Just two years on the job and armed with nuclear weapons, North Korea's Kim Jong-un is the world's youngest dictator, ruling one of the world's most isolated countries with an iron fist.
Like his father and grandfather, he is trying to maintain tight control over what the world sees of North Korea—and what North Koreans see of the world.
But as FRONTLINE reveals in Secret State of North Korea (Tuesday, Jan. 14, on PBS and online; check local listings), cracks are starting to appear in the regime's information barrier, and it's becoming more porous.
Not only are North Koreans illegally smuggling information from inside North Korea out, a growing cohort of defectors are risking their lives to get information about the outside world in.
"Pretty quickly, what surprised me the most wasn't the poverty and poor conditions people live in—which are, undoubtedly, shocking," says FRONTLINE director James Jones. "It was the ordinary North Koreans who were standing up to authority."
And doing so at great risk to themselves. In North Korea:
- Just being caught with illegal DVDs could mean immediate imprisonment, or even execution.
- Until recently, it was illegal for women to wear pants instead of skirts or dresses.
- As many as one in 100 citizens is a political prisoner, according to a recent study—and one prison camp, Hwasong, is three times the size of Washington D.C.
In Secret State of North Korea, FRONTLINE shines a light on the hidden world of the North Korean people, drawing on undercover footage from inside the country as well as interviews with defectors—including a former top official—who are working to try to chisel away at the regime's influence.
There's Mr. Jeong, the former prison camp inmate who escaped to the South and now smuggles American and South Korean entertainment on DVDs and USBs into the North. He tells FRONTLINE his biggest hit so far is the James Bond movie Skyfall, and says, "Even officials have one or two USBs."
And there's Chanyang, the 22-year-old woman who now appears on a weekly South Korean TV show featuring North Korean defectors that is a hot commodity across the border. "My friends back home watch it, and all the children of the party officials in North Korea watch it and say they will defect," she tells FRONTLINE.
In undercover footage obtained by FRONTLINE from inside North Korea, a speech from Kim Jong-un promising his people a bright economic future is pumped from speakers on a street corner—where it repeats on a loop for three months. In another, a cameraman asks to buy goods in Pyongyang's Department Store No. 1, which is stocked with imported luxury goods from around the world, only to be told he can't; it turns out, they're just for show.
But also captured on camera are stirrings of open dissent: In one instance, a woman running an illegal bus service refuses to bribe a soldier, instead openly screaming at him. And behind closed doors, even members of the North Korean elite have voiced unhappiness with the regime, like one businesswoman filmed at a private lunch debating the feasibility of a rebellion.
How far will the regime go to hold onto power—and how far will the dissenters and defectors go in challenging Kim Jong-un's authority?
FRONTLINE's documentary is a rare and unforgettable view inside the Secret State of North Korea.
The North Korean government abuses its people for even the smallest criticism of the state, according to a new United Nations report released on Monday.
The report, based on survivor and witness testimony gathered by a human-rights commission over the past year, said the atrocities arise from policies set "at the highest level of state."
Rape, torture, forced abortions, starvation, enslavement and murder are part of the North Korean government's effort to control its people and crush dissent, the commission found. It said it planned to refer the allegations to the International Criminal Court.
"The key to the political system is the vast political and security apparatus that strategically uses surveillance, coercion, fear and punishment to preclude the expression of any dissent," the report said.
But as FRONTLINE reported in last month's Secret State of North Korea, maintaining control in the isolated country has become more difficult as new technology, like cellphones and illicit flash drives with Western television shows, give ordinary North Koreans a glimpse into another world. People have begun to fight back against the regime in small but determined ways.
In response, Kim Jong-un, who succeeded his father Kim Jong-il in 2011, has continued his father Kim Jong-il's brutal policies, punishing political offenders by sending generations of their families to prison camps, and kidnapping and torturing defectors.
As many as 200,000 people are believed to languish in North Korean prison camps, accused of betraying the regime. Many were caught trying to defect or were overheard criticizing the current leadership. Others were imprisoned just for being related to someone the state considered a threat. The U.N. commission found that while many abuses happen in these camps, "gross violations" also happened in the ordinary prison system.
Jeong Kwang Il was a prison-camp survivor who testified before the commission. A former North Korean businessman, Jeong held a position of some prominence in North Korea, even traveling abroad for work. For years, he never thought about defecting. Then, in 1999, he says a former schoolmate turned against him and reported him to officials for being a spy. In August 2013, he told FRONTLINE about how he was arrested, tortured, and ultimately — perhaps inexplicably — released.
After years of imprisonment, an official from North Korea's state security office visited Jeong at the camp, he said. For some reason, the regime had decided he wasn't a spy after all. "He said to me, 'If you go out into society now you can live well without getting into trouble, right?' So I said, 'Yes, I'll do well.'"
Almost immediately upon his release, Jeong defected. Now, he works against the regime, smuggling in Western and South Korean television shows and radios.