look like Americans. Suddenly a man approaches the camera and shouts, "Bloody bad imperialist bastard!" But then he breaks into an uproarious laugh. It's all just a joke. As they continue to stroll, Miss Pak confides to Anderson that she likes novels and admires Jane Eyre. Even Mr. Pak is opening up, surprised to learn that his bourgeois British guest wears a less expensive watch than he does.

But official displays of nationalism do not allow for this sort of intimacy and personal connection. In a giant indoor stadium, Anderson views 100,000 performers doing elaborate card stunts and choreographed marching routines in praise of the Great Leader and blaming the United States for preventing the reunification of Korea. The goose-stepping soldiers are not reassuring.

On the personal level, though, there is a definite thaw in relations. "On our last night, our guides finally agreed to join us for a meal," reports Anderson. "We are happy to toast with the British bourgeoisie," proclaims Mr. Pak as he downs a shot.

The next day, a blushing Miss Pak tells the departing British journalists, "Every time when I was with you I enjoyed very much." As her favorite American singer, Elvis, croons, "We can't go on together with suspicious minds."


Ben Anderson

Will Daws

Ryshard Opyrchal
Michael H. Amundson

a BBC production for FRONTLINE/World

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