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Documentary lays bare North Korea's despair

November 12, 2005|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

For the title of his latest book, veteran journalist and former Marine James Brady cribbed a line from President Clinton and refers to North Korea as "the scariest place in the world."

A CNN Presents documentary, "Undercover in the Secret State," set to air Sunday, bolsters that dark assessment of the hermit kingdom run by the unstable, murderous Kim Jong Il.

"Undercover" is a brave, forceful work of top-quality journalism about people who are risking their lives to bring the truth about their tightly sealed country to the outside world in hopes of spurring a rescue movement.

Done by the acclaimed documentary company Hardcash Productions, "Undercover" includes grainy footage smuggled out of North Korea and follows dissidents who have fled to China and Thailand.

The impact is visceral, the truth is brutal: dead bodies in the street, forced-labor camps, public executions, mass malnutrition, border guards with shoot-to-kill orders, street urchins resorting to thievery -- all under the boot of an oppressive regime.

"I was in the [North Korean] army for 11 years," said a dissident identified only as Mr. Park. "I know that Kim Jong Il believes unless he kills his political opponents they will kill him."

Park, forced to leave his wife and 7-year-old daughter, is on the run for having posted an anti-Kim video on the Internet. The Internet, DVDs and cellphones "are the powerful weapons of the dissidents," says narrator Frank Sesno.

"Undercover" is not the last word on North Korea. More needs to be reported on its nuclear capabilities, its people, its massive military and its dictator.

But by tracking down dissidents and telling their desperate stories, Korean journalist Jung-Eun Kim has done what Kim Jong Il is willing to kill people to prevent: show the human face of suffering in North Korea.

Peasants scramble to scoop up grain leaking from a boxcar. Defectors brave the border guards and a swift river to flee to China where they become street beggars. Human rights activists estimate that Kim keeps 200,000 political prisoners in camps that North Korea says don't exist.

And the reaction of the outside world? Not that much, according to "Undercover."

Park, accompanied by a Christian activist from the United States, is shown in Bangkok, caught in a Catch-22 between the U.S. embassy and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, neither of which will help him find freedom until the other acts first.

CNN Presents makes its programs available commercial-free for use in classroom. Teachers should consider "Undercover." Students would do well to learn early that it's a big world and parts of it are run by evil people.


`CNN Presents: Undercover in the Secret State'

Where: CNN

When: 8 p.m. Sunday

Ratings: Not rated

Frank Sesno...Narrator

Executive producer, Hardcash: David Henshaw. Executive producer, CNN: Sid Bedingfield. Writer, producer and director: Sarah MacDonald. Reporter: Jung-Eun Kim.

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