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
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
"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
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
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."
Michael H. Amundson
a BBC production for FRONTLINE/World
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