By Mick Krever, CNN
A groundbreaking new documentary is using smuggled footage to paint a new and dramatic picture of the Hermit Kingdom, North Korea.
Much of the world sees North Koreans as brainwashed and subservient, bowing down to Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un.
The Frontline documentary “Secret State of North Korea” from the American public broadcaster PBS shows that for many people in North Korea, just the opposite is true.
“We saw lots of examples of people standing up to authority in ways that we hadn’t expected,” Director James Jones told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Wednesday.
One of the most dramatic pieces of footage was of a woman, who has set up a private bus service using a pickup truck.
“This soldier comes and tells her to stop running this private bus service, which is illegal,” Jones said. “And rather than, as you would expect, saying, ‘I’m so sorry,’ and apologizing, she stands up for it – I mean, literally chases him off down the street, smacking him on the back, calling him every name under the sun.”
Victor Cha, who as the former Director of Asian Affairs for the U.S. National Security Council is an expert on North Korea, said that it is often women like her who are starting to open up North Korea.
“I love that; that was one of my favorite parts of the documentary,” he told Amanpour. “The irony is that those markets didn’t grow out of economic reform. They grew out of the failure of the North Korean economy to provide for its people.”
The documentary also shows cracks in the regime’s information barrier.
North Koreans, particularly young ones, are obsessed with American movies and South Korean soap operas, Jones said.
The documentary depicts a complicated and daring system whereby DVDs, laptops, and thumb drives are sneaked into the country across the border with China.
“These DVDs are the kind of must-have items,” Jones said. “Young North Koreans pass them around, and they all wait for the latest episodes.”
“North Korea has survived for so long because it’s so isolated; it has this information barrier,” Jones said. “But because of technology, cracks are starting to appear in this barrier.”
A young woman, who grew up in North Korea but defected to South Korea, says that her exposure to free media was critical.
“The more I’ve listened to the radio, the more I’ve thought, ‘What we’ve learned isn’t true,’ I’ve been fooled. It has made me want to become free.”
It breaks the “spell of the regime’s propaganda,” Jones said.
For the people who smuggle goods into the country – and indeed for those who filmed the footage contained in the documentary – it really is “a matter of life and death,” Jones said.
One smuggler interviewed in the documentary says that he knows he would be executed if caught by the North Korean regime, but feels he has a duty to continue.
So how did Jones get the footage he did?
He told Amanpour that he his team realized “pretty early on” that there was no point in going on a tightly controlled government tour, where contact with “ordinary North Koreans” is very limited.
“We teamed up with a Japanese journalist, Jiro Ishimaru, who has this incredible network of ordinary North Koreans across the country,” Jones said. “They film secretly using hidden cameras, and then smuggle that footage out across the China border where Jiro waits for them.”
No American or Western official has met the young North Korean dictator, Kim Jong Un. One of the few Westerners who has is former NBA star Dennis Rodman.
Just this month, he sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to Kim in bizarre fashion.
There is a school of thought, Jones said, that the more contact with North Korea, the better.
Rodman, he said, “was the one who found out [Kim] had a baby; we had no idea about that. So there is some value to his trip.”
It may be just a small peek inside the secretive regime, just as the acts of defiance portrayed in Jones’ documentary seem ordinary and every day – but the long-term significance may be huge.
“They’re just cracks right now, just small ones,” Cha said. “But like a dam, once you start getting one crack they start to filter out and you start seeing many, many more.”